One of my 2021 resolutions is to “draw more.” It’s been an interesting exercise trying to get back into the habit of my alleged favorite thing to do. I’ll stall and look at my phone and my favorite scrolling-for-escapism lately is in-progress sketchbook posts. No surprise, I LOVE the work of artist/illustrator Chris Gambrell; his are the dream sketches one aspires to, prolific, loose, effortless planes of color rendering the most gorgeous portraits. Recently chosen by Vogue to be one of seven artists to draw their favorite couture looks from Vogue’s runway archive, Chris Gambrell’s work bridges finished and unfinished, combining shape and texture to create images that emerge, as if in relief, from the paper. This is the interview to read for those of us who need a push to keep going, be less precious with sketching, and very specific advice on how to get unstuck.
Berry from Trial by Inspiration: How did you get started as an illustrator?
Chris Gambrell @gambrell_: I started out doing what I do out of the traps from my degree course in illustration. I was offered quite a big commission by the mayor-to-be of Bristol, based on the final show, illustrating the brand for a large section of a repurposed tobacco factory in a fashionable part of the city. It was all I needed to give me a taste of what might be out there. My work quite quickly turned back from a narrative approach, encouraged by the course, to something more figurative, referencing my days of studying sculpture. I have always been obsessed with rendering the figure in space, its transformation, the shape it occupies, and the negative space it doesn’t. From that point, drawing fashion seemed like the perfect way of marrying form, texture, and movement.
TBI: Voir Fashion and Patternbank both characterized your style (in their glowing reviews) as having an “unfinished” look. I’ve also read that you advocate prolific sketchbooks- Can you discuss the difference between your completed work and your sketches/sketchbooks?
CG: The unfinished look is the point at which I am happy for people to “fill in the rest” for themselves. I think of it as the “short novel,” it’s what you as a viewer complete with your own map of reference that brings it closer to meaning something to you. You mix my colours with yours and come up with something new. The question of when, my exit point and the viewer’s entry point, is different with every piece, and something which I anguish over.
Sketchbooks are for the playground, the jamming sessions, the warmup, and trails where I produce and play on my terms, escaping judgment, harvesting shapes, textures, and interplays that would never have happened had I been forced to show the work to the viewer. If I had it my way, everything would come from the sketchbook, it’s where the raw experimentation takes place, that static between what you know and what you don’t. I would recommend sketchbooks, or something which serves the same purpose, to any artist. I’m not sure how people are able to produce work without it.
TBI: Most of your published work is portraiture or fashion, do you approach the two differently? Do they have different objectives?
CG: I don’t know if there is a different approach to portraiture and figurative work for me, I think it all revolves around the relationships of shapes to one another. I often think about where the eye lands and subsequently travels around the image. I will hold open larger, flat, abstract shapes to catch the eye and then funnel that journey down through and around detail.
TBI: I’ve been doing some Zoom figure drawing recently, and it’s been equal parts stimulating to have a live model and frustrating establishing the spatial details remotely. Do you prefer working from life or photos?
CB: Aha! Yes, I can understand that, I imagine a similar frustration. Whenever I have worked from posed models, I have felt enormous pressure to get things “right”. I produced some work that I am proud of but never explored as fully as I should have, I think because there was pressure to present results after. The most productive way of drawing from life is when people aren’t aware that they are being drawn. There’s no pressure, no expectation, and for me, it produces the most honest transfer from 3D to 2D. I often draw people from a distance and semi-improvise, I draw people on the streets moving quickly, I take a snapshot and don’t look back for more detail – because everything has changed. If I draw these instances hundreds of times, I find, or hope to find, a more natural fluency for interpreting form, more like image-based notetaking.
TBI: You have a very recognizable style, but your mediums and executions are so varied, does the subject drive the materials, or is it more organic? Also-
how do you handle commissions? Do you dictate the finished look, or do people request a particular style?
CG: This is a really interesting question. I think it is generally the subject which drives the style, and the subject determines the brief and its parameters.
As for commissions, it has become easier for people to know what they are going to see at the end, as they can see many examples through Instagram of work already produced. I always ask people- “which pieces suggested that I might be the person for the job?” Based on this, I set about the commission. With a framework of a couple of rounds of feedback from the client, we work toward a successful final piece, which is in all senses – negotiated, the client plays a huge part in determining this.
TBI: Regarding your many materials, do you have any current favorites or tools/papers you return to?
CG: Ha! So, I swing through many different materials, I take materials through testing to see what they are capable of. This is usually based on looking back at previous work or being influenced by the work of others. Soft pastels are a firm “home territory,” with acrylics, oil pastels, and aquarelle being regular go-to mediums.
TBI: How does marketing your work play into your process? I noticed you don’t have a website, but an Instagram and galleries instead.
CG: I think Instagram lends itself entirely to the pace at which I produce work. When I had websites before, it always took too long to update them. I would be more taken up by making the work rather than worrying about how to display them on the site, and it would always fall behind. I never find that with Instagram, the regularity of the format means I don’t have to worry about it. It seems to fit with the function of it being sketchbook highlights. I always love looking at other people’s works in progress, I think people find it interesting in the same way.
TBI: Do you have any tips on how to get unstuck creatively, when you can’t find your muse?
CG: It doesn’t always work, and sometimes when you are stuck, you are stuck, and a good night’s sleep or a break is what you need – but some of the things I have tried have been to change something, or everything. Change your subject, your medium, the speed at which you make work, the location of where you make it, draw something 10 or 15 times – until it becomes interesting (in the way your signature mutates over time), limit your colours, or change your music.
TBI: In your work, are you more rewarded by your creative process or the end product?
CG: I would say a bit of both, but I could not live without making work, I went 12 years without producing much more than a few drawings, and it began to eat away at me, then it came calling, and I felt an unerring compulsion to return, and from that point, balance was restored.
TBI: What are you currently working on?
CG: Lots of things! Different things every day. I am looking at partnering with some people to produce some teaching sessions, so do check the account for info.
Thank you Chris for your insights into your process, and motivating me to open my sketchbook and start experimenting again!