MASTER PAINTER RAY BALKWILL REVEALS HIS TRICKS FOR CAPTURING THE DRAMA OF MOUNTAINS, LOCHS AND WATERFALLS AS HE TUTORS A PAINTING GROUP IN THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS
‘The call of the wild’ is perhaps one of the most seductive and stirring
phrases ever coined, and for me it is epitomised by the grandeur of the Scottish Highlands. For the past few years I have led painting courses based at Achintraid on the beautiful shores of Loch Kishorn. The views across the loch to the sandstone corries and hills of Applecross, which rise to nearly 3,000ft, are awe-inspiring. To the east, the limestone hills rise more gently with hidden lochs and peaty burns. The light and colours, combined with the history and romance, make it an inspirational place.
Painting is always a challenge no matter what your level of ability, but perhaps none more so than when faced with an unfamiliar landscape. I remember my first trip, during which I felt excitement and apprehension.
I was ill-prepared for the sheer scale of the mountains. Being confronted with a vast, unpredictable landscape can be daunting, so this is where a viewfinder is crucial in narrowing the field of vision and creating the right composition. It also helps to decide which format is best suited to the scene – landscape, portrait or square.
In a remote landscape, combining sketching with walking is a rewarding way of gathering information, as well as soaking up the spirit of a place. In my experience, rushing too quickly into colour, particularly in an unfamiliar landscape, brings problems.
On the first day of my courses, I encourage students to sketch in monochrome. I believe this not only helps develop stronger powers of observation, but sharpens awareness of shapes and tones. Also, gently easing the students into a difficult subject by drawing first subconsciously helps breed confidence. My sketches take many forms; some record
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topographical features in line, often with colour notes, while others, using a broader medium, such as charcoal, create mood and atmosphere. I find when I am working in the studio it is the sketch, rather than the photograph, that rekindles my emotions.
When painting mountains you have to think carefully about the subject and how its main shapes are arranged. Ideally there should be interaction between the shapes, creating a sense of movement around the picture as well as a feeling of depth. Focus on shapes, rather than things, and think of your paintings as mosaics of interlocking shapes, some larger, some smaller, but all related.
In a mountain scene there are a number
of main lines formed by mountainsides and foreground slopes. If these lines are continued, the majority will meet at one or more points. These are the vanishing points, and general composition depends on their position. The simplest composition is one where there is only one vanishing point and, in this case, it is best for it to lie outside, instead of inside, the picture area. This means that the eye is led out of painting, suggesting that more is going on. Including buildings, animals or figures can also give a sense of scale, as well as adding life and a focal point to the picture. Most landscapes are painted in a horizontal format, but sometimes a square or portrait view can work equally as well.
Foregrounds are important. Without them it is impossible to appreciate the scale and grandeur of a mountainous scene. However, although we see more detail in the foreground, it is better to simplify this. I often take a lower eye level and look through grasses to make the scene more interesting.
Mountains and water – the two just go together. Rivers, waterfalls and lochs impart a life to the landscape. Few painters can resist painting a mountain stream or waterfall, yet are often disappointed with the results. The bubbling, dashing turbulence is often transformed into something static and
LEFT Moorland Falls, mixed media on paper, 36x53cm BELOW Autumn Light over Loch Kishorn, mixed media on paper, 33x46cm
lifeless in paint. Simplifying and working with speed are my tips for success, whatever medium you choose. I find using a vigorous treatment will carry far more conviction, particularly when painting moving water. When working in watercolour, masking fluid can be useful in reserving the highlights as in mixed-media Moorland Falls (above).
One of the most exciting things about mountainous terrain is the weather. I am disappointed when there are cloud-free days, as clouds and their shadows add so much atmosphere. Although the changeable weather can be frustrating, it is the different light and transient moods that define the character of a place. I set the mood of the picture by painting the sky first, focusing on the most interesting part of the sky.
It is surprising how many artists treat the
sky and landscape as separate subjects. When painting skies, it is important to work quickly to organise the arrangement from the outset – and then stick to it. Another important consideration is the proportion of space devoted to land and sky, and whether you choose a high or low horizon. Of course, in this kind of terrain, it is the landscape that tends to dominate, with the sky playing a secondary role.
I came across a lovely quote by the 19th-century, Scottish-born naturalist and early conservationist, John Muir. His words summed it up when he said: “Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.”
Explore Ray’s painting courses in Scotland, Devon and Cornwall at www.raybalkwill.co.u