Tag Archives: Scottish artists

From Iona to Staffa

Above Iona to Staffa 3. Oil on 12 x 12 inch wood.

This series is inspired by a trip to the islands of Iona and Staffa last year. Although I’ve been visiting Iona since about 1991, I’d never been to Staffa – surely one of the wonders of the world with its astonishing hexagonal basaltic columns and sea caves surging with green water.

At first I wanted to capture something of the feel of the journey, which was in fact quite wild – in a small boat on a tumultuous sea in dazzling sunshine – we even saw dolphins! It was the underlying sense of myth that stayed with me though.

Iona’s spiritual history is well-known – St Columba, an Irish prince said to be exiled because of a violent dispute, travelled to Iona and began a life of spiritual contemplation with a group of monks back in the 6th century. His journeys around Scotland are remembered in history, also in tales of miracles. He was no doubt a complicated human being who’d lived a violent life in Ireland, who changed during his time on Iona – devoting his life to religion.

The island itself was said to have a druidic past. This is part speculation as those times weren’t recorded in written language in the same way as  Christian history was. Place names around the island do suggest this pre-Christian history though. It’s suggested that the Book of Kells was written by monks on Iona some time in the 9th century, but the book is now at Trinity College Dublin. Some believe the book was created in Kells, Ireland, but if you consider the fact that part of north-east Ireland and the west coast of Scotland were essentially one nation at the time, called Dalriada or Dál Riata, then it could make sense that the book might be written in the peace of Iona and taken to Kells when Iona was later attacked by Vikings.

Monks were drawn to such places at this time in the past, in the spirit of the ‘Desert Fathers and Mothers’ – a tradition inspired by Jesus’s contemplation in the desert. Basically, anywhere remote and removed from society was seen as ‘desert’ – a place to contemplate God.

Staffa, which is about 7 miles from Iona, has a mythical history stretching far back into the mists of time! It’s other name is Fingal’s Cave – inspired the myth of Fingal (Fin means light and forms part of the name of the port on Mull from where you travel to Iona – Fionphort) from ancient celtic stories. This can be a confusing subject because there was in fact a series of poems called ‘Ossian’s Tale’, created by author James MacPherson, about Fingal, but this series of poems was discovered to be ‘fake’ – not the work of a real person called Fingal from the ancient Celtic past. The stories were gathered from ancient Celtic poems though, and so it is a fascinating work.

I won’t get too detailed here about the confusion of myth, and translations from original Scottish Gaelic myths and stories by McPherson – Ossian’s Tale does mention numerous place names that still exist, and which made up Dalriada in Scotland and north-east Ireland in the third century. The myths probably refer to an ancient warrior, said to be a giant, who created Staffa as a stepping stone from Ireland to Scotland. This refers to ‘The Giant’s Causeway’ on the coast of northern Ireland which shares the same hexagonal basaltic stone features as Staffa.

Well, that’s a lot of info, which may give an idea of why I wanted to capture a sense of myth from my trip to Staffa from Iona! It doesn’t really explain the way I feel about such an experience though. Suffice to say, it stimulates my imagination and despite the numerous tourists that throng the islands these days, I still feel the spiritual pull of these places.

I used to visualise lying in a wooden boat in the crystal clear green water of the Sound of Iona, rocking gently on the waves in the sun. Where Iona feels gentle, Staffa feels almost overwhelmingly dramatic –  you feel you’ve taken part in a real life myth when you travel there.

I’ll end this post with some of my photos of Staffa …

'Through Kintail 2'. Oil on 33x23" wood. Rose Strang 2020

From the Mountains to the Sea

I’m delighted to see that my large painting ‘Through Kintail 2’ (above) has sold in the latest Limetree Gallery exhibition From the Mountains to the Sea. I think it looks considerably better in real life than from a photo, so I was very pleased to see it exhibited ‘in real life’ since most exhibitions during lockdown have been online.

Two of my paintings remain in the exhibition; ‘Through Kintail 3’ and ‘Through Kintail 4’, images below. You can browse these, and the other beautiful works in the exhibition on the gallery website Here

This series was created as part of a wonderful journey to Ardban in Applecross. Getting there takes you through the mountains of Kintail which looked so classicly Highland-y in their autumn colours and misty weather. I love road paintings which always give the sense of a journey.

This year I’ll be exhibiting in an exciting new two-person exhibition at the Resipole Gallery in Ardnamurchan, more details to follow! …

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 4

(Image above – Looking back towards the Monadliath Mountains. Photo Adam Brewster) 2021).

Pt 1: Here

Pt 2: Here

Pt 3: Here

Pt 4: Here

Pt 5: Here

Pt 6: 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 …

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

Pt 4: In the Cairngorms

 

It wasn’t until March 11th 2021 that Adam and I finally arrived the Cairngorms. There had been numerous setbacks with most places closed due to lockdown. We finally found and booked a self-catering hut at Glentruim Lodge on the south west side of the Cairngorms (off the road that runs north to Aviemore).

The roads from Edinburgh to Glentruim were almost empty, which made for easier driving, and luckily no snow. On arriving we explored the area – a river valley surrounded by low hills with a view of the snowy peaks beyond. Tall beech trees towered over our hut and a family of red squirrels darted around the trunks – disappearing as soon as a camera emerged. I found the grace of these beeches compelling and thought of including them in the painting series, though I’d heard they weren’t considered native to Scotland. Later though, I discovered that they are in fact most likely native to Britain, having naturally spread north to Scotland following the end of the last ice-age.

Perhaps it was the marked contrast to being confined to the city throughout most of lockdown, but these trees and the general atmosphere of the valley felt more exuberantly alive to me than usual. The beeches looked almost as if they were throwing their branches into the bright blue sky. My painting takes me all over Scotland, to places more remote than where we were staying in the Cairngorms – Ardnamurchan, Sutherland or Torridon for example are beautiful, remote places near the sea.

Maybe it was the sheer scale of the Cairngorms though – the sense of larger than life mountains, trees and weather. I was reminded again of passages from MacDonald’s or Lewis’s descriptions of nature – trees on the verge of dancing, squirrels on the verge of speaking.

It was also the sense of uninterrupted nature – a stark contrast to trees in the city, because however lovely individual city trees can be – they’re not an eco-system or a community of trees interacting with each other. In 2018 when I’d been painting my series in response to C.S. Lewis’s Narniad, I’d learned (through reading Michael Ward’s book Planet Narnia) that Prince Caspian is inspired by the Medieval concept of Mars. Not just the God of War, as more commonly understood, but the concept of valour or courage – an ‘iron will’, and also ‘Mars Sylvanus’ – the vigorous energy of early spring. Mar-ch, with leaves shooting from the branches of trees. Birches in March become purplish-red just before they produce their first leaves, as Nan Shepherd observes in The Quarry Wood – their branches coloured like blood-veins.

While painting and researching Prince Caspian/Mars, I’d also learned something of the nature of a forest. A scientist called Suzanne Simard had discovered that trees send nutrients to each other, they are all interdependent. At the time of writing this journal, I’m also reading Robert MacFarlane’s Underland, which contains one chapter with an absolutely fascinating account of Simard’s discoveries of the complex root systems of forests.

The trees outside our cabin in the Cairngorms ‘felt’ exuberantly alive because they were exactly that – they communicated a sense of energy – not simply through the visual indicators of fresh air in the lichen that festooned the trees, the restless red squirrels, numerous birds or the scent of crystal clean air, it was the energy of uninterrupted growth and health.

The next morning when we stepped out of our cabin to look at the weather we were greeted with a beautiful snow and frost covered landscape.  Our ‘wows’ were quickly superseded by ‘oh sh*ts’ however, as this made it seem less likely we’d be able to get in to the mountains. On checking our phones we discovered that Emma (our mountain guide) had already contacted us to say ‘Looks like winter has returned!’ She seemed sure we’d find a way in though.

We’d already had the disappointing news that we’d not be able to enter the Cairngorms through the northerly route and areas Nan explored so often. This was because the ski road leading most of the way into the Cairngorms had been closed for the season. ‘The best ski-ing weather we’ve seen in years – and no-one can enjoy it!’ Liam and Emma had commented.

Emma’s advice was to walk up to the plateau from the southwest, from Glen Feshie up to Carn Ban Mor (from Gaelic, meaning ‘The big pale cairn’). Since Emma seemed optimistic we could still climb, we got in our little car and headed north along the motorway to meet Emma at Auchlean carpark. The carpark was off the motorway and a few miles into the mountain valley and we soon realised the snow-covered roads would be an issue.

I rang Emma, who asked; ‘Are you in a four-wheel drive?’. I managed not to snort as I explained ‘no it’s just an ordinary car’. We agreed to meet as far along the road as our un-Cairngormworthy car would take us.  We spotted Emma at the road to the carpark and stopped. A quick discussion ensued; ‘Do you think you have Covid?’ ‘No’. ‘Well, it’s a short drive, just two minutes and I’ll keep the window open’.

Before leaving Emma’s car she quickly fitted us with crash helmets and ice picks; “Just in case we encounter slippy ice further up the paths” Emma explained cheerfully. I began to picture accounts I’d read of climbers hanging on to the edge of ice chasms on the slopes of Everest, hands immobilised by frostbite. Then I reassured myself with the thought that at least we wouldn’t run out of oxygen. That situation, described as the death zone, only happens at 8000 metres and Carn Ban Mor is only 1052 metres high! What were the crash helmets for? ‘There’s almost zero chance of an avalanche, it’s just a safety measure’ Emma replied reassuringly.

As we walked up the lower slopes through a forest of pines sparkling with fresh snow, I asked Emma about how she became a mountain guide. She explained that she’d grown up in the Cairngorms and that she’d always climbed, and that training really took that to a different level; ‘The difference is – you know and can say exactly where you at any moment, not just have the ability to get out of tricky situations or a sudden change in weather’. (Being able to give 100% accurate GPS coordinates would of course be the difference between life and death, if a climber breaks a leg on a mist-covered mountain).

This made sense in the light of the haunting descriptions I’d read in The Living Mountain (or heard about from friends or family) of the utterly disconcerting experience of navigating a way out of white mist in which you can’t see beyond a foot. In previous years, I’d climbed several mountains with an ex-partner, Tim. He’d learned how to navigate well, but wasn’t so foolhardy he’d walk into a blizzard given a choice. I remember one day we’d walked up into the Trossachs (a mountain region in Central Scotland) and were just about to climb onto the plateau towards the summit when a white-out blizzard descended. It was lucky we were standing next to a cliff. We simply stood there till it passed, then when the air cleared took the opportunity to walk quickly to the summit where we enjoyed blue skies and a view of Loch Katrine far below.

My mum (Gillian) had been the more intrepid mountain climber though. Her partner at the time, Des, was a geologist by training and had extensive mountain climbing experience. I’ll never forget her description of a sudden blizzard as they navigated via map and compass down to a bothy and safety. She said that all she could actually see was the front of her anorak, which became encrusted with a growing hillock of icy snow crystals. I can well imagine her relief on reaching the bothy, warmth and safety.

It’s in conditions such as these that Nan would doubtless have found herself on occasions. Alone too. I think her imaginative descriptions, visionary insights and musings might lead the inexperienced to imagine her as floating elf-like along the mountain paths in a continual reverie! It’s clear that as well as excellent navigation skills, she must have had muscles (and nerves) of steel!

Our guide Emma pointed out the tracks and marks left by various animals as we walked through the snowy wood. She wasn’t what I’d expected as guide (I suppose Adam and I had somehow imagined a tough militaristic sort) Emma looked quite arty, with a mane of light red hair and green eyes; very Scottish! We chatted about Nan, and she agreed that she must have been an incredibly experienced climber – absolutely in her element in this arctic landscape.

As Emma explained, the Cairngorms are in fact a micro-climate, a ‘mini – Arctic’ in effect, with all the temperatures, weather conditions, flora and fauna associated with the Arctic. We were by now emerging from the woodland and as the trees thinned out we were able to look back at the astonishing views behind us of the snow-covered Monadliath mountains to the west of the Cairngorms.

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Painting The Living Mountain. Artist’s journal. Pt 3

Pt 1: Here

Pt 2: Here

Pt 3: Here

Pt 4: Here

Pt 5: Here

Pt 6: 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 …

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

Pt 3: Painting Among Elementals

cover2

‘Among Elementals. Book cover. The Living Mountain Series. Oil on 60x42cm wood. Rose Strang 2020

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!

3DEC20. LivingMountainCover. Rose Strang

Front Cover painting 1. Rose Strang 2020

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

Painting The Living Mountain. Artist’s journal. Pt 1

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.

Pt 2,

Pt 3

Pt 4

Pt 5

Pt 6

(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

Part One. The Living Mountain Commission

Rose Strang. Photo by Adam Brewster 2021

In December 2020, with the prospect of an indefinite lockdown stretching ahead, I received an uplifting email …

Sheri Gee, Artistic Director of The Folio Society, emailed to ask if I’d be interested in creating a series of paintings to accompany their publication of Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. They were not yet decided she explained, but simply wanted to get a sense of my interest in the project. My first panicked thought was; ‘If they’re asking other artists right now I’d better respond to let them know!’ and immediately rang Sheri’s phone number.

Picking up on my enthusiasm, Sheri confirmed the panel’s decision after a few days by email; ‘It’s a big fat Yes!’ she wrote. My partner Adam reached in to the fridge which contained an unopened bottle of Cava, and poured two celebratory glasses.

This commission meant a lot to me – far more meaningful than any artist’s painting award. When I first read The Living Mountain (in 2014, a year before Nan Shepherd’s portrait appeared on the Scottish £5) I remember feeling a thrill of recognition – her way of seeing felt somehow familiar to me. I expect many creative-minded people feel similarly when reading The Living Mountain.

Almost every page has vividly-written descriptions that blossom in the reader’s imagination. It became obvious to me, as I read the book, that Nan observed like an artist – that she spent a lot of time looking. Sometimes pragmatically – to assess terrain for example, but more often she gazed at length to observe the effect of the mountain on her mind and senses. Nan immersed herself wholly in the experience of the Cairngorms. Perhaps this is why the book has become so iconic. It’s obviously more than a description of mountain climbing. The holistic nature of her exploration seems to chime particularly with our times. I’m sure it would have equally in her own time, had people paid more attention.

I’d been inspired by Nan’s book in 2014, and I’d thought then of walking the Cairngorms to create a series of paintings, but life had thrown up other plans and projects. On receiving the news in 2020 that I was to be commissioned  by the Folio Society I knew that somehow, despite lockdown restrictions, I had to get to the Cairngorms. I also wanted to explore Nan’s life more deeply; what mattered to Nan, creatively – what might she have chosen if she’d sought an artist for her book?

It was around this time that Sheri Gee contacted me to ask if I’d like to meet Erlend Clouston (the Literary Executor of Nan Shepherd’s Estate). As it happened Erlend also lived in Edinburgh. I replied of course I’d love to meet him. Erlend and I arranged to meet up and it proved to be more than informative; I gained a real sense of the sort of person Nan was, given that she part-raised Erlend in a sense. More than that, I felt my approach as an artist was affirmed by him, or in other words – I got the go-ahead to do my thing!

Coming up: Part Two: Erlend Clouston on his friendship with Nan Shepherd.

The Living Mountain. The Folio Society publication.

Above But did I dream that roe? (The Living Mountain Series). Oil on 37x27x2 cm antique pine wood. Rose Strang 2021

“my eyes were in my feet”
Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain

I’m delighted to reveal (at last!) that in December 2020 I was commissioned by The Folio Society to create nine paintings for their new illustrated publication of Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. This has been a beautiful project – a challenge that I wholeheartedly welcomed as I’ve loved this book for many years.

The project has been under embargo until its launch date of October 12th 2021, so you can imagine how thrilling it is for me to see it published on the Folio Society’s website!

The link below takes you to the Folio Society’s launch page for the new publication, which features most of the images from the book, accompanying information about Nan Shepherd, and why the book has become such an iconic work of landscape literature.

Robert MacFarlane (author of The Wild Places, The Lost Words and Underlands, among many much-loved books about landscape, flora and fauna) has written the introduction for the book. For MacFarlane, and countless other readers, this book has changed or deepened the way they experience mountain climbing and landscape.

I remember the way Nan Shepherd’s vivid prose enthralled me on my first read. Alongside painting the series (from December 2020 to April 2021) I kept an artist’s journal in which I recorded the creative process; not just inspiration for the paintings, but also everything I learned about Nan from the literary executor of Nan’s Shepherd’s estate, Erlend Clouston, plus the wonderful experience of climbing part of the snowy Cairngorms with my partner Adam in March this year.

I’ll be posting the journal in a series of blogs over the coming months. In the meantime, I hope you’ll take a look at the newly published book on this link! …

The Living Mountain. Nan Shepherd. The Folio Society

Themes – Trees

Above: Spring Sycamore. Acrylic on 20×16″ canvas. Rose Strang 2013

As I’m currently painting a private commission which must remain secret until October 2021, I thought I’d post themed blogs in the meantime. Today’s theme is Trees.

My last theme was Sea. In the next few weeks I’ll also share my paintings on the themes of mountains, portraits, winter, abstraction, imagination and collaborations

It’s easy to imagine dryads or sidhe (faerie folk) hiding behinds trees in ancient forests. Many children’s stories or fantasies are set in the woods; think Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, or Robin Hood! Trees seem to spark imagination – for good or ill (think of all those spooky tales or films set in forests!) I’ve wondered why this is – perhaps it’s the fact that in a forest so much is hidden – it’s a metaphor for the unconscious, for the unlawful and rebelious.

I find that painting trees requires loose brushwork (or loose line if it’s drawing) though in a different way from sea painting – not so much gestural as allowing the paint to drip and splash, leaving patches to imagination, with a strong sense of light/dark to bring depth so the viewer is led into the forest.

When painting forests of the Scottish Borders in 2014, I was inspired by the last line of a Borders Ballad called Erlinton, about a girl who escapes to the forests to be with her lover; now we shall walk the green-wood free. To me that line beautifully evokes the idea of Medieval tapestries and tales. So with that in mind, to enhance your viewing pleasure of the tree paintings below, here’s a music piece for lute by William Byrd – Will you Walk the Woods so Wild –  Byrd

Or if you prefer, here’s a beautiful performance of Dvorik’s Silent Woods from From the Bohemian Forest –  Silent Woods

I’ve headed each set below with these terms: Spring  Summer  Autumn  Winter

Spring

My favourite time of year – from the softening of air in March, to the explosion of flowers in April and May. I think it’s inspired my best tree paintings! Spring Sycamore, below, was bought by my dad in 2013. Probably because it was painted after a walk we took in spring near Queensferry. My dad passed away in 2016 and is remembered with great love by everyone who knew him. When we were kids he’d make tree swings in Queensferry forest with lassoe techniques on the highest branches of huge beech trees, so you could swing down an entire valley, terrifying at first, then exhiliarating! As he used to say, tongue in cheek (perhaps?) ‘if a kid isnae terrified it’s no a proper game’!

I was quite happy with the minimal paintings from the Water of Leith series below, I wanted to capture more with less (they’ve not sold though!) Spring Chinoiserie was a bit of a nod to Pollock, who expressed the energy of nature with rhythmic drips and splashes of household paint. Some works here – Pollock

Bare trees are all about lyrical line – I’m also thinking of beautiful tree drawings by the wonderful illustrator Pauline Baynes. Link to her drawings – Baynes

Summer

Emma and Friends (below) captures something of the idyllic feel of summer I hope. It’s of my niece and her friends after they’d completed their final school exams. They took a swim in the River Tweed and the green light of summer transformed them into luminous mythical nyads!  Most of these tree and forest paintings in 2014 were from a series inspired by Borders Ballads, as mentioned in my intro above. Technique-wise, I was more than a little inspired by a painting I love by Peter Doig  – scroll down on link to ‘Concrete Cabin’ – Doig

Autumn

Autumn can crackle with electric blue skies and neon oranges, or glow gently in a somnabulic way that makes me feel pleasantly gloomy and introspective. It signals hibernation to come, decay and the passing of time, with the smell of mulchy leaves and woodsmoke in the air, it’s almost clichedly poetic I suppose. Last year I’d planned a series inspired by October in a Highland mountain valley, but the focus for now is my current commission (to be revealed in October this year).

Gustav Klimt’s birches are unsurpassed I think – Klimt

Winter

Although spring is my favourite time of year, winter is endlessly inspiring creatively. The starkness and subtleties of tone make us focus on line and contrast. The monochrome work below; Canonhill Park – is the only time I’ve used a very definite technique as oppposed to experimental – the white blobs are impasto against a black ink flat background, I quite liked it it, but only for this one-off subject.

The paintings of Scottish artists Calum McClure and Andrew MacKenzie focus on line and nature, rather than colour. Winter trees feature in much of their work. McClure’s paintings are lyrical, loose and painterly, MacKenzie’s are more contained, with minimalist composition and delicate line – McClure

–   MacKenzie

Lastly, no post about trees would be complete without mention of Arthur Rackham. For anyone brought up with books featuring Rackham’s illustrations, ‘Rackham-esque’ is an unofficial term for magical-looking trees! Rackham

In the next blog the theme is mountains

Sold. 'Pisces Moon, Isle of Iona'. Mixed media on 10x10" wood panel. Rose Strang 2018

Themes – Sea

Above: Pisces Moon, Isle of Iona. Mixed media on 10×10″ wood panel. Rose Strang 2018.

As I’m currently painting a private commission which must remain secret until October 2021, I thought I’d post themed blogs in the meantime. Today’s theme is Sea.

In the next few weeks I’ll also share my paintings on the themes of trees, mountains, portraits, winter, abstraction, imagination and collaborations

Our emotional and physiological response to the ocean means that it’s one of the most painted themes in fine art. Capturing a visceral sense of its translucence, movement, moods and light is challenging and there are limitless approaches. To enhance your viewing pleasure, here are a couple of music pieces that conjure moods of the sea! A beautiful song by Ishbel MacAskill:  An Ataireachd Ard  and a timeless sound from the Hebrides: Lewisian Psalm Singing

I’ve headed each set below with these terms: Movement, turbulence.   Light, sun.   Night, dark moods.   Colour, translucence.

Movement, turbulence

Painting movement is best achieved by making a mess I find! I try to keep the paint loose – as soon as I lose that freeness of brushstrokes it disappears. I’ve noticed that if anyone’s watching this process it looks stressful – just as it seems I’ve carefully captured a moving wave it’s time to mess that up and recreate it in looser strokes. This is one of the advantages of working in oils or acrylics, with watercolour you have to strategise more carefully. In the process of messing it up several times though, texture and interest is created.

One of the best compliments I ever recieved as an artist was when the curator of French fine art from Scotland’s National Gallery bought two of my paintings and compared them to Courbet, Encouraging praise indeed – Courbet was an Impressionist known for his wild waves. An example of Courbet’s waves on this link; Courbet

 

Light, sun

Every landscape artist is obsessed with the way light creates landscape. Capturing the essentials of light on sea is a constant challenge. Some artists simply make a precise copy from a photo, but that usually just creates a flatness and lack of energy and there seems not much point in recreating a photo, except for practice. The artists I most admire are those who can say everything about light with very little – something I still struggle with. One of my favourites in that regard is Alex Katz. His paintings appear simple until you realise how much he expresses with minimal marks. Alex Katz painting here – Katz

 

Night, dark moods

Probably the least commercial works are those that explore a more sombre mood. That doesn’t change my fascination with the subject though – it’s poetic and inspiring. We see landscape by light, so when there’s minimal light it has an emotional effect – we seek the light in the painting with a heightened focus. When painting in the introspective winter months, it’s instinctive to paint in a darker or more monochrome pallete. (subtleties of colour can be really difficult in the dark light of a Scottish winter). Tacita Dean, a hugely talented artist, captures an ominous mood in her chalk on blackboard works, yet there’s a romance to them that speaks of our long history of sea tales. Tacita Dean

 

Colour, translucence

Nothing expresses the unique quality of a particular sea more than colour and transclucency. The sea on Iona on Scotland’s west coast is transparent, impossibly turquoise and clear, whereas on the east coast it’s more opaque and grey-toned, even in bright sunlight. This is down to light (sun rise and sunset in east or west) pollution and geology – the sand on Iona is pinkish white, in North Berwick it’s warm brownish yellow. Go farther south to Cornwall and the sea is still magically green or turquoise but with less gem-like clarity because of a warmer-toned sun. Capturing clarity in paint is a case of clean contrasts and layers of colour. Also I find that a well-placed blob of seaweed in the shallows with just a hint of sunlit white froth on top can work well! Basically though it’s a challenge, and again I wish I could say more with less.  Hockney’s paintings come to mind, view more here Hockney

Joan Eardley’s paintings of the sea have beautiful subtlety of colour and texture, to my mind, unmatched. One of her paintings on this link Eardley

Lastly, the Scottish Colourists are the yardstick by which artists are measured in terms of understanding sea and colour! Colourists

In a few days I’ll share images and links to artworks on the theme of trees.

 

'Beinn Odhar Bheag, Glenfinnan'. Acrylic and oil on 33x23" wood panel. Rose Strang 2020

Glenfinnan

Today’s paintings – above; Beinn Odhar Bheag, Glenfinnan. Acrylic and oil on 33×23″ wood panel. Rose Strang 2020 . Below, a forest stream in Glenfinnan …

'Glenfinnan, Forest and Stream'. Oil on 33 x 23" wood panel. Rose Strang 2020

‘Glenfinnan, Forest and Stream’. Oil on 33 x 23″ wood panel. Rose Strang 2020

 

These are for the Limetree Gallery, Bristol, for their upcoming Christmas show which launches December 3rd and ends December 31st. (If you have any queries, please contact them on their website).

I think that allthough these two paintings show a different style, they do reflect the fact that the mountains look quite ominous from a distance. Up closer, on the lower slopes at least, the flora, trees and wildlife bring you closer and it can feel less intimidating. Farther up is a different matter! Beinn Odhar means a dun-coloured hill and Bheag means smaller (as opposed to Mhor which means big).

New Project

Between now and April next year I’m working on a new and very exciting project for a new client, unfortunately I can’t reveal what it is until October next year! So I won’t be uploading any of those particular paintings until October 2021. I’ll still post occassionally and might feature a few interviews here, with artists, or anyone creatively engaged with landscape. After April I’ll no doubt begin a new series and will post that here.

Below, a clickable image of Beinn Odhar Beag, Glenfinnan (the one above doesn’t enlarge) ..

'Beinn Odhar Bheag, Glenfinnan'. Acrylic and oil on 33x23" wood panel. Rose Strang 2020

‘Beinn Odhar Bheag, Glenfinnan’. Acrylic and oil on 33×23″ wood panel. Rose Strang 2020