Capturing the magic: A new book by artist John Gillies, right, showcases his long-time muse, Skippers Canyon


AN artist’s 40-year love affair with Skippers Canyon has led to the gorge being captured in a book of paintings, sketches, anecdotes and history, being released next week. As recounted in the preface of Skippers Canyon — History, Art and Adventure, author and artist John Gillies first came under Skippers’ spell during a road trip while on honeymoon with his wife, Jenny.

The Christchurch-based retired physician has since been a regular visitor to the place he calls his turangawaewae, or spiritual home.

‘‘It’s the most extraordinary part of the country,’’ Gillies says.

‘‘I’ve travelled reasonably well overseas and seen some extraordinary mountain places, but I come back to Skippers. It’s majestic.’’

His paintings capture the canyon during mid-winter when the low sun produces stark contrast between light and shade.

‘‘Winters give you the most beautiful long shadows. There’s magic in the snow and the early-morning light. It’s absolutely electric.’’

Knowing the landscape is inspiration for many artists, and wanting to give his impressions a point of difference, Gillies paints with a palette knife.

‘‘There’s so many fantastic artists capturing this district, I knew I had to offer something different.’’

It’s a technique he adopted early in his career, involving literally layering the oil-based paint on with a trowel.

Once he’s mixed his colours on the palette he takes a large volume of paint and ‘‘works it’’ on to the canvas.

‘‘You want gradations of colour, you can’t have bits and blobs. You’ve got to manipulate it so it’s graded.’’

The works have a muscular, ‘‘almost 3D quality’’ while also depicting fine details.

As well as paintings and sketches of the snow-capped peaks, craggy foothills and valley floors, the canyon’s built form is captured via its many old miners’ huts and farm houses.

The book intersperses his descriptions of the pictures with a potted colonial history of the place and his own travails traversing it.

‘‘I’m hoping people who might pick it up and read it are one, people who have heard about Skippers and are curious about it and two, people who are absolutely ignorant of the history but don’t want to spend hours reading the details.’’ 


John Gillies studied figure drawing under sculptor Tom Taylor at St Andrew's College, Christchurch and developed a special interest in portrait painting as a secondary school student. Later, John pursued a career in medicine, becoming Clinical Director of respiratory medicine for the Canterbury District Health Board, before retiring after open heart surgery in 2006 to become a full time artist and portrait painter .He went on to dabble in landscape paintings, and his first solo exhibition of these works was at Abernethy's Gallery in Dunedin. When he moved to Christchurch in 1980, John became an artist member of the Canterbury Society of Arts and contributed work for exhibitions as an invited guest on a regular basis with Fisher Fine Arts.
He has gone on to win awards with his work including:

  • Highly Commended, Telecom Art Award, 1992
  • Highly Commended, Montana World of Wearable Arts Award, 1998
  • Winner, Creative Excellence Award, NZ Association of Artist Doctors, 2005
  • Section Winner, Montana Wearable Arts Award, 2005
  • Winner, Painting Award NZ Association of Artist Doctors, 2006

His work is held in both corporate and private collections and he has been commissioned for portrait painting by the University of Otago, Princess Margaret Hospital, The Christchurch Clinical School of Medicine, St Andrews College and the Isaac Theatre Royal Trust. His portrait work was accepted in the Biennial Adam Portrait Award and his painting of Col. Bob Upton was selected for the "Double Exposure 3" exhibition in Wellington in 2007.