Derek Balmer was born in London in 1934. His professional art education began in Bristol when he was admitted, aged 15 in 1950, to the West of England College of Art, then situated within the Royal West of England Academy, an institution of which he was later to become President. He was then apprenticed to a photo-litho firm in Bristol, working as a photographer. Art studies at the College continued via evening classes and at 21. He had a painting accepted for exhibition at the Royal West of England Academy where he has exhibited every year since. Group and solo shows followed at the Finbarrus Gallery in Bath (1958/9).
Balmer established himself as an independent photographer and friendships drew him into the active theatre scene in Bristol in the 60’s that centred round the Bristol Old Vic under Sir Tyrone Guthrie. Balmer was appointed official photographer to the company in 1961, a position he held for the next 28 years. Despite the demands of his professional photographic career, Balmer continued to paint, travelling widely in Southern Europe to look at painting, architecture and sculpture. His work, initially influenced by Graham Sutherland, soon developed a strongly colouristic, expressive quality, his largely landscape-inspired subjects of the 1960s and 1970s being treated in an increasingly semi-abstract manner. His influences drew on a wide range of sources – Pierre Bonnard, Peter Lanyon, John Hoyland and American abstract expressionists like Gorky and de Kooning among others. By the time he had his first solo show at the Arnolfini Gallery in 1968, he had however arrived at an intensely personal style of his own.
During the 1970s, Balmer sought to make a success of his photographic business and support his young family, largely withdrawing from exhibiting his work other than at the Royal West of England Academy where he had become an Associate member in 1955. By the 1980s, his work had gained in expressive richness and confidence and Balmer started putting his work into a wider variety of exhibitions. By the early 1990s, having given up his photographic business, he became involved in the Royal West of England Academy affairs, in 1993 being elected to the Academy Council, then becoming Academicians’ Chairman and President in 2001.
A major retrospective of his work, entitled 'President's Eye', was held at the Academy in 2007.