A trip to High Cup in England’s North Pennines may be my favourite hike, especially when approached from the north so that the deep, U-shaped valley suddenly reveals itself. It may not be able to compete in rugged drama with places like the Lake District or the Scottish Highlands, but is still impressive in its own timeless, contemplative way. I arrived on this occasion early in the morning, and was disappointed to find the view lost in mist. But as the sun rose the mist quite suddenly lifted as abruptly as a curtain in a theatre, opening the view in all its breathtaking grandeur. I had my A3 sketchbook with me, and completed the drawings below using blue-black and sepia writing ink, charcoal and chalk.
Some years ago my wife and I thought it would be fun to tackle an art project together, rather than pursuing our own individual endeavours. We were enthusiastic for a fresh challenge, something bold that would stretch us and make us see things differently. As we both normally work in a studio setting, an outdoor, working-from-life venture seemed the most appealing alternative. So we sat down, made a pot of coffee and talked over our options, and gradually the idea began to take shape of a journey, and what better than a journey following a river from source to mouth. After a process of elimination it became clear the Ettrick Water in the Scottish Borders was just what we were looking for. It was not so long as to make the job too daunting, it was close enough to our home to make regular trips feasible (and affordable), and as it ran through a varied landscape the finished artwork would be pleasantly diverse. So we eagerly put aside a whole year for the project, thinking any less time wouldn’t do it justice.
It proved to be more difficult than I ever imagined. I often have my sketchbook with me to quickly record anything of interest I might see, but actually sitting with paints and brushes to try and make sense of a real landscape was tough. The first six months or so were taken up with trial and error, mainly error. Eventually I was pleased with my work, though I did end up wishing I had a little more time.
We began referring to the venture as the Ettrick Valley Project, and the name stuck. The town of Selkirk is on the Ettrick Water, and the Robson Gallery just off Selkirk town square was the venue for the finished show. We arranged the artwork around the walls in order, from source to mouth of the river, with extracts of appropriate poetry by local poets printed out and placed on the walls at intervals between the paintings. It was a good show, and although there were highs and lows along the way, all in all we enjoyed the experience and determined to do it again whenever the opportunity arose. That hasn’t happened, at least not yet, as life’s unexpected commitments have since precluded the possibility of taking out a whole year, and any less time would be somewhat pointless. However in a couple of years we hopefully expect to have more freedom with our time, and once again will be able to undertake such a project. The Mississippi…?
Not much in the way of productive art work has been accomplished lately, as a host of other tasks ignored until now have finally caught up with me. Principally, erecting a long overdue fence in the garden:
Not finished yet
There are always a host of things to do at this time of year in preparation for winter, which in this part of the world generally means a fair bit of frost, a few snowy days, a storm or two, and an awful lot of rain. I am finding the time to embark on another Rory McGlory story, however – no completed images yet – and doodle in my Ideas Book. I’ll finish with a couple of examples. I have no idea where these images come from or what they’re about, but that’s often how things are.
On my last trip to the Scottish north-west I deliberately left my big sketch books at home, and undertook the self-imposed assignment of trying to portray the immense vistas of mountain and loch on paper no bigger than 15 x 20cm (6 x 9in). I soon discovered the advantage of completing work quickly, before the ever-changing light conditions altered the scene too dramatically. Stable weather is one thing notoriously (but happily) absent in the Highlands. The small book was also less unwieldy, and I was able to simply sit on any convenient rock for a few minutes whenever a suitable subject presented itself. Below is a selection of some of the drawings.
On a more personal note, sadly my wife and I made this trip alone, as our dog Chasca, our faithful travelling companion for more than thirteen years, died shortly before we left. This photo was one of the last, taken on a trip earlier this year, camping on Rannoch Moor, gazing towards the distant mountains of Glen Coe.
Chasca and me
Making the first Rory McGlory and Captain Whoosh book was such good fun there just had to be another. And already I feel a third coming on…
Below are a couple of images from a book I am working on, Rory McGlory and Captain Whoosh, a humorous story for young readers. The text is finished, all that’s left to do is put it together in Createspace.
The Lord Mayor
On a recent tour of the west coast of Scotland my wife and I followed for a time the Rock Route, learning something along the way of the geological past. Tectonic plates colliding, mountain ranges thrown up, mighty glaciers – it sounded a spectacular show to anyone who happened to be there at the time. But of course, I realised, these events happen so slowly they would be imperceptible, even over a thousand generations. In fact they haven’t stopped. The world is still as active a place as it has ever been, the land is even now in constant motion, and I’ve tried to incorporate that idea into this landscape.
Recently I came across a sketchbook of mine from about 25 years ago, when I had some limited access to the vast steel making complex on Teesside while preparing for my solo exhibition, entitled ‘Iron and Steel’. The work seems rather topical now, with the steel making industry in the news under threat of imminent closure. The sketchbook is A3, and as each of the images is a double spread, the size is approximately 60cm by 40cm (24in by 16in).
Once again this year my wife and I have been drawn to the West Coast of Scotland, touring the highways and byways from Oban to Scourie. The scenery is almost overwhelming; here is my most resent acrylic painting, ‘Shadow of the Mountain’, 30cm x 90cm:
…is the provisional title for this piece; black ink drawing on paper, approx 50cm x 40cm.
I’m expecting that the first reaction will be some confusion at what initially seems a random series of lines and dots, as there is no hint of shading or colour to help with the definition. Hopefully this will invite closer inspection, when it should resolve itself. The town depicted doesn’t actually exist, but is a product of my imagination, and the industrial works that intertwine about it – the ‘process’ of the title – serve to tie the image together. Working with black ink on white paper has an advantage over working with paint, in that I can carry on even when reasonable daylight isn’t available, a common situation at this time of year.
Below are a few close-up details to give a better idea.