Kevin Preston Review


By Melissa Wylie


Melissa Wylie chatted to artist Kevin Preston over the course of the Plymouth Art Weekender and uncovered the moving humanity behind Kevin’s artwork.

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It’s the art exhibitions you accidentally stumble upon that tend to be the best ones. That’s what happened as I was walking along the Hoe when I tried to get a better view of a drumming-come-fashion show down on the rocks. But as I stepped down to the covered walkway beneath the promenade, I was distracted by a line-up of colour, canvases and talented local artists.

Plymouth-born Kevin Preston has been here with his work every Sunday this summer (weather permitting, paintings and the sea don’t always go together) and exhibits his works all-year-round in the Gallery on the Hoe. He’s a military artist and portrait painter, who stood proudly in the September-sunshine with an impressive array of paintings hanging on the wall behind him.

His art work explores his past – he joined the British Army as a teenager in 1981 and became a Coldstream Guardsman. He loved to draw as a child and continued to do so while on active service by drawing soldiers from photos they’d taken, for them to send the art work back to their families. It was this that got him a job as a battalion sign writer for the regiment on his return to England. Many of the signs he painted were on show around Plymouth in pubs, shops and hotels, but it’s clear that he now has a special bond with his military paintings which he researches well to ensure their accuracy.

Operation Herrick 9

As a veteran soldier Kevin is keen to use his talent to help others and worthy causes – particularly those which support people who are, or have been, serving in the forces. At an event in Modbury, Devon, Kevin sold four prints at a total of £375 which was all donated to the Help for Heroes charity. Not wanting to stop there, one of his oil paintings, ‘Operation Herrick 9’, which shows soldiers leaving for a mission as the sun rises, was sold to the Royal Marine Commando and all money received went straight to the Coldstream Guards charity trust.

“These ones,” he tells me, as he points to some portraits hung high, “I do for free”. With such a firm understanding of what it’s like for the families of soldiers, Kevin paints portraits of those who have lost their lives at war, which are passed on to their relatives as a gift.

“Whenever I left I would see the worry in my mum’s eyes. I was incredibly lucky to come back, so as I can paint I feel it’s something I need to do for them.” There’s so much emotion and care in his voice as he speaks of the fallen soldiers, and we take a quiet moment to admire his work.

The perfection in his painting is impressive. Being a sign writer previously, the lines he paints are clear, colours bold and typography perfect. He also gives his paintings two coats to hide the brush strokes – something other artists like to show off. He’s experimented with various mediums in the past. For example, the portraits of soldiers are made using acrylic model paints (the type you might use to paint a model aeroplane) and I note that these do a brilliant job of making the camouflage uniforms stand out. Usually though, he goes back to his favourite oil paints.

Kevin tries to promote his work when he can, recently selling a print of a half-completed piece of work. It shows two soldiers – one finished, and the other half-paint, half-pencil drawing. I could instantly understand the appeal. The second soldier looks almost ghostly, as if the whole of him isn’t present. Kevin told me that he’s keen to finish the piece, but made the half-finished print available to buy after the unexpected, but welcome attention it received.

My favourite piece of them all is a black and white painting entitled, ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’. It shows a soldier carrying another soldier over his shoulder (try saying that really fast), and the detail is outstanding. Standing further back it almost looks computer-generated, as every crease in the uniform and line in the background is perfectly placed.

He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother

Kevin Preston, Self-Portrait

In contrast to the military art, there are a lot of colourful portraits hanging on the wall. Back in 2000 Kevin set up a business called ‘Portraits’ where he would do just that – painting people, animals, etc, at his customer’s request. He still displays these amongst the newer pieces; 

“I was so pleased that people paid for my work, and to see the look of joy on their faces when they received them.”

He still paints portraits, one of those being of Tom Daley after he won gold, aged 15, at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. The young diver was pleased with the larger-than-life-sized piece of art. It’s quite different to the military-inspired work which gains a lot of admiration today. Prince Edward took a liking to it when Kevin exhibited at one of Plymouth’s Armed Forces Days, which drove him to continue.

He’s now part of a collective of artists who display their creations alongside his on the Hoe. 

To see the work and possibly get a chance to chat with the artists, visit the Gallery on the Hoe which is open every day of the week (I’ve been advised that the waves sound incredible during the winter storms!) or remember this for next summer when Kevin Preston and the rest of the creative group hope to brighten up the colonnade again.