Illustrated Memoirs

Arrested for obstruction during a demonstration at RAF Marham in 1962, Colin Seal’s first visit to Norfolk included a short stay in Norwich prison.

“If you believe in something – if you think things should be different – then you have to act. It’s no good moaning about it, waiting for someone else to do something,” says Colin.   

This is the man who, at just 18 years old, instigated a workers’ strike at Speedway Signs, where he began his long career in sign writing; who, at forty, won nationwide media attention in the USA for devising revolutionary new methods of advertising; and this is the man behind some of the spectacular paintings on Sheringham’s promenade.

‘Method painting’

In 2008, Colin was commissioned to liven up the endless grey slope on the west promenade. A superb historical catalogue of seafaring trade is depicted along the promenade wall at Lifeboat Plain, with images of boat building, net mending, sail making, gansey knitting, fishing – and, of course, the lifeboats and their crews.

Colin explains the importance of understanding the physical structure of a subject. An artist, he says, must be aware of the way objects and organisms are formed, and aware of the effects of light and gravity.

“You need to have insight into how things are – not just how they appear.”

Ten years ago, I watched as Colin painted a cobbled wall. Five pebbles of varying sizes lay at his feet. He created his wall from the bottom, choosing from his five samples the most appropriately sized stone to build into his picture.

Colin jokingly calls this ‘method painting’. I think it’s rather an apt description.

The painted lady

The life-sized figures in this particular painting, commissioned by Sheringham Museum (The Mo), are copied from old Sheringham photographs. They’re unnervingly realistic, whether viewed from up close or from afar. This strikes me as an extraordinary achievement. How does he manage both?

“A large image, viewed from afar, shouldn’t be too detailed,” Colin explains. “It spoils the overall impression. But close up, you’ve got to be able to identify recognisable aspects of the subject.”

I guess I’m wearing a blank expression. Colin continues …   

“You see – the human mind is very good at filling in the blanks. You make some bits very detailed, and our brains will supply the rest.”

I walk towards the painted lady in the painted doorway, maintaining eye contact all the way. She never takes her eyes off me. And then, when we’re standing almost nose to nose, I realise that she only has one painted eye. The other’s a sort of blob.

It works.    

Art doesn’t have to be permanent

Water-based masonry paint cures at a temperature of just 8°C, becoming weather resistant for many years. Colin, however, rejoices in the knowledge that these murals are not for ever – that they will fade with time, to be replaced with fresh ideas.

“The joy that art brings is much more important than the paintings themselves,” Colin says. “What’s the use of a picture if the connection has faded?” 

It’s the sharing aspect of public art that Colin values most. Of course, it’s good to share the enjoyment of the finished product, but Colin believes that risks and mistakes should also be shared. It’s well known in the town that Colin once painted a particularly bad portrait of Marilyn Monroe on the side of a building.

“I screwed up in public,” he says. “It wasn’t the end of the world. I just started again.”

This is at the heart of Colin’s philosophy.

“Risks are okay. Don’t be afraid to have a go. It doesn’t matter if you make mistakes.”

Tomorrow’s history

High up in the rafters at The Mo, there’s a painting of three men you might recognise as members of today’s lifeboat crew. These men are part of tomorrow’s history.

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