Cymbals, Symbols and the Hidden Details: An Interview with Chris Rivers

“I beat the canvas to death when I’m painting, I paint like I play drums!  All my work lately has a common theme of big abstract style backgrounds with small details that tell a story”.

Colours blending into movement across the canvas to create a background that is alive with bold and dramatic hues, subtle details, so small, they are hidden within the piece creating a flowing narrative. Tiny skeletons walk across the painting, dancing, flying, almost like you’re  looking into the world of ants, always busy constructing, everything ordered and in sync.

Chris Rivers Nuttall, a self-taught artist from Manchester in the UK, doesn’t hold back when he lays the foundation for his pieces. His passion for playing drums reflects in the way he uses his brush to create surreal and seamless backgrounds to his large pieces. Observing his paintings you can radically disconnect from reality, I find something almost romantic in the pieces, something lyrical and revealing about the darker sides that lay hidden in our world. Chris’ work is refreshing; it’s unexpected and visually stimulating. I recently caught up with Chris to chat about his music, his early beginnings and what lies in the future for this devoted and compelling artist.

You can follow Chris and his work here: Web | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

Chris, thanks for answering some questions for us today! I guess we need to start at the beginning, with your first passion, drums! Can you tell us a little bit about your roots as a musician and your band Heavens Basement for those that may not be aware of your other life!

Thanks a lot! Yeah, so basically for around 10 years I was a professional drummer, a founding member of Heavens Basement. We were a hard rock band, classic influences with a modern edge. I could write a book on the whole thing to be honest, but in a nutshell, we had a record deal with Red Bull Records,  toured the world and shared the stage with some huge bands  (Aerosmith, Black Sabbath, Asking Alexandria, Papa Roach, Rammstein to name a few). It was a great time, especially the first few years when we had very little responsibility. It’s quite a weird life being in a touring band, you live in a bubble, I don’t think I knew what day it was most of the time.

I look back on that time with nothing but good memories; I ticked all of the boxes I always dreamt of as a kid. I never really imagined doing anything else as it was everything I knew since leaving school. Musicians are some of the most resilient and driven people you could ever meet. In our day Heavens Basement were untouchable in terms of energy on stage. The music business is tough though, haha, even if you’re a great band, you need so many planets to align its ridiculous!

When did you first discover you had a passion and talent for painting? And at what point did you decide to build a career as an artist?

Actually, when I was touring, I remember specifically, we were on a 4 month US and Canadian tour opening for The Pretty Reckless, some of the drives between shows would average 8-10 hours. I just wanted to do something to kill some time and I guess act as a distraction to the chaos and insanity of being in a full on touring band.  I started drawing simple sketches with sharpie pens on my used drumheads and selling them on the band merch stand after shows.

I started becoming more and more interested in art, I remember specifically we had some days off in Chicago and found the local art store and purchased some materials then spend my day painting in the hotel room. 2016 was the year everything changed for me though, I had a lot of time off at home during a line up change with the band, which is when I really started getting more interested in my painting, I also found out I was going to be a dad and the thought of being away touring for 8 months of the year just wasn’t something I wanted to do anymore. There’s not a chance I would miss my girls growing up as I knew it would be something I’d regret. Also by this point Heaven’s Basement was in a weird place so it quite clear that it was time to move on.

Painting came at the right time because for years I always had a fear of not knowing what I would do or where I would belong if music didn’t work out. I think the hardest thing was actually making the leap, even though I knew in my heart the band was over for me, once it was done though it was actually fine and as much as the band meant to me it was surprisingly liberating because I knew moving forward my destiny was completely in my own hands. It was also the first time that it became important to earn an actual living! (Musicians don’t make any money by the way, haha)

I took some part time bar work but I painted everyday and saw quite a rapid improvement in my painting ability and its just continued from there, really in a very organic way. I’m now at the stage where its become my full time profession, which I’m really pleased about. I also say if I can get through life being my own boss, then I’m happy. I don’t work well in the real world at all! haha.

So you are currently living in the UK, what is a typical day for you like? I know you have 2 beautiful girls and also have the role of dad, does this change how you view the world and what you create in the studio?

Every week is different depending on my wife Jen’s work patterns but I’ve been working as a full time artist for about 18 months now. I’ve got a great studio space which is only 5 minutes away from where I live. I tend to work in there at least 5 days a week if I can. In terms of how my views of the world have changed, I think it has, yes; a few years ago I could barely look after myself! ha. I’m more aware of what’s going on around us but the basic aspects of my painting style haven’t changed but painting is a constant process of evolution. My girls often feature in my paintings though!

The biggest thing that changes being an artist parent is learning to make the most of the time you get in the studio, some days its flowing but I’m learning to accept that you some days it just doesn’t happen in the studio, you can’t always just turn it on, so when that’s the case it’s best to go home for the day!  The most important thing I try to keep in mind with my work time is to dedicate as much of that as possible to actual painting time, it sounds really stupid but being  self employed I have to take care of every aspect of what I do, so that means spending a few hours a day online too.

You said in a recent interview that you didn’t know how to class your style of art. You referred to it as “alternative art”. You style is very loose, with these fine detailed narratives embedded into the scene, it beautiful to view, what do you hope people experience from your works?

Yes, alternative art seemed like a title that made sense to me! ‘Artist’ is such a board term and I don’t like the term ‘fine art’, it sounds a bit elitist and posh to me, haha and I’m neither of those things, haha.  Also, there’s not much ‘fine’ in my painting process, I beat the canvas to death when I’m painting, I paint like I play drums!  All my work lately has a common theme of big abstract style backgrounds with small details that tell a story. The constant theme throughout my works is innocence contrasted with something darker in a subtle way. I like that idea that not everything is always what it seems on first look, a lot of my work tells one story from a certain distance but then another story when you get closer. My actual painting style has become a lot looser recently. I think that’s mainly due to just knowing more about what works for me and being decisive with every brush stroke. I learned what colours work for me and how they mix together. I like to try and use as few brush stokes as possible. I like paintings to look like paintings, not super smooth and perfect.  Leave it loose and rough around the edges.

Is there a symbolism in the tiny skull fairy’s that often feature in your pieces?

Those represent the idea that not everything is always what it might first seem on first look. From a few feet away you don’t see what they are on my paintings, they look like part of the flowers but it’s when you get closer you see them for what they are. You could look at it in a way that no matter how pretty or innocent something might seem, it might have a darker side that you don’t see at first. I also like to leave things open to interpretation and the main thing is I want to produce nice looking works of art that people want to hang on their walls. I love colour.

You often work in a ‘Series’, where does the inspiration come from for each new idea?

I think inspiration is just about keeping your eyes open around you and pursuing ideas! I reference a lot to things I’ve always had an interest in or things that are personal to me. Children feature a lot in my work, which is usually a representation of my girls, and then it becomes a case of finding a narrative, which I can turn into a painting. Other big inspirations for my work come from Nature, Space, Industry and History.  Decay is another theme in a lot of my work. Using all these there’s endless possibilities that can be turned into paintings.

Is there anything you have yet to try that you would like to explore in the future?

Yeah, I’m sure I’ll come across other things but I’m not forcing anything really. When I first got into painting, I was trying all sorts of mediums, oil, charcoal, ink etc etc…I’ve focused down to just oils now so that’s all I really see myself doing moving forward. The biggest challenge is always finding inspiration for new ideas. Anyone who looks any my work will see a variety of styles and subjects, a lot of artists just stick to one thing, I’m not sure if this is a good thing or bad thing for me but the most important thing is to paint what I’m passionate about. One day it might be a painting like my ‘Pluto with love’ series which features two children who live on Pluto greeting a spaceman visiting from Earth, the next day it might be an abstract work! Maybe its a bad thing, I don’t know but I’m not one for sticking to the rule book.

What advice would you give another artist that may be starting out, perhaps even someone that might be looking for a change in career as you have?

It depends what your goals are, I guess. When I was in the music business there was a term ‘bedroom player’, basically meaning someone who’s amazing at their instrument, plays for fun but never really has an interest in pursuing it to go any further. Or there’s the option of wanting to do to it to a higher level. Either option is absolutely fine by the way, it depends what type of person you are and what your goals are! If you want to just paint for fun that’s great, but for me this started as a hobby then rapidly turned into an obsession. I’m not expert but I think if you want to take the latter route you need to be happy to take a risk, any artists path is a maze that you have to get through. Nobody ever comes to you and say’s “Congratulations, you’re now a professional artist.” You need to make the commitment yourself and be happy to take the risk. Luckily for me, I’ve never really had a regular job or career, so I don’t know any different. I went from one totally unreliable artist career into another.  If you’ve got a steady career and a salary then I can imagine it’s tough to make that change, so it’s all dependant on someone’s personal circumstances, I guess. Also, I’ve no doubt at all that’s there’s incredible artists out there who have careers that work in harmony alongside their artist life. I can only talk from my experiences.

In terms of the actual art, all you can ever do is do what you enjoy. Stay away from trends, they come and go, and if you’re never in fashion then you’re never out of fashion.

Do you have a personal favourite from your works? Could you tell us a little about the piece and what it is about it that you love?

I really like some of my recent paintings such as ‘Legends in Higher places’, ‘Fragile Life’ and ‘Last Rites’, it’s the colour palettes of them that do it for me. I love the endless possibilities with how different colours mix. Also, I’ve got a soft spot for this series I painted called ‘The Beekeepers’ is basically a representation of my girls facing a big abstract industrial landscape. The paintings are based on the idea of going forward together into an unknown future, the bees represent the fragile future which is true to them, they also relate to Manchester my home city which also happens to have a big industrial history. I love the space themed stuff I do too, that’s something I want to come back to, if I can, in a more abstract style.

What’s on the horizon for you over the coming year?

I’m currently building up works for Manchester Art Fair in October and the Asia Contemporary Art Fair in Hong Kong this September/October. There’s a few more things on the horizon, including some opportunities in the U.S and hopefully more in the Far East.



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