‘I paint daily, no matter what’: how one woman’s coping mechanism became a global business

<span>‘Painting was my way of forgetting’: McDaid in her Ramsgate studio.</span><span>Photograph: Paul Burroughs</span>
‘Painting was my way of forgetting’: McDaid in her Ramsgate studio.Photograph: Paul Burroughs

Every day without fail, for the past 12 or so years, Margo McDaid has painted. At first, it was casual; an amateur kitchen-table-with-the-kids affair. More recently, she has worked from the bright and airy, white-walled Kent coast studio where she’s sitting now, two of her colourful, graphic portraits – for which she’s becoming internationally known – hanging pride of place behind her. Regardless of where she is, she’s painted prodigiously. “I’m an obsessive person by nature,” she accepts, surrounded by piles of pictures, overloaded boxes and shelves seeping with supplies. “In the past, I’d juggle all sorts of things at once. Now, each day, I channel everything into my painting.”

Restraint doesn’t come naturally to McDaid. “And why should it? Doing something you enjoy is addictive. Christ, I smoked for 20 years.” She’ll happily produce 10 or 20 pieces per day. In professional settings, she suggests, it’s expected we’ll hone a skill through daily repetition to make more efficient employees. “Why not apply that to what you deeply want to do? My mum knitted all day every day, my granny constantly baked Irish bread to feed her 11 children. In 2012, when I was 44, I decided to put all my effort into painting. Starting late, I didn’t have time to mess about – I cracked on and committed.” It paid off: earlier this year, she held her debut solo exhibition. Her work has been displayed in the nearby Turner Contemporary in Margate; a pop star’s team recently enquired about a commission. To date, she has sold 16,000 pictures under her Margo in Margate moniker. “I’ve just had an email from a museum in Madrid. It’s mind-blowing. How many people get the chance to be successful in their 50s, from doing what they adore day in and day out?”

For decades, McDaid had all but abandoned her creative output. Raised in Northern Ireland, aged 19 she traded County Tyrone for late-80s New York City. Four years later, she enrolled at art college in London, specialising in metalwork. “I found some initial success,” she says, “selling little aluminium cubes via an agency to a few Conran stores. But I barely made a penny – maybe £184 from 100-plus pieces. It was totally disheartening. That was 1997: pre-social media, unless you were funded and represented you were invisible, which I was.” Instead, she worked as a community artist on a London estate, followed by a similar gig at Islington Council. A local head suggested she give teaching a try. In 1999, she started a teacher-training programme. “All my creative energy went into the kids,” she says, “Being a teacher was so overwhelming and busy, I didn’t make any work of my own. I thought that was that. Until in 2005, something happened.”

It was a tragic case involving a six-year-old girl in McDaid’s class, a child she was particularly close to. “One day I came to work: both mother and daughter had been murdered by the mum’s boyfriend. It was horrific – the sort of thing you read in the news, but never expect so close to home.” Almost 20 years on, McDaid’s pain is palpable. “She was the most perfect little girl. Extraordinary, warm, bright and generous. I see her now, jumping in the air with joy and full of life.” For five months, McDaid muddled on. “Until one morning, I couldn’t get out of bed. I thought I’d had a stroke: my eye had dropped, my arm was numb. I’d tried to hold everything together. I realised I couldn’t.” She was signed off work and prescribed antidepressants. That time’s a blur. “Within two years, I’d left teaching, got married, and had my first baby. In 2010, we moved to Ramsgate. It was all an effort to try to get on with life.” On this front, McDaid was just about managing.

In 2012, her youngest appeared in the kitchen. “He was two, barely talking. ‘Mum’, he said, ‘I need to paint.’ As soon as that came out his mouth, I knew I had to also.” She lined the dining table with paper; it would remain that way for years. “We painted together. And every day, I’d sit and paint there no matter what.” At first, it felt like a coping mechanism; a ritual to hold on to. “Painting was my way of forgetting, briefly, about something so tragic. To some extent, it still offers that to me. But now I also see it as carving out time every day to do a thing I love. ”

McDaid’s daily commitment was an academic exercise, too: “I wanted to see how my work would change if I practised every day. As a teacher, I’d watch how kids developed, from circling around their hands to joined-up handwriting.” If they could develop a skill through focussed work, why couldn’t she? “All the Old Masters were apprentices. Trying to improve in a short space of time is tough. Doing it daily, you don’t expect outcomes quickly.”

Instagram was where McDaid first shared her work. “It wasn’t to build an audience or sell, but to document for myself how the work was developing. I kept drawing every day. The progress was incremental. I didn’t see the improvement, much like you don’t see yourself ageing.”

Now, she concedes, that output might need managing. “I have to start measuring and tempering it,” she says, “else I’ll become just too exhausted. My agent has told me to stop, or at least pace myself; to manage my output in a different way.” She’s still working on that. “And honestly, I’m not sure I want to. When I was 44, having hardly painted, I saw a picture of Judith Kerr at her desk, at 83, drawing away, surrounded by pencils. That’s what I’m working towards. If I’d never had success, I’d still be on track. So when someone looks at my work and says, ‘That’s shite,’ or ‘It looks like an eight-year-old did it’, I don’t care. Practise what you love and do it every day.”

Their daily bread

Whether playing chess or making metal vases, daily practice changed these lives too

Mariangel Vargas, 12, chess player, New York

Just over a year ago, I learned how to play chess. Within a month of first being introduced to the basic moves, I was entering competitions. I’d never played before arriving in New York in late 2022 – I started at a programme that helped Latino kids learn the game. From then, I’ve practised an hour or two every day after school. Teachers showed me the moves; books and apps help with problem-solving and strategy. On weekends, I play competitively, often against people far better than me. Failing is part of the process, even if it sucks in the moment. You improve and learn by playing over and over. At my first competition, my rating was 101. Now it’s over 1,250. That’s halfway to grandmaster status. Since we arrived in America, there’s been lots to learn: the language, subjects at school, how this new country works. Perfecting a skill has helped my confidence with all these other things: practising every day, I can master anything.

Ivar Leon Menger, 50, writer, Germany

I’d written film scripts and audio dramas before but I was desperate to write a novel. I even had a plot twist in mind, but the idea of doing so terrified me. One morning, I challenged myself to write a single page: it took me five hours. This might sound like failure. Instead, I continued at that same rate: one page per day until the book was finished. At 9am I’d start to write. Some days, I’d work into the night; others, I’d be done by late morning. I worked through Christmas, birthdays, headaches. A blank page each day was a new adventure. Reading back now, I see how characters and plot on any given page reflect how I felt the day I wrote it. A year later, it was complete. Now I’ve written four novels, and have adapted my writing schedule. But that single-page, single-day approach? Nothing has felt more rewarding. Just try it.

Neil Jones, 60, pool player, Stoke-on-Trent

Through my teens I played a bit of snooker, but after that my cue remained locked in the loft. In December 2010, I won £2.4million on the National Lottery; in 2011, I was watching the football down at the local snooker hall, and decided to have a go on a table. The win had freed up some time – I’d retired from tiling – and I had cash. I decided to dedicate myself and see what happened. My first big purchase was the pool table. I practised every day, often when my wife put on Coronation Street. Eventually, I got picked for the England squad. Last year, I captained my country, winning bronze at the European Championships in Malta. Each day, I do the same: break off, play the colour I pot first. If I miss a single shot, I reset and start over.

Hiroshi Suzuki, 62, silversmith, Tokyo

Each day since 1993 I’ve spent it the same: hammering away at metal. It’s slow work, shaping and decorating the silver sheets I make. All day, every day, I repeat the same motion, thousands of times, over and over. For me, the process of reiteration is meditative. Even the sound is. Buddhist monks beat their wooden drums; my hammering offers a similar rhythm. Results take time to come to fruition. I’m often working on many pieces at once, but to complete just one would take over an entire month’s effort. However good you get, there’s no skipping that daily work. It’s a little like a jigsaw – the process becomes more familiar, but you cannot escape it: start with a single dent and continue forward. Hammering away at metal all day long might sound dull, but it’s my greatest joy. If you find yours, you’ll never stop it.