There’s an excitement and energy that comes from being outside – and you miss out on that if you’re just painting from photos or drawing in your front room.
I recently spent three months in the Rocky Mountains, Canada, when pretty much all I did from morning to night was draw. I started in Alberta, where there’s a wonderful series of national parks that includes Lake Louise and Jasper. The scale and drama of the landscape there is mind-blowing: you’re surrounded by a panorama of peaks, glaciers and lakes, and endless forests that tumble away from you. I did a lot of hiking with a rucksack full of painting equipment. It was on the the same trip that I went down to Wyoming and Yellowstone Park in the US, with its plains, prairies and herds of bison. I’ve always loved westerns, so to be able to sit and sketch all these things I’d only ever previously viewed on screen was exciting and nostalgic.
You’re spoilt for choice here – it’s an extraordinary collection of islands and mountains, with white sandy beaches and turquoise waters. I paint a lot on the Isle of Mull, where I rent a little cottage, just at the foot of Ben More mountain and on the edge of a loch. It’s a wilderness I’m drawn to, away from it all. It’s also a really contemplative place to be, very still, beautiful and tranquil, especially Iona, the island off the tip of Mull, where artists such as SJ Peploe and FCB Cadell, who were part of the Scottish Colourists movement, painted a great deal. Setting up your easel on a beautiful white beach, looking out across the Sound of Mull towards the island of Mull is magical…
My mother’s from Brittany and every summer throughout my childhood we would drive from Glasgow to my grandparents’ home, in a little fishing village called Loctudy. It’s in Finisterre and it’s a very beautiful kind of wilderness, with granite rocks, extraordinary beaches and huge sandy bays where the rollers come in from the Atlantic. My father, Alexander, would paint the view from the garden across the water towards another port. I’d follow him around and paint some of the things that he did. There’s something about the light as you get close to the sea; everything is sharpened, as if you’re looking through a special lens, and the light bouncing off the water makes it feel as if there’s a sparkle to life.
I spent several months in vibrant Rajasthan, India, just after I left university. Everything about it was overwhelming – the chaos of people and traffic, the stunning fairy-tale architecture, the scents of the market spices, and the cows weaving their way in and out. There’s fuel for your sketchbook every which way you look. I grew up in Glasgow, which I love, but it’s not always the most colourful place – and suddenly it was springtime in Jaisalmer and Jodhpur and I was staring at my palette of colours to see how I could make them brighter!
I exhibit quite a lot in New York and I always take the opportunity to draw when I’m there. The intensity of the urban experience is greater than anywhere else; there’s a constant variety, a constant changing of scale and shape. You get great contrasts of light and shade, with canyons of avenues where tall buildings cast dark shadows and little windows catch the light and sparkle. The city’s classic symbols, from the lettering they use on their signposts to the huge ad hoardings, make it a very visual city. I find myself drawing quite frantically, with heavy contrast of light and dark, and lots of ink.
ROME AND VENICE
I spend quite a lot of time in Italy because my sister lives there. When I was 19 I stayed with her in Rome for seven or eight months, and travelled around, pretty much following in the footsteps of many 19th-century artists
who did the Grand Tour of Rome and Venice. In the centre of Rome, the ruins, the golden, honeyed light, the quality of the earth and the stone have all come together to create a nice palette of ochres and browns.
I also keep going back to Venice, which is a magical place, too. It’s a terrible cliché to go to Venice and paint watercolours – but why wouldn’t you? People shouldn’t be afraid of visiting places that have been painted a thousand times and doing their own version, because for them it’s the first time and that can bring out some really great work.
Watch The Big Painting Challenge Sunday, at 6.00pm on BBC1