Changing Ice, Changing Men.
I’m a lucky man. I have managed to make a living out of my twin loves, painting and wildlife, and for ten or so weeks a year in my role of tour leader I get to go to some of the world’s spectacular places, looking at birds, whales and other assorted animals. You notice that I say ‘make a living’ and I’ve not claimed a career in painting and wildlife. I’ve always thought a career sounds a bit grandiose for what I do. Sounds a bit responsible. Responsibility is something I’ve been thinking of a great deal of late.
Nowhere I’ve travelled to has affected me in what I would describe as a profound way. You see I’m not a religious man. I’d hardly consider myself as spiritual. I’m just not comfortable with the vocabulary of the touchy-feely brigade. I would have to admit to being a tad emotional at times, and, at risk of some tittering from the back row, I’d probably add I’m a passionate man. Anyone that feels compelled to reach for the brush, pencil or, most recently, the pc keyboard to relate his or her experiences must be, by definition, expressive.
Yet no single destination has affected me in a profound way. That is until now. Things changed for me last July. In the summer of 2006 I travelled to the archipelago of Svalbard, a Norwegian territory far beyond the Arctic Circle, at places closer to the North Pole than it is to mainland Scandinavia. It’s a land shaped by the forces of nature, where vast ice caps feed mighty glaciers that force their way through jagged peaks and crash into fjords filling the water with chunks of ice the size of houses.
The scale of this polar wilderness is both a bewildering and humbling experience. Once we had boarded our ‘Little Red Ship’, Explorer, and left the port of Longyearbyen there were no settlements to soften and civilise the landscape. For eleven days there was nothing but rock, and ice, and species of Arctic myth.
For the artist, especially one that spends most of his time depicting natural history subjects there is an abundance of inspiration and material. Everywhere huge buttresses rise from the sea and their faces can be stuffed with seabirds. Puffins and Brunnich’s Guillemots are commonplace on the steeper cliffs, and on the scree slopes and boulder fields Little Auks nest in colonies a million strong.
Where the daylong summer sun has managed to thaw the low lying tundra, a rich carpet of lichens, mosses and flowers colour the floor and provides grazing for reindeer as well as breeding grounds for shorebirds and wildfowl. Skuas chase Arctic Terns around the clock. Red Phalaropes spin in the shallow pools in the tundra. Long-tailed Ducks and King Eiders muster their broods into the water.
Oh, and there are bears, big white ones. Bears that would peel you like a banana quicker than you could say glacier mints.
Working in the Field
My usual way of working in the field is with sketchbook, soft pencils and watercolour paints and paper. All this can be stowed away in a rucksack along with the optical equipment I need to get closer to wildlife – binoculars, a spotting scope, and tripod. At home, or on those trips where I can carry more, I take an easel, but for Svalbard, where all landings are by small zodiac inflatable boats, needs dictate a more portable set-up. I also take a video camcorder for reference shots, a piece of equipment that took on a new relevance, as you’ll see.
Landings on Svalbard are dictated by a number of things: weather can change in an instant and scupper plans for the day; some of the cliff faces and glacier snouts have now place to land; and sometimes there are bears that might just take a bigger interest in you than you’d like. However, when a bear-free area had been secured we were able to explore the rock and tundra and I could happily sketch away safe in the knowledge that someone with a large rifle was standing only feet from me. I had never really thought of the experience of painting with an armed guard…
One advantage of working in the arctic is the availability of light. In high summer it simply doesn’t get dark so you can work at any time of day. Some of these watercolour landscapes were painted shortly after midnight as we rounded the far northwest of the island of Spitsbergen, a skyline dominated by serrated mountain ridges and rivers of ice (Spitsbergen translates to ‘jagged peaks’).
As well as a spectacular landscape, the wildlife thrives in spectacular numbers, nowhere greater than the Little Auk colony at Hornsund that holds an estimated one and a half million birds. For such a small bird (about the size of a starling) they seem unworried by humans and will tolerate the photographer or artist at close quarters. I could sit amongst the boulders and within minutes be surrounded by these charming birds. They are much more concerned with the marauding gulls and skuas that patrol the slopes looking for the unwary. When a Great Skua or Glaucous Gull did fly over the auks would take to the air in a wheeling mass of wings.
Working in the Studio
Returning home and reviewing sketches and watercolours in my studio, so many images swirled about in my head. Compositions with auks, compositions with walrus, and compositions with bears - all subjects dominated by the austere yet magnificent environment of the arctic.
Leaving the incredible wildlife scenes aside, and just considering the mighty landscape, how should I best represent the grandeur of such a place? Often, I didn’t want to take one particular site and faithfully reproduce that particular scene. I wanted to take the large empty landscapes as a starting point, but let the paintings become their own fields of colour or texture. I wanted to take the key elements of the arctic that filled me with awe: the towering walls of ice; the debris from the relentless carvings of glaciers; the strands of snow on inaccessible mountain ridges.
A vertical format composition seemed most appropriate to convey the depth of ice that makes up the many powerful glaciers. Paintings could be divided into broad horizontal bands that could stack up to describe the scene. By using a narrow strip at the bottom, a band that would include the focal bears, this would accentuate the emptiness of the landscape and the lonely existence of these animals.
With some of these large canvasses I have used under-painting techniques to build up a textured surface. I find acrylics ideal to quickly create an interesting ground particularly now that an array of ready-made gels and pastes exist. For instance, with Blue Ice and Bears I used a heavy body gel with added pumice, applied with random strokes from a large two-inch brush. A rough texture also forces the artist to think of the painting in broader terms: you can’t get bogged down with detail on a broken surface as small brush strokes become impractical.
An Uncertain Future
Svalbard is an unforgiving place, and for those species that can eke out a living here, the going is hard, and it’s getting harder. In 2006 the ice limit retreated further north by 90 miles or so. That’s a lot of ice to just disappear. Polar Bears that have raised their cubs on Svalbard were stranded on the islands, awaiting the return of the ice so they could get out to hunt their primary prey source, ringed and bearded seals. With a bittersweet irony we could watch bears as never before. As the planet heats up the ice is melting. Global warming is happening right here, right now, and Polar Bears are going to be amongst the first casualties.
Not for the first time in recent years, my video camcorder could capture more than I ever could with some hastily made sketches, particularly when I was in a moving boat. I watched and filmed riveting sequences including a mother and cub swimming around us, and the tense interactions between bear and walruses, where both gave each other the distance and respect which fearsome tusks and claws demand. These were the most compulsive and inspiring encounters with wildlife I had ever had.
The video footage I gathered in Svalbard was only ever meant as reference material for paintings, and certainly not video evidence of a world in crisis. But as birdwatchers, wildlife artists, eco-tourists and ramblers, we are all now frontline witnesses to the events of climate change. We who watch wildlife have, and cherish, a connection to natural world - a connection that for the majority of people has been fractured by urbanisation and modernity. Disconnection has lead to ignorance, and ignorance to lack of respect and abuse.
I’ve shown the same film and associated artwork to schools, community halls and even politicians - to anyone who’ll give me the time and space to show them. We have to enthuse and impassion - we have to rant and rave. That word responsibility comes to mind again. Responsibility, like action on climate change, is now a moral imperative.
Before I left for Svalbard my Sophie, asked me if there would still be Polar Bears when she grows up. For all our sakes there’d better be.