Turning a Slumbering Passion into a Second Career: A Conversation with Mark Roberts, Lawyer-turned-Painter

In 1977, Mark Roberts left England to join Deacons as a newly-qualified shipping lawyer. Mr. Roberts specialised in shipping litigation cases dealing with cargo claims, marine insurance matters, charterparty disputes and acting for banks in ship mortgage enforcement work. In 1994, he was appointed Managing Partner and in 2000 became Senior Partner of Deacons.

In 2004, after having practiced for 30years, he decided to become a full-time artist, painting almost exclusively in watercolours, which is the medium he believes best portrays the essence of landscapes and seascapes in Hong Kong. Since embarking on his second professional career, Mark has held three one-man exhibitions in Hong Kong and one one-man exhibition in London and has also jointly exhibited in seven exhibitions with the Hong Kong-based artistic group, Artists Abroad.  He also published a book of his watercolours entitled “My Hong Kong” in 2013.

Here, Mr. Roberts speaks to Hong Kong Lawyer about his life-long love for painting and watercolours and his decision to swap billable hours for a painter’s palette.

1. What prompted you to retire from the law in 2004 and become a full-time artist?

In 2004, I had just completed 30 years as a lawyer and although I fully enjoyed my legal career, I believe that life is too short to limit oneself to just one pursuit. Luckily for me, I was financially secure and was in a position to retire and pursue my passion for painting. I am not sure I would want to try and make a living as an artist, which must be incredibly difficult.

2. Do you see any parallels between how you approach your work as a full-time artist and how you approached your career as a lawyer?

One might not think that there are any parallels but I would say both require discipline, patience (a lot of that quality), practise and hard work.

3. Why have you chosen watercolour as your primary medium?  Any other mediums that you enjoy or dabble in?

For as long as I can remember, I have drawn or painted.  I think I may have even won a school art prize sometime in the last century. To my mind, watercolour has a translucent quality (which one cannot find in other media) which can convey a very wide range of colour and atmosphere in a painting.  There are a huge range of techniques, which a watercolourist has to master including washes, wet on wet, lost and found, tonal values to name but a few.  Having painted exclusively in watercolour for the past 40 years, I am, however, now endeavouring to paint in oils, which is a new but exciting challenge for me as oils do require a different approach and technique.

4. What is the most challenging part about working with watercolours?  What is the best part?

It is rather easy to make mistakes in any form of painting with watercolour perhaps being the most unforgiving. Mistakes tend to be fatal in so far that they cannot generally be corrected. Probably the most challenging aspect of watercolours is capturing the right light and shadow in a painting.  However, when you achieve a certain effect in watercolour such as a granulated wash or a blend of mixed colours on paper it is very rewarding.  Sometimes you have a happy accident when you think how on earth did I achieve that effect?

5. What is your creative process like?

Different artists have different approaches to creativity but for me, I am inspired by the huge diversity of subject matter that one finds in Hong Kong. I have travelled the length and breadth of Hong Kong and have discovered myriad views, landscapes, seascapes, villages, buildings, temples, etc. crying out to be captured in watercolour.  I spend a lot of time initially analysing a particular scene to assess whether the subject matter gets my creative juices working but just occasionally I see a scene, which I know instinctively will make a good painting.  It is then a case of identifying the right composition and the atmosphere that one wishes to try and capture.

6. Has your style changed over the years?

Not really.  I would like to think that my work has improved since I decided to devote myself full time to being an artist, but I would say my watercolour style has not really changed.

7. What do you believe is a key element in creating a good composition?

For me there are a number of key elements, which include placing of the horizon, placing of subject matter convincingly within the composition, scale, perspective and balance. Ideally one would like to draw the viewer’s eye into the painting, through the painting and then out of the painting at a different location. If one can achieve this, then it will considerably improve the attractiveness of the composition.

8. What about painting and art most resonate with you?

What’s its main attraction or appeal? I consider myself extremely fortunate to have some ability to draw and paint.  To start with a blank piece of paper and over a few days (or sometimes weeks) transform this blank white space into a finished watercolour gives me a tremendous sense of achievement. I never tire of this creative process.

9. Which artists do you draw inspiration?

I love the watercolours of the great JMW Turner but he is in a league of his own. When I first arrived in Hong Kong in 1977, I discovered the work of George Chinnery, who inspired me to take up painting again which sadly had lapsed whilst I was qualifying as a lawyer.

10. Have you received any formal training or did you learn how to paint on your own?

I am almost entirely self-taught although I have attended the occasional art class.  I have found that there is little substitute for just getting stuck into the process of painting and learning from your mistakes – sadly you have to accept there will be many of these over the years.

11. What do you hope to convey or add with your works?  How do you pick what you will paint?  

A few years ago, I was stopped in the street by another lawyer, who told me that he had been at a friend’s house and enquired of his friend whether the painting on the far wall was a “Mark Roberts”?  To have someone identify my work made my day!  To have a style of work, which is identifiable as one’s own, is an artist’s dream.  In Hong Kong, I certainly try and pick subjects such as old Chinese temples, old buildings or old village houses, which I fear may be demolished. By painting these subjects, I hope to preserve their image for future generations.

12. What has been the proudest moment for you in your artistic career?

In 2013, I published a book entitled My Hong Kong, which contains over 120 images of my paintings of Hong Kong and which took me 10 years to complete.  I am very proud of this book, which I hope provides an overview of our amazing city and its environs. I am also a proud member of Artists Abroad, who exhibit every year at the Rotunda.


Editor, Hong Kong Lawyer
Legal Media Group
Thomson Reuters