A view from Scotland: Personal observations on the SWLA’s Scottish artists by Lisa Hooper

Lisa Hooper was recently asked by the Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA), of which she is a member, to write an article about the organisation's Scottish members.  About a fifth of SWLA's members (12) are based in Scotland, whose population is only a tenth of England’s. Almost all are also regular exhibitors at Waterston House (SOC headquarters in Aberlady).  So what attracts some of the UK’s leading wildlife artists to Scotland and what do they contribute?

Who’s who?

Although Scotland has a population which is less than a tenth of that of England and Wales, approximately a fifth of the SWLA’s members live there. At the moment there are 12 members north of the border, from Orkney to West Galloway and from South Uist to East Lothian. The painting above of Black Grouse is by SWLA member Darren Rees.

This article celebrates our Scottish members and seeks to delve down into what makes Scotland such an attractive place in which to live and work for our artists.

The twelve artists are: Lisa Hooper (West Galloway); Nye Hughes (Edinburgh); Kittie Jones (Edinburgh); Liz Myhill (Perth/Skye); William Neill (South Uist); Darren Rees (Forth Valley, near Stirling); Chris Rose (Cairngorms, near Grantown-on-Spey); Jane Smith (Tayvallich, Argyll); John Threlfall, (Aboyne, Aberdeenshire); Chris Wallbank (East Lothian); Darren Woodhead (East Lothian); Tim Wootton (Shapinsay, Orkney). 

We are all painters and/or printmakers: there are no sculptors among us. We are very well spread geographically…

Why Scotland?

Interestingly, almost all of us are from outwith Scotland but chose to settle here. And many of us have been here for a long time, some having moved within Scotland at least once.

Chris Rose came from Kent 33 years ago, initially to the Borders. John Threlfall came to Dumfries and Galloway 32 years ago but moved to Aberdeenshire five years ago. Others have stuck to one place: William Neill arrived on South Uist in 1980 and (perhaps unsurprisingly!) has never left. 

Tim Wootton moved to the Orkney Island of Shapinsay 20 years ago from Yorkshire and has since lived and worked on West Mainland, Stromness and South Ronaldsay before recently moving back to Shapinsay, where it all started. He emphasized the abundance of inspiration from both landscape and wildlife, which was close by wherever he lived on Orkney.

Curlews across the bay; Burwick by Tim Wootton

Some people came here as students and stayed: Nye Hughes came to Aberdeen to study zoology and developed his work as a wildlife artist alongside a career in graphic design. Kittie Jones came to Scotland to do a foundation course at the Leith School of Art and then attended the Edinburgh College of Art. Others came following a partner’s career as they sought a better quality of life and perhaps a more affordable lifestyle while they built their own careers in art.         

The attraction of Scotland to wildlife artists is not much of a mystery. For everyone I spoke to, the proximity or accessibility of beautiful places with abundant wildlife was the most significant draw.  Many of the artists, such as Jane Smith, William Neill and Tim Wootton, have chosen to live in deeply rural locations, immersing themselves in their locality. I myself live within sight of a Gannet colony but am also close to the various tributaries of the Solway and to the Galloway Hills in a quite remote part of South West Scotland.

Mull of Galloway from Piltanton Burn by Lisa Hooper

Others, particularly those in and around Edinburgh, such as Kittie Jones and Nye Hughes, have pointed to the advantages of living in a small city, close to the East Lothian coast but also well connected to the Highlands. Darren Rees mentioned not only the proximity of the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park (with seven Munro’s visible from his studio), but also the easy access to the Firth of Forth with its winter waders and wildfowl. 

The view from Darren Rees' studio                    

Darren Rees at work

“Im surrounded by farmland that can be busy with birds, particularly in the winter when flocks of Pink-footed Geese roam the valley floor along with Redwings, Fieldfares and the occasional Hen Harrier and Merlin…My studio does enjoy panoramic views across to the central highlands and I can see the summits of seven munros (peaks over 3000ft) – from Ben Lomond and the Arrochar Alps in the west to the twin Perthshire peaks of Ben Vorlich and Stuc A Chroin in the north.” Darren Rees

Some members like Darren Rees and John Threlfall, who earn part of their living from teaching wildlife drawing and observation, derive obvious benefit from being close to beautiful and biodiverse destinations.

Chris Rose came to the Borders from Kent originally but after 30 years felt the need for a change of scene and some fresh stimulation. He chose the Cairngorms partly because it was his wife’s original home but he is also interested in the contrasting woodland and highland scenery and natural history. At the same time, the coast and estuaries are not prohibitively distant.

Chris Rose sketching Ptarmigan

Darren Woodhead, who is originally from Yorkshire, moved to East Lothian in 1996, in the first instance because his wife had a place at the Edinburgh College of Art. He finds that the coast is much quieter than it is in England, particularly in the winter when he enjoys drawing outside the most and can do so without attracting attention. He has always been fascinated by migration and the sense that gives of the larger rhythms of nature. The Firth of Forth is of course a fantastic place to witness those movements.

Aberlady saltmarsh by Darren Woodhead

Although many of our artists had existing connections with Scotland, only Liz Myhill was born and bred here. Originally from Skye, she now spends her time divided between there and Perthshire. Her recollections of otters and Corncrakes on her family croft go back to childhood. This sense of embeddedness is reflected in her work and her biography. She alone pointed to the importance of the Gaelic culture and also Scotland’s Right to Roam, without which her “experience of nature would be impoverished.” 

Liz Myhill drawing on the shore on Skye

“I'm drawn to these places that allow for a sense of solitude and discovery, places where I can pass several days walking, drawing, camping and rarely if ever meet another person. And I particularly enjoy those places to which I can return time and again, observing their many facets and understanding some of the rhythms of the year and the wildlife that inhabits them.” Liz Myhill

Chris Wallbank, who moved to East Lothian from Wales three years ago talked about the ease of finding birds to draw.

“Scotland offers such a rich diversity of wildlife, especially birdlife and many species I now see commonly are ones I could take days to connect with in Mid Wales, if at all. Curlew by the side of the road, magnificent Long-tailed Ducks on the coast and of course the spectacle of seabirds and wintering wild fowl are all on my doorstep. I even have Yellowhammers and Tree Sparrows, now so scarce in much of the UK, visiting my garden, ready to draw!” Chris Wallbank

Chris was attracted not only by the potentially inspirational landscape and natural history but also by his own desire and that of his wife, Shenaz, to contribute to conservation, in Shenaz' case professionally. They both survey seabirds and cetaceans for VSAS (Volunteer Seabirds at Sea) and ORCA, and Shenaz works for the SOC as its Visitor Experience Officer at Waterston House.

Yellowhammer sketches by Chris Wallbank

William Neill on South Uist also does a great deal of what must be extremely valuable wildlife recording and helped to set up a branch of the Outer Hebrides Natural History Society. I can think of several other members and their partners who must have made a massive contribution to Scotland’s biological records over the years.

William Neill at the Donald Watson Gallery, Aberlady

A dispersed community

I tried to tease out any downsides to living and working in Scotland. Hardly anyone felt there were significant disadvantages but obviously remoteness from markets and services (for instance, professional framing) were mentioned. Tim on Orkney mentioned the difficulty and additional expense of transporting work to exhibitions elsewhere in the UK. He is not alone in feeling somewhat isolated by geography. This isolation for many of us is also an impediment to getting to know each other. I have felt the absence of a nearby fellow wildlife artist in Dumfries and Galloway particularly keenly since John Threlfall moved north to Aberdeenshire.

John Threlfall drawing in the field

Jane Smith observed that being so isolated forced her to solve various technical printmaking problems herself, contributing to her unique style. I have also found that having to make things work for myself encouraged me to try out almost every available printmaking technique as well as obliging me to make various items of equipment; such as an aquatint box for etching out of an old tea chest and a foot pump….

But I discovered that a strong and mutually supportive community does exist in spite of the geographical challenges, much of it engendered by the Seabird Drawing course in East Lothian established by the late John Busby in 1989 and attended over the years by a substantial number of SWLA Members, north and south of the border. For Kittie Jones, who was introduced to the course by Greg Poole SWLA (who tragically died in 2018), it was a turning point in her career as a wildlife artist and teacher. The privileged access to stunning seabird colonies and John’s open-minded approach to people’s responses to the natural world informed both her artistic development and her own teaching style.      

Kittie Jones sketching at St Abb’s Head                            

Kittiwake colony by Kittie Jones

Darren Woodhead, who alongside Nik Pollard and Kittie has worked to keep the Seabird Drawing course running since John’s death, also commented on his extraordinarily intensive teaching style with its emphasis on understanding everything about the subject from its anatomy to its colour, its behaviour and even its weight; “the lightness of a wing”. John Threlfall has also taught on the Seabird Drawing Course, which continues to promote strongly the SWLA’s commitment to drawing from life, en plein air.

Darren Woodhead sketching on the Bass Rock

On being a “Creative Scot”

I was keen to find out how my colleagues felt about being part of the Scottish art scene. To what extent were we benefitting from support for Scottish creatives?  And how easy is it to be a professional wildlife artist in Scotland?

Scotland has its own public bodies supporting the Arts sector, from Creative Scotland to local arts centres, open studio circuits, craft trails, public and private galleries, and even its own union (the Scottish Artists Union), which many people join for its affordable public liability insurance.

Edinburgh-based artist Kittie Jones spoke of the tremendous advantages of living close to Edinburgh Printmakers, where she has access to studio equipment for printmaking as well as being part of a community of people with great technical knowledge of printing and their own inspirational work to share. Oddly, I first met Kittie many years ago in their previous premises during a course I was attending on Japanese woodblock printing, supported by a Scottish Visual Arts Grant. Inverness and Glasgow also have open print studios.

John Threlfall has also benefited from a grant from Creative Scotland and is currently being given some support by them to mentor a young artist.

Upland Lapwing - pastel drawing by John Threlfall

People did mention the lack of exhibiting opportunities within reasonable travelling distance for what is sometimes seen as niche subject matter. Tim Wootton solved this problem by running his own gallery for eleven years in Stromness and then three years in Kirkwall. His gallery has now closed: sadly, ultimately badly affected by falling numbers of visitors post-Covid.  Of course, online sales have been of huge benefit to us all during these recent challenging times. However, Chris Rose and John Threlfall exhibited recently with internationally acclaimed artist Justin Prigmore at Grantown-on-Spey Museum, demonstrating that there are opportunities to exhibit even in small towns.

Findhorn Bay roost by Chris Rose

There are also some forms of local public support. In South West Scotland for instance, we have an arts centre in Dumfries from which our own very strong and well-established Open Studio event, Spring Fling, is organized.  John Threlfall and I have taken part in the latter for many years and it’s a great opportunity to talk to people about wildlife art and studio practice. It also attracts a strong audience of serious art buyers. There are Open Studio events in the North East (NEOS), Argyll, the Borders, Perthshire, Cowal and elsewhere which SWLA members have taken part in as well as WASPS Open studios and other studio trails, undoubtedly supported in part by summer visitors from elsewhere in the UK and abroad.

Jane Smith

“We have a great Open Studio Trail called Artmap Argyll with more than 40 members. There are nine artists and makers living in our village, partly because its so scenic. The landscape is part of the visitor attraction on the trail, as well as the diversity of art practices. All of us are inspired by our surroundings in some way, whether for landscape painting, wildlife art, or more literally to provide materials for crafts such as basket weaving. Art is a lovely way to share our excitement and talk to people about the place that we live, and its an opportunity to talk about wildlife conservation too.” Jane Smith

The Donald Watson Gallery showing work by Lisa Hooper in 2018

The role of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club in promoting wildlife art in Scotland also deserves a special mention here. The purpose-built Donald Watson gallery at Waterston House, The Club's headquarters, was opened in 2005 by Magnus Magnusson. It features a year-round programme of exhibitions of wildlife art in all its forms and is one of the UK’s leading wildlife art venues.  Unsurprisingly, almost all of the SWLA’s Scottish members have exhibited there, many of them several times and just to underscore this, at least four of us are exhibiting there in separate exhibitions this year.     

Guillemots by Nye Hughes

Nye, painting on a clifftop

Ask not “What can Scotland do for us?”, but “What can we do for Scotland?”

One of the SWLA’s core aims is to use art to generate an appreciation of and delight in the natural world through all its forms and to further an awareness of conservation. To what extent do members in Scotland further these aims?

Kittie Jones, Jane Smith and Nye Hughes have all worked on the Isle of May Bird Observatory during special weeks set aside for seabird drawing and teaching. The Trust which runs the Observatory recognizes the value of artists (there are about half a dozen staying at a time, for three weeks) in promoting its work, and the artists in turn contribute by noting all their observations in the log book during their stay. 

As mentioned, Chris Wallbank, William Neill and others also contribute to various biological recording schemes.

Jane Smith, Kittie Jones, Chris Rose, John Threlfall and Liz Myhill, (with Members from England) have also all taken part in an art project promoting and supporting the Argyll and Islands Hope Spot. Hope Spots are internationally recognized designated areas which aim to protect and enhance biodiversity.  Argyll and the Islands is the only Hope Spot in the UK and covers a vast area from the Sound of Jura to Loch Sunart. Some of the artists worked underwater using snorkels and diving equipment to produce sketches on waterproof pads of the abundant and stunning sea life.

Darren Woodhead, who perhaps has the highest public profile among us, uses media opportunities as well as talks and demonstrations to introduce people to birdlife as well as to art. He has worked frequently with youngsters abroad (notably with Birdlife Malta and in Arctic Norway), and also closer to home at the Edinburgh College of Art, encouraging young people to step outside and take an interest in the natural world. He’s also helped out on the SOC/BTO Scottish Bird Camp with talks, demonstrations and workshops.

Singing male Redstart and apple blossom by Darren Woodhead

Many of our artists in Scotland have connections with various wildlife NGOs here including the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, the RSPB and the Scottish National Trust which regularly hold wildlife art exhibitions in order to help to raise funds and reach new audiences.

Stubble-field Lapwings by Jane Smith

Jane Smith has provided artwork for the RSPB’s Loch Gruinart Reserve and the Borders Forest Trust and Chris Wallbank designed a logo for the Volunteer Seabirds at Sea group. During the Covid lockdown, I worked on a poster for the South of Scotland Golden Eagle project and I’ve also supplied images for the Dumfries and Galloway Bird Report and the North Ronaldsay Bird Report. Many of us also donated work to the recent BTO Red data books celebrating through art and writing the UK’s most threatened birds. Liz Myhill says, “I volunteer or have previously volunteered with a number of conservation organisations; for example, Volunteer Seabirds at Sea with Calmac ferries for JNCC, doing seabird surveys (occasional) and wildlife surveys with Rewilding Denmarkfield, a small rewilding project a couple of miles north of Perth, (where I'm also doing a self-motivated art project to track the changes there). I'd love to work more closely with Scottish conservation organisations in the future….”

This is far from being a comprehensive list. I’m sure all of us will have contributed in a variety of ways to the work of many such organisations over the years, simply because we love our subject and believe in their work.

The future for Scottish wildlife art

It’s perhaps not surprising that so many of us migrated to Scotland given the obvious connection between its rich natural capital and our chosen subject matter. What’s perhaps more surprising is the relative lack of members who come from Scotland. Perhaps we should all think about what we can do to encourage Scottish youngsters to stay: because it’s clear that Scotland is a great place to be a wildlife artist.         

Seabird cliffs on Skye by Liz Myhill (Swarovski Prizewinner Natural Eye 2021)

I would like to thank fellow artists in Scotland for their generous and thoughtful contributions to this article.

Lisa Hooper

Images © the artists