The striking work of artist Chris Gilbert
PUBLISHED: 15:57 12 December 2016 | UPDATED: 15:57 12 December 2016
From blocks of Asian plywood, Chris Gilbert creates striking works of art in his studio on the Stansted Park Estate says Sandra Smith
My initial reaction when attempting to decipher a link between life drawing and woodcuts is one of incongruity. In the former genre, a model’s contours are enhanced with every breath whilst emotion, shape and form combine to create a two dimensional image which oozes three dimensional energy.
And woodcuts? Yes, they are expressive. Indeed, their subjects are no less animated than those portrayed on any canvas. Yet the solidity of background material and linear unambiguity surely makes them artistically distinct from and dissimilar to, the softness of those sketches which epitomise the human form.
Then why, you might wonder, am I debating such a dilemma? Well, because I’m in conversation with the eclectically gifted Chris Gilbert. Having already revealed an interest in life drawing along with time spent creating pastel landscapes, we’re part way through discussing his varied career and the techniques behind his striking woodcuts when I’m distracted by the association between these disparate artistic fields. The connection that momentarily eludes me, however, soon becomes clear.
“For woodcuts you have to take everything down to the minimum, to a recognisable line. You’re also forced to do that in life drawing, to describe a great deal in just one line. Sometimes less is more. Something is more powerful if it is simply described.”
It takes mere minutes in his company to be impressed not only with the quality of Chris’s work but the range of artistic skills which have shaped his life and career.
“Art was the only subject I took to at school but I had no idea what kind of living you could make out of it.”
Nevertheless a Diploma in Art and Design at Portsmouth College of Art proved to be a positive and enlightening experience.
“I did drawing, graphic design, calligraphy, even window dressing. What was interesting was I really loved drawing at that time. Then there was a sea change during the sixties. Previously, art schools had been arts and crafts but then there was a movement to modernism and minimalist and this was the new, exciting way to approach graphics. I kind of stopped drawing at that point.”
Chris went on to study graphic design, enjoyed the syllabus’s photographic element and eventually worked for Heal’s in Tottenham Court Road, then Harrods, before moving to a design company. The appeal of working for himself prompted a thriving period as a freelance when he spent much of his time designing educational book covers.
“I didn’t earn fantastic sums but I had control over what I did and I loved it. But at the beginning of the millennium I took a year off and lived in Mexico. I took lots of pastels and did big landscape paintings and came back with a base of material that made me think seriously about what I was going to do. I decided to study printmaking. It was one of those mysteries and I wondered how you did it. My wife is German and we spent five years in Frankfurt.
“There, an exhibition of one of the expressionist artists of the 1930s had such an impact on me, I was stunned by the power of woodcuts which were selling for thousands of pounds. What a revelation! I also admire Edward Hopper, José Posada and CRW Nevinson, a British war artist, who was respected for graphics as well as paintings, a line I could probably follow.”
Chris purchased a press, moved sketches into prints and organised an exhibition on his return to the UK. He remains equally exuberant about city life as well as the countryside surrounding his home on the Stansted Park Estate where travel continues to influence his work and with birdlife, architecture and culture being much visited themes.
In a sunlit studio with uninterrupted garden views, stacks of wood blocks fill shelves. From here Chris explains that Asian plywood from Japan is favoured for its softness and ease of cutting. Although wood cutting is based on Japanese and Chinese procedures using water based ink, this artist prefers the contrast of oils which offer a flexible range of colours. A layer of varnish prevents paint from penetrating the material.
I admire Chris’s vibrant Cuban Crisis as he divulges the lengthy, labour intensive practice.
“This would take in the region of one week for one block. I might use five or six colours and each have to be layered separately, so a picture can take weeks. I’ve also learnt to sharpen tools so you can go with or against the grain with fluidity. I use a diamond sharpened stone to keep tools sharp, then they are honed in paste on a piece of leather to retain their sharpness.”
The process, not surprisingly, is unforgiving.
“Like watercolour, if you make a mistake there’s no going back. Bits of wood can fall off when you don’t mean them to. When using colour it is essential to think ahead and work out everything in advance rather than approaching it blindly. I have a picture in my head to begin with and work towards that - but sometimes you have to adapt. The beauty of it is you can do many variations of colour and still have woodblocks to use next time.”
Topics are usually developed from sketches and the 69-year-old instils texture and shading into a picture by cross hatching numerous tight lines providing contour, which is particularly valuable in his monochrome work such as the striking Winter Deer. He produces a limited edition of each picture, sometimes exhibiting proofs of similar quality until the image successfully sells.
The ancient ways involved here are proven, of course. Yet I sense Chris doesn’t shy away from exploring new methods.
“When you go to classes and colleges there’s a lot of emphasis on experimentation. Norman Ackroyd uses a technique called aquatinting, which I’ve done in a more painterly way.”
Chris may be retired but his energy is as infectious as his enthusiasm. He enters several competitions each year, is a National Open Art winner and been shortlisted for the Society of Wildlife Artists. He juggles art with looking after his 100 year old mother who lives nearby, enjoys attending exhibitions, takes on occasional commissions and pines to be part of the Royal Academy’s Summer Show. And although we have spent much of our time together discussing woodcuts he is also a prolific sketcher, ponders the belief that he could have made a career as a photojournalist - “looking at life through a camera” - and describes himself as favouring a hands on, craft based approach rather than anything remotely digital.
“I loved the dark room although I’ve completely left that behind me now. My work has developed in a much more illustrative way - I’d like to say story telling but it’s more figurative, describing life around me.”
Being in Chris’s company has given me an appreciation not only of the scope of his expertise, but his willingness to develop subjects and portray them in a variety of medium. And I’ve also learned to avoid pigeon holing genres. Art manifests itself in many forms - who’s to say the occasional overlap, fusion or inspiration is not to the benefit of creativity from which, ultimately, we all gain?
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