Relearning how to paint: ‘High Arctic’

High Arctic, soft pastel on Lux Archival 25x20cm

If you follow my blog or my Instagram account you’ll have seen that I recently visited Svalbard. I’m currently working on a collection of (non-Arctic) lighthouse paintings, but I have high hopes to spend the winter holed up in my attic working on a collection of large paintings of the stunning Svalbard landscape.

But a few weeks ago I was able to take part in an art workshop organised by the Pastel Society of Ireland and led by the wonderful visiting US artist Charles Peer (go look at his work – is wonderful and he’s also such a lovely, fun, funny man).

The workshop was fantastic on so many levels. After years where society has been either locked down or tentatively holding back and self-regulating contact, it was brilliant to connect and physically be in the same space as other artists.

I was nervous; and I did not find this an easy workshop. It forced me out of my comfort zone and made me work in new ways. For most of the day my painting looked appalling – but I’m so pleased with the final result which I’ve just got back from the framer.

key lessons:

  1. Planning. We were encouraged to play and plan with composition; to write down what attracted us to the image we wanted to paint; what was the *star* of the painting – and then to use that as the touchstone for all our decisions.
Pencil sketch for composition and values

2. Editing. I struggle to paint loosely. Always have done and probably always will. I blend where i know i should layer. The workshop and the medium we were given forced me to work in a different way and I loved the result. We used Lux Archival paper which is more sanded than my usual ‘go-to’ pastelmat and, combined with the small scale of my painting and the very limited palette i used these forced me to pare back in a sparse and spartan style which I think really suits the landscape of the Arctic.

3. Underpainting. Now this was scary for me. Especially since I had in my head the pure blues and grays and whites that I had seen on my trip. I opted for apricots, pinks and pale lilacs and I’m really pleased with the outcome. I’ve since opted to use contrasting underpaintings in other paintings, although I think it’s a technique I’ll dip into when I choose to, rather than something I’ll apply consistently. See below – what Charles called ‘the ugly stage’ of painting…. at this stage I did despair of pulling it back to where I wanted it to be…

Underpainting- the ugly phase

4. Alcohol. We also played around with alcohol washes which you can see in the underpainting above. I think i definitely need more practice with that technique!

5. Impact. I guess this relates to composition and detail. But boils down to the fact that most paintings are first seen from across a (crowded) room…. in order to be able to draw the viewer closer the painting needs to have visual impact from a distance. I hope that’s what I managed with my little study of the Lilliehammer fjord in Svalbard.

I DO still want to paint this on a grand epic scale, but I’m also really happy with its sparseness and how it all manages to haunt, and to draw me in, on this small scale.

Here’s the final painting, framed (still in its wrapping).

Arctic dreaming

In May this year I finally got to fulfil a long-held dream and visited Svalbard at the top of the world. 

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, Svalbard is an archipelago in the High Arctic, about 400 miles North of Norway, half-way to the North Pole.

The whole archipelago covers an area just slightly smaller than the UK I think but (aside from a few ghost towns and research stations) it has only a few small populated towns and less than 50km of road. 

It’s a vast frozen wilderness.  Human population (of whom I met a few) – 2400; polar bear population (of whom I met none) – 3000.

I can totally see that sub-zero temperatures are not everyone’s cup of tea when it comes to your average summer holiday; and I’m not entirely sure why I’ve felt such a strong pull towards magnetic North and the Arctic (although certainly David Attenborough has a lot to answer for and I confess to listening to David Gray’s song “Birds of the High Arctic” over and over on repeat).

Video footage of my trip, to music

Increasingly over the last few years I’ve been obsessed – its harsh environment; its history of adventure and exploration; the haunting myths and tales; the wonder of how life can survive in such a hostile place; the extremes of day and night, summer and winter; and the isolation and ghostly beauty. 

It was a dream come true to finally see it with my own eyes and it did not disappoint.

When I arrived, in mid May, already there had been no sunset on Svalbard for about a month; the next sunset fell last month in August; and by November, polar winter will set in; the sun will go down and it won’t rise again till next February. I find it hard to contemplate the effect of such dramatic seasonal shifts but I am wholly capitvated by the lure and magic of this place.

The midnight sun held charge while I was there – and I found it incredibly mesmerising whilst also knocking me completely out of kilter with my body’s natural rhythm so that instead of falling asleep I would stay up, eyes wide open and alert just so I could watch the sun go round.

Svalbard was everything I dreamed it would be and more.  I took a 3 day trip with Hurtigruten and would stand for hours in bitter cold on the deck of our expedition ship just so I could gaze at the landscape or the ice floes as we sailed past. 

For me, this was the most beautiful place I have ever visited – from dazzling blues and whites to ghostly shades of grey and (on one pretty terrifying snowmobile journey), a total whiteout.

Highlights were: driving a dog-sled of huskies (with the brilliant Green Dog Huskies) across a pristine snowfield; riding the aforementioned snow-mobile-of-terror over melting sea ice and through mountain valleys in virtually no visibility; watching Northern fulmars swooping just inches above mirror-glass seas without ever breaking the surface (these are amazing sea-birds, related to the albatross – they live to be 80 years old and their life-cycle echoes our own); hearing the boom of a calving glacier falling into the sea beside me; and (best of all) sailing to the 80th parallel, to the edge of the sea-ice that surrounds the polar ice cap.

Excited huskies

My fascination with polar regions started to creep into my art a few years ago when I exhibited a couple of paintings of (captive) polar bears swimming underwater.

Large original pastel painting of #polarbear diving into #arctic #sea #polar #animal #winter #ice #tundra #subaqua Soft pastels on Clairefontaine pastelmat card. 50cm x 70cm
Large original pastel painting of #polarbear in #arctic #sea. 50cm x70cm. Soft pastel on Clairefontaine pastelmat card

To be clear, I’ve no desire to get close enough to a bear in the wild to be able to paint him en plein air. But I’ve wanted to visit, to experience Arctic light; to see for myself the wild landscape and to be inspired to paint a series of paintings for exhibitions in the coming year. In reality I saw so many amazing and beautiful scenes that the challenge will be to select the images that move and inspire me most – though that’s a pretty pleasant problem to have.

Since my return I’ve not been able to clear the time to truly start into trying to capture this amazing place in pastel. I’ve only been able to complete this very quick, small 25x20cm sketch of Lilliehammer but I’m really looking forward to trying to do justice to this epic landscape with some large scale paintings.

I know that I am incredibly privileged and lucky to have been able to go and see all that I did.  But the experience has also inspired and challenged me. Svalbard is a temperature gauge for the health of the world we live in and it feels the impact of climate change more keenly than the rest of us. Whilst Svalbard is classed as a desert, temperatures and precipitation there are both rising, causing glaciers to melt and retreat and the icecap to shrink. 

On board our ship I met Hilde Falun Strom, a Norwegian woman who in 2015 survived an avalanche in Longyearbyen (the largest town in Svalbard) which swept away twelve of her neighbours’ houses.  For Hilde the avalanche was a deadly side-effect of climate change literally on her doorstep and it has prompted her to action.  In 2019 she and another woman (Sunniva Sorby) became the first two women to ‘overwinter’ alone in a remote trapper hut on Svalbard.  What started as a nine-month stay was extended as a result of covid. The two women started an environmental NGO, “Hearts in the Ice”, which is raising awareness of climate change and teaching people across the world to embrace b, through action. Throughout the time they were isolated at the hut, they conducted citizen science experiments on behalf of a wide range of researchers, including NASA.

Although I’m desperate to return, the polar winter, with its four months of darkness in temperatures of -30 degrees is something I can barely imagine and I was hugely moved and inspired by Hilde’s experience and her bravery. You can read more at  But I’ve left Svalbard inspired and encouraged to do what I can to make my footprint on the world smaller; to be a more responsible consumer, to waste less and to try to protect this incredible world around us. 

New year, new outlook, new painting

I like to welcome the new year with a new painting and this year is no different. I spent the morning of new year’s day planting climbing roses and clearing up in my garden, then was driven indoors and spent a few hours up in my attic studio starting a new work in progress, a glass of red on the table, as rain beat against the roof tiles. I love such afternoons.

Last new year’s day I started my painting “The Kelpies”, which I really love, with its filtering light and its supernatural sub-aqua magical realism theme. You can see it below…

This year I’ve thought about what I loved most about The Kelpies and what I would change. I’m still drawn to the filtering, dappling light of underwater and feel like I could spend the whole of 2022 and beyond painting underwater scenes. That’s why my new work in progress picks up on the light and colour and kelp of the Kelpies. And whilst I’m hoping for a touch of magic, this painting will be rooted in realism, but that wonderful other-worldly realism that you find beneath the waves.

It’s very early days and there is much magic still to be added with more and more layers of pastel. But here’s the progress so far after a few rainy hours on new year’s day.

Work in progress – so huge it won’t all fit on my easel. 70cm x 100cm
a little seal who will be half- hidden in the sea kelp

Gathering Storm

Gathering Storm, pastel on card, 50cm x 50cm

I’ve been playing with this piece for a few weeks, just for me, in between other commitments. I found it much harder than I expected and even now that I’ve finished and walked away from it, there are things I love and things I don’t love about it.

I’m not sure that it photographs well, but when I went up to my studio tonight to start on a new painting, i forgot this was on my easel and i was surprised at how striking it is in real life.

It’s quite big, 50cm x 50cm. Originally I was going to call it Last of the Light but its become Gathering Storm in my head.

Here’s how it came about:

Swan Lake, framed

Two of my favourite things about painting are:

  • Watching the transformation that happens when a really good framer works their magic on my art; and
  • When somebody falls in love with one of my paintings. It’s a privilege to have my work hang in someone’s home and it makes me happy if it brings them pleasure.

And this weekend I got to experience both of these – the excitement of picking up the newly framed Swan Lake and the pleasure of passing it on to its new owner. Here’s how that went 😊

Swan Lake, pastel on card, 50 x 70 cm
Happy new owner
And finally, in situ in its new home

Cosy cushions in time for Christmas…

I’m excited to have a new small range of luxury vegan suede cushions to offer on my shop page.

These make perfect Christmas presents, or why not treat yourself.

So comfortable and luxurious to touch – each is made out of vegan suede and includes filler. They work as individuals or why not pair them up to make a set.

Sunshine on a cloudy day

I’ve been racing the onset of winter with this latest project to transform a wooden gazebo…


…into a perpetually sunny, coastal themed summer-house, and finally finished last weekend.


I’m pleased with the results which combine traditional postcard scenes on the outside panels with a more ethereal internal vibe of airy sky- blue walls and ceilings complete with graceful swooping arctic terns.

So the finished product should brighten even the dullest of Northern Ireland winters for years to come. But this was no easy task – i spent hours painting contorted into all shapes – lying on my side, or kneeling, or cross-legged till my muscles ached; or standing atop a ladder, bending backwards to paint above me (kudos, Michaelangelo – you were made of sterner stuff than me)

But it’s all worth it to see the finished transformation – here’s a video of how it went –

Swan Lake (finished)

I’m happy to finally lay the pastels down on this painting of the swans at Lough Neagh.

It’s been challenging to paint but i just find the light so mesmerising and the swans so dramatic against the evening sky.

It’s also been a bit of a learning curve – working towards what o thought was the finished composition only to return to it and change the shoreline so it curves round at the bottom right hand corner and so extends the diagonal reach across the image. I’m much happier with version 2 of the finished painting.

Hopefully going off to be framed this week before going to its new home, although i hope to have a few prints available on the shop page soon.

Swan Lake, 50 x 70 cm, pastel on card

Swan Lake

August was busy.

I only managed to get one painting done (see my previous post about standing on the shoulders of giants for my painting of Northern Ireland’s beautiful Giant’s Causeway – better still, come visit the Causeway itself!) – I’m a bit disappointed in myself

The good news is I think I’m now starting to recover from the stresses of August and able to carve out some more time for art (which always equates to ‘Me Time’).

September has landed with its back to school feel. The days are shorter, the evenings longer and the lure of my attic studio is stronger than ever.

I find myself drawn to those ‘turn of the seasons’type scenes and have finally immersed myself in a new work in progress that I’ve been planning since springtime – the working title is “Swan Lake” and its of the swans at Antrim Forum, on the shores of Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland, captured at that magical moment when daylight turns to twilight.

Swan Lake, pastel on card, 50cm x 70cm

I’m loving the light and the reflections, the graceful curve of the birds’ necks and the trees silhouetted against the sky.

What I’m not loving, it turns out, is the challenge of keeping the whites and creams crisp against a dark blue lough with a medium as mobile and unstable and frankly smudgy as pastel. It’s been a challenge, though I’m excited to see it coming together and I’m looking forward to posting the final image which will be available to buy as a limited edition print later in the season.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

Giants Causeway, 40cm x 30cm, pastel on card

Growing up in Northern Ireland, one of the first things that you learn in school and in life is that there’s more to this world than meets the eye. Ladies and gentlemen, there’s enchantment all around – the landscape has been etched by fairies and folklore (don’t cut down a hawthorn tree or the fairies will seek vengeance) and giants once roamed the earth.

Whichever version of history you lean towards the Giants Causeway on the Antrim Coast mesmerises. Visually stunning it dramatically holds its own against a dizzying midday sun or wild January seas and skies.

Geology is no less dramatic than legend, the Causeway was born in the turmoil of volcanic eruption and molten rocks that cooled to set into over 40,000 basalt columns, set together like pieces of a jigsaw.

However every school child knows the real story is of angry giants, with Irish giant Finn McCool building the causeway to go fight his Scottish rival, Benadonner. Don’t believe me? Go check out the huge rock boot and chair and organ pipes left as evidence.

Whilst the Giants Causeway attracts millions of tourists from across the world, it’s engrained in my mind as a place of childhood holidays. Blue skies, sunny days, scrambling one slippery rocks and scree, climbing the cliff path and icecream afterwards.

There’s a photo of me, aged about 8, with my sister, my cousin and my lovely, much loved Aunt Jean (who we lost much too soon, nearly 30 years ago). We’re perched on this basalt columns, blinking into the sun, Aunt Jean’s arms around us, warm rocks at our backs. It’s a happy memory and as I’ve been working on this and the painting has emerged into life the memory of that photograph, and that childhood day out has taken hold and become a driver. It’s what i see now and think of when i look at this painting, a perfect memory that is tinged with love and loss and the feeling of warm sun baked rocks.

The painting is a commission. I plan to make some prints so watch out for those on my shop page.

In the meantime here’s the final framed painting. Thanks

%d bloggers like this: