Pt 1: Here
Pt 2: Here
In the next few weeks I’ll be posting an artist’s diary about creating a series of 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 …
Pt 3: Painting Among Elementals
My first painting attempt for the series was the book cover. Artists reading this journal can imagine how overwhelmed my mind was with possibilities. How was I going to paint Nan’s experience of the Cairngorms? Any decent landscape artist could paint a scene of the Cairngorms and, had someone got in touch with me to say; ‘Can I commission you to paint a view of the Cairngorms for my friend’s birthday?’ I’d know they were probably looking for an iconic and recognisable Cairngorms vista!
This was definitely not what Sheri Gee was looking for, nor was I. I knew what she was looking for because of the selection of paintings she sent me as examples of why she’d chosen my work. They were paintings I’d created over recent years that were mostly inspired by literature or music. None were commissions – they were all self-motivated experimental works from imagination, mostly taking the form of semi abstract landscape. I was intrigued by Sheri’s selection, because these were paintings I’d struggled over – to create something meaningful. The process had had no known outcome at the start of each painting. I wondered how I’d manage to keep this very loose experimental and intensive approach while also expressing something of Nan’s descriptions and vision; it felt like a bit of a creative tightrope to me.
I started with the idea that Nan was inspired by Buddhism. She might have seen paintings by Chinese or Japanese artists expressing ideas of space and spirituality in landscape – a sense of being. The painting below was my first attempt at a book cover. I was quite pleased with it and the Folio Society were too in a sense, but the problem was that it didn’t say ‘Mountain’, and for the book cover at least there needed to be something to hint at the contents of the book!
I made the following attempts (below) but wasn’t satisfied with those either.
By this time I’d been feeling frustrated for days. I’d ended up with too much colour when what I’d dreamed of was a mystical elemental feel in monochrome. I looked at the two beautiful Turner sketches (below), which re-inspired me to start again with a black acrylic base, onto which I began paintings swathes of oil in various shades of pale grey.
December light in Scotland is horrible to paint in – I ended up chucking solvent at the painting just to break it up and deliberately make a mess. This helped me break away from indecisive dabbing, so I could stand back and see more objectively. Usually I’d look at the painting in a mirror at this stage for further objectivity, but I just felt grumpy and tired. Later on two of our neighbours, Andrew and Carly, dropped by and said ‘that’s great’. I hmphh-ed in response then realised they weren’t just being polite and said, ‘Thanks’.
The next day I worked a little more on the area of water. The oils had dried somewhat, and as often happens with oils, the colours had resolved into something subtle and interesting. I sent it off to Sheri Gee, alongside the other cover image painting. They liked it and though I still wasn’t satisfied, I felt it worked as a book cover.
Looking at it now, with a little more perspective, it actually does capture the feel of Cairngorms in the snow, especially the sense of ever-changing snowdrifts and subtle colour changes.
Part of my frustration was that, thanks to lockdown, I didn’t know if it was possible to visit the Cairngorms. There seemed to be nowhere open where we could stay. There was also the restriction on going further than five miles. Usually I’d have gone there immediately and stayed a few days to at least imbibe the atmosphere before painting, it felt utterly wrong not to be there. I began to scrutinise government guidelines for possibilities; how dangerous could it be to drive with Adam to the midst of a windswept remote mountain range? In terms of covid-risk surely almost zero – we’d seen almost no-one outside of close family and friends.
A peruse of the convoluted government guidelines revealed (five or so pages and several links in) that it was possible to travel for work-related purposes if the work couldn’t be carried out at home. I wanted Adam to come for photography reasons, to document our trip as well as the fact I wanted to share this experience with him. I take my own photos as occasional painting references, but I wanted to focus on that rather than documenting, plus it freed me up to focus on surroundings.
In terms of mountain climbing the Cairngorms in winter, the risk was real though. I hadn’t climbed a mountain for a few years and neither my nor Adam’s map and compass-reading skills were impressive – I’d always relied on someone else for those. Neither was our fitness level. I felt lockdown-softened and I knew I was no ‘Nan’ in terms of mountain adventure, I accepted that my role was artist not mountaineer! I decided to get in touch with Liam Irving of Cairngorm Adventure Guides, who recommended one of their guides – Emma Atkinson – to steer us up to the plateau.
To prepare, we embarked on a daily walking regime, starting with circuits of the peaks of Arthur’s Seat, then on to the biggest hills to hand near Edinburgh – the Pentlands. Conditions were ideal, with recent snowfalls the conditions were almost Cairngorm-esque we felt. All that remained was to upgrade our anoraks and wax our boots.
Coming up: Pt 4: In the Cairngorms