A fire has broken out at the Broomhall housing estate. In the top floor flat, a woman is pulled to safety by two firemen hanging from an adjacent window; they call it a ‘trapeze rescue’. Panic erupts around the imposing structure. Two men use a red dining chair to scale the roof, only to be ordered down. Their words are lost to the thick black smoke smudging the sky. Beyond the chaos, the people of Sheffield go about their business. A street-sweeper takes his break; two friends catch up outside the local pub; a woman walks into her washing hanging on the line. Each interaction jumps from the canvas with the same motion and colour as the fire.
A painting by Joe Scarborough bursts with this busy blend of humour and nostalgia. At a live demonstration at Western Park Museum, where his work is currently exhibited, the Sheffield-born painter describes his artistic process. With his trilby hat and jacket proudly hung up by his side, the space mimics Joe’s narrowboat home and studio in the North of Sheffield.
First, he washes the canvas with a thin layer of tangerine oil paint. Then, with a shaking hand he begins to etch out his characters, occasionally swooping his white hair to the side. He takes questions from the audience huddled around the easel like grandchildren awaiting a bedtime story. Some of them he hears, some of them he misses.
Each four-inch figure is depicted without facial features. A simple orange orb representing the head.
“I like bright colours. One thing I do not like is, you know, flesh tones. If you look at everybody’s flesh tones, they’re boring – in the northern hemisphere, we’re a bit pasty. To make it look interesting, I thought why not paint everybody orange,” he explains with a grin.
The result is a kitsch interpretation of a Lowry.
After leaving school at 16, Joe worked as a coal labourer at Thorpe Hesley Colliery. His passion for painting was shelved until a large part of the pit wall collapsed onto him. From then on, he naively set his sights on becoming “Sheffield’s greatest maritime painter.” Although those dreams were never fully realised, he began breaking the rules of conventional painting to curate a style that would sell.
In fact, every element of his distinct style is designed with the client in mind. Joe paints with oils rather than acrylics because they are less likely to crack if the painting is placed above a radiator. He curls his paintbrush as he applies bubbles of colour to create a three-dimensional ridge, which reflects the light and allows the client freedom to place their picture wherever they please. He saves his larger paintings for galleries and smaller ones for private sales, because a “20×24˝ [canvas] fits any council house chimney breast.”
There are no vast country landscapes here. Walking around the space you are bombarded with the colours of Sheffield, almost too much to take in. The strength of Joe’s storytelling is only revealed when you stop and look closely.