Sue Howells

Former hairdresser and award-winning painter Sue Howells talks chimneys, train journeys and the art scene in Brum

In 1998, Sue Howells gave up the day job as a hairdresser to become a full-time artist. She got herself an agent, became an associate member of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists (RBSA), began winning awards and found a way to balance the commercial with non-commercial work so that she could make a living. “I don’t have a pension,” she says. “This is it, so if I wasn’t making money I wouldn’t do it.” Widely recognised as one of the UK’s leading watercolour artists, Sue is doing more than building a pension pot. Although she dabbles with acrylics, her love is watercolours used to dark, atmospheric effect. “My work is inspired by typical England. Chimneys especially get me going. You don’t see chimneys anywhere else in the way we do in the UK. It makes for a very interesting skyline.” Old Birmingham and industrial landscapes provide inspiration too. “The train journey to see my daughter in Manchester is industrial and dramatic. It takes in Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Stockport. I don’t drive so I’m constantly looking out of the window on car journeys too. My in-laws live in Pembrokeshire and the journey there is wonderful.”


Sue paints for her gallery in Harborne as well as exhibitions further afield and for her agent Alpha Marketing 1. It was Sue’s agent who saw the potential in offering her watercolours as prints to galleries up and down the country. With three reps on the road and contacts that Sue didn’t have access to, this became a lucrative project. The prints are given a special touch by being printed on watercolour paper rather than a smooth finish, so you can still see the grain. A deal with John Lewis has been nice too. Sue says Britain is where it’s at in the art world, with London leading the way. She adds: “I feel a bit for the RBSA because people aren’t buying art here. They come along, drink wine and there are very few red stickers on pieces at the end of the evening. There are a lot of very beautiful apartments near the RBSA building and I wonder what they have on the walls.” Sue remembers fondly the Number 9 Gallery in Brindleyplace and the Helios Gallery in Kings Heath where she once sold 40 paintings in one exhibition. Both have since closed. “Sometimes people don’t know what they’re buying and take confidence from doing so in a well-known respected gallery. People think ‘ooh it must be good’. So the big-named London galleries do well.” Sue has exhibited outside the UK as far afield as New Zealand and finds Ireland an interesting market. “Dublin used to be very lively, but Belfast seems to have taken over now.” She travelled to Belfast recently and enjoyed painting the industrial Harland and Wolff shipyard with its striking yellow girders.


Sue’s success in the capital is incomparable. At an exhibition at the Royal Institute she recently sold two large pieces in 20 minutes and she regularly enters the Royal Academy summer exhibition. “Last year I was hung next to Una Stubbs’s work and she was just lovely.” As artist in residence at the Hilton Garden Hotel in Brindleyplace, Sue’s paintings are hung throughout the building’s public spaces and there are noises about having them in all of the bedrooms. A percentage of her sales at the hotel go to the charity Heart Research. One of Sue’s future goals might be to keep out of the Harborne gallery and stay behind her easel as advised by her husband who has dubbed her the ‘anti-sales sales person’ due to her knack of putting buyers off. “If someone is interested in a piece in the gallery I might say, ‘don’t go for that. It’s not my favourite,’ so I try to stay out of the gallery!”


  • Alec Morrison Charitable Trust Prize 2013
  • Prize Exhibition RBSA 2013
  • Mall Gallery Donald Blake Innovative Watercolour prize 2012
  • Best Selling Published Artist (Soloman and Whitehead) 2008
  • Fine Art Trade Guild Best Selling UK Artist 2008
  • RBSA Windsor and Newton Award 1994