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With Grant support from the Andrew Croft Memorial Fund and the Gino Watkins Memorial Fund/ Edward Wilson Fund, I visited Greenland in June 2009 to paint the stunning Ilulissat Icefjord and surrounding area. It was a breathtaking experience!

An Arctic Painting Odyssey

A piercing turquoise glint at the corner of my eye caused me to gasp momentarily as we banked steeply at 37,000 feet. Fleetingly, far, far below, several jewel-like pools in a myriad of blues glistened in the sunlight. We were flying over the Ice Cap and these were melt-water lakes directly beneath us; I’d read about them often but I could barely believe I was seeing them for myself. I was in Greenland at last.

I had decided to head north to paint in the Arctic after many stimulating excursions to paint alpine glaciers in Europe. I was excited by the idea that Greenland would hold a much wilder ice environment than anything I’d seen before. In addition, painting around the mountains and glaciers of Europe has given me an appetite for further exploration of what our landscape would once have looked like just after the last major period of ice cover. Greenland is probably the last place on earth where remnants of that prehistoric ice still exist, which is a thrilling prospect. The country is also much less impacted (by people) than the European landscapes I’m used to painting and is not as easily accessible, yet it is still within reach. This makes it an ideal place to broaden my knowledge and painting of glaciation, whilst at the same time providing me with a new challenge and sense of adventure.

west coast from dash 7

Photo: west coast landscape from the Dash 7 Plane. 

The UNESCO World Heritage status of the Ilulissat icefjord on Greenland’s west coast, together with its connection with British Polar exploration, a few photos I’d seen and several descriptions I’d read, singled this out straight away as a perfect destination.  And I was not to be disappointed. Firstly, I had a perfect view of the west coast landscape from the small plane I took from Kangerlussuaq to Ilulissat on the final leg of my journey there. Straight away I noticed the immense scale of the obvious traces of glaciation on the ground below and this took me by surprise. It was much more pronounced than I’d ever seen before.  The vast expanses of smooth, rounded rocks (or roches moutonnées as they are termed) and the carved valleys aligned in the same direction gave away a past history of mass glaciation. This was again something I’d only previously read about. Secondly, the icefjord from the air looked spectacular as it stretched its way from inland ice to sea, but the real impact of this would come later, on the ground, face to face.

Ilulissat town is Greenland’s third biggest ‘city’, with a population of around 5000 people. It is not a pretty place, clearly its main aim is to function efficiently and self sufficiently throughout the Arctic year. But its jolly, brightly painted wooden houses lined up on the hillside are a welcoming sight and are a clue to the warmth of the community who live there. The hub of the city is the harbour as both fishing and tourism generate much income and are a major part of life. Ilulissat bay is consistently busy with boats of all sizes and is dominated by the ice bergs which continually break free of the fjord to make their way up the coast and out to sea. That people have adapted to making their living from these dangerous, icy waters is unbelievable, and highly admirable, to say the least.

Just an hour’s walk from town is the icefjord itself and nothing could have prepared me for that first view. Rounding some hillocks near the ancient settlement of Sermermiut, I was stopped in my tracks by the magnificent sight of an enormous river of gleaming icebergs, jammed together and rising out of the sea in all directions. I scrambled up a rocky outcrop which gave further spectacular views and also safety away from the shallow shore and tsunami risk of turning bergs. It was here that I first set up my easel and began to work. With this surreal sight before me, and after a year of preparation, I was finally painting icebergs in Greenland.

wc icefjord

Ilulissat icefjord, watercolour.

The colourful flashes of aqua and pale lime were startling, between the dazzling white ice and inky grey sea. As were the booming thunder cracks from beneath a cloudless sky.

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Iceberg from the boat, watercolour pencil.

The ice field was alive, its constant movement creating friction and collapse within; the periodic loud creaking from this turmoil punctuated only by the whistling breeze and the tuneful melodies of snow buntings. Wrapped up in down clothing for warmth against the biting, cold wind, I wove patches of colour together on the canvas in front of me. In the dazzling sunshine it was difficult to ‘see’ colour properly but I mixed my palette to contain an array of warm and cool hues: blues, violets, turquoise, greys, whites and that pale lime green of the ice which sits just below the water line. So many intricate patterns and colours and such beauty and complexity in the ice meant I fought a constant battle with establishing necessary information and simplification. It took a huge amount of concentration to make any headway but, eventually, a part of the icefjord appeared from my canvas. I had completed my first study and, pleased with my efforts, I was now able to relax a little. This was definitely a painting experience like no other!

icefjord from right of sermermiut

 Icebergs in the mouth of Ilulissat icefjord, acrylic on canvas.

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bergs from dumpen

Icebergs: acrylic on canvas; watercolour.

Eqip Sermia is a hugely prolific ‘calving’ glacier which has a 5 km leading edge into the sea. Its constant motion means an almost continual stream of ice crashes into the deep water below. This is a most impressive spectacle….but verges on the frightening when viewed from a medium sized boat! We witnessed one massive ice drop which caused a considerable shock-wave to spread out rapidly across the bay, shaking the boat and rattling my nerves; I was glad to make it to dry land and watch from camp at a safe distance. Did I say ‘dry’ land? This was the only day of rain (out of 13)! But, soggy though it was, I was actually thankful. The sky had darkened wonderfully and misty clouds hung low, clinging to the ice and giving it a whole different perspective.  This brooding aura created the type of dramatic atmosphere I had expected to see in Greenland but had not yet experienced. It added a completely new, and very welcome, dimension to my overall impression of the ice.

eqi glacier from ice camp

The Eqip Sermia glacier from Ice Camp Eqi, acrylic on canvas.

The ‘camp’ at Eqi, which is closed due to inaccessibility for 8 months of the year, is in fact a very comfortable group of 6 cabins and a konditori building, which serves meals to those lucky few staying overnight. There is no running water and I was pleased to hear that all waste (yes ‘all’!) is removed back to Ilulissat by ship for disposal, leaving no detrimental footprint in this remarkable place. As the skies cleared slightly during the evening I enjoyed painting the huge expanse of the glacier from my cabin balcony and my thoughts wandered now and again to the past history of this place. Just below me was the only other building in the camp; the expedition hut of the French from their 1948 crossing of the icecap.  Eqi’s close proximity to the inland ice and apparently shallow gradient from this glacier enables relatively straightforward access on to the ice cap.  Our guide delighted in telling us about the French and German Expeditions but I was able to enlighten him about one of ours; the British 1934 Trans-Greenland Expedition of Martin Lindsay, Arthur Godfrey and Andrew Croft  which also made a start from not too far away. After a winter in Ilulissat buying and training with sled dogs, Croft was joined by the other two and they camped at ‘Eke’ whilst ferrying supplies to the edge of the inland ice at ‘Halibut Camp’. Martin Lindsay later recounted their experience at Eke in his book ‘Sledge’ as:

 ….’one of the most memorable of the expedition. We pitched the tent on grass, facing the mighty Eqip Sermia glacier a mile away across the bay. Pieces of the glacier continually broke off with a report like artillery fire and fell away to add to the confusion of ice below, such as we had just crossed in coming from Kimmilivik. The weather was perfect and the dogs lay basking in the sun. We cooked our meals in the open air.’

Although our reasons for being there were very different, on reflection of my own experience of Eqi, we undoubtedly share the words ‘memorable’ and ‘perfect’ in our descriptions.

The next day, in glorious sunshine once more, I had just enough time for a watercolour of our camp with the glacier behind, before climbing aboard again and chugging our way back down the coast to Ilulissat.

wc eqi ice camp

Ice Camp Eqi with the Eqip Sermia glacier behind, watercolour. 

To summarise and conclude, I found a unique ‘spirit of place’ around Ilulissat icefjord. I felt an incredibly strong sense of both history and of the ice ‘belonging’ during my time there; it has an almost regal presence which commands the greatest respect. Painting the icefjord allowed me to spend long periods of time observing and absorbing it: its movement; its noises; its colours; and its presence. The elemental forces which surrounded me as I worked, the crisp, clear air, a bitter cold wind, brilliant sunshine and mist which periodically approached and retreated, served only to enhance my experiences and my fleeting connection with the ice. The impact that this has had on me as a human being is the realisation of how tiny and insignificant I am. I feel deeply privileged to have been able to visit and paint such a special place.

icefjord midnight sun

The icefjord in the midnight sun, acrylic on canvas. 

Climate change issues inevitably played a part in my decision to visit this part of Greenland. Scientific research in recent years has shown that marked changes have taken place in a shorter period of time than ever before in Ilulissat icefjord and, because of this, the icefjord is now deemed officially ‘under threat’. Whatever the eventual causes of these changes are proved to be, the fact that such a mighty natural phenomenon may disappear is heart-breaking. Present thinking that we are all partly responsible for contributing to global warming is something I adhere to, not least because something is definitely happening to our world and it hasn’t yet been proved that we are not responsible. As an artist who has a deep love for the natural landscapes of our planet, I care greatly that our most fragile environments are protected against further damage which could contribute to their total demise. I gain immense pleasure from painting this scenery and, if the pictures I produce can show to others what we stand to lose and demonstrate that there is an absolute need for conservation and preservation, then my work will be worthwhile. Ilulissat icefjord is not just pretty to look at, or awesome to stand next to when having your photo taken, it also sustains an ecological life balance in the sea and a way of life for a community. It has a very significant role in maintaining the natural stability of this arctic region and to lose it would be catastrophic, for the marine wildlife, for the people and for the world.

And finally……My accommodation at Hotel Arctic, where I resided throughout my stay in Ilulissat, is worth a brief mention. My ‘Igloo’ proved invaluable in allowing me to self-cater and to come and go freely both day and night (I was out painting late on occasion and taking photos at frequent intervals most nights). Made of aluminium and fully insulated this proved a very useful, if quirky, studio base, with everything required for a comfortable stay. Such was its charm that I’d have brought one home if I could! Never mind…

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One of five ‘Igloos’ at Hotel Arctic, watercolour and pencil

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Huskies at rest, watercolour and pencil

husky 1
© Rowan Huntley 2017  email: