ARTIST Chris Rutterford has happy memories of bringing in the New Year with crowds of fellow Edinburghers outside the Tron Kirk.
Princes Street may have since taken over as the focus of the turn-of-the-year celebrations with the massive street party and famous bands on stage, but for Chris, the Tron will always come first.
So when the Grade A-listed former church on the Royal Mile was in use as a venue for the Free Fringe this summer, Chris thought it was too good an opportunity to miss.
He set about an ambitious project to recreate the Hogmanay crowds in a massive mural.
Armed with his paintbrushes and an iPad, he set up inside the Tron, and began work on what will eventually be an 84ft image of Capital crowds in celebration.
He invited people enjoying a drink at the bar to have their picture taken with the iPad and then proceeded to paint them into the crowd scene on 4ft wide boards.
“I just rocked up with 13 boards under my arm, set up and started working.”
He spent up to 14 hours a day in the Tron, capturing the joie de vivre of visitors and residents who agreed to be in the picture.
“You can’t ask people to sit for 40 minutes while you paint them, so I have my iPad and take their photos, then paint them in later.
“People were coming back for six or seven days to see if they were in it yet.”
He took people as they came and felt no pressure to organise subjects in advance.
“I knew the project was engaging enough and I had long enough – it was a month and I was there from 10am to 2am.”
But he doesn’t complain about the long days. “Omnipresence is part of the fun of it,” he says.
“I just sat on my scaffolding and painted people. I told them: ‘Don’t look at the camera – you’re at an awesome party, having a great time’. I let them choose the picture they liked best. It’s letting people take control of their own image.”
Chris’ paintings, using real people as models for his crowds, have been described as Edinburgh’s answer to illustrations in children’s books Where’s Wally?
“I’m making recognisable portraits,” he says. “I’ve got entire hen parties, families, jazz bands – all sorts.”
It’s a technique he is now well practised in. Last December, he spent two weeks in a window at John Lewis, decked out in his trademark red top hat and a green boiler suit, painting a 21ft Christmas card to Edinburgh.
“I sent them a cheeky e-mail saying ‘your window is too important for you not to use it properly’,” he recalls.
The store agreed to give him the space to compose his artwork in public – and intrigued passers-by stopped to watch.
The card was a picture of Santa rounding the Scott Monument covered in fairy lights.
He created a crowd of 200-300 people gazing up at Santa by popping upstairs to the store’s cafe and asking customers if they would like to feature in his painting.
“I went up to the cafe and painted people from there. It was their busiest day of trading when I was there because everyone was coming back to see if I had painted them in yet.”
Chris, 40, lives in Comiston with wife Fiona and children Red, nine, and Riley, six – who make regular appearances in their dad’s paintings.
He grew up in Edinburgh and went to George Watson’s, then studied graphics in Carlisle and did an illustration degree at Leeds Metropolitan University before becoming a magazine illustrator for seven years.
He worked in London for a while, but moved back to Edinburgh about a decade ago.
He has specialised in epic murals. His Jacobite Stramash was the first for which he enlisted volunteers as models. The painting shows Bonnie Prince Charlie entering Edinburgh with his Jacobite army in 1745.
He got visitors to the gallery where he has his studio to pose for the painting. “I had a big crowd scene and I got people in wigs and fancy dress and painted them all in.”
He also used real people for his 68ft epic mural depicting Robert Burns’ tale of Tam O’Shanter – one of the bard’s longest poems, about a man who stays too long at a pub and experiences a disturbing vision of witches and warlocks at a haunted kirk as he rides home on his horse. Entitled Drouthie Cronies, it was unveiled at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum and is destined to be installed in a bar in Glasgow.
He is currently working on a mural of a football crowd at Ibrox at the moment a goal is scored. He says: “I don’t really follow Scottish football at all, but I was in Paris when Scotland beat France and it was just the sheer joy of a goal. I’m trying to capture that feral excitement of a goal being scored.
“I went through to Glasgow to the pub it’s been commissioned for and managed to persuade all 40 or 50 of the locals out into the street and jumping up and down outside and cheering at a lamppost. People driving past wondered what was going on.”
Chris believes his “live art” brings something extra to his paintings –and to the way other people appreciate them. “The presentation of art in galleries is a bit like a morgue – where paintings go to die.
“When Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel it was amazing – but if you’d been there when he was doing it would have been even better.”
He also makes time-lapse videos of himself at work. “It provides a theatrical element,” he says. “And it puts a pressure on me, like live eyes watching me – it makes me feel there is a director biting at my heels and it makes me get on with it.”
The speeded-up images convey the exuberance of his projects and also allow people to enjoy the full experience of the artwork. He has a commission for next year to do a 260ft mural in Mayfield, near Dalkeith, working with the community to portray the area’s history but using current residents.
Edinburgh arts organiser and historian Stewart Wilson says everyone who saw Chris at work in the Tron was impressed. “He is a very positive artist, very capable and extremely disciplined. It’s almost like Michelangelo – that kind of work is very time-consuming and takes a lot of concentration.
“He captured the history of the city and its people. And he will tweak away at it and it will get better and better. It’s an iconic piece.”
Next week, Chris will be working on his Tron mural again – not in the Royal Mile, but in his studio as part of an open week. “I’ve filled the wall the length of the Tron, so I’m adding eight more boards – at moment its 52ft, but it will be 84ft.”
He would like the mural to find a permanent home inside the Tron. That has not been settled yet, but he remains committed to the project.
“For me it is a vision of a retro new year – a love letter to the old Hogmanay when it was just a bit more wild than it is now.”
n The Tron mural will be on display at Chris’ studio at St Margaret’s House, 151 London Road, as part of Open Studios week from Saturday until October 20, 10am-6pm.
Designed by master mason
THE Tron Kirk was built between 1636 and 1647 to a design by John Mylne, Royal master mason, inspired by Dutch architecture.
The width of the building was reduced when both side aisles were removed in 1785 to accommodate South Bridge and Blair Street. In 1828, a new spire was built to replace the original,which was destroyed in a fire in 1824.
The Tron closed as a church in 1952 when the congregation moved to Moredun.
The building was acquired by the city council but left unused. Excavations in the 1970s revealed foundations of 16th-century buildings in a long-vanished close named Marlin’s Wynd.
The Tron was the focus of Hogmanay celebrations until the early 1990s.
Earlier this year, Edinburgh World Heritage was given the go-ahead to turn it into a visitor centre.
Work will not start for two years, but city chiefs say it will give the building a new lease of life.