The Devil is in the De­tail

Chris Jones is a mas­ter of his art. His soughtafter poul­try paint­ings are crafted in such fine de­tail that they in­vari­ably re­sem­ble pho­to­graphs. Julie Harding vis­its him at his Wilt­shire stu­dio

Your Chickens - - Contents -

Poul­try painter Chris Jones

There is no sound in Chris Jones’s back gar­den. There is no cluck­ing or cock-a-doo­dle-do­ing, no wing flap­ping or scratch­ing at the grass with a rep­til­ian foot. Two years ago, though, there was plenty of chicken hullabaloo from the poul­try artist’s own quar­tet here on the rec­tan­gu­lar lawn be­hind his semide­tached home in North Bradley, Wilt­shire. A Yoko­hama cock­erel called Hiro had the run of the flower beds, bor­ders and grass, along­side Ma­rina, a broody Silkie/Pekin cross, Melody, a young and quite bossy par­tridge Wyan­dotte hen, and Kiki, a shy gold par­tridge Yoko­hama, all of them named af­ter char­ac­ters from chil­dren’s TV series The Fresh Beat Band. Chris, renowned for the tra­di­tional re­al­ism of his poul­try paint­ings, could see them for­ag­ing as he sat in front of a board in his stu­dio, adding a touch of red oil to a comb here or a patch of white to the wing of bird there.

He ini­tially pur­chased his own poul­try for in­spi­ra­tion but also to en­sure that the tiny de­tails in his art­works were all spot on — the feath­ers mesh­ing to­gether cor­rectly or per­fect shad­ows cre­ated as a hen tilted her head sky­ward when a wild bird flew low over­head.

“I got my own chick­ens in 2010 and I only got rid of them a cou­ple of years ago. I gave them away,” says Chris, sit­ting in front of his lat­est photo-like paint­ing which de­picts three Malay game fowl, one of whom is a fine up­stand­ing cock­erel who bears lit­tle re­sem­blance to Hiro. “I kept ask­ing the neigh­bours to look af­ter my chick­ens as I was away a lot. They also got spi­der mite and creepy-crawlies, so they be­came labour in­ten­sive and I felt that I couldn’t keep ask­ing other peo­ple to keep an eye on them. The level of de­struc­tion was start­ing to show in the gar­den, too.” He looks out to­wards the now re­stored im­mac­u­late lawn.

“First we started with a flock of Wel­sum­mers. They con­sisted of Shout the cock­erel, plus hens Kiki, Ma­rina and Melody [same names, dif­fer­ent hens]. They were won­der­fully friendly, but they got ill and died. Hav­ing chick­ens teaches you a lot about an­i­mals.

“Af­ter a break we bought three more hens and Hiro. His tail would end up a mess when he went for­ag­ing in the muddy gar­den and it was amus­ing to watch Ma­rina, the Silkie/Pekin, who was ob­sessed with sit­ting on eggs. She was five when we got her and I oc­ca­sion­ally see the lady I gave her to and, al­though Ma­rina’s quite blind now, she’s still man­ag­ing to cope and is con­tin­u­ing to peck for food.

“I learned so much from keep­ing poul­try, in­clud­ing ‘chick­eny’ be­hav­iour, — the way they stand and how the cock­erel would find food for his hens and call them over and dis­play to them,” Chris con­tin­ues. “If I wanted to paint an egg, I would just have to col­lect one that had been freshly laid, and as they came in a range of colours, I had all sorts for ref­er­ence.”

Chris still paints poul­try al­most ex­clu­sively, as ev­i­denced by the small square ‘draft’ art­work of Light Sus­sex chick­ens on a sec­ond easel in his stu­dio (the fi­nal, mir­ror im­age large ren­di­tion since sold to a happy cus­tomer) which sits next to a gilt-framed, ap­pro­pri­ately egg-shaped paint­ing of myr­iad mainly straw-coloured chicks.

“This paint­ing took more time than most I’ve done. The last two or three chicks didn’t work for ages. They weren’t in the right space, but I came up with the idea and I had to fol­low it through. I’m hard on my­self in terms of qual­ity con­trol,” says Chris, who has found his neme­sis to be paint­ing chick­ens’ scaly legs.

“My favourite parts to do are the faces and the combs,” he re­veals. “I love the rich red of the combs. It’s such a fun colour that isn’t of­ten found in na­ture. The feet and legs are the most chal­leng­ing be­cause they’re so rep­tile­like and they need to be de­tailed to be ac­cu­rate, but not too de­tailed so that they be­come stiff and life­less. Ar­eas of feath­er­ing can also be prob­lem­atic. If you’re work­ing from a photo you can’t see how they are curved or where the edges are, which is why I check against

liv­ing birds when I can. I love paint­ing the iri­des­cent tail feath­ers with their elec­tric colours. When I go to poul­try shows it’s un­der ar­ti­fi­cial light, so I try to visit breed­ers be­cause I can see their birds in nat­u­ral day­light and sun­light which gives them a glam­orous sheen.”

The birds in Chris’s mas­ter­pieces are in­vari­ably the stars of the show, the back­ground es­sen­tially sub­ju­gated to en­sure that they stand out on their ‘stage’.

“I of­ten make the part the bird is stand­ing on arid and I usu­ally en­sure that there is a con­trast be­tween the re­al­is­tic poul­try and the freer back­ground that’s more im­pres­sion­is­tic. I go to a place very rarely if I’m com­mis­sioned to paint a re­al­is­tic back­ground.”

Aside from once us­ing his own chick­ens, plus photos, for ref­er­ence, Chris fre­quently refers to the Bri­tish Poul­try Stan­dards book, avidly read­ing the de­tailed de­scrip­tions of type, con­for­ma­tion, feather pat­terns and faults of the breed he is paint­ing be­fore putting brush to can­vas.

“I used to go and see the bird and do life sketches, but when you’re paint­ing for a liv­ing there isn’t usu­ally time,” he says. “So I would tend to visit breed­ers who kept lots of dif­fer­ent breeds and I would spend the day tak­ing pic­tures and sketch­ing.” He points to the sketch book that sits on the easel next to the minia­ture paint­ing of the White Sus­sex birds with its ex­pert diminu­tive pen­cil draw­ings that are even­tu­ally turned into larger works of art.

It is cre­at­ing the colos­sal that Chris par­tic­u­larly en­joys.

“Large paint­ings are more of a chal­lenge and you have to raise your game. When they come off you get a great sense of achieve­ment. You set your­self a task and try your hard­est to make sure that the pic­ture lives up to your ex­pec­ta­tions and you en­sure that you have painted all the el­e­ments as well as you can too.”

Chris’s paint­ings bear a strik­ing re­sem­blance to those of Dutch artist Mel­chior de Hon­de­coeter, who lived and worked al­most four cen­turies ear­lier at a time when cre­at­ing gar­dens with ex­otic birds was some­thing of a fad.

“Hon­de­coeter isn’t re­mem­bered like Rem­brandt, but I’m in­flu­enced by clas­si­cal art like his. If I go to an art gallery, I’ll be drawn to the paint­ings with that re­al­is­tic style, in­clud­ing the Pre-Raphaelites.”

Chris’s tastes have changed. When he was grow­ing up near Wim­borne in Dorset in the 1970s, he liked noth­ing bet­ter than to visit a Boots store and stop and stare at a David Shep­herd wildlife print, maybe one of a herd of ele­phants, or a tiger who stared back at him with men­ac­ing eyes, or a rhino and her calf in a hot and hos­tile land­scape.

“The hey­day for wildlife art was in the mid 1970s to the early 1990s,” Chris says. “It was a proper genre and you could say that you were go­ing to be a wildlife artist. That was the pe­riod when I was train­ing and just start­ing out.”

Af­ter show­ing a nat­u­ral ap­ti­tude for draw­ing at school, a skill he be­lieves he in­her­ited from his Post Of­fice worker grand­fa­ther Fred Jones, Chris spent four years “paint­ing noth­ing but wildlife” in mainly oils and acrylics at Bournemouth and Poole Col­lege of Art and De­sign.

“My par­ents had al­ways sup­ported me, but said that I should get good exam re­sults in other sub­jects just in case there was no ca­reer to be had as an artist.”

How­ever, since he grad­u­ated, Chris has made a liv­ing from his paint­ings, some­times grate­ful to be buoyed by his wife Julie’s teach­ing salary, with his sub­ject mat­ter even­tu­ally mor­ph­ing from wildlife into poul­try.

“The first chicken I painted was a black Pekin hen I saw hav­ing a dust bath at a zoo. I took lots of photos of it and thought it would look dra­matic in a paint­ing. When it was fin­ished, I was so pleased with it that I didn’t want to sell it, so I put a larger than usual price tag on it when I ex­hib­ited it. I got a call al­most im­me­di­ately to say that it had sold at the full price. I’d en­joyed paint­ing it and felt the sub­ject mat­ter was pop­u­lar, so I de­cided to paint a few more chick­ens, de­spite not know­ing any­thing about them. Then some­thing hap­pened. [Stephen Green-Army­tage’s book] Ex­tra­or­di­nary Chick­ens was pub­lished, which made me re­alise how many dif­fer­ent types there were, so I went to visit a chicken keeper and showed him my paint­ings. He said, ‘you’re paint­ing scraggy hens be­cause you don’t know about breeds’, and he sug­gested that I go to the big poul­try shows.

“I fol­lowed his ad­vice and ended up at the Na­tional Poul­try Show where I was amazed by the va­ri­ety. I got ad­dicted to walk­ing around and look­ing at the colours and shapes and sizes of the birds and I thought that I could paint a va­ri­ety of them be­cause they were so vis­ually stun­ning. It was then that I started con­cen­trat­ing on chick­ens and that’s what I’ve been do­ing al­most ex­clu­sively for 10 years. Some­times you get a run of com­mis­sions for cer­tain breeds. At the end of last year ev­ery­one wanted Or­p­ing­tons and by the end I knew them re­ally well.”

While only rel­a­tively few lucky peo­ple (a mix of hobby and spe­cial­ist keep­ers) have Chris Jones’s orig­i­nals hang­ing in their hall or liv­ing room — not least be­cause each car­ries a price tag that be­fits its bril­liance, but also be­cause ev­ery paint­ing takes months to craft — his cal­en­dars are more af­ford­able and the 2019 ver­sion is stored here in his stu­dio in large card­board boxes stacked four high wait­ing for on­line or­ders to flood in in the lead up to Christ­mas (see page 45 for de­tails). He is also work­ing on a book.

“I’m try­ing to clear my desk of work as I’m at­tempt­ing to put pic­tures of my paint­ings to­gether for a 100-page ‘cof­fee ta­ble’ book. The pub­lisher made the of­fer two years ago and I need to get it fin­ished.”

Chris’s painted trea­sures have found their way into homes across Bri­tain and be­yond, but even masters of their craft have a weak spot and for Chris it is paint­ing peo­ple.

“Maybe it re­quires dif­fer­ent skills and I need more prac­tice, but I once took on a job paint­ing a fam­ily and I couldn’t get the baby right. I tried and tried and in the end I told them that they would have to find some­one else. It just wasn’t for me.” For more in­for­ma­tion about Chris Jones, visit www.chrisjone­sart.com.

Chris paint­ing his lat­est mas­ter­piece, Malay Game Fowl, in his stu­dio at the bot­tom of his gar­den

Chris with The In­vi­ta­tion, one of the largest paint­ings in his col­lec­tion

A book of the paint­ings of 17th Cen­tury Dutch artist Mel­chior de Hon­de­coeter, who has played a big part in in­flu­enc­ing Chris’s art

Hiro the Yoko­hama cock­erel, whose tail would get rather muddy in win­ter in the Jones’ gar­den

Shout the cock­erel with his Wyan­dotte ladies, who were all called af­ter char­ac­ters from The Fresh Beat Band

Melody the Wyan­dotte was one of Chris and Julie Jones’ first chick­ens

A ‘draft’ paint­ing (left) and Chris’s sketch book

Chris has painted poul­try al­most ex­clu­sively for the last decade, but he started out as a wildlife artist

Chris’s mas­ter­piece The In­vi­ta­tion. The door is a copy of one at Na­tional Trust prop­erty La­cock Abbey in Wilt­shire

This oval shaped paint­ing of chicks was, ac­cord­ing to Chris, one of the most tax­ing sub­jects he has ever painted

Chris jug­gles home chores and look­ing af­ter his twin daugh­ters, Lily and Imo­gen, with paint­ing in his stu­dio

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