Growing up as a teenager in Portugal, Jonathan Waights stumbled across the idea of restoring and painting tiles. What followed was a succession of opportunities, combined with hard work, that led to him becoming an expert in his field. Ten years ago, he and his wife moved from London to rural Sussex, where they established a thriving business based in a studio in their garden.
“Not in a conventional way. I grew up in Portugal as my father worked there, and I attended a French school, so I spoke three languages but, as I am dyslexic, I couldnt write in any of them. I left school at 13 and played around with different types of art: sketching, oils, watercolours and sculpture. I loved them all.”
“When I was 17, a friends father, a wine grower, had 17th-century tiled panels in his palácio, some of which had disintegrated, and no one knew how to restore them. I found a similar panel, took a photograph, scaled it up, then cut out the relevant sections and pounced the outline with charcoal dust through pin pricks in a tracing, ready for painting. It is the classic Dutch and Portuguese method of transferring a design.”
“Yes. The vineyard set up a ceramic studio to restore the rest of the panels and I worked there for a year. I moved to London in 1984, when I was 19, and set up my own studio as a tile artist. A couple of days after arriving, I saw a poster advertising a tile exhibition at the Barbican, in celebration of the 600-year truce between England and Portugal. I called the telephone number and explained that I spoke Portuguese and had been painting 17th-century Portuguese tiles similar to those on the poster. The director of the Anglo-Portuguese Foundation asked me to go to his office immediately by taxi and even stood me the fare. The sponsor had no details about the tiles they were exhibiting and a press conference was due to take place the next day so I was presented as the Portuguese tile expert. The exhibition ran for two months and I set up a stand which showcased my own tiles. Every night I would paint more and people bought them, which led to commissions for bespoke tiles and panels.”
“I had worked on white tin glaze in Portugal and then discovered transparent glazes, when you glaze first and paint on top. I also learned underglazing (painting on biscuit tile and glazing over) and enamelling, the technique used after firing to shade and outline. I also mastered stencilling and airbrushing, while digital techniques offered more options still.”
“I once took five panels to the local DIY shop and two customers bought them on the spot. That taught me the merits of unconventional marketing. Then Id carry panels on the tube and, when people enquired, Id hand them my card.”
“We were expecting our first child in 1999, so we moved closer to family. For the first two years, work slowed down and my studio in the village was more expensive than the one Id left in London. We re-mortgaged our house and built a new studio in the garden. I ran the first of a series of tile-painting courses and my wife designed the website.”
“Ive always been adaptable in the range of techniques that I employ. Classic imagery such as Delft is always popular, while some people prefer personal imagery. Flowers, fruit and domestic farmyard scenes work well in kitchens. My business philosophy is to give clients exactly what they want.”
…and what has been your most prestigious?
“The strangest was for a client who wanted to be portrayed on a wall panel in Arab robes on a rearing stallion with a falcon on his wrist. The most prestigious was bathroom tiles at Windsor Castle.”
“It depends on the complexity of the artwork. If clients have a limited budget, freehand designs are usually cheaper to produce and tiles decorated with a motif can be dropped into a run of plain tiles that Ill glaze to match. Buying direct is cost-effective because theres no retail mark-up or premises to staff.”
For more information on Jonathan’s designs and details about forthcoming tile painting courses, visit artontiles.co.uk or phone 01243 552346.