‘Drawn to Print’: David Fairbairn

From top:
David Fairbairn, Head of J.L. No 1, 2017, acrylic gouache, pastel, charcoal, ink on paper, 130×120 cm
David Fairbairn at the Wedderburn studio installation working on Large Head S.A. No1, copper etching 121×106 cm
David Fairbairn, Portrait of G.E No3, 2015, acrylic gouache monotype charcoal on paper, 76×56 cm

David Fairbairn tells Megan Hanrahan about his ambitious touring exhibition, Drawn to Print.

David Fairbairn is well known for his large scale portraiture, which are often brought to life with a mixture of techniques and mediums including pastel, paint, ink and charcoal. He warmly speaks about his works as often being “hybrids,” but his new exhibition Drawn to Print emphasises the distinctive appearance of his work through large scale etchings. “I work a lot with line and the linear process. I like my portraits to have an open structure, like a house that has yet to be clad,” Fairbairn said when describing the feel of his work. His linear style of portraiture allows the space between the lines to create a contour, giving expression and depth to the sitter.

The decision to create an exhibition such as Drawn to Print came from a desire to both revisit the work created with previous sitters and explore an ongoing relationship, as well as being intrigued about the way the portraits would transform into print. “As we always need to stay interested, I needed to do something different for a while,” Fairbairn said. Drawing is still incorporated through out the lines he creates on the copper sheets. Using a mirror when he draws onto the plate offers a glimpse at what the final portrait will look like, and once it is printed, he continues to expand and develop, strengthening the image, and enjoying the balance and interaction of the relationship between the “etched mark, and the dry point mark” on the page. “I try to maintain curiosity, and I like how [in printmaking] the mark you’re making goes through a transformative stage with the acid. I use copper with ferric chloride for slow controllability, and you can [achieve] a solid, clean line.”

Fairbairn speaks of his relationship with his craft as a dual relationship. He gives his art time and patience, and in return he is gifted with an intriguing practice that continues to draw his curiosity. “I prefer to work slowly and meditatively, and once the work has been drawn and I have started the etching process, I love the ritual…etching provides a different resonance with the image. It is very direct and very pure.”

Looking at his images, the eye of the viewer is swept up amongst the lines and the complex contours of Fairbairn’s portraiture. The intricate etchings pull you along into a beautiful journey through the face and personalities of each of the sitters. “I like them to be interesting to draw, with characteristics and qualities,” commented Fairbairn on the individuals he seeks to become the subjects of his portraiture. Mostly, he looks for “visually compelling people.” Over the time spent with them, he accumulates “a body of work, not just one drawing. I really want to nail the resonance of the person, and that is a hard thing – to capture someone’s essence, and ultimately knowing intuitively that I can see them coming off the page.”

Trying to encapsulate a person’s energy on the page can take anywhere from 12 to 16 months, resulting in a body of work rather than just one portrait. The portraits come to life through a slow ritual of talking and developing trust. Not only does Fairbairn preserve the person on paper, he also records an oral history for each to accompany their portrait. Drawn to Print is a culmination of these moments of intimacy, presented in a moving and beautiful exhibition.

Drawn to Print is at:

Tweed Regional Gallery & Magaret Olley Art Centre  (21 April to 18 June)

Lake Macquarie City Art Gallery (20 October to 3 December)

Orange Regional Gallery (17 February to 1 April 2018)

Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery (13 July to 8 September 2018)