What Seas, What Shores

Five painters look at Orkney and Shetland

Paul Bloomer, Ruth Brownlee, Laura Drever, Gail Harvey & Diana Leslie

The landscape of the Northern Isles has long been a popular subject for painters. Their work has, for the most part, dealt with the topography of the isles. With increasing frequency however, in both Orkney and Shetland, a number of painters have begun to address landscape more subjectively. Their works suggest a deep identification with place; a sense of being emotionally and conceptually in and of the isles. For them, landscape is, as the poet and philosopher Amiel put it, “a condition of the spirit”.

Shetland artist Gail Harvey says – I can’t think of painting the sea in any fixed moment. It’s just not holdable in that way because its nature is change and letting go. Harvey’s work conjures weather, changes in light, even the physical sensation of moving in and through the land. Paul Bloomer expresses similar objectives – I am not interested in topographical likeness – but rather try to capture some of the elemental energy of the place. Orcadian Diana Leslie says, while there are elements of constant change, especially at the edges of the landscape there are elements which are solid and don’t move; anchors which create tension amongst such instability. Like Bloomer, Leslie often paints outdoors, and preferably in wild conditions – Weather, she insists, is never quite as bad as it looks [from] behind glass.

Laura Drever’s works evoke Orcadian landscape, but are composed and developed in the confines of the studio. To quote the artist – The light, the elements, natural objects and movements within the landscape are all memorised and transferred to sketches and canvases on return to the studio. In her paintings colours evoke hill and moorland, the shape of a loch, cloud shadow and bird flocks. Rather than admiring a view, we enter the landscape with the artist. Like Leslie’s, Ruth Brownlee’s work is specific in its location, but it is also obsessively concerned with the transience of sea and sky. Her eye is often drawn to the marginal spaces where land and sea collide – I always weather watch. As with Drever, Brownlee works mostly from memory, but with sketches and photographs for occasional reference.

Landscape in its broadest sense, encompasses light, weather, fauna, flora, history, industry, mythology and much more. Historically, painting has reflected our relationship to the land, as a rural economy gave way to urban industrialisation and land use changed. Now faced with the rigours of climate change, we are once again invited to consider our place in the natural environment.
Like music, painting is by its very nature abstract; colours arranged on cave wall or canvas. If we arrange them thus, they resemble a bison or a landscape. The challenge for the artist is, through his or her medium, to enable the viewer to see the subject anew. These five painters have after decades of observation, exploration and experimentation, acquired a unique insight into their island home. Their work sings of the breaking wave, of simmer dim, crimson sunsets and the flight of birds. By dint of their artistry, they offer us a chance to see Orkney and Shetland with fresh eyes and thereby, perhaps, rediscover our relationship with land and sea.


So soon the air grows cold
and the dark draws in.
Across grey skies skeins of geese
drift in gabbling waves.
But today the sea is blue, blue
as it floods from the horizon
and fills your eyes
and your heart is caught
by that small red boat that gleams
In the low sunlight, poised
on calm water
a fisherman hauling creels
off Braga.

Yvonne Gray