The far North West of Scotland is one of the most strikingly beautiful parts of the country. The mountains of Assynt are unique. The geology of the whole area means that you get striking variations in the scenery between one part and the next, just a few miles distant from each other. They’re nothing like the rolling peaks of the Cairngorms or Grampians; the sheer sides of the Torridon range too don’t compare. Each of these has its own beauty; but the iselbergs (the island mountains) of Wester Ross have a quality all of their own.
It was this which attracted the artist James Hawkins 36 years ago. Regarded by many critics as the greatest landscape painter living in Scotland, he’s focused his eye and his brush on these northern hills to the exclusion almost of everything else. His canvases deal with the subtle changes of every season. He takes delight in the constantly changing light, in the interplay of sky and sea, of mountain and moorland. His brushes and palette depict these images in bright, bold, dazzling colours which have won him an army of fans around the world, fans who are willing to spend thousands of pounds to own just one of his pictures.
Hawkins works from a studio in the tiny hamlet of Rhue, down a narrow track off the main road north out of Ullapool. It’s not the sort of place you would ever pass by chance. But when we spent some time there this week, there was a steading stream of visitors, most wanting only to look at the paintings in the gallery; but every one was an enthusiast for his paintings and every one a willing apostle ready to talk about what they had seen.
What they saw in this latest exhibition were the latest in a completely new style which he’s developed over the past couple of years. These are not traditional pictures in rectangular frames. Instead, most are cut-out images, the edges following the outline of hills, lochs and rocks. These latest ones are made from carbon-fibre but that’s not how he started.
“When I started with the cut-out images,” he explained, “I first made them on paper which made them quite fragile and had to present them in a frame. I didn’t mind this technique but realised the irony of getting away from a rectangular image and putting it back in a rectangular frame. So I spent time researching materials which would be strong enough to be free-standing.
“It’s a double process. I paint on canvass in the normal way. I cut it out with a surgical scalpel which is little bit akin to a drawing process as you describe the edges of mountains, trees or rocks. When I’m satisfied with that, I stick it on to the carbon fibre with epoxy resin and then I cut it out again with a dremmel, a high speed spindle cutter, following the scalpel lines – and finally I put a boat-building material on to it which lifts the painting away from the wall and lets it cast a shadow.”
He stresses that people don’t look at the world through a rectangular box. He says that when we look at a landscape, we focus on particular parts and blur out what’s around it. But he insists that there have been other unexpected consequences of adopting this technique. “For some reason,” he told me pointing at a picture of Loch an Eich Dhuibh in Fisherfield in the snow (the headline picture of this article), “the sense of three-dimensional space within the picture is extraordinary.
“If you see the purple plant at the edge, you could swear that it’s in front of the pale blue above it and once you’ve seen that and you let your eye drift into the centre, that loch seems miles away. So that’s a bonus that I’m only just beginning to understand. It’s a quite exciting journey I’ve embarked on because it’s taking me somewhere – but I don’t know where. I’m learning about that and asking why does that happen and how can I capitalise on it.”
He laughingly says that he accidentally created a marketing strategy, one that involved the creation of a new product. “My clients,” he said, “really seem to love it. From that point of view it’s been very successful. Having invented a new product means that people who already own several of my pictures now have a reason to buy another. They come and say – must have one of these for my collection. That’s not why I started. It’s just what’s happened.”
His clients are largely individuals – he’s not found any success in the corporate market, although he has made occasional sales to large firms. However, he’d not convinced that this particular market still exists in the aftermath of the financial crisis and the recession. He just feels really lucky that, having been in business for over 30 years, he’d managed to build up some momentum and loyalty, with word of mouth the best advertising of all.
When we met, he was just back in Rhue from a trip to Normandy. “We talk about events like that as ‘outreach’,” he explained. “We can’t expect people to walk past our door in quite the way they used to so we need to go out and find new customers. For instance, there’s a possibility that we’ll go to an affordable art fair in BC, in Vancouver. We’ve quite a lot of friends and relations out there and my daughter’s been helping set up the event so if that happens we’ll do that.”
However, he’s cautious about the outcome. Two years ago, he chose to show some of his work at the Toronto Art Fair. But the cost of the trip was considerable. It cost over £30k by the time he’d paid for transporting the paintings, the insurance, the stand and everything else. That, he said, “made it a big gamble.”
“We spoke to some of the other big British artists who were there,” he added, “and they said it would only work if you did it regularly. The Canadians were not going to buy the first time you go to the fair. It takes until the 3rd or 4th time which makes it a very big, long term commitment.
“The Canadians are also quite parochial. I walked down Gallery Row in Vancouver, just cold calling. They said they loved the pictures – if only they’d been of British Columbia then we’d be able to sell them tomorrow. So one of our plans is to travel there to see two of our daughters who live out there in BC and then go up to Northern BC or the Yukon and do some research, take some photographs, came back home and make some paintings based on that and then offer then a blend of Scotland and Canada so take it from there.”
What makes Hawkins different from some other artists is his approachability. There are many painters who find it really hard to talk about their work, especially to the media. We were in the gallery when he arrived back from France. This interview was not pre-planned; but he happily talked at length about his work, the changes in his style and his plans for the future. Having seen artists flee when given the opportunity to promote their work (even with some considerable notice), this makes a refreshing change.