The setting was certainly not normal. Crouched down in a Scottish field, armed with a pair of scissors and a picture of a penguin. So you might forgive Chris Naylor for thinking the obvious: “I could be the only person on the planet doing this at the moment.”
It all began with a surprise phone call, years ago. Naylor was working as a commercial artist, doing jobs for a PR company, and often had to make huge creations. One time, they commissioned him to make an enormous reproduction of the Mona Lisa on a piece of canvas, that was rolled up and carried around London.
“Because they’d seen me making these big pictures, I got a random phone call one day,” he says. “They asked me if I could make a picture in somebody’s lawn, and I thought: ‘well, you can conceivably make a picture out of anything, can’t you?’. So I pitched up on this woman’s very large garden, somewhere in the home counties, and made this Mona Lisa over the course of a couple of days.” The finished masterpiece ended up in the newspapers and, before he knew it, Naylor had a new profession: lawn artist.
These days, he’s built a reputation for it; travelling across the country to draw pictures in the grass. He’s snipped images of the Queen’s head, the English coat of arms and – most recently – the British Gas mascot, Wilbur the penguin.
With a background in art, rather than gardening, battling nature was a new experience for Naylor when he started. “Beyond mowing my mum’s lawn when I was a teenager, I think the closest I’d ever got to this before was painting people’s gardens,” he says. “It was a new challenge and it was very hard to research lawn art. How do you do it? There’s not much of it out there. So I had to work out how it would work, and what I’d need.”
As a commercial artist, however, there is no room for error. And there’s no time to wait for the grass to grow back again, if it all goes wrong. So Naylor has to get it right, first time. “If you accidentally chop the wrong bit off, you can’t just patch it up again. You can’t start again.”
Planning is key, he says. “Grass is not an ideal artistic medium. It’s not very easy to manipulate. But I worked out quite early on that long grass looks dark and short grass looks light. So you have your two shades and, provided you have a relatively simple image that you want to create, it’s reasonably easy to do it using that contrast. I use a very traditional artistic technique of sizing-up using a grid.”
Each location presents its own set of challenges and tight deadlines can mean long hours perfecting each blade of grass. Naylor says that on one project, he had to work from dawn to dusk. “You learn a lot about nature doing that,” he says. “You learn the hour that the midges come out of the long grass in the morning and start to eat your face. They’re challenges that you don’t really get in any other art disciplines – when nature starts attacking you!”
It isn’t just battling nature and ensuring accuracy that Naylor has to worry about. Doing this on such a big scale also presents its own challenges. His latest penguin picture is the biggest he’s ever done, a whopping 40 by 26 metres. (In fact, it was so big it had to be photographed using a drone).
“Nobody really has a garden that big, with grass they’re happy to sacrifice, so we found two paddocks with very long grass. Because of that, I needed to use power tools. It was such a big image that great swathes of grass had to be cut down quite quickly.” he explains. “The problem with grass is that it dries out very quickly and changes colour.” In the end though, it usually comes down to Naylor and a pair of shears – or even scissors – cutting blade by blade.
Lawn art may be impressive, but the commissions usually only come during the summer. So, for a commercial artist like Naylor, it’s back to the drawing board in the winter, for other work. “The rest of my year, I’m painting or using pens, pencils – normal things.”
He may have cut out a new professional field, but he sees it like any other art project. “When you become a commercial artist, you have to say yes to any challenge. I’ve made pictures out of umbrellas and people dressed in pink bodysuits, forming images from photographs from above. Whatever the commission is, you have to apply yourself to it.”
But as the rain falls over each new artwork, the grass soon grows back and the image is quickly lost. “That’s the annoying thing about nature,” says Naylor.
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