Do you have a routine as an artist?
I've developed a structure, a sort of framework that I work within but obviously no two days are exactly the same. I’m outdoors a lot through the seasons, in changing weather and in different locations. I also work from home, so it’s quite varied.
There are not many artists who live from their painting, who don't have another job, perhaps as teachers or lecturers. Have you painted ever since you left art school?
I did have a job in catering when I first graduated. I was painting part time but I’ve been full time for 13 or 14 years now. It is up and down but I’ve always kept going. I love it. I definitely prefer it to when I was trying to do another job and juggling things. It’s not good to get pulled away from painting or sketching, especially if you're working outdoors. You don't want to have to leave and interrupt your work. It’s nice to just be immersed in art.
So I think for me this probably works full time or not at all.
How do you work? Do you take photographs or do you work from sketchbooks? Do you work mainly in the studio or on the spot?
All of these, a mixture. I might take just a sketchbook if I'm working with pencil or I’ll take loose leafs and a board if I'm painting. And then I take a camera as well. I almost always take a camera even just as a tool for viewing so I can zoom in. I do also take photos, probably more of mammals than other subjects, things that are more fleeting. That gives me more reference material. If a fox runs past I’m going to try and capture it. It’s not going to be there for long.
Sometimes work I've done from life will go straight into a frame for an exhibition. But generally I'll work back home from the pieces I've done from life and from the photos, to create finished pieces.
It’s intriguing that you say you use photographs of mammals more than birds. I would have thought birds would be quite fleeting as well.
I’m thinking of seabirds nesting on the cliffs. They move a lot but they repeat the same positions and they’ll come back to the nest. They stay within an area.
With badgers I work from life because I have a good spot. There is a sett where I can go and observe them. It’s actually just across the road from where I grew up. So I've been going to watch them my whole life, before I was ever an artist. It’s a fantastic place to see them.
When do you usually go to see them?
Generally in the summer, on long summer evenings they come out. Of course, you never know. You can be waiting for a while. But you’ll see other things.
You paint mainly in watercolours. Why watercolours?
I think it's a fantastic medium to capture light. And light is really important. Whenever you're outdoors, the light affects the whole feel of things. Light and shade gives everything its form and in the natural world, everything depends on the light.
I’ve used watercolours ever since art school, normally always mixed in with other materials. I don’t often use pure watercolour now.
Would you say your approach to painting changed during lockdown?
It definitely changed a bit, working much more locally, working in my own garden and places I could walk to or bike to rather than going miles to reserves. But I think it just reinforced what I already knew. Which is that any little scrap of land can hold some amazing wildlife. You don't need to go too far. There’s always something on your doorstep.
I live on the edge of the city. I have a garden, it’s a tiny wee square but even in it there’s all sorts of wildlife. I grow plants for pollinators and I have feeders for birds. There’s a line of trees that runs between housing estates near me. And it's amazing. With the birds that were nesting in that tiny wee strip, there was enough inspiration for months of work.
Has your work changed over time?
Wildlife has always been my fascination but one thing that I know has changed, because I found a copy of an old artist statement, is that I used to visit a lot of zoos and wildlife parks and such places and worked from there. I don't really do that now. I’m more confident just going out and working from life, observing animals and birds in their natural environment. That’s what I'm focused on.
So do you have to spend hours and hours quietly observing?
Yes. But that comes quite naturally to me, to just be alone.
If you're going out to paint, do you have an idea of what you are planning to paint?
You go somewhere maybe with an idea of what you'd like to see, what you'd like to observe. That’s not always what happens. But there’s never any wasted day spent in nature.
The time of year can dictate. There are places in the Pentlands where I like to go and paint the Green Hairstreak butterflies. It's quite a specific time of year, June is good for them. Then at the beginning of summer, nesting birds are good. In autumn and winter there are red squirrels, they’re very active collecting and burying their food. Where I go is mostly dictated by the seasons.
If you’re going further afield, do you go and spend a few days?
I’m lucky that my dad has a van that I can borrow. It's not a fancy camper van but I can sleep in the back. I've been on trips to Mull and the Cairngorms … lots of different places. The freedom that gives me is brilliant, to just wake up with the sun and work all day. It’s fantastic.
I like the freedom of just being alone and there’s no pressure. Every stroke you make doesn't have to be perfect. The freedom of the process of working from life is so enjoyable and so important.
Do you go out in all weathers?
I do, I enjoy different weather. And I love that we have different seasons. But also I have the option, if it’s really cold, to work at home and use sketches. I've got all the material. So it's a nice balance.
A number of paintings in this exhibition feature birds in a wider landscape, rather than close up. Is this a new development or something you have always done?
I think it's something I've always done to some extent. When you're spending time outdoors, you do tend to draw what's around but it didn't use to make its way into my finished work as much. I'm really interested in ecosystems and how the birds and mammals are a part of a bigger environment, the way that everything relates to each other and depends on each other and feeds off each other. So I think I'd like to start bringing more of that into my work. I do enjoy drawing landscape but I don't know if I would ever paint just a landscape.
Observing wildlife so closely, you must witness changes in the natural environment — good and bad. Are there special places where you always return to paint?
Everything changes over time. There’s a negative side — scraps of unused land where I used to go, with wild flowers and birds, that are now housing estates. It's hard sometimes because a lot of people think, oh, there was nothing there before. But there was, that disused land was actually an important ecosystem in itself.
But then there are places like the mixed woodland where the badger sett is. I always go back there although they change too. Over the years, the bends in the wee burn become more exaggerated and get cut off and the badgers move their sett, but it's a much slower pace of change, that natural pace, a natural cycle. It’s never destroyed, it just changes and grows, ebbs and flows.
Human change tends to be a lot more permanent, a lot more extreme. It can change very quickly too. I know we need housing but it can be quite shocking.
Bird flu has devastated some sea bird colonies this year. Have you witnessed its effects in any location where you paint regularly?
The sea bird paintings in the exhibition I did from sketches and photos made last year. I deliberately decided this year, even before places were closed off, not to go to the Isle of May or other locations so I wouldn’t contribute accidentally to the spread of bird flu. I know people who work with sea birds and it sounds devastating. Even just walking along the east coast outside of Edinburgh, you see birds washing up. I can only hope that there will be natural immunity in the population and over time they can recover. I don't want to see a repeat next year.
Are there any artists you particularly admire or have been influenced by?
There are lots. In terms of wildlife artists, Claire Harkess. I love her work and am really inspired by her. But I like a lot of different art, a lot of abstract art. And I’m always discovering new artists.
I've discovered a lot of people on Instagram such as Helen Ward. I'd never heard of her before. She does a lot of landscape, with charcoal and monotype. Quite different to my work. I love the energy. Something I look for in all the work that I like is energy.