The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Wild about information – artist and illustrator Paul Matthews

Tim Saunders looks at the work of Puddletown wildlife artist and illustrator, Paul Matthews

Paul with two of his more formal animal studies, which have seen him nominated for awards

When exploring the stunning Dorset countryside it is always helpful to stumble upon an information panel detailing the wildlife, flora and fauna that can be found in that particular area. Invariably these invaluable signs are produced by just one man, who has seemingly monopolised this craft. That man is Puddletown wildlife artist Paul Matthews.
I’ve been making them for the past 25 years,’ Paul reveals. ‘They take between two and three months from start to finish and I spend around eighty hours on the artwork. It’s quite a long, drawn out process. I first meet the clients and visit the destination where the panel will be located. This is hugely important because it allows me to familiarise myself with the landscape and forms my background research. It allows me to collect any information to help me with the final artwork. I take photos and make sketches. It often involves a great many visits to ensure that I am thoroughly satisfied with my knowledge of the area. I have seen a great deal of Dorset this way.’

A close-up from one of Paul's information panels showing the level of detail he includes

Paul then works on rough visual thumbnail drawings or small watercolour versions, showing how the finished panel will look and this includes any information and text. ‘It is necessary for me to liaise with a number of different people throughout the course of the project to ensure that they are happy each step of the way. The last thing you want is for the client to be dissatisfied with the final information panel. Once completed and agreed, the artwork is scanned, a computer file is made, and the panel is made ready to go out on site,’ says Paul.
On average, panels measure twenty by thirty inches, ‘so it is quite a skill to include a concise account of the relevant information of the local area along with one of my paintings’. Depending on complexity and size, a finished fibre-glass panel costs approximately £1000. ‘This represents good value for money,’ explains Paul, ‘when you think that often my paintings sell for considerably more than this.”’
Kerns, or lecterns, for the panels are extra and will depend on the site where the panel is to be positioned. ‘As recession has deepened parish councils have had their funds severely cut and the bidding process has unsurprisingly become a tougher, more protracted affair. Understandably councils need to ensure the best value for money for their residents but this has to be balanced against the need for helpful signage. I argue that my information panels are actually a massive benefit to the local tourism industry as they inform not just locals but visitors from all over the world of the magnificent and sometimes endangered species present in the Dorset countryside, imparting knowledge and stimulating further interest. It is so common for people to spend a great deal of time reading these panels yet not really appreciating the amount of time they take to be produced. Signs do also need renovating as they become weather beaten or sadly, on occasions, mindlessly vandalised and this does generate some repeat business.’
Paul’s information panel career started during his time at Dorset County Council and his reputation has grown ever since. ‘I must have produced fifty information panels in total,’ he says. ‘They’re not all the same either,’ he adds. ‘Different parishes have different requirements to fit in with the parish image. Often they are similar to lecterns, to look at. I have three here in Puddletown: one is a post welcoming visitors to the historic village and then the other two are information panels. I have two in Piddlehinton giving information about wildlife species. I have signs at the Blue Pool and Avon Heath.’
The fact that the information panels draw so heavily on Paul’s artistic ability – each and every panel features his exquisite artwork – actually gave him the confidence to become a full-time artist in 2011.

Pauls' wildlife artistry comes to life in his nature studies, like this one of red deer

He has painted and drawn since he was small and now primarily focuses on painting wildlife and portraiture from his home. He paints contemporary wildlife, where the subject takes centre stage and the mood is set by light and shade. References are collected from life by sketching and photographing in the field both at home and abroad.
His art has taken him all over the world. ‘I have travelled to the Okavango Delta in North Botswana, Kenya and Tanzania,’ says Paul, whose work attracted wide acclaim in the summer of 2012, when he was a finalist in the David Shepherd Foundation’s competition for Wildlife Artist of the Year. His picture, ‘The Passenger’, selected ahead of thousands of entries from all over the world, received ‘Public’s choice award’ at The Mall Galleries, London.
Almost simultaneously, Paul was in the final of the BBC Wildlife Artist of the Year competition, receiving runner up in the Frozen Planet section with his polar bear portrait. This was the fourth year Paul was shortlisted for the final of the BBC competition, since its inception in 2008. Paul’s work can be seen online, at various galleries across Dorset and beyond.

Paul’s information panels can be found at the following sites across Dorset: dotted along Dorset’s Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, notably Swanage (at Durlston Head), Ringstead, Osmington (pictured below), Burton Bradstock, Charmouth and Lyme Regis. Others can be found at Blue Pool in Purbeck, The Portland Sailing Academy, Chesil Beach and various chalk stream and heathland sites in Dorset. The following Dorset villages are home to Paul’s information panels: Evershot, Piddlehinton, Puddletown and Lytchett Minster. ‘At the moment I am working on panels for Charminster and Charlton Down, with panels in the pipeline for another venue,’ reveals Paul.


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