“EVERY stroke you make on the paper when things are going well, more and more the likeness comes through and that’s a brilliant feeling, closing in. I’ve got to hold myself back sometimes, so I don’t rush it. Equally, sometimes you’re on the other side of that knife edge where a stroke could be that one that leads you to lose the likeness. It’s about trying to get off that knife edge as soon as possible.” 

Art, as in boxing, is a game of fine margins. Hours, days, months, spent working on your end product can be decimated, ruined by a slip or a lapse in concentration. For Bournemouth artist, Chris Small, the consequences of potential mistakes are less physically traumatic – but equally damaging to his brand and to his new-found confidence. This is all fresh for Small, a man who’d never taken his creative urges seriously, and though he’s learning on the job, he admits his own ‘voice’ and artistic process remain hugely important to him.  

“I’m kind of a ‘one shot, one goal’ kinda guy. There’s not much drafting or sketching out beforehand; I’m all or nothing, really,” admits the husband and father from the South Coast. “Number one: I’m focusing on getting the likenesses right because predominantly I do portrait work. So, when the individual in the picture looks at it they say, ‘That’s me.’ But I have a style, I have a way of drawing and a way of creating my art, and I have to stay true to that, as well. I like to spend a bit of time with whoever is commissioning me to understand what they want to achieve and also for them to understand the likely product.” 

The chances are, if you’ve engaged with boxing-related content in any way via social media, you’ve stumbled upon some of Small’s work. Those smoky, shaded grey pencil sketches he’s become synonymous with, capturing jagged cheekbones, chiselled biceps, poses of both despair and jubilation, and amplifying the fighter’s piercing, constant eyes.  

Small has worked his way up the right way, reaching out to fighters with humility, showing appreciation for every inch of praise or recognition he receives. Just four years ago, his only experience with sketching had been little drawings for his daughter or his niece and nephew, maybe the odd frame of a classic film, if it piqued his interest. So, why boxing? And how has something that started as a hobby to separate himself from a demanding job actually become his full-time job? 

“I picked up a pencil [when] I watched a TV program about art and I saw a person using a particular technique. I thought, ‘I can’t understand why they’re doing that but it might be interesting to try it and get some perspective.’ Pretty much when I joined Twitter, that’s when I picked up a pencil (April 2019.) The job I had when I started drawing, I was the director of a local charity where I live. I still keep my hand in with that now, even though I left that job and turned professional with the art work, I spend a couple of weeks working for a local organisation that supports charities across Dorset.

“That charity supports everything from domestic abuse to substance issues, homelessness, addiction, you name it. I had to arrange accommodation and stuff like that, to help people move on. We helped people find hobbies that could potentially turn into careers and help them move on… And I guess, weirdly, I ended up finding a hobby that helped me turn it into a career. 

“I saw Chris Billam-Smith live on TV winning the Commonwealth belt,” Small, 39, continued. “I liked boxing and was looking for something to combine my time drawing stuff with something I liked. I reached out, he was very kind, he got back to me within a day, and within a week he was round the house with the belts and we got to work. I suppose, I just wanted to try something a bit different, and I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll give that a bit of a go and see if I’ve got any skill.’ When it started out, it was like, ‘This is never gonna be a career. I’ll just meet a few boxers, nice people, but it’s not gonna be a job.’ Then some people were quite keen to have some of my work and that was lovely – okay, it’s a bit of a side hustle. That’s fine, but we’ve got bills to pay… Then, it kept evolving through that.” 

Chris Billam-Smith with his portrait

At time of writing, Chris Small has been approached and commissioned by fight figures including Andre Ward and Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez, and is slated to draw each entrant from this year’s British Boxing Hall of Fame. He tells Boxing News that at least 14 former or current world champions now own portions of his unique offering. Some commissioned, some gifted, some bought after the fact. All greatly received. Small was delighted to work with Chris Billam-Smith again last week, before the cruiserweight headlined in their home town. It’s all come full circle for both men, you could say.  

When asked what the future holds, Small was appreciative of boxing’s support, as ever: “It’s weird because the end goal was never to be a professional artist. Even being here is unreal, really. The conversations I had with my wife were basically: life’s too short. We’ve had relatives that couldn’t make it to a certain time, so do you know what, if you find something you enjoy and you can make it work, and if you’re not naïve enough to throw it all in without covering your bases, then why not roll the dice? My wife, she’d say she has a sous chef in the kitchen now chopping the veg from five till six instead of driving home in his car from Southampton. It’s been wonderful for us having more time together away from work; she is my number one promoter in that regard.”