Chris Brown is pioneering a new style in illustration. ‘It’s called “Cutism”,’ he says, smiling wryly. He pulls out books, brochures and proofs filled with his miniature linocuts and pen drawings – moustachioed gentlemen, beetle-riding knights, dancing pigeons and cats in mufflers. It’s hard not to be charmed – in Brown’s world, small is undeniably beautiful.
His home is lined with pictures. Bronze sculptures by his partner, artist David Ivie, sit companionably beneath Cuts From Memory, a linocut series by Brown exploring remembered scenes from his childhood. More pictures spill over into the book-lined study where Brown works. On the shelves, illustration books sit alongside volumes of photography, fashion and graphic design. Brown likes to diversify, teaching fashion menswear at Central St Martins College of Art and Design, as well as graphic arts at Liverpool School of Art.
As a student, he didn’t have a burning desire to become an illustrator, leaving Middlesex University with a degree in graphic design, before applying to study illustration at the Royal College of Art. That was back in 1977. Fellow students at the time included Angela Barrett, Chris Corr, Liz Pyle and Carolyn Gowdy. ‘I was in a very strong year. I saw a lot of wonderful work,’ Brown says. ‘I saw myself as a poor relation. They were all much better draughtsmen. But the RCA is definitely where I found my voice as an illustrator.’
It was also where he met artist Edward Bawden. ‘He’s perhaps my biggest influence,’ says Brown. ‘As a child I owned books by him. We immediately hit it off. Until his death we were close friends.’ It was Bawden who encouraged Brown to experiment with linocut. ‘The process of print-making makes my work more exciting,’ says Brown of his chosen medium. ‘I try to do a perfect line, but, of course, the lino doesn’t let me.’
He jokingly refers to himself as ‘old school’, quickly adding, ‘I’ve been so out of fashion that I seem to have come back round again.’ One of the last generations of illustrators trained in the pre-digital age, Brown has noticed a resurgence of interest in traditional, crafts-based work. He’s slowly embracing new technology, using Photoshop to apply colours to lino images in a children’s book he’s developing with writer Tony Mitton. ‘New technology came to me when I wanted it to, rather than me feeling I had to learn to use a computer simply because everyone else was,’ he says. He’s still wary, though. ‘With a lot of computer-generated work, you’re aware of the technique, not the content. But then there are illustrators that use new technology very well. If it’s good, it’s good, whether it’s done using Photoshop or Illustrator, linocut or collage.’
Brown often refers to the playful side of his own work. ‘I like to introduce a bit of humour,’ he says. ‘Hopefully my work is something that amuses and delights.’ His clients include The Financial Times, Penguin Books, Carluccio’s, Faber & Faber, Bloomingdales and The Folio Society. For the latter, he produced a series of witty line illustrations for limited editions of Agatha Christie’s The Complete Miss Marple Short Stories and Hercule Poirot Stories. ‘I was careful not to give away the murder – it’s all about clues in the story,’ he explains. Another project he’s rightly proud of is the book An Anamorphic Alphabet, published by Previous Parrot Press, and beautifully embellished with Brown’s linocuts.
Where possible, Brown prefers a one-to-one relationship with art directors. ‘I find it very hard when given no leeway. I don’t like being brought in to just decorate – I like to be part of the design process,’ he explains. He enjoys working with SAS for this reason, and has been busy of late creating illustrations for its in-house literature, and for clients Marsh & Parsons and Ernst & Young.
Brown has also worked with Brian Webb (co-founder of Trickett & Webb and, latterly, Webb & Webb) since the early 1980s. ‘I’m an admirer of Edward Bawden and Chris’s prints have the same wit, without whimsy, and, most importantly, without being Bawden pastiches,’ Webb says.
Beside commissions, Brown works hard on his personal portfolio. ‘I try to do something for myself every day, even if it’s just a doodle,’ he says. ‘You have to keep going – it’s like exercise or scales on a piano.’ In his gently humorous way, he can’t resist making light of his chosen path. ‘I read copy and I think of silly things to draw,’ he says. ‘More than anything, it’s about making myself smile.’