Painting mountains

After a gap of around six years I have been painting in oils again. I started painting in 2011. Before then I had done no kind of painting since I had left school, having focused on maths at university and then working as a data scientist, along with spending pretty much all of my leisure time training and racing in the mountains.

From around 2010 onwards, I felt an increasing urge to paint. I wanted to capture the mountains I spent so much of my time racing around, to explore them in a different way. In the spring of 2011 I brought an easel, a few canvases and some oil paints and off I went. I painted in oils for an 18-month spell, until my older daughter was around six months old. Then I started working more in watercolour and ink and left the oils alone for more than five years. I think I always knew I would come back to them, I just didn’t know when.

I think there are a few reasons why I have recently returned to the easel, canvas and oils. The first is practical ‐ my younger daughter is now three years old and very respectful of my paintings. She runs everywhere around our house and likes looking at the paintings on the easel but also says that she will be careful around them and won’t knock them off. This wouldn’t have been the case a year ago :o)

The second is that I am busy with work and wanting to spend much of the spare time I have with my family. My children are so much fun. Currently I am not getting to go the mountains as much as I have gotten used to. I am missing them and the release I get when I am amongst them. Painting them is a good alternative to being there, particularly when I paint from photographs I have taken when out and about in the hills. The memories of being out in them come flooding back and the places my head goes to when I paint are very relaxing. It helps me to unwind.

The third is the inspiration I felt when I spent a week in Kintail in the western Highlands last summer. Late July and into August, the spell of seemingly never‐ending hot sunny weather had broken. Perversely this led to better light for painting. The bright glare of a sunny day may be great for many things but this harsh light does not lend itself well to painting. Winter and autumn sunlight in the hills, with the rich colours associated with these seasons are often much more inspiring times. The bright greens, yellows and blues of summer are lovely in many ways but they are flat, particularly during the long periods between dawn and dusk.

Looking to Glen Carron

During that week in Kintail there were times of dark cloud, rain, bright sunshine and in the hills were feelings of four seasons. As I approached the summit of Sgurr na Lapaich freezing lumps of hail were blown directly into my face by a fierce wind. Such a change from two weeks’ previously, when I had taken a run around much of the Tranter’s Round in Lochaber in near perfect weather.

It was earlier during this climb up Sgurr na Lapaich, when I looked to the Glen Carron hills to the east, I saw the scene I knew would form my next oil painting. It was so exciting, in one of the most remote and beautiful parts of the Highlands I had an urge that felt familiar but that I hadn’t experienced for some years. I wanted to get hold of a canvas, my brushes and set the easel up for a stint of larger landscape paintings in oils. Not there and then but soon, probably a month or so later, after we had got home from our summer holidays, got through the fun and games of moving house (which we did in late‐August last year), and had settled in and relaxed into our new surroundings a little.


I let this urge brew for a while in my subconscious and started to paint again last October. The feelings of release were immediate. Since I started painting eight years ago I am finding that as far as my creative thinking goes I need to go with the flow. Forcing myself to do things doesn’t really work. When the urge to paint in oils left me in 2012 I didn’t push it, I just did other things instead.

I have now just finished the third painting in a series of four scenes from my week in Kintail, and am looking forward to starting the next. The feelings I have when attempting to capture a scene are a mixture of nervousness and excitement. Completely in the moment, I get lost in trying to paint the light, in using colour and darkness to convey it.

In one of her poems - Embodiment - Nan Shepherd states ’There is no substance but light’. These words and the context in which she was writing them completely fascinated me. They made me think even more about the ways I looked at mountains, in a way they made me realise I needed to try harder to see.

Shepherd was so right. It is the light on the mountains that gives them their look and feeling, their colour and demeanour. These change with the light, the scenes I saw in the mountains during my holiday in Kintail are examples of this.

Her words formed the title for my contribution to Waymaking and have inspired me to think far more about light when I am painting. While I think I am beginning to capture light better, I have some way to go. I will keep trying! At the moment I am thinking that when I finish my forth Kintail painting I move on to some snow scenes from the Cairngorm plateau. During an incredible day out running just before Christmas in 2017, I took a few photographs and am feeling that I will be moving on to working from these next. Yet again I am inspired by the genius of Nan Shepherd, along with the mountains she loved the most.