Layers of glaze and colour bring Sporting artist Chris Sharp’s salmon to life – and an understanding of their environment, as he explains to Janet Menzies
Having grown up in the various game parks of Africa, before moving to Carrbridge, on the River Dulnain in the Cairngorms, sporting artist Chris Sharp’s childhood spent fishing has influenced much of his work.
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Cold and difficult wading as the evening gathers is making you think of calling it a day, when suddenly a salmon breaks the water, massive and muscular, beating upstream through the dusk. For Chris Sharp, such moments are the reason to paint. He says: “The subtle colours of the salmon are always different. I have developed the use of a glazing medium in my work; there are layers and layers of colour in the glazes, which gives a translucent effect. It has a fluidity to it which is what I want to capture – and, of course, we all love to look at a fresh salmon.”
Secretly, however, Sharp still hankers after the battle-scarred old red salmon of his youth. “I was brought up in the various game parks of Africa, and when the family moved back home we came to Carrbridge, on the River Dulnain in the Cairngorms. So I started my salmon fishing on the Dulnain, which has a lot of red fish. The quality of the salmon you would catch wasn’t what is normally prized, but I thought those red salmon were beautiful.”
So he began painting them in their veteran glory, kypes and all. “Some people think they are ugly and asked me why I was painting them,” he says, yet that deep colouring often represents hard-won fishing, which Sharp loves.
“The Findhorn is a favourite. It is a cracking river. You have to be able to read and to understand the different heights as opposed to standing in the Spey. You walk half a mile to make a cast. Sometimes salmon change colours according to the rivers they are on. Findhorn salmon can go quite black. The Findhorn goes into spate so fast. When it is raining on the hill you can see it, and then the spate comes very rapidly, and it is actually quite dangerous. But they have some big fish for the size of the river. I love to fish it late in the year. These late fish take you much quicker – I suppose they are more aggressive by this stage.”
Sharp points out that a successful sporting artist must know his subject, but expressing that connection in the finished work on canvas is challenging. “I wish I could talk to myself 20 years ago, and explain how to create the techniques I use now. Painting as a young man, it was a learning process. You had the idea in your mind of what the finished article would be and then it would turn out to be nothing like it. When I was younger there would be a lot of mistakes and changes along the way. These days the process is a lot easier, and you can get to that picture you had in mind. Now I know what I want to do and I know how to do it. So, today there is a confidence of knowing how you will approach something, which you don’t have at the beginning. When I finish a painting I turn it to the wall and don’t look at it for a month or so until it is ready for framing. Then if something needs changing, that’s when I will see it.”
Sharp grew up painting wildlife in southern Africa, going on to study sculpture and fine art at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen. However, he found it hard to establish himself as a professional artist. “I would definitely go back and tell my younger self to stick to what you love and enjoy it. For me that is painting, and it is wonderful that my work is so popular that people want to buy it. My style is very time-consuming though.”
Sharp’s love of the Cairngorms is reflected throughout his work. Red stag and golden eagle are dominant features, and he is lucky enough to remember when capercaillie were more plentiful. When painting these subjects, he leaves the surrounding landscape unfocused, explaining: “I keep the backgrounds misty because I don’t want them to detract from the subject.”
This artistic decision is particularly successful in depicting the Cairngorms, where the hill so often dissolves into the rain clouds, with just the nearest outcrop visible during your climb. Sharp’s golden eagle stands on such an outcrop, its plumage echoed in the russets of the autumn heather. His stags inhabit the same landscape, often looming up at the viewer out of the dreich. These are the moments Sharp wants to communicate to his viewer. It was in the Cairngorms that I caught my first salmon, killed my first stag and shot my first grouse. Sharp has painted exactly what I felt in those moments.
Chris Sharp’s work can be seen at: Eduardo Alessandro Studios, Broughty Ferry, Dundee; Milton Art Gallery, Banchory; the Gallery in Aberlour; and Logie Steading Art Gallery, Forres. Contact him on 07779989856 or view his work at: chrissharpart.com