Tag Archives: fine art

Painting The Living Mountain. Artist’s journal. Final part.

(Above: Signing copies of The Living Mountain. Photo Adam Brewster)

Pt 1: Here

Pt 2: Here

Pt 3: Here

Pt 4: Here

Pt 5: Here

This is the final part of my artist’s diary series about creating paintings for The Folio Society’s publication of The Living Mountain, by author Nan Shepherd.

(The Folio Society edition of Nan Shephard’s The Living Mountain illustrated by Rose Strang and introduced by Robert Macfarlane is exclusively available at www.foliosociety.com)

Link to book …

The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd, published by the Folio Society 2021

Pt 6: Dreaming a response

The world of mystery, or the spiritual, is subtly touched on by Nan. With But did I dream that roe? I explored a more mystic experience of Nan’s Living Mountain. This image, and title quote, came from the chapter entitled ‘Sleep’.

A few of my paintings were on rough wood which Adam had cut up after removing some shelves from a kitchen cupboard. The wood was ideal – textured and roughened with age, from the Victorian era when our tenement flat in Edinburgh’s Leith area was built. When painting it I allowed the grainy wood texture to show through. I used oils directly on to wood, with a swathe of solvent diluted Mars black. It has a density in comparison to Lamp Black oil paint and, unlike acrylic black, it dries to a lovely matt surface. Given a day or so to dry, you can scratch through to the wood or surface below which gives a good sharp calligraphic edge to the drawing, similar to line-making in the etching process.

The swathe of black oil paint with a large brush had created three peaks suggesting exaggerated mountain peaks. With the end of a plastic vitamin pill container dipped in white oil paint I created a simple moon. After dripping small droplets of purply lilac onto the black, I suggested the fire-lit smoke of a smouldering fire to the bottom right corner, then etched in the outline of a roe deer. I left it at that, knowing the image should be as simple as possible. I hoped it would say a little about the feeling of the Highlands on a moonlit night. Scotland’s culture is rich with otherworldly stories and myths. The symbology of deer, more often stags, has a central place or role in our mythical past, going far back into pre-history.

Recently I visited Kilmartin Glen, on the west coast of Scotland thirty miles south of the town of Oban. Kilmartin Glen has more pre-historic man-made marks than any other place in Scotland. There are numerous standing stones and remains of ancient burial cairns or ‘cists’ are they’re called. Even more intriguing are the mysterious ‘cup and ring’ marks that date from around five thousand years ago. No one knows what they were for, though there are literally hundreds of theories. Seen in real life, these marks are utterly strange. We sat and gazed on the cup and ring marks at Ormaig for an hour or so. I sprinkled purple flowers into them, poured water into them, photographed them and filmed them. I’d filled them with flowers and water to enhance the patterns and while this did enhance their strange beauty I was of course none the wiser as to their purpose!

kilmartin

Cup and Ring marks at Ormaig, Kilmartin (photo Rose Strang 2021)

Earlier this year about spring 2021, an amateur archaeologist called Hamish Fenton climbed into one of the burial cairns at Dunchraigaig in Kilmartin and shined his torch on to the underside of the slab that covered the cist. He couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw the outline of an antlered deer. While these are still being investigated, it’s believed that these stag drawings, if as old as they’re believed to be, are in fact the earliest known pre-historic drawings in Scotland. Link

Professional archaeologists believe them to be about four to five thousand years old and, while there are other similar depictions of deer, none are as anatomically accurate and detailed as those discovered by Hamish Fenton. Celtic myths describe ordinary people falling asleep then waking in the land of Tír na nÓg – a land of the ever young, inhabited by faeries, or otherworldly folk who can turn into deer at will. The very dreamlike passage of Nan’s hazy memory of seeing  a roe deer while half asleep suggests those myths:

My one October night without a roof was bland as silk, with a late moon rising in the small hours and the mountains fluid as loch water under a silken dawn: a night of the purest witchery, to make one credit all the tales of glamourie that Scotland tries so hard to refute and cannot.

It’s a subject she explores in her works of fiction with subtlety, enchanting the reader with descriptions that can only come from someone immersed in a landscape familiar to her.

The toughest painting of this commission was the final one. I was so moved by the final passages of The Living Mountain where Nan describes the way landscape has been changed by her experience; ‘… everything became good to me’.

I chose that as the title of my last work for the book, though I felt I’d need another year to experiment with ways to depict it. In the end, I took a painting I’d started, which I felt ‘said’ something about the unknown or ungraspable aspects of the mountain and added small details which added to a sense of scale.

I partly had in mind Nan’s description of falling in love with the Cairngorms while on holiday as a girl, which she describes in the final chapter; ‘Being’:

So I have found what I set out to find. I set out on my journey in pure love. it began in childhood, when the stormy violet of a gully on the back of Sgoran Dubh, at which I used to gaze from a shoulder of the Monadhliaths, haunted my dreams. That gully, with its floating, it’s almost tangible ultramarine, thirled me for life to the mountain.

There are two other suggestions of a living creature in the painting that I’ll let viewers discover for themselves – they’re subtle but intentional. Having sent off the series to Sheri Gee, I was none the wiser as to how they perceived the paintings. It’s a strange fact that someone’s response can completely change my feeling about a painting I’ve created. I must be easily influenced sometimes, as there are paintings I’ve created which don’t please me at all, until someone comes along and says ‘I love this!’ On the other hand, there are paintings I’ve created that I think capture the essence of something I’ve struggled with for years – but then those paintings get almost zero reaction!

I knew that the Folio Society couldn’t wax lyrical about the paintings even if they did like them, since they had to be perused and approved of by a panel. As it happened, the panel included Robert MacFarlane, who was to write the introduction to the book (as he has for previous publications of the Living Mountain).

Sheri, who had been wonderfully supportive of the creative process, was kind enough to send me a preview of the part of Robert MacFarlane’s introduction that described his response to my paintings, and I was very touched by his words. In fact to be truthful I was awe-inspired by his capacity to read exactly into the intentions I’d had for several of the paintings; namely and in particular Flowing from granite and I like the unpath best.

Needless to say it was a boost to my artistic confidence about the series, which I’d found a challenge – The Living Mountain being a book for which I had profound respect.

It inspired me to immediately order a copy of Robert’s latest book; Underland. I had some years earlier read The Wild Places, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I also had a beautiful hardback copy of The Lost Spells, written by MacFarlane and illustrated by Jackie Morris’s magical watercolours, which I’d received as a gift from my cousin Christine who knew I’d enjoy Robert’s work as much as she had. Apart from these though, I felt remiss in knowledge of his more recent work.

By this time, the Living Mountain commission had been completed for at least a month. It was now a case of simply waiting for the October publication. I was tackling a new painting commission about the landscape surrounding Sutton Hoo in Suffolk and MacFarlane’s Underland played into my imagination as I attempted to capture the atmosphere of that landscape. The book’s observations on what we choose to bury, and why, played into my understanding of the treasure buried at Sutton Hoo. Or more accurately the beliefs and emotions that may have led them to bury their dead and their belongings in the way they did. Reading Underland, it was also very clear that Robert MacFarlane’s entire approach to life is intensely observed – he’d merely turned his X-ray mind towards my paintings!

It’s a grand thing to get leave to live.

The quote above is from Nan Shepherd’s The Quarry Wood. Geordie, a farmer, and father of the novel’s heroine Martha, remarks after killing a hen; ‘It’s a grand thing to get leave to live’, refering also to the times in which the novel was set – during WW2.

Painting this series was a blessing for me during lockdown, I felt privileged to have a meaningful project to throw myself into when so many others had their lives turned upside down – an experience that left many people demotivated, isolated or depressed, not to mention worried about income. I wondered at times how Nan Shepherd might have dealt with a pandemic. I’m pretty sure she’d have been out in the mountains, checking on folks like ‘Big Mary’, offering help.

The Folio Society kindly sent me several copies of the complete book. Seeing my own paintings in this beautiful publication of The Living Mountain is a moment to savour indeed. From my fascination as a child with the illustrations of Charles Folkyard in The Princes and The Goblin by George MacDonald, to illustrating Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. Both authors grew up up in the countryside of Aberdeenshire, for both authors landscape plays a profoundly meaningful role in their world view.

When I place Flowing from granite side by side next to Folkyard’s illustration of Irene and Curdie in the mountains, I do get the feel of something similar, albeit in very different styles!

Working on these paintings has been wonderful, and I’m grateful to Sheri Gee and all at the Folio Society for choosing my work and presenting it perfectly, to Erlend Clouston for his friendly support and everything I learned about Nan, and to Robert MacFarlane for his insightful words about the paintings; all sincere in their dedication to the legacy and inspiration of Nan Shepherd. It’s an honour to be part of that.

Rose Strang December 2021

Painting The Living Mountain. Artist’s journal. Pt 5

Above – Gesso-ing wood. (Adam Brewster 2021)

Pt 1: Here

Pt 2: Here

Pt 3: Here

Pt 4: Here

Pt 5: Here

Pt 6: Here

This is the fifth part of my artist’s diary series about creating paintings for The Folio Society’s publication of The Living Mountain, by author Nan Shepherd.

(The Folio Society edition of Nan Shephard’s The Living Mountain illustrated by Rose Strang and introduced by Robert Macfarlane is exclusively available at www.foliosociety.com)

Link to book …

The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd, published by the Folio Society 2021

Pt 5: Dreaming a response

Nan_Shepherd_photo

Nan Shepherd.

One of the most compelling descriptions the reader first encounters, in the first chapter of The Living Mountain, is when Nan describes wading into Loch Avon. Like many of her descriptions, it’s utterly arresting – you want to read and re-read the passage to fully imagine what she describes.

In reality, I’d have to be a mountain climber of Nan’s calibre to experience that description. I researched various images of lochs and transparent water, finally resolving to paint a certain view I’d discovered, but altered and with a lot of working and re-working of the surface to add a sense of atmosphere and energy. This became We waded on into the brightness.

1. We waded on into the brightness

‘We waded on into the brightness. The Living Mountain Series’. Acrylic on 30x21cm wood. Rose Strang 2021

I re-read many passages from the book, seeking those which captured my imagination most. There were many descriptions I’d have loved to paint, such as Nan’s description of ‘Big Mary’ in the chapter titled ‘Man’. I’ have painted her in impasto craggy swathes with palette knife I think. Nan’s description of Big Mary’s character echoes the personalities she writes about so evocatively in her prior fiction novels. I had to consider how the paintings would work overall however, and I resolved to focus on what I paint most – an emotional and imaginative response to landscape.

I felt my first attempt – We waded on into the brightness – was almost storybook or illustrative and I wasn’t quite sure if this was what I’d wanted, but I felt a slightly more realist painting might be a good start for readers, followed by slightly more abstracted paintings as the book progressed. My next painting attempt was Flowing from granite and, as mentioned, I wanted this to echo something of the magic in Charles Folkyard’s illustrations from The Princess and the Goblin by Aberdeenshire author George MacDonald.

That image, of Curdie carrying Irene through the flooded mountain valleys, is highly illustrative, romantic and ‘storybook’, yet magical because of MacDonald’s descriptions of the sense of overwhelming water throughout the book.

A Japanese friend of mine, Atzi, once described to me his response to Scottish landscape; ‘Its wateriness is different from anywhere else in the world’ he said, it’s unique – water is everywhere, sometimes slightly scary even’. I was also thinking of Nan’s wonderment as she observes the element of water:

I love its flash and gleam, it’s music, its pliancy and grace, its slap against my body; but I fear its strength… I have seen its birth; and the more I gaze at that sure and unremitting surge of water at the very top of the mountain, the more I am baffled. We make it all so easy, any child in school can understand it – water rises in the hills, it flows and finds its own level, and man can’t live without it. But I don’t understand it. I cannot fathom its power.

I decided to create descending ‘slabs’ in black and burnt sienna acrylic paint as a base. Acrylic dries overnight whereas impasto layers of oil paint can take weeks. Once my ‘rock’ base had dried, I made a solution of solvent and titanium white then allowed it to cascade naturally over my rock slabs. This was an unusual approach for me, I paint a lot of water, in fact it’s the subject I’ve focussed on most over decades of art-making and painting, so I can depict the visual appearance of water convincingly. For this painting though, I wanted the element of liquid itself to do the work.

When I’d finished I felt it ‘had’ something, but as usual I began to fiddle and dab and before long I’d completely spoiled the essence or energy of the original painting. Lesson learned though; it looked better when more ‘raw’. I wiped off all the oil paint back to my acrylic base and started again. I repeated this over a few days until at last it had just the right amount of … whatever it is that makes a painting feel ‘finished’!

Nan describes it as ‘that strong white stuff’, and I’d added here and there the subtlest touches of blue/green/grey while leaving the white just as it was. As usual, serendipity, and recognising when that was working for the painting, helped the final result. For example in wiping white oil off one area of the rocks, I’d inadvertently given it that wet sheen of damp which rocks take on, or stone buildings, when they’ve been thoroughly wetted. There’s also an inadvertent dragon’s eye in the rocks, which, once spotted can’t be unseen!

2. Flowing from granite

‘Flowing from granite. The Living Mountain Series’. Acrylic and oil on 30x21cm wood. Rose Strang 2021

Strange and beautiful forms are evolved was a collaborative effort in some ways. I wanted to paint the sense of ice and freezing cold. The first version was of light playing through an icicle, the next was an experimental play of textured whites and blacks. At this point Sheri Gee (artistic director of the Folio Society) required a progress report as this was written into the contract. I sent the works so far and she felt that the icicle painting didn’t have the elemental quality she’d liked about my previous paintings. I agreed and it cemented my sense of what she was looking for in these paintings. I experimented further with the black and white abstracted painting until icicles appeared, then added salt, varnish and further light effects until it seemed to work.

There’s the idea of painting what’s ‘there’ what the eye can see, then there’s the idea of painting what’s ‘felt’. I’ve always wanted to capture that visceral sense of landscape and my sense of Scottish landscape, particularly mountainous landscape, is that fear (though it might be fear and exhilaration) is quite often an element of that experience. Where my first ice painting had showed the beauty of natural ice forms, it had no feeling of ice. I thought the second version gave more a sense of the icy grip of winter.

3. Strange and beautifil forms are evolved

Strange and beautiful forms are evolved. The Living Mountain Series. Acrylic, salt and oil on 30x21cm wood. Rose Strang 2021

My next painting –  For not getting lost is a matter of the mind – was maybe more of a conceptualised idea of the fear of getting lost in a blizzard. I used gridded paper as a base, messed up to give the sense of disorder, then painted over it to suggest snow and mist. Finally I took the image of a compass and placed in the top right corner, facing the wrong way. So far no-one has commented on this! But I wanted to reflect the fact that, especially in Nan’s day, handling a paper map in a freezing hurricane is no easy matter and is definitely ‘a matter of the mind’, or mind over matter since fear is very real in such circumstances.

4. For not getting lost is a matter of the mind

‘For not getting lost is a matter of the mind. The Living Mountain Series’. Grid paper, and acrylic on on 37x27x2 cm antique pine. Rose Strang 2021

Having dealt with the ‘roaring scourge’ element of the Cairngorms, I now wanted a complete contrast, more ‘delectable as honey’ to quote Nan’s introductory words. Heather and honey go hand in hand in Scotland, plus I absolutely loved Nan’s description of the little girl’s reaction to her dad calling her to heel, responding ‘I like the unpath best’. I knew, as do Nan’s readers I’m sure, exactly what she meant! It’s always more satisfying to wander off the beaten track, where your feet can sink into squishy sphagnum moss, or on a hot day you can fling yourself onto a springy bed of heather to gaze up at the blue, blue sky filled with butterflies, or dazzling blue or green dragonflies.

If I were a realist painter I’d have painted these beautiful insects, but instead I tried to suggest their flight with scratches into the surface suggesting movement, amid watery hazes to suggest the warmth of sunshine ‘all around the blooming heather’ to quote the popular song. The mountains in summer can be delectable as honey indeed.

The wildest most remote areas of Scotland can have an almost fairy-tale atmosphere of primitive, Eden-like lushness and I wanted to capture something of those birthday-cake colours and mood in my painting, while keeping the style loose.

One of my favourite holidays as a girl was when my sister and I with our mum and her friends stayed at Craig Youth Hostel in the Torridon area. It was late June and I remember a huge metallic-green dragon fly flew on to my hand. I wanted to pick it up and it bit me then flew off! I could see the tiny serrations of skin on my hand and felt very sorry I’d upset it.

On the subject of dragonflies – many years later, I’d decided to work as an arts manager for the NHS (UK National Health Service). It was a choice made from some place in my mind that told me I had to choose a ‘sensible’ job. I’d already struggled through a year’s contract with one hospital – feeling very much a fish out of water – and now that contract was over it was time for me to find another job. I was interviewed for the position of arts manager by one of the UK’s largest hospitals and was genuinely surprised when they phoned to say I’d been successful.

I felt relieved, as you do if you worry about income, but also I knew something was missing. On the first day in the office I was shown to my desk. It was in a grim 70s building due to be demolished in the next few years. The office room was painted in peeling light blue paint, the lights were fluorescent (which had a tendency to give me a headache). I fought off a growing feeling of impending imprisonment as I sat at my desk. I remember that day I wore a grass-green wool dress to cheer me up – it’s a colour that brings the sense of nature into our lives and this building felt entirely unnatural. I looked out the windows on to  a sea of cement.

At this moment an enormous metallic-green dragonfly somehow managed to fly in through the tiny slats at the top of the windows. I couldn’t believe my eyes – what would bring a green dragonfly into this enormous concrete jungle of a hospital site, never mind in to this tiny office space? I was reassured it was real though, by the ‘ooo’s’ and ‘wows!’ of my office colleagues. It flew in graceful acrobatics around the room, but clearly it was beginning to panic. I remarked on its obvious dilemma; ‘We have to let it out’. (In retrospect it’s one of the few requests I made during that job that was actually fulfilled!) Three of us managed to open the windows on their rusty hinges and at last the dragonfly flew off to freedom. Two years later I handed in my notice and within a year became a full-time painter. I think that dragonfly had a message for me.

5. I like the unpath best

‘I like the unpath best. The Living Mountain Series’. Acrylic on 30x21cm wood. Rose Strang 2021

I now had just two more paintings to complete. With these I wanted to reflect the final chapters of The Living Mountain, to reflect Nan’s deeper philisophical, or spiritual response to the mountain. This is subtly touched on by Nan and I hoped to suggest this sense equally subtly in the final paintings.

Coming up – Pt 6: Being

Resipole Gallery

I’m delighted to be exhibiting again with the Resipole Gallery, one of Scotland’s most respected (and most remote!) galleries. I’ve sold many paintings there over the years and they are now showing my latest series, created this summer on the isle of Iona. It’s a delight to show in the same gallery as artists I’ve admired for many years including Anna King, Lottie Glob, and Kate Foster.

Here are the three paintings (below), and this link takes you to my page on the Resipole website where you can view or buy the paintings Resipole Gallery, Rose Strang

 

Resipole Studios and Gallery is situated on the Ardnamurchan peninsula on the west coast and I’ve travelled there many times since the early 1990’s, most recently in 2019 when I attended an exhibition opening. The drive to Ardnamurchan is surely one of the most dramatic in Europe! Here are a few of my photos …

Exhibition – Sutton Hoo and Suffolk

Below – some in-situ photos of the Sutton Hoo and Suffolk series at the Limetree Long Melford Gallery (link here for any enquiries about the paintings – Limetree Contact )

This series was painted after exploring the landscape that surrounds the Sutton Hoo burial mounds in Suffolk this year, where treasure and other evidence of 6th century Saxon culture was discovered in the 1930s.

(I explored a bit about the mounds and Saxon spiritual beliefs in previous blogs – Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.)

I’ve been reading the author Robert MacFarlane’s book Underland recently, in which he explores the world’s ‘underlands’ – catacombs underneath Paris for example, or natural limestone caves. Places where people buried their loved ones thousands of years ago, or painted mysterious human figures in places such as the sea-lashed caves of Kollhellaren (‘translates roughly as ‘hole of hell’) in Norway.

He explores the place these underground spaces have in imagination and in our psyche. Also not just culturally, emotionally and spiritually, but physically too. Among many impressions, I’m struck by the fact that for such a modest and gentle looking human being he clearly has nerves of steel! The descriptions of squeezing his way into narrow funnels deep in the earth are quite claustrophobia-inducing though un-put-downable.

The book was a meaningful accompaniment to my paintings, inspiring me to speculate on the way those Saxon leaders carefully buried their people – with such reverence and care. It tells us much about what mattered to their society back in the 6th century. Their emotions and physical appearance will have been much the same as ours, but as leaders their motivations were very different. They honoured landscape because they saw much of it as sacred – believing that gods or goddesses resided in aspects of nature. They wanted to leave the land intact with little trace of human dwelling – for example they built their houses from materials such as wood and grass that wouldn’t remain after time.

Their religious beliefs came to be seen as wrong – as pagan, barbarian and separate from worship of the one God of Christianity. From our perspective now though, it’s clear that whatever our beliefs, much of our landscape has been irreperably destroyed, which is at odds with the Christian ideal that we tend the flora and fauna of this world. Robert MacFarlane describes disappearing glacial landscapes and the complex ways that vast amounts of spent nuclear waste must be buried. These are issues familar to all of us, but never told as compellingly. As he describes; our age – now called The Anthropocene – will leave a legacy like no other. Contemplating these thoughts inspired me to paint ‘Trace’ – the largest painting of the Sutton Hoo series (below).

In the next month I’ll be travelling to the island of Iona, then Kilmartin Glen on the west coast of Scotland. Water will be the linking theme for an upcoming series. The new series might relate or add to the themes and problems being explored at this year’s Cop26 climate-change conference to be held in Glasgow.

More on that in the next few weeks!

Sutton Hoo Series. Trace. Oil on 27.5 x 27.5 canvas. Rose Strang 2021

Applecross series day 8

'Ardban Morning Sunlight'. Oil on 19 x 19" wood. Rose Strang 2020

‘Ardban Morning Sunlight’. Oil on 19 x 19″ wood. Rose Strang 2020

Today’s paintings for the new series for the Limetree Gallery Bristol.

There’s a definite feel to the series noiw – driving through the rainy dramatic mountains of Kintail then reaching the west coast light of the Applecross peninsula. I’m very happy with the Kintail series, though I know some people might find those a little dark, I just find that drenched sort of autumnal mountainscape relaxing.

I have three paintings to complete, then the series wil be finished. More tomorrow …

Below – all paintings so far …