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During a recent visit to the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum I came across the artist Chris Rutterford enormous painting depicting a scene from the story of Tam O’Shanter. With it being 20m (68ft) long and 2m (7ft) high there was a lot to take in!

Chris was nice enough to answer a few of my questions relating to the process and thinking behind “Drouthie Cronies”. Be sure to check out the videos about the painting at the bottom of this post too.

Can you tell us a little more about your project ‘Drouthy Cronies’?

‘Drouthy Cronies’ is a response to the best illustration brief I’ve ever had, both in content and ambition. I got to interpret Burns wonderful epic poem and on an epic scale that allowed me to explore the narrative and not feel obliged to cherry pick individual characters and moments. I had time and space enough to do something I’ve always wanted to do, produce a grand piece of sequential art, something which used to be much more commonplace but has fallen out of fashion. I wanted to build a spectacular image that would appeal to the congregation and not just be designed for above an individuals fireplace.

The painting was commissioned by Harry Wylie a Glaswegian publican and will eventually hang in a themed Tam O’Shanter restaurant above the Bristol Bar in Glasgow’s East end. It is twenty meters long and two meters high and features just over seventy characters ranging from small figures to four foot high heads and a life size horse.

How did you get into painting/illustration?

I’ve always painted and drawn, I initially did a Graphic design course in Carlisle. Then a Degree in illustration in Leeds before going on to be a freelance magazine illustrator for around ten years, in that time I worked for around  forty titles and various graphic design companies. This was all invaluable experience in adaptability and collaboration. Whilst I specialised in figurative and portraiture work I like to think I can paint anything and can also vary my atmosphere from light and frothy through to horror at need. Mood is a key component in what I aim for, and I consider it as one of my main strengths.

When I moved back to Edinburgh from London I also spent time on a course at Leith School of Art learning more about traditional medium and technique. Learning to love art again, they also lecture in art history which was very interesting.

You cover a broad range of subjects in your painting, what attracted you to depicting Tam O’Shanter?

I was particularly attracted to Tam O’ Shanter because Burns manages to evoke a range of moments and takes us on a journey from conspicuous drunkenness to peril and horror. He also describes a range of vivid character types that I was itching to get my teeth around.

I was a big 2000AD fan when I was young, my Granny Netta used to buy me them weekly. I have only drawn bits and pieces of comics but it is a medium that I believe in strongly. Tam seemed like the perfect story to make a mega comic of.

It’s also a poem that has particular resonance in our family, my Granny Marion knew the piece by heart and she recited it the last time I saw her before she died. They both had their part in this.

How did you come up with the idea to produce such a large piece?

On approaching the poem I was certain of two things. In the main scene:

– I wanted to simplify the colours so the orange of the church would shine against the blue of the night sky.

-The chase scene should feature the witch Nanny prominently but not at the expense of the rest of the coven, I felt that previous interpretations had highlighted the lead witch too much. One witch is a problem but the entire unholy party that Tam stumbled into was a catastrophe. I wanted him to be hunted by a throng and give the whole thing an energy of menace, I used the locals from the Bristol bar and my studio complex as models. 

Last year I painted a large painting called ‘The Jacobite Stramash’ about Bonnie Prince Charlie on his entering Edinburgh at the head of his Jacobite army in 1745. It was only 14 foot tall and 7 foot wide, a baby in comparison with this years endeavour but it was rooted in the same genre, Victorian epic historical art were the blockbusters of their day and used to have the crowds queuing round the corner to view them. I felt it a real shame that it was left behind by the drive toward modernism in the 20th century and wasn’t convinced that people didn’t still enjoy viewing ‘real’ art. Much of what inhabits contemporary galleries these days can end up being dispassionate and allegedly clever but can appear cold from an outsiders point of view. They seem to be caught up in their own world to the exclusion of ordinary people. I don’t feel part of that, I wanted to produce an image seething with enthusiasm and energy, trying to entertain.

It’s was a challenge to produce but it gave me the opportunity to be a one man holywood, without negotiation and compromise diluting the product. I was the master of my own density.

Who/What are some of you inspirations and influences for the mural (apart from the obvious!)?

Artists who inspired me in the comic world include Mike McMahon and Bernie Wrightson. Men who would go to great lengths to produce vital imagery.

In the art world along with the Victorian artists mentioned. I admire the work of Toulouse Lautrec and Lucian Freud. But also aspire to the muscularity of ambition of Rembrandt and Michelangelo. Did the 20th century produce a single artwork with the vision of the Sistine Chapel? Though I’m not religious I think it a great shame that the driving force in art now seems to be money instead of quality. When god was watching over our shoulder quality was king.

As we move from print to digital how do you think painting/illustration will evolve?

As we move from print to digital it’s an awkward time for illustration and painting. I’ve always been a hands on kind of artist and don’t necessarily think computers can always reproduce the effects paint can- on a tactile level. Budgets for illustration shrink with the common availability of imagery online and its very difficult for the artist to make a living. People believe that photography and pin sharp graphics can do all that drawing and painting can when patently this is not the case. Soulfulness is being leached out of our imagery by our addiction to mega pixels. Some painters even try to compete with the pooters with ultra realistic paintings, I think this just looses the immediacy of the image.

In most art colleges and schools the students don’t take the time to learn to paint and more importantly draw well, and are not encouraged to by their tutors. I believe their visual imagination on some level is stunted by this. Many talented artists see the art world as an odd place that doesn’t reward quality of deed and head for different pastures were they think they can express themselves.

I hope that at some point there will be a backlash on this, in my mind there is no doubt that the art of drawing is significantly worse now than a century ago. It would benefit our whole society greatly if everyone could draw on some level. Confidence in doodling is the first step in any dream be it engineering, invention or art.

You mentioned on your site that you plan to do more ‘historical epics’, any plans for another Burns related one?

In the next few years I plan on doing more of these historical paintings as its a genre I feel passionate about and I think that painting is too important to be cooped up in a gallery. At the start of next year I’m planning on doing a painting for the ‘Radical Road’ pub in Edinburgh about the 1820 weavers revolution. Beyond that the world and history is my playground. I’d like to visit different historical literature and breath new life into them, ideally working in the private sector to help invigorate hotels, pubs, shops and restaurants and help make them exciting places to visit. I think that this kind of work can make all the difference in a world where bland becomes normal. I’d like to do some more work from Burns and ideally there’ll be more Burns imagery in the Tam O’ Shanter restaurant when it eventually opens. It’s good to have a walk before I start.

I’d also like to do more public painting, I plan on working live in a shop unit in the Edinburgh festival next year and producing a work from scratch. I think that magic can be re injected into painting if I leave my ego at the door and let people see me tearing my hair out. That’s why I make stop motion videos of my artwork in production too, its good to be accessible.

Check out my vimeo videos if you want to see the process unfolding.

Tam O Shanter Stop Motion from Chris Rutterford on Vimeo.

Drouthy Cronies article from Chris Rutterford on Vimeo.