David Bellamy – Watercolours in The Arctic

The sun has just risen and Torben is already up, proclaiming loudly on the beauty of the intense colours in the sky. I fight my way out of the sleeping bag, automatically grasping my painting gear while gasping at the temperature – even with the stove firing away the hut is cold. The window is in the perfect position to view the sun casting warm fingers across the icy wastes, and turning ice hummocks to gold.
A few pencil strokes shiver their way across the sketchbook and then I apply the watercolour washes, starting with the blaze of light that is burning away at the edge of the vertical crag. This is chiefly quinacridone gold, blending into some less violent Naples yellow, then pushing outwards, away from the point of maximum brightness with a mixture of cobalt blue and cadmium red. In the hunters’ hut this is luxury sketching for a change, especially when Jens puts a mug of steaming tea into my hand.

Later on I sketch Isak tending to his sledge-dogs in his usual kindly manner, and so in the finished painting here you can see how I have brought the two separate sketches together to form a narrative. The secret of making sunlight ‘burn’ into a feature is to keep the critical edges soft and push the light area into the feature as though it has burnt a hole in the side. In the foreground I have covered the wet blue washes with cling-film and moved it about until I am satisfied, then left it to dry. It is a remarkably effective way of suggesting ice and sastrugi ridges. Beneath the sunburst I included some of the warm gold to suggest the reflections of the colour in the ice. The painting was carried out on Saunders Waterford 300lb not paper.

This is one of a great many paintings in my new book, David Bellamy’s Arctic Light, which has just been published by Search Press. It is crammed with paintings, sketches and anecdotes, and contains one chapter describing some of the methods used to sketch and paint, often in almost impossible conditions.  Subjects vary from glaciers, sea ice, mountains, wild seas, waterfalls, people and many wildlife works are included, from polar bears, walrus, musk ox, Arctic foxes to birds. More details can be seen on my website.

Including wildlife in your landscape paintings

Sometimes you may come across a lovely spot to paint, a truly heartening scene, but without an actual focal point. Without that important ingredient it is unlikely to be a great success as a composition, so what do you do? There are a number of answers to this question, and one of my favourites is to add wildlife, usually in a manner that allows the landscape to dominate, unless the wildlife is something iconic such as a polar bear, rhino or similar large creature, but we rarely find any of these around the Brecon Beacons where I do much of my sketching!

While this is only the central part of the watercolour, I have focussed at this point to illustrate how to suggest rapid movement in wildlife by softening off the edges of the birds in places such as the wing-tips, the trailing edges of the wings and the tails, while keeping the beaks and heads in reasonably sharp focus. This was one place where I appreciated having other people and their dogs around, as they caused the birds to fly off in sudden bursts, thus giving me the opportunity to sketch and photograph the action as they flew past.

I shall return to the issue of highlighting and creating centres of interest within a scene in some future blogs, but capturing fleeting moments of wildlife can be an exciting part of our work, even for landscape painters.