Life outside the classroom: ‘Sometimes, you’ve got to try something new’

Disillusioned by an excessive workload, Karl Davies left teaching in 2018 to focus on painting, illustrating, and writing. Five books later, he’s glad he did

After Karl Davies left teaching in 2018, he had more time to work on his paintings of the Welsh valleys. (Photo credit: Frances Daniels)

Karl Davies had taught art for 20 years and loved it, but he had been contemplating leaving the profession for almost three years.

The Newport native felt the ever-increasing paperwork at Porth Community School had become a distraction from helping students realise their full potential, a feeling echoed this year by the National Education Union Cymru’s pending industrial action.

In September 2022, the union announced that the Welsh Government’s pay proposal did not address the excessive workloads that are causing droves of teachers to quit within five years of qualifying.

“I think all teachers want what’s best for the students,” says the 51-year-old in a clear, confident voice derived from decades of standing at the front of classrooms. “If they feel that’s changing, they get fiery.”

Karl and his wife began discussing whether he should leave education to spend more time on his paintings. “The idea of leaving a steady job is a big decision for anyone,” says the father of two grown-up children. “I didn’t really know if I wanted to leave.”

However, when opera star Mark Llewellyn Evans hand-picked the Pontypridd-based artist to illustrate his children’s book series ABC of Opera, Karl finally gained the self-confidence to leave in 2018.

With no experience of illustrating children’s books, the painter says he turned to Quentin Blake’s simple yet zany illustrations for inspiration.

“I told myself that I’m going to have to invent my own style,” says the painter, whose fun-filled illustrations are a stark departure from his dark landscape paintings of the Welsh valleys.

ABC of Opera aims to teach children about composers and is published by the Cardiff-based Graffeg. The illustrator says that his pre-existing interest in opera helped him to visually capture Evans’s words.

“To me, classical music is the pinnacle of art,” he gushes with a huge smile.

When you miss out on an opportunity, you’ve got to believe that there’ll be others.

Pencilling in a pandemic

Graffeg were so impressed by Karl’s illustrations that they recommended him to broadcaster Roy Noble, who needed someone to illustrate his children’s books.

Although he and Roy collaborated on three books, they have yet to meet thanks to Covid restrictions.

The self-confessed optimist concedes that the pandemic “slowed everything down”, admitting his biggest disappointment was his scheduled promotional appearance at the Hay Festival being cancelled.

He doesn’t dwell on this memory for too long, though.

“You’ve got to roll with the punches,” he laughs, imitating a boxer’s stance. “When you miss out on an opportunity, you’ve got to believe that there’ll be others.”

Next lesson

When Karl had been working on a picture book for Graffeg, the publisher asked him to develop it into a longer book.

Suddenly, he had become an emerging author.

Now writing two books about Welsh history, the writer says that he drew on his teaching experience to write in a way that will both educate and entertain young readers. He believes all teachers should remember they have the transferrable skills to see them through any career change.

“This may sound pompous,” he says. “But I honestly think a teacher could probably do most jobs in the world.”

Karl Davies drawing his favourite character: Ludwig van Beethoven. “People think he was grumpy, but he just had an intense expression,” he explains (Photo Credit: Frances Daniels)

Karl’s advice for aspiringillustrators

  • Expect nothing and expect everything. People will criticise, but they will also praise.
  • Be organised. Get yourself a diary, make lists, and stick to deadlines.
  • Find inspiration in your surroundings. You’ll be surprised at how a bike ride through town can stimulate your creativity.
  • Put yourself out there. To be creative, you need to have a lot of self-belief.
  • Enjoy It. If you don’t enjoy it, it will show.

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