Wildlife artist - Chris Shields from Sale’s delicate precision

Chris Shields

Chris Shields - Credit: Archant

One of the country’s very few full-time wildlife illustrators, the job of Chris Shields, from Sale, is to capture nature on the page

Details from Chris Shields' mural for the Northern Belle carriage

Details from Chris Shields' mural for the Northern Belle carriage - Credit: not Archant

How does an artist tackle a commission to paint a cowpat?

Vole - Bank (Myodes glareolus)

Vole - Bank (Myodes glareolus) - Credit: not Archant

‘I went off into the Cheshire countryside, found a field of cows, knocked on the farmer’s door and asked his permission to photograph some cowpats,’ explains Chris Shields, who was indeed given this tricky commission for an RSPB publication. ‘He thought I was a total fruitcake.’

Another job entailed Chris providing illustrations for a book helping people to identify tracks and signs left behind by birds – skulls, feathers and the like.

‘I got a parcel from the publishers at one point full of goose droppings,’ he muses.

Most of Chris’s subjects are more easy on the eye, and nose, however. He’s become a specialist in painting birds and insects, but pretty much all of nature, plant or animal, has come under his brush.

‘It’s hard to think of stuff I’ve not illustrated over the years,’ says Chris, aged 59, from Sale. ‘I’ve produced well in excess of 30,000 illustrations.’

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Not that he spends all his time closeted in his studio. He has been practising the Chinese martial art of Wing Chun for 20 years, and is so keen on Argentine Tango that he has been teaching the dance for ten years.

Perhaps his biggest-ever commission was the Collins Fungi Guide – the most comprehensive handbook of the nation’s mushrooms and toadstools - published last year. It featured 2,227 of the 16,000 varieties of fungi in Britain and Ireland, and Chris provided three quarters of the illustrations – four years’ work. His research entailed gathering photographs, field trips to Kew Gardens in London and joining a local fungus society to seek out his subjects. Some of the fungi were so little known that he had no photograph, specimen or previous drawing to work from, relying instead on written descriptions.

Chris’s work is in a tradition which stretches back to the likes of Audubon, whose colour paintings of The Birds of America in the first half of the 19th century were as much art as science. But in the age of digital photography, do we still need someone to capture nature with watercolours and brush?

‘In some cases, publishers do use photographs, but, particularly for a field guide, you get far more clarity from an illustration than a photograph,’ says Chris.

In his home studio, a pine cone and a bird’s head – subject matter for an illustration – lie in a plastic tray. Peering down from a shelf behind his workbench are three stuffed birds – a pintail duck, a buzzard and a tawny owl – which serve as reference material. The shelves groan with volumes about wildlife.

Chris excelled in art as a pupil at Sale Moor Secondary, but says: ‘Everbody around me said “You can’t have a career in art”, so I was destined to go to catering college.’

Then came a chance meeting at a school open day between Chris’s parents and his art teacher Paddy Jordan – a friend to this day – who, when he heard about Chris going to catering college, ‘went ballistic with my parents and said it would be a crying waste of my talent’.

So he went to Northwich College of Art and Design, he and a friend earning pocket money by going door-to-door selling their own oil paintings of landscapes, sunsets, ‘chocolate boxy stuff’. After ten years as an artist with advertising companies in Manchester and Altrincham, Chris left to become a wildlife illustrator for hire.

That has led to a wide range of commissions over the last 30 years. One person recently gave him a brief which Chris thought at first was a joke.

‘He wanted a painting of a badger wearing pyjamas, lying in a hospital bed, with a malevolent cow looking through the window,’ he says. The painting – a commentary on bovine tuberculosis and the badger cull - hangs on a wall somewhere in Britain.

Lately, he has painted nature scenes on the ceiling of a new carriage of the luxurious Northern Belle train – a job which took six weeks. Another eight carriages – one a year – await his attentions.

Often a single piece of work means Chris is hunched over a drawing board using a tiny brush and even magnifying glasses for days, even weeks at a time. Mistakes can be not so much costly as soul-destroying. He recalls once completing a month’s work on a metre-wide poster, then taking a ruler to measure it, not realising the ruler had earlier been placed on a palette of green paint. He managed to repair the damage that time.

With another work, which had taken around four days, he was not so lucky. The culprit was a jar full of water used to clean brushes...and his mother.

‘She came into my studio, picked up this jar to look at it and tipped the entire contents over a newly-finished illustration,’ says Chris. ‘It was the first time I ever swore at my mother.’

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