This week I had a wonderful afternoon chatting with Canal folk artist Duncan Burrett, who is owner and captain of a delightful narrowboat called 'Zendu' that is moored on the River Stort. Duncan has lived on the boat for 22 years with wife Zena. Ralphy and I often stop to admire Zendu, because not only is she the prettiest boat along the canal, but Duncan also sells a wonderful selection of old antiques and wares on the top of his boat which he paints in the famous 'Canal folk art' style. I have always loved the colourful vibrant style of Canal folk art but I didn't know anything about it until meeting Duncan. So when he invited us aboard to show us his work and give us a demonstration, I jumped at the chance.
Duncan is a self-taught artist and used to specialised in oil paints and animal portraits. But it wasn't until 20 years ago he turned his hand to creating and selling canal folk art. "It started 20 years ago when I was sat on the boat painting a teapot, a lady stopped by and asked if it was for sale, so I told her to come back in 10 minutes and it would be!" Now he even demonstrates in schools, and is often commissioned by other boat owners. Duncan decorates all sorts with this style, especially old fashioned wares such as old watering cans, tea pots, urns, and even old boots ... and he also encourages people to bring their own objects along for him to paint. I had a lovely afternoon with Duncan, we chatted about his life, about the realities of boat-living, the interesting history behind folk art and how to paint in the folk-art style. He also makes a cracking cuppa tea! Read on to hear all about it ...
Zena, Duncan and life on a boat.
Duncan started out in the Navy as a young man, and later became a fireman at Stansted Airport. He met Zena, and together they ran their own guest house business. Once their children were grown, they decided they needed a change of pace as the pressures of running a guest house were taking their toll. So they shut up shop for a couple of days, and while strolling along the canal one afternoon Zena suggested they buy a boat, and live on it! Duncan jumped at the idea, and after looking at various houseboats for sale they decided to have one made specifically for them. Zena designed the interior, and Duncan designed his engine & workshop room. They named the boat 'Zendu' by combining their names .... aww! :-)
The boat is just lovely, inside and out. Duncan gave me a tour and I was completely smitten within minutes. It was so homely and cosy, and not at all cramped or confined. They have everything you'd expect to find in a house, a bathroom, a cosy bedroom, a kitchen, there are family photographs on the walls, bookcases, lovely knik-naks and of course areas of the boat are decorated in the canal folk art style which just looks fantastic. I asked Duncan what he loved most about boat living. He replied "Everything. You can travel up and down the country and see places you'd never normally get to see, whether it's little thatched villages or wonderful countryside. We simply find somewhere we like, moor up and head of to explore ... but one thing about boat living is, you have to both want to do it. Zena is a real treasure, she absolutely loves it. Though she does hates water, she's fallen in twice and nearly ended up in hospital!"
A brief history of canal folk art
There is some dispute about the origins of canal folk art. Many state it was influence by the gypsy culture and their vibrantly painted wagons back in the 18th and 19th century, but historians have also seen similarities in German and Scandinavian folk art. The popularity of canal folk art in the UK was actually down to the womenfolk. During the victorian era boatman began bringing their wives and families on board their vessels in a bid to save money on crew. The Victorian land-dwellers would often look down their noses at the boat families so the womenfolk began decorating their boats in order to make their living space bright and attractive.
How to paint in canal folk style
This style of folk art is all about layering. The colours are simply primary colours, as that's all that was available back in the day. Today we're just using a paper plate to demonstrate but this technique can be used on anything. Just remember the following tips ...
* Only use oil-based paint
* Allow it to dry completely in between each stage of painting.
* If your object is going outside don't forget to weatherproof it with an exterior varnish.
* either use a different brush for each colour or wash / dry your brush well in-between coats.
You will need:
An object to paint
Small selection of oil paints in primary colours
Small selection of artist paint brushes (including one with a rounded end for the flowers.)
You can either source an object that is already black, or simply paint it black yourself using black oil paint. When you're ready to being, using your paintbrush start by adding your flower locations (see brown and pink blob) and the leaf locations (green blobs).
Add a black swirl onto the leaves and brown blob to give it depth, and do the same with a red paint on the pink flowers blob. Then outline the outside with a bright yellow.
Using a thin brush and light touch, add alternating yellow and white leaf feathering on each green leaf. Followed by the 3 blue circles (which are your daisy locations) with green leaves either side of them.
Next add the yellow to the daisy leaves and fill in the blue daisy centre with yellow too - allow to dry. Add the red petals to your rose and allow to dry. The finally complete the design by adding white petals to your daisy and the white petals to the centre flower.
If you’d like to buy some canal folk art from Duncan and Zena you’ll often find them on the canal, near the bridge on station road. You can access the canal path just after crossing the bridge next the Nuffield gym.