Saturday, 23 May 2015

An Adventure to Milliken Brothers, County Down

On a visit to artist Ian McAllister's studio I asked him where he bought his lovely big linen canvases. He casually said, 'Millikens', as if everyone knew who that was. Ahem. When he realised I hadn't heard of them (his jaw almost hit the floor and his eyes nearly popped out in shock at my unfortunate lack of knowledge...), he insited on taking me to introduce me, as they weren't too far away. He looked so pleased at the idea, and while I didn't anticipate much joy in visiting a canvas-maker, I do love a little run out, so off we went.

It was wonderful. 

This is what it looks like from the outside - a charming, unassuming, traditional house in an Ulster village. 

But behind these doors is a treasure trove of craftsmanship, highly skilled carpentry and attention to detail which will make every artist very happy indeed. 

The Milliken Brothers Alyn and David - their father was water colour artist Robert Milliken, who painted beautiful landscapes and birds.  I met Alyn, who showed me round the workshop, explaining that everything was made to order, and he showed me the biggest art 'board' I've ever seen - about 12 ft square, like a smooth wall, perfectly prepared for an artist to paint on. It was beautiful, even in its unadorned state, in the way a hand made staircase is.

The linen comes in a variety of thickness, from chunky and lumpy to fine and smooth. Having used only cotton canvas thus far, I was delighted to see how smooth the linen is, and I bought one, and Alyn gave me a small board to try as well.
I was impressed by the different linens, some thick, some very fine. 
Across the courtyard, next to a garden filled with sweet peas, was a series of low-roofed buildings, which included the office (fire blazing) and, much to my surprise, an art materials shop. 
The art shop!

If I'd not been smitten already, this would have clinched it for me. I can hardly describe the emotions I experienced - these buildings, the whole atmosphere, is just so authentically Irish. This is what old Ireland looks like, and it feels so personal. It was, of course, just like my granny's house.  It felt like coming home. Opening the low door and stepping inside.. gasp!
Inside, a very small selection of artist-quality materials. Specialist, and specific. Paradise.
Growing up with an artist parent must, I'm sure, be the key to the brothers interest in providing such good quality materials - not only the canvas and boards, but also the paints. If you are going to paint, use the right materials!

 It is fantastic to order canvas to the exact size you want to work, rather than using only pre-made shapes. I now only use the Milliken canvases - the trick is to plan ahead and order a few at a time. Their canvas is lovely to work on, as are the boards. And if you change your mind after starting the painting, they can take it off the stretcher and resize for you. (though that is too scary for me...) I highly recommend Millikens. It's not only me, of course. Here are what some others say about them

But there was more, my first visit wasn't over yet... Amongst all this deliciousness and amazing abundance of temptations, my eye was attracted to a lovely old sign... which had nothing to do with canvas or boards or paints... 

So I asked Alyn about it, and lo! - a little twinkle popped into his eye and a modest smile crept over his lips.. Turns out he's a lover of motorbikes.. I'd noticed some posters in the workshop of Triumph motorbikes so I mentioned them, and he told me that he owned one, as well as a Triton. A Triton is a rare breed of bike, a cross between a Triumph and a Norton, usually hand contructed, in the 1960's. Ooh, really? Would I like to see it? Well, YES! (Bear with me, I'm Visual, remember, I love looking at things)  Poor Ian, he was looking more than bewildered by now..  

 Alyn on his beautiful, shiny and immaculate Triton

The Triton was beautiful, and so well looked after it was like new. Did I mention being smitten before? Well, at the sight of this,  I was falling in love. Alyn told me some of its history, with affection, respect and a little bit of reverence too. After all, the bike is about 50 years old. I stared with envy, until he read my mind and asked if I wanted to sit on it! How could I not? Afterwards, he said that only 3 people before me had sat on it, and that I was the first woman. I felt deeply honoured, but at the same time, glad to get off without scratching it. 

This was one of the best day trips, ever. It's good to have a break from the drawing board - a break can turn from a visit to a surprise to an adventure, when you least expect it!

Upcoming workshops: Portrait drawing, Oils weekend, Landscape in water colour and a Drawing Trail around Belfast'sTitanic Quarter. For info email 


  1. What a delightful trip out, I'd have loved that shop. Any thoughts on the best acrylic paint to buy? Xx

  2. When you visit, I will make sure it's on your itinerary, along with other scenic delights along the Ards Peninsula :)
    I don't use acrylic myself, but the best recommendation for materials I can give is to use Artist Quality only. Winsor & Newton is the cheapest artist quality brand, a company with a very long history of supplying paint to artists (including Turner!), but be careful as they sell student ranges too which are... :(