FROM local craft fairs to a multi-million pound brand, artist Alex Clark has turned her love for wildlife into a booming business, although she’s happiest working at her cosy shop in Corbridge.

A long-time animal lover, Alex spend her childhood on country walks with her family’s four Labradors and studying garden birds, seabirds and gamebirds by feeding them once a day.

“As a child I was fascinated by birds,” Alex said.

“So whenever we went for walks in the country, I would head out with my sketchbook and camera, and sketch them.

“I’m spoilt for inspiration in Northumberland,” she added.

“With its idyllic countryside and large wildlife population, it is inspiring just driving to work and watching the cows, sheep and pheasants go by.”

It was as a teenager that Alex first began to take steps towards her career as an artist, but her animal paintings were drawn in a very different style to the way she paints them today.

“I spent most of my teenage years perfecting my fine art wildlife paintings,” Alex said. “At that time, I wanted to become a commercial wildlife artist.”

With help from her mum and biggest supporter, Christine, Alex began taking her paintings to local craft fairs, where she slowly began making a name for herself.

“It was just me and mum at the beginning,” Alex said. “We would set up every stall together and take it down again afterwards.

“She’s always been just as devoted to my art as I am, and I’m so grateful to have had such unconditional support from my parents.”

It was just as Alex’s work had began receiving interest from collectors that she decided to put down the paintbrush for a while, due to a knock in confidence she received while studying a foundation arts degree at college.

“I took feedback and criticism a bit too personally,” Alex said. “I’m a sensitive person anyway, but as a young adult I took everything to heart.

“At that point, I had definitely ruled out making a career as an artist, and instead went on to pursue a career in science, believing it would be better suit my sensitive self at the time.”

And so it was that Alex studied biology for three years, where she could explore her love of wildlife and work towards becoming a conservationist.

But the lure of the paintbrush proved to be too strong and Alex began taking commissions for pet portraits which helped fund her studies at university.

This artistic refuelling led Alex back down the painting path, and after graduating, she returned to local and national trade fairs, eventually opening her first store in Stanhope.

It was here she first began developing her illustrations for prints and greeting cards.

“At first, only independent or local shops bought any of my cards,” Alex said. “So me and mum would grab the boxes and hand-deliver them ourselves to retailers.”

Alex’s commitment to her enterprise meant she had to make some sacrifices, including living at home in her 30s to ensure she could pay for her workspace.

“It was a very organic business growth,” Alex said, “and it was not a fast rise.”

“I would travel all over to sell at bigger trade fairs, but then had to travel three, four hours back on the same day because I couldn’t afford to stay in a hotel.”

Although regularly asked by young artists about how to break into the competitive art industry, Alex says she has no shortcuts.

But she does believe that a willingness to work hard and a tough skin to handle the inevitable knock-backs are just as important as a viable idea.

Although Alex is now known for her signature quirky style of rosy-cheeked animals, which are recognisable across all her gift cards, stationery and home décor, she revealed that this design had come around entirely by accident.

“My younger sister Liz had been doodling the image of a sheep and without thinking, she’d given it a really cute, beaming smile.

“I then added some more human features to the sheep, like the bright rosy cheeks, and that was the beginning of Alex Clark’s new design.”

Alex went on to reproduce the same cartoon style with other animals, and saw the illustrations begin to sell as fast as she could paint them.

Her enterprise now produces more than 3,000 designs for retailers all across the world, and maintains a 15,000 sq. ft warehouse in Northumberland.

But Alex still prefers to mingle with customers and work alongside her mum in the Corbridge high street store.

Alex said she owes much of the business’s ongoing success to her partner, Erik Nielsen.

Erik, who has a background in card distribution, has handled much of the business side of the enterprise for 16 years, allowing Alex to focus on the creative side of things.

“Erik saw the potential in my work and has helped nurture the business with me to where we are today,” Alex said.

Whilst she is constantly inventing new furry creatures to feature on her cards, some of them are based on the animals in Alex’s own life.

One of these animals is Betty the black Labrador, who is Alex’s family dog, and the newest face of the National Trust’s Christmas card collection.

“I love painting Labradors, because they have such expressive faces,” Alex said.

“Some of the first pieces of art I created as a teenager featured black labradors, because my parents were Labrador breeders, so it felt nice to go back to those roots.”

Alex said she is constantly overwhelmed by the “snowball effect” of the business, but is still painting every evening and enjoying what she thinks is “the best job in the world.”

Alex’s artwork and products can be found at Alex Clark @ Corbridge, open Monday-Saturday 10am-5pm.