Driven by a love of the Highlands and a passion for salmon fishing, artist Chris Sharp chose to walk away from a career in oil for one in oil painting, as Marcus Janssen discovered.
Some people spend a lifetime trying to find their calling in life. Others simply give up and resign themselves to the fact that work is just that, a way of winding down the clock from nine till five. But for a lucky few, the path ahead is clear and full of promise, right from the start. There is no uncertainty, there are no alternatives. Chris Sharp is one of those people. When he was 17, he was presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of taking an off-shore oil rig to West Africa or Labrador. “The money in the oil industry in those days was staggering!” he recalls. “I had to choose between an incredibly well paid job or the complete uncertainty of following my dream of becoming an artist.” Chris decided to enrol at art school – he was going to make his living from a different kind of oil.
Ask most people to describe their dream job and their eyes will light up as they contemplate the idealistic concept of being paid to do something they love. Ask Chris this question, and his response will be unequivocal. “I have my dream job,” he will say. “I have never wanted to do anything else. My passion for the countryside is the very reason why I started to paint in the first place – it's all I have ever wanted to do.”
Chris (55) was born in Nigeria to Scottish parents at a time when newly independent African nations were cutting their ties from their colonial powers and were in desperate need of new infrastructure. Chris's father worked in the telecommunications industry, so Africa was a land of great opportunity. From Nigeria, they moved to Ndola, Zambia, a town on the copper belt and, typical of many fledgling African nations at the time, it was fraught with problems and challenges. But, despite the instability and uncertainty, Chris had an idyllic childhood which he remembers with great fondness. “We went on wonderful holidays to Kenya, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and South Africa, such beautiful countries,” he says, nostalgically. “Dad once bought a new car in Southampton – a bright red Rover 2200 TC – so we sailed down the coast with it to Cape Town and then drove all the way back to Zambia. Because the car was brand new, we had to break the engine in, which meant driving very slowly. It was a very long journey, but it was such a happy time and we had such freedom.”
Although he was sent to boarding school in Aberdeen from the age of 12, Chris spent all of his holidays in Africa which he very much thought of as home. So when his parents finally decided to move back to Scotland when he was 16, he wasn't happy about it. “Moving back for good was quite a shock to the system as you can imagine,” he says. “But then I discovered salmon fishing, which certainly softened the blow.” Chris had been fanatical about fishing ever since he winkled out his first little brown trout on Deeside when he was all of four years old. His uncle Den, whose father-in-law was the Queen's piper at Balmoral, was a keen fisher. The pair of them took the impressionable young Chris down to a burn one afternoon and showed him how to cast a fly. “I'll never forget it,” he recalls, “dressed in my kilt and wellies and armed with a wee fly rod, I caught the fishing bug right away and I've never looked back since.”
With his parents relocated to Carrbridge on Speyside, Chris immersed himself in his newfound passion for Atlantic salmon. As far as he was concerned, casting a fly on the Spey was the next best thing to the wilds of East and Southern Africa. “When I wasn't at school, college or working, I used to spend as much of my spare time as possible fishing the Spey, the Findhorn, the Dee or the Dulnain,” he recalls. It was at this stage that Chris fell in love with the iconic Scottish landscapes and sporting scenes that, more than three decades later, would form the backbone of his artistic portfolio. “Unquestionably, the direction I chose as an artist stemmed directly from my love of fishing,” he acknowledges.
After spending several years making ends meet by restoring art, sculptures, trophies and antique ornate signs for Aberdeen City Council, Chris decided in 1989 that the time had come for him to strike out on his own. “I gave myself a year to paint and build up a portfolio of work while also selling pieces to keep the pennies coming in,” he recalls. “I used to hang my work in hotels on Speyside such as Seafield Lodge, where Arthur Oglesby used to stay, and various galleries in the area. Right from the start, it ticked over very well. In the beginning, I mainly did small watercolours of fishing and shooting scenes, not big, grand works.”
These days, Chris paints with Alkyd – a type of oil paint containing alcohol – and a substance called Liquin, a clear gel to which pigment is added. “It is like a glaze,” he says, “in that it allows you to add very subtle tints of colour to a painting or gradually build up layers of colour and depth. I find it to be particularly useful with painting underwater scenes of salmon as it allows you to add very subtle shades to the image.”
Chris's landscapes are always set in the Highlands, predominantly in the Cairngorms, and on the rivers that he has become smitten with over the years. “These are the places I love, and subsequently love to paint,” he says. The powerful draw that Salmo salar has had on Chris has not only resulted in him spending more hours on riverbanks than he could possibly recall, but has also seen him joining the salmon in their aquatic world. “I was amazed the first time I swam through a salmon pool,” he recalls with an almost tangible fascination. “There were fish everywhere! I was so surprised by how close I could get to them. When you are on the bank, your shadow is enough to send a salmon dashing for cover, but when you are in the water, they don't seem to be bothered by you at all.” Chris has swum with salmon and sea trout at Carrbridge, up and down the river Dulnain and in the Spey at low water in the summer. “I once swam through the River Broom, near the Falls of Measach, and saw over 100 salmon in a single pool. That was truly incredible.”
Of all the Scottish rivers that Chris has fished over the years – including the Dee, the Spey, the Don, the Findhorn, the Ness and the Thurso – his favourite is the Findhorn. “It is just such a beautiful, scenic river that I have got to know very well. It is a special thing, getting to know one particular river intimately, in all its moods and at all heights. And it has been seriously good to me over the years,” he adds with a smile. He once had 10 salmon in a day off the Findhorn, a day when, according to Chris, you could do nothing wrong.
Chris does all of his painting in his studio in Aberdeen, using his own photographs as a guide. Sometimes he will use the tiniest image to hang a whole painting from, and at other times he'll use as many as 20 photographs, taking little details from each one. “I got into photography when I used to go around the game parks in Africa with my dad,” he recalls. “I loved photographing fish eagles in particular. You could call them in by waving a fish in the air and down they would come! With a motor drive whirring, one year I must have taken 300 photos of fish eagles. I am tempted to try it with Ospreys as there are a fair number of them around these parts now.”
Although salmon are unquestionably Chris's forte, he is also associated with dramatic Cairngorm landscapes, with red deer, grouse and golden eagles. His paintings vary considerably in size too, from as small as 6x4" to about 40x30". Patrick Birkbeck once asked him to do a really big painting to go on display at the House of Bruar. “I asked him how big,” recalls Chris with a chuckle, “and he simply said as big as possible! So we measured the back of my BMW estate with the seats flat and I built a canvas that would just fit, at an angle.” The resulting underwater scene, incredible in its detail, proportion and accuracy, hadn't been on display for a fortnight before an anonymous buyer purchased it. “I was amazed at how quickly it went,” says Chris, rather modestly.
In truth, it is obvious why his pieces are so sought after by country sportsmen and women. With an uncanny ability to capture the unique light and dramatic beauty of the Highlands, or the dappled and secret world of Atlantic salmon, all in remarkable detail, Chris succeeds where so many artists fail – in creating perfect snapshots of those fleeting moments between landscape and nature that we all wish we could recreate and revisit. The drama of a roaring stag breaking the cragged horizon, the magic of walked-up grouse, or the heart-stopping chrome flash of a fresh-run salmon turning for the fly – these are the moments that remind us of why we took up fishing, shooting or stalking in the first place.
And they are also moments that leave the beholder in no doubt – Chris definitely chose the right oil.