Colin Duncan is a painter living and working in Edinburgh. Nature conservation issues, particularly the protection of habitat and that of vulnerable species, drive the subject of much of his artwork.
His main concerns lie with deforestation and the increasing threat to indigenous woodlands. He is very keen to do what he can, in his own way through art and conservation collaborations, to contribute to projects and other initiatives that protect wildlife and landscape.
Colin is currently undertaking a one year project to help raise funds and further awareness for the conservation work carried out by the ‘Trees for life‘ charity’.
The ‘Trees for life’ vision is to restore Scotland’s ancient Caledonian forest to a spectacular wilderness region of 1,000 square miles of mountains and glens to the west of Inverness and loch Ness.
The ancient Caledonian Forest once covered a large part of the highlands as extensive stands of majestic Scots Pines, interspersed with birch, rowan, juniper and aspen trees. It was Scotland’s equivalent of the rainforest, but has been reduced to just a fraction of its former range.
‘Trees for life’ is working to protect existing pockets of ancient forest and is planting more native trees to create new Caledonian forests for the future.
Colin is creating a series of paintings inspired by site visits to Dundreggan forest in the highlands and one of the main locations for the ‘Trees for life’ restoration program.
The following extracts are based on notes Colin made while painting at Dundreggan. The photographs are of the forest, in particular close-up shots of the diverse species of plants and insects that informed his work and also a selection of the paintings he has made there and subsequently in his Edinburgh studio.
29th May to 18th October 2013
My first day at Dundreggan forest was one full of expectation and excitement mixed with a little trepidation at what lay ahead in the coming year. Initially, the scale of the forest and the 10,00 acre Dundreggan estate felt a little daunting and almost too much to take in as a whole. So where to start, I felt I needed to focus in on the small details, to try and begin to make sense of some of the visual complexities of the diverse range of species of flora and fauna that make up this unique habitat. My eye was drawn to the ground, to a level I could get very close to and examine in sections through sketches and watercolours.
In the shadow of a Caledonian Scots pine, wood ants were everywhere, busy collecting pine needles to support their large mound nests and preying on insects to feed their colony. Lichens on rocks formed stunning patterns in greys, pink, purple, black and were set off brilliantly against white rock. At times I would use a magnifying eyeglass to reveal a whole new miniature world to me. I would improvise by taking photographs holding the magnifying lens to the camera and, admittedly with lots of blurred attempts, capture some of the amazing abstract structures and patterns of spindly lichens, orange mosses and other tiny organisms.
One of the millions of ants or a longhorn beetle would scuttle across the surface and become part of the subject to my first paintings. These creatures helped to draw images back from pure abstraction and give a sense of scale to the compositions. The small brown, black and alizarin wood ant would crop up regularly in those early paintings. I was in awe of their industry and determination, undeterred from their unassuming roll in the ecology of these Caledonian forests.
Each day of exploring and close observation would introduce new characters to be sketched or added to watercolours. While drawing a Bog Violet (Viola Riviniana) a moth landed on the end of my finger, willing to pose only long enough for a quick pencil sketch in my notebook. A movement in the bracken and I would reach for my camera to photograph a Metallic Green Chafer (Cuprea Metallica) or a Bee Beetle (Trichius fasciatus) emerging from a vibrant foxglove (Digitalis purpurea).
I stop to paint a fallen birch branch, at first a watercolour and then more loosely in oil paint. This proves to be more challenging, as rain threatens, leaves and dirt get blown onto the wet surface and my small portable palette is soon overloaded with paint and becomes an unfortunate trap for midges and flies, though I suspect not before they have taken several bites out of me first. Carrying wet oil paintings on board off a hill is also not without its difficulties so one afternoon I fashion a wooden frame from the struts of a decorator’s table I have in the boot of the car and strap larger painting boards face to face to my backpack, their wet surfaces kept apart with birch twigs.
The soft whites of the silver birch bark are slashed and pitted with deep black scars that contrast strongly with the rich yellow ochre of the stripped parts of the branch. Dead wood is essential for supporting a variety of species and is home for many larvae, beetles as well as hosting moulds, fungi, algae and mosses.
Further up into the forest and towards the Redburn deer are spooked and make a dash through mountain woodland to open ground above the tree line. Mountain woodland, also known as montane scrub, is an area of important research and development at Dundreggan for sustaining rare species of dwarf birch, juniper and willows that can survive the harsher weather conditions at this higher altitude but are vulnerable to overgrazing in other areas of Scotland where deer numbers are not controlled.
At the burn I draw, using conte sticks, the tree tangled roots tunnelling out of crevices in the rock faces. I lay down watercolour washes that resist the conte to leave silhouetted lines and forms that dance across the picture surface. The burn has carved through the grey rock creating rock pools speckled with fallen leaves, autumn colours of ochres, Indian red, rust and faded soft greens floating on the dark water.
It is October now and although noticeably colder I’m lucky to have a stunning day to work in. The morning mist, a band of white floating between the valley floor and distant hilltops, slowly thins in soft sunshine. On the ground spiders’ webs have ensnared the water droplets displaying intricate lacework patches that catch the light.
The bracken has turned rusty sand, their storks like shafts of red light, transforming the forest floor into a sea of orange undulating in the gentle breeze. Only a few heathers still have their purple flowers, most have dried to a pale peach. Though insects seem less apparent at this time, a bumble bee, possibly a common carder bee (bombus agrorum) to my untrained eye, does land ungracefully on some remaining heather before spending some time sliding around in the lid of my paint box.
Deer hooves trodden along and across the burns have created tracks of dark raw umber and mars black that catch and entomb fallen lime green leaves and broken bare branches laid down like graphite lines etched, scribbled and scratched.
Each of the four trips made so far from late May to October have presented new challenges to face. Whether it’s trying to deal with midges and clegs (haematopota pluvialis) with their nasty bites, lugging a mini outdoor studio on my back over rough terrain in a rare Scottish heat wave in July or in rain showers on many other occasions, or a six hour hiking detour after taking a very wrong turn while exploring a small section of Caledonian woodland behind Binnilidh Mhor. The painting process too, at times, has been a struggle, mainly a frustration at not doing justice to what I see around me or by not being able to extract parts from it to capture something unique on paper. But in actual fact these moments reaffirm the realness of being outdoors, within nature and working directly from nature. They help to wake up my senses, which have been desensitised from city living, to being back in the natural environment again.
On the whole though, the overall feeling of being at Dundreggan forest is one of calmness, an opportunity to pause and zone out, true, for me, it is a form of escapism from modern living, but also a reminder that there is another way, another world that we need to protect and encourage to flourish. ‘Trees for Life’ is dedicated to doing just that.
I’d like to thank Gary Thompson from Jackson’s Art Supplies for supporting this project with both publicity and materials and to also acknowledge their on going sponsorship of ‘Trees for Life’.
I will be exhibiting my paintings at the Royal Botanical Garden in Edinburgh on conclusion of the project in 2014. A donation of any sales made will go towards ‘Trees for Life’. The paintings shown in this blog range in price from £130 to £500. Email enquiries about these paintings or the art project can be made to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.