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a mountain painter’s musings!

As a precursor to my "Rhythms of the Alps" exhibition, I wrote the following article for publication in the July 2007 issue of the Alpine Club Newsletter

grandes jorasses may

Les Grandes Jorasses ~ May, Chamonix-Mont-Blanc

View 'Rhythms of the Alps'

Painting around Chamonix and Zermatt over the past couple of years has been a brilliant experience. It’s not a part of the world I knew, having previously spent so much time in Norway, but roaming with a fresh eye and gradually becoming familiar with the landscape has been inspirational and a great adventure.

The very essence of my work lies in my love and fascination for snow, rock and ice. And where mountains are concerned, the more jagged and angular the better. My passion is for painting in a representational way while at the same time seeking out and emphasising the natural rhythms and patterns that these forms create. I endeavour to depict how I see the mountain environment, what such an environment means to me and what excites me about it; showing in particular, how it is affected by both subtle and dramatic changes in light, weather and the seasons. The minutiae as well as the whole are of equal interest; a rock can be 2m or 2000m high - and with or without a name! As long as the shapes, colours and light work together to create an interesting, balanced composition, I’ll paint it. And where better to find everything I desire than around Chamonix Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn?!

But being a mountain painter can, at times, be a little challenging. Here’s a light-hearted peek at the trickier aspects of practicing my profession!

First up, obstacle one: I’m no mountaineer, I don’t climb and I can’t ski – a great start for someone with a passion for painting alpine landscapes. Not one to let a few minor technicalities get in my way though, I make good use of the cable cars and many trails that weave their way over the hillsides high above the Chamonix valley. These can get me to most places I want to be, and a wee scramble will see me hidden safely away from the beaten track. 

But on arriving at a chosen destination, there’s obstacle two to confront: complete paralysis in the face of extensive inspirational beauty. Where to start??! Having spent months planning, even dreaming about this moment, it’s not great to experience this all-too-real and recurring problem.  However, finding a solution is what counts and, for me, it’s this: I switch off the crazy little voice that’s shouting ‘you can’t possibly do justice to this perfection, why bother trying’! It takes a bit of practice but only composure and focus will allow me to paint properly. Once concentration is absolute, the painting takes over and the world somehow disappears……..and that’s when magic can happen! I don’t think I’ll ever tire of the thrill of placing small patches of colour side by side on a flat surface and seeing solid objects appear.

That’s if obstacle three doesn’t get in the way: the weather. The notorious unpredictability of mountain weather is to be both celebrated and berated; at once both the maker of an atmospheric masterpiece and the wrecker of promising beginnings! I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve walked for hours and begun painting, only to have my subject engulfed in cloud in a matter of minutes, or my faltering efforts at a watercolour drenched to oblivion in seconds. And to spend a pleasant morning perched high beside the Bossons glacier painting gathering storm clouds may, on the face of it, be a worthwhile artistic exercise. Grossly underestimating the destination and time of arrival of said storm clouds can, however, be nothing short of disastrous! But when the weather behaves, its rewards can be breathtaking. None more so than a setting sun from high above the valley when, along with the fading daylight, tranquillity reigns. Last summer, an evening at Lac Blanc allowed me to watch alone, a beautiful sinking sun cast its many shades of gold across the whole of the Mont Blanc range. Gradually growing fainter until at last the alpenglow was gone, it left behind only a silence and stillness that is the secret of an icy world at dusk.  

zinalrothorn and weisshorn sunrise

Obergabelhorn and the Weisshorn ~ Sunrise, Switzerland

Access allowing, weather behaving and painter’s block permitting then, in any one two-week trip I may succeed in getting a little work done! Of most value to me are observational studies, in particular those of cloudless peaks. Getting to know their structure by drawing from different angles and at different times is hugely important to me, much as understanding the figure is important in life drawing. It enables me to correctly adorn rock with mist, snow or deep shadow and provides valuable information when working back in the studio with photo reference. A somewhat maligned practice by some, but hey, I live in south Wales 46 weeks a year!

My garden studio is my world. I love that when I can’t be in the mountains, it allows me to be back there – any time, anywhere. But without the views and the ambience, obstacle four appears: how do you stay inspired?  Well for me, that’s no problem.  I have many great recollections of escapades with my paint brush, especially around Chamonix and Gornergrat and I feel hugely lucky that my work enables me to travel to such incredible places! My alpine memories are an integral part of my paintings, every bit as important as putting paint on canvas. And thanks to them, it never takes long to become engrossed in painting the frozen world that I love so much.

If only I had more time to do it! Obstacle five: painting as a profession. There are two choices in the art world: gallery representation or self representation.  Never one to make things simple for myself and largely because of the subject matter I wanted to pursue,  I chose the latter...

Long ago after five years on the gallery circuit - and endless requests for the same local views – I followed my heart, jumped ship and headed for the hills. This has meant an awful lot of work alongside my  painting. But difficult as that is at times, it has given me freedom to paint what I desire. Though should you ever hear someone say to me “Gosh, I wish I could just paint all day”, perhaps you won’t be surprised if I sigh “so do I”!!

© Rowan Huntley 2017  email: