Three Scottish Contemparies

It may not be a movement, but who cares? If you want to find freshness and vitality in modern painting, look north.

Operating almost beneath the radar screen of the London critics- as with many aspects of Scottish life and culture- it would seem that contemporary painters here have been quietly developing a language and stye that is attractively distinguishable from their southern counterparts.

To choose a small handful of artists to represent this spirit was always going to be an arbitrary and invidious task. For the three represented here, at least another 30 have claims for inclusion.

The selection is not wholly arbitrary though. That many of the works embody something definably 'Scottish' is one criterion - from the haunting poetry of Wendy Sutherland's Highland landscapes, via Edinburgh-based Damian Callan's vigorous and expressive figure work, to the engagingly original wool and embroidery assemblages of Moy Mackay in the Borders.

Technical innovation is also a common thread: an invention often born of necessity, according to Wendy Sutherland. "New technologies are essential when living so remotely," says Sutherland, whose home is situated well to the north of Inverness. "I cannot imagine having the relationships, or the shows with galleries, if it was not for the email communications and the flying around of jpegs in the cyber ether ."

Another unitary factor seems to be the fact that so many of the up-and-coming Scottish artists studied in Scotland itself. All three artists featured here studied at Scottish art schools, which hitherto may have escaped the depredations and lack of resources of their English counterparts. Moy Mackay, who now lives and works in the Tweed Valley on the Scottish Borders, recalls that as a student, when comparing notes with English friends (she did a foundation course in Manchester), she found that the facilities and course at Glasgow were significantly better than those available to her English peers. She also recalls a strong work ethic in the Scottish schools - "everyone just worked so hard".

English born Damian Callan agrees that in recent years art teaching has been of a higher standard in Scotland . "Fifteen years ago I went to Edinburgh's Art College, where I achieved quite rigorous drawing experience. There was always a model to draw. In England, most drawing and painting has been thrown out."

Callan, whose vibrant and compelling figure work has brought wide recognition, teaches sell-out drawing and life classes at the Leith School of Art, Edinburgh, in his spare time. Ironically, he fears that the Scottish schools may be going the same way as so many in England, and has started to run classes form his own studio base. The courses are, he says, "strongly based on the fundamentals- learning to draw and observe".

Defining the unique qualities of current Scottish painting is somewhat more difficult because it is so varied. Someone well qualified to comment is Gavin Bonnar of Chameleon Arts, a kind of bespoke virtual gallery and all-round service facility for many Scottish artists. "I do agree that there is something distinctive about contemporary Scottish works, which are definitely inspired by the landscape, climate and light, " says Bonnar.

One important indication of the vitality of the Sottish scene is the thriving market in art sales, whether of the prints or originals. Scots have always liked buying their own art and Bonnar started Chameleon about ten years ago when he was still at college. "I saw a lot of really talented artists around me who worked hard all year for their degree show. This was their one chance to exhibit their best work to the public, art buyers and potential employers, but it only lasted two weeks or less and the graduates packed up and went their separate ways. I felt this was such a waste and thought about how useful and beneficial it would be for the artists and the public if the art college was open to business. People would commission paintings, furniture... all in one place."

Today, Chameleon enables artists to show their portfolio on the site for a yearly subscription of £20 (£50 for the initial set-up and the first year's hosting.) The site has grown to include photographs, digital artists, fashion and jewellery. As one example, says Bonnar, Chameleon sells an average of £700-worth of hand-signed prints per month on behalf of well-known artist Avril Paton.

Wendy Sutherland confesses she's unsure whether the exciting development in Scotland art constitutes a movement as such. What does seem to flurishing, are more regionally based groupings such as Visual Arts Sutherland, with which she is connected. She says that although "we get together to rarely for it to have a major impact on the artistic lives of the individuals involved, none the less it has over 30 members in Sutherland. So there is obviously a need for some kind of validation that we are not alone in creating work-even though it is a very isolating practice especially when living so remotely."

There is of course a long tradition of artist communities setting up in self-imposed isolation from the distractions of modern life. The current Scottish revival-if it can be called such-feels far from insular, however. As Wendy Sutherland says:"There are definitely many talented people up here, published artists with international reputations such as Lotte Glob and Sue Jane Taylor. "

At a time when the English scene seems to be going through one of its periodic fits of sef-doubt and uncertanity,, it's good to report that at least one part of the Union is getting on quietly and confidently with the business of making and selling quality works of art.


Born: Brora, Sutherland, 1975
Education: BA Hons & MFA, Edinburgh College of Art
Innovative, widely exhibited landscape artist drawing inspiration from her surroundings in the Scottish Highlands.

It would be hard to find a painter more imbued with a sense of what makes the Highlands and Islands so different from any other place in the world. After graduating from Edinburgh, Wendy took the bold step of making the area the base for her career.

"The house I stay in has been in my family for over four generations. When my dad inherited it form my grandparents and could not live in it himself, because of where he worked, it gave me the opportunity to live here rent-free. This took the pressure off and allowed me to be a full-time painter- something I'd always wanted.

"moving onto this house was like returning home, a natural step in my life; I lived in this village until the age of 11, and after that time spent many holidays here with my grandparents. I have
been back here for four years now and there and there is quite an artist's community.
"My memories are an important source for my work. However, it is when these impressions are translated through the language of paint and other mixed media that my images become something more that traditional Scottish landscape painting.
"The process by which these images are made is very important to me. This ranges from physically throwing paint and pigment onto the canvas, to delicately drawing and rendering images. Although the figure is abandoned in my work, I consider it to be very much about a human relationship to the landscape.
"Photoshop and digital photography are useful tools for developing ideas and compositions. I need to be hans-on and open to the images changing and leading me down in their own path- often away from the original concept or idea in my head"


Born: London, 1960
Education: Edinburgh College of Art
Popular figurative painter- in demand for commissioned work and life-drawing tuition.

Damian Callan is exceptional in many ways. Born in England, he moved to Edinburgh when he married and went to art school there at the unusually late age of 30. He had intended to study biology, but while working at the Garvald Centre specialising in creative opportunities for adults with disabilities, he found himself doing more creative work. He then decided to study art formally.

With his characteristic dynamic brushstrokes and blurred outline, it's hard to believe that he found painting "a real struggle" . Although he has drawn since childhood, he didn't achieve the desired breakthrough until relatively recently when he was observing the wave machine at his local swimming pool. He started by taking photographs from a viewing window and then painting quickly using rollers to get a sense of movement- "catching the thing before it flies", as he puts it.

Up until now there have been two main discernible stands in his work: his paintings of swimmers and athletes; and atmospheric studies of family holidays in Argyll featuring his four children. He is now working on bringing these two strands together- "taking single figures (of children) and putting them against almost an abstract background and concentrating on movement" he adds: "I try to make my pictures as dramatic as possible, full of movement and strong, contrasting light. I enjoy painting athletes and swimmers in motion, because this requires an energetic technique: the charcoal or paint hitting the paper or canvas at speed."


Born: Edinburgh, 1966. Education: BA Hons, Glasgow School of Art
Pioneering artist who has developed a technique of using hand-dyed merino wool with felting and embroidery techniques to produce rich textural images finishes under glass.

After graduating from Glasgow, Moy moved to the Scottish Borders area of the Tweed , where she now lives and works. She paints the landscape, livestock and flowers here, using dyed fleece and embroidery.

Her technique is to replace paint as a medium with sheep's dyed wool. "I did printed textiles at art school. About five years ago, I wanted to go back into painting but I couldn't quite get the effect I wanted, so I thought I'd try this."

It's a remark of typical modesty. What 'this' consists of is the selection of finest quality merino fibres, which are built up to create the picture; soap and hot water are then applied. By means of rubbing and rolling, the fibers are joined together. The work is embellished with hand and machine embroidery.

Although the results are strikingly rich in colour and texture, she only really achieved success when she framed them and out the under glass. "That's what made them look like paintings."

Her work is now in great demand. Each creation is unique, though she will happily try to do one similar to a work on her website. So far she has limited print copies to a one-off venture with Macdonald Fine Art, which is producing some high-quality giclee versions of her work.


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