When Ian Loe wanted to begin designing stamps in the Seventies, he received the following warning from the Crown Agents: "Stamp designing is a specialised art form with positive disciplines; many highly-skilled artists have found the techniques limiting, even daunting."
Undaunted, the ex-art teacher is now one of the foremost designers of stamps in the world, specialising in wildlife designs. He admits, though, that it took "a while to get the hang of thinking in terms of something so small".
Ian Loe is also artist-in-residence at Princess Helena College in Preston, Hertfordshire, one of the oldest girls' public schools, which, set among beautiful countryside in over 100 acres of ground, seems a fitting place for a wildlife painter to take up residence.
Loe arrived at stamp designing via a job in Selfridges, National Service, college and a teaching job in Zambia, where, noticing that schools have very little in the way of textbooks, he offered to produce a series on the country's wildlife. Returning to this country in l978, he became head of art and design at an independent school where an exhibition of his work, still focused on wildlife, led to commissions and thence to the Crown Agents.
The artist-in-residence post, which is for two days a week and reviewed every year, provides him, he says, with an ideal combination of teaching with studio work. He sees pupils through their GCSE and A-level projects and also demonstrates and exhibits his work in a small room in the school which is set aside for the purpose. "It gives pupils some information about work as a stamp designer and illustrates how an artist works commercially. It also shows how fine art can be applied in the real world," he says.
A commission for stamps usually begins by a country often a Commonwealth country approaching the Crown Agents with a request for a philatelic issue on a wildlife theme. The agents then get in touch with Loe. The country will probably have done some research of its own, which it will pass on, but Loe does additional homework, often at the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens near his home, or even visits the country. He then produces rough designs to be presented to the country's stamp panel.
Recent commissions have included a series on waterlilies for Barbados, a series on moths for Ireland and aerograms depicting three endangered bird species for Mauritius. This was linked to a Churchill Travelling Fellowship he was awarded last year to give an artist's impression of wildlife in Mauritius and Madagascar.
At Princess Helena College pupils have opportunities to see a piece of on- going work and discuss techniques. "We find it has an inspirational effect, " says headmaster John Jarvis. "The girls see the quality of the work, the skill and the attention to detail; they see the artist doing it and they want to emulate it."
Which is not to say that the girls are all drawing meticulous and beautiful wildlife drawings. But Loe's influence can be seen. For part of their A-level, pupils study a famous artist and produce work in his or her style.
One student, who had taken Dali as her inspiration, worked her way through some detailed drawings to arrive at a surreal, skeletal form.
Ian Loe can be contacted on 01767 261516