The early sixties were a fraught time for Gillies, balancing his own painting career with his position as Principal of the Edinburgh College of Art his sister dying in 1960 and then his mother in 1963. However, after his retirement in 1966, his painting took on a new lease of life.
In 1965, an exhibition of Giorgio Morandi was held at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. His work was of great influence to Gillies, as it was to a number of artists in Scotland at that time. Another painter who Gillies admired was Massimo Campigli (1895-1971) whose fresco like handling Gillies emulates in the chalk-like application of paint, or as T. Elder Dickson put it, 'quaint Etrusan colour with almost miserly discretion lest he should defile the delicate image he is attempting to project'.
Gillies had always been enthusiastic about still life from college days and as his painting career progressed he strove towards a greater abstraction, 'In still life I felt able to go into almost pure abstraction; in landscape there is a limit beyond which content vanishes completely.'