Henry Fraser is a painter and author who lives and works in Hertfordshire, England. After an accident in 2009 that left him paralysed from the shoulders down, Henry discovered mouth painting, and has since created an extraordinary collection of work. He uses gouache to create striking portraits of animals, along with landscape and still life pieces, playing with bold colours against contrasting backgrounds. His story of acceptance and perseverance in the face of adversity has served as an inspiration to many people across the world. We had the opportunity to speak with him about his process, studio space and what art means to him.
Your main subjects tend to be animals and nature. Are these themes your central focus and if so, why are you drawn to paint them?
I started off by painting sports people. I love sport and I was enjoying combining that with painting. Then my grandparents asked me to paint their dog who had recently died – a very cute white West Highland Terrier. And it just seemed to work, so after that I thought I’d try painting animals. I’d find images online and spend ages scrolling through them to find lots of different angles to build up an idea for a piece in my mind.
Next, I’d think about colours. Was I going to use real-life colours? Or would I mix and match colours that I thought worked well together? I’ve always loved the process of art. It was the same when I used to play sport; more about how I was going to get somewhere than the end product. Every now and then I try painting other subjects like landscapes. Different challenges keep my mind ticking and working.
Tell us about where you paint – what is your studio setup like? How do you work in there?
When I first started painting I was living at home with my parents. I worked on the side of the dining room table, and it was great. It was bright and there were lots of big windows in the room. Last December I moved out and I'm now in my own home. I had a brand-new place built, with an incorporated studio. It's amazing, there’s just so much brilliant indirect light coming in. There’s a big skylight window running the full length of the room. And on the other side, I look out to huge windows. I still need to get a bespoke table made for my easel that will have wheels, so I can take it through the house and outside. I’d like to experience painting al fresco!
Your process of painting since your accident is both unique and challenging. Can you tell us what being a mouth artist means to you?
Since my accident, everything has to be planned, and I'm always having to adapt or change to suit situations. With painting, yes, I think about it, but I can be freer. I can step back and be creative. I now experiment much more, with colours and shapes. And if I make mistakes, I don’t let myself dwell on them – I'm able to adjust or incorporate them into what I'm doing. I’m more open to ideas, which is something I never really did before my accident.
For the rest of my life, I’ll need live-in care or someone to feed me, dress me, brush my teeth. But when I'm painting, it's just me. Once I'm set up – I've got my easel, my paint’s out and the brush is in my mouth – I'm free. In those moments I'm doing what I want without any other influence or needing anyone to do anything for me. It's just me, the image and my paint.
Being a mouth artist is obviously a big part of how and why I create my work. But in the back of my mind, I feel that I’ve got to earn the title of being an artist. It is a huge part of my life but it’s not what I do full-time. So I don’t call myself an artist yet. When I will, I don’t know!
Tell us a bit about your process – what materials do you use? How long would a piece typically take you to paint?
I use gouache, but I first started by using watercolour since one of my brothers bought me a watercolour kit. Then about four or five years ago I needed some paints, and my mum and me went into an art shop. I explained that I was painting and wanted to try new things, and the shop owner gave me some Winsor & Newton gouache to use. It really works well with the kinds of things I’m painting as they are singular, graphic pieces. I’m pretty sure I don’t use the paints in the ‘right’ way, but when they dry, they’ve got a slight relief and solidity to them on the card paper I use that fits quite nicely with what I want to do, even though I fell into this look accidentally.
If I'm really into it, a typical painting can take me a couple of days to complete, with maybe two or three hours a day spent on it. It’s not a huge amount of time, but it's like anything in life – when something is going well, it seems to just happen quickly. And then working on it is like a jigsaw puzzle; you’re trying to fill in the pieces as you go along.
What’s next in store for you? Have you got any big ideas, developments or showcases lined up in the future?
I'm delving into the wonderful world of non-fungible tokens very soon, and have a couple of projects with brand-new pieces lined up. I’ve just been finishing one, but I can’t say what it is yet!
Then I've got an exhibition in September at The Grove hotel in Watford, UK. I planned to exhibit my art every two years, and I had my first in 2016, followed by one in 2018. But because of the pandemic it’s meant that there is four years’ worth of work that’s built up, so I’ve got to start working out which pieces are going into that.
Tell us more about your history of painting. When did you start? Did you learn from studying art or are you self-taught?
I started painting in 2009 and drawing on my iPad in Jan 2015. But I was always interested in art. When you're young, art is always fun, because you can do what you want. But the moment I started studying it for my GCSEs I hated it. Art is one of the most subjective things in the world – the good thing about that is that everyone's got their own ideas of what they want to create. And what should be encouraged is this much wider freedom of expression, rather than a topic you've got to stick to pretty rigidly at school. Though you can do your own thing along the way, I just felt like it was too pigeonholed. I just couldn't think, couldn't create anything and I really didn’t enjoy it.
I was also really into rugby, and it took up a lot of my time having to train. These two things were conflicting in my life, and I felt I couldn’t hack both at the same time. Since then, I’ve not gone down the ‘proper’ route when it comes to art. I've just done what's felt right to me, and that changes over the years – which is one thing I have always loved about it, and why I think it should be encouraged much, much more at school. I then did an art foundation course before university, which is where I learned to experiment. I think if this was put into schools so many more people would be interested, because it's more about experimentation and play.
I love creativeness and think it can help with other subjects. It can make you look at things in a different way, solve problems in a different way. I gave a talk at a school, and some of the things the kids were creating was stunning – the most amazing sculptures and contemporary artworks. There was a project which was about being a wake-up call for mental health and the students’ experiences with it. The piece was purely them. Made from their own feelings and drive to create, which is fantastic. These works were genuinely moving and inspiring.
Which artists or other forms of media do you take inspiration from?
I love watching art programs, as I just love looking at beautiful things that are created by people. One of my favourites is Portrait Artist of the Year. When you give people the same image, it's interesting to see them create their own. You know – you can give people the same recipe, and you can end up with five different meals. How we respond to the same subject is fascinating, because we're all very different in this world. We all create differently.
I was watching a BBC documentary about Turner, and how art historians and critics respond to his work. It was really fascinating, and it inspired me to think more about light in the pieces Turner created. One of his first pieces was the nighttime landscape ‘Fisherman at Sea’. Landscape paintings like these trigger me to think of doing my own: I did a painting of the moon lighting up the sea, and one at sunset.
What advice would you have for someone who might be new to painting or making art or considering experimenting with art for the first time?
I always say whatever you do, start basic. Whether your subject is a still life or a view out of your window, just draw it – pen, pencil, whatever. Don’t worry about the end result, because it doesn’t matter. If you're not sure, read, go online, look at other people's work or get inspired from an image. From that point, go where you want with it and have fun. If you enjoy doing it, then that's the best way to start.
Visit Henry Fraser’s upcoming exhibition on 3rd and 4th September 2022 at The Grove, Watford, UK. Free entry. Click here to see more of his work.