Will Miles speaks to Keith Brockie, author and artist
It is February 19th on the Isle of May, one of Scotland’s premier seabird islands. The day begins calm, dry and bright but there is still a distinctly wintery feel to the place – no ice, but the soil is cold and waterlogged, the vegetation scant, yellow and worn. So early in the year there are normally very few species of seabirds about. However, as the sun lifts off the horizon this morning, I can see sixty or so shags on the rocky ledges nearby, several small flocks of kittiwakes fly past at close range, and dotted along the cliffs are the first groups of guillemots and razorbills for the year, ashore with the good weather.
Watching these birds, I am conscious they are just the very earliest signs of a vibrant and rich variety of seabirds and other wildlife that are active here through the warmer months. This seems a slight tease to me, because too soon to see it all I will be leaving, to go back to my home in Shetland, further north. However, I have brought with me a book by a man who has spent several years studying, drawing and painting the wildlife of the Isle of May; it is Return to One Man's Island: Paintings and Sketches from the Isle of Mayby Keith Brockie. As I open the pages, the winter around me fades away and I can see in fabulous detail the birds, other animals, plants, and the light of spring, summer and autumn on this isle.
From mid-morning, I sit on the Southern Plateau with the book, my back to a rock. I am totally absorbed by the wealth of incredible paintings, by the words and information, and by the place I see around me, within and outwith the pages. It is a beautiful publication, showing the wildlife and seasonal changes on the isle, starting in late April and continuing through to early November. It perfectly complements Brockie’s first book about the island (One Man's Island: Paintings and Sketches from the Isle of May, published in 1984 and a major bestseller), presents entirely new artwork, and shows how the perception of nature by one of Scotland’s leading wildlife artists, and his great skill in depicting it, have deepened and grown through nearly 30 years (Return to One Man’s Island was published in 2012).
All except one of the paintings are in pencil and watercolour, and the intensity of light, detail, colour and seasonality throughout is stunning. In the pictures of breeding seabirds, the sunshine of June and July is deliberate, warm and tangible, glowing off feathers and deep into rock crevices. Here, now, in winter, it feels superbly uplifting.
A few days later, back on the mainland, I visit Keith at his studio and gallery in Fearnan, Perthshire, and ask him if he consciously tries to paint and shape the sunlight, or whether it develops from the living subject, in this case seabirds.
"The light means a huge amount – it brings your subject to life and gives a greater volume. I love doing things like shag’s eyes, the green eyes, with precise shadows and light. If you can look for those details, even though the real bird and the picture are never exactly the same, it just gives an extra intensity to the subject. With a good telescope you can sit a reasonable distance away and just be totally at one with your subject – that’s what I strive for. And sometimes if the bird yawns or does something, you can find yourself doing the same thing. But it’s just trying to be at one.
"The more you draw and paint, the more you look, and not necessarily for the usual things, but for peculiar patterns, interesting light and shade, new reflections, things like that. The subject is the key though. Get hold of that and everything else opens up from it, including the sunlight.
"Only in some respects am I conscious of the seasonality that becomes evident in my work. Like if you’ve got a greater black-back gull sitting on the rocks with sea spray, then through intense observation of it all you absorb a bit of the seasonal atmosphere at the same time. Also, I suppose there is always a seasonal light. In the summer you’ve got a very intense light, but in the autumn and winter it’s a bit different … when the weather is usually more changeable.
"Sometimes I’ll go out with a subject in mind, but mostly it depends on the weather – what direction the wind is coming from and things like that – and where I can get some shelter if there’s bad weather. Sometimes I will go out and I’ll want a special razorbill or guillemot pose; however, a lot of it is all about going out, and if you see something interesting, grabbing the opportunity to draw it there and then. The Isle of May is good because there are a lot of nice viewpoints on the cliffs, and if I see a razorbill or guillemot or fulmar or something in a good position, I can easily choose that. Most days it is very much take it as it comes."
In several paintings, such as the fulmar and shag pictured below, the handling of light gives the subject a glowing, almost ethereal presence: very bright, clean and pure. I ask Keith if he deliberately seeks new light effects in his work.
"The light changes a lot, but with experience you know where to go to get the best light for the longest time. And the shadows too change greatly as the sun goes round, so you do have to pick and choose your best spots. If I’m scanning, say, a group of razorbills or shags, I’m looking for nice poses and interesting light – that means more to me than anything. For example, if I’m out and there’s a razorbill sitting panting in the sun, in an unusual pose, with deep shadows, and light reflected off the bird and the background, it all means much, much more to me … yes, I’m looking for new poses and light effects that interest me more than anything else really.
"Some birds, like shags, are incredibly difficult for photographers to do, because often you’ve got what looks like just a black bird against a very pale background. However, when they’re in the sun there are greens and bits of blue and many other colours, and in paint you can capture that much easier than a photographer could. A photographer would perhaps find it difficult to adjust for all the white reflection, white light off faeces, and other glaring light around and about the dark plumage of the subject – I think drawing and painting still has a lot to give in that way. For me it’s a way of life, it’s not a job, and I feel very fortunate to be able to do what I enjoy.
"In the summer I always love razorbills, they’re brilliant birds; and eider ducks as well. At other times you get nice migrants, like maybe a long-eared owl in autumn. Then later on you get the seals pupping – there’s always a lot to do on the island. I first went out there in September 1973, with the Tay Bird Ringing Group. It was just a lovely place to work, and relatively easily accessible. There are not many islands off the east coast of Scotland, and the May was a really good one to get to."
The level of detail in the paintings is extraordinarily high, but is sensitive and does not distract from the intended subject – be it in the rock face, lichen, or sow thistle resting places, for example, of red admiral butterflies in August. Is such a level of detail and texture achieved in the field or in the studio? Is it memorised from the real scene?
"I love the structures of the rocks and the textures in behind the main subjects I choose, as well as the details they themselves hold. For example, it’s nice to have the contrast between the soft white plumage of, say, a razorbill, and then the rough, harsh texture of the rocks, the cracks, faeces down the cliffs, little plants and other points of interest in the background. Those things give it all a bit more interest, more life and reality, and make people feel like they’re part of the picture, right in there with it all.
"The birds like razorbills are easier to do because they are mostly stationary and generally in the same sort of positions on land. I usually work very quickly in pencil to start with, and then begin painting as soon as I can. Sometimes a piece might not be totally completed in the field, but I’ll get the basics done. If a piece is incomplete, only then might I take a photograph – for example of the precise rock structure – when I’ve got fine details to add in to a painting, but there hasn’t been the time or the weather that day to do it outdoors. When you’re sketching for hours you take a massive amount in, and I can pick up pictures I’ve sketched years ago, even just in pencil, and go back and finish them off in paint. That’s the great thing about working in the field, you’re learning all the time, whereas if you work from photographs you’re not learning anything much at all – you take in so much more by direct observation.
"Sometimes though, it can be nice to work back in the studio on a painting. For example, if you’re in the field with bright, intense sunlight all day, the colours might not come out exactly how you want them to because of the sharpness of the light on the page. In the studio you have more control and can check things. I still prefer to work in the field though. It’s just nice getting different poses directly, and maybe not the characteristic or ‘normal’ poses that people think of when they imagine, say, an eider duck. Diversity is interesting to me … and hopefully to others too. I try to bring things to life on the paper and, hopefully, give the viewer a sort of feel for the ‘being’ of the real subject and of the moment."
As the pages turn through spring and summer to early autumn, the themes change from breeding wildlife to migratory and accidental species. One area well represented here is birds that have momentarily been seen in the hand, be it for ringing and migration studies or during rehabilitation of young individuals found sick or injured on the isle. I ask Keith if seeing birds in the hand, and being able to examine them so close up, has influenced how he sees and paints them in the field.
"I prefer to paint birds in the field as much as possible, rather than in the hand. However, the birds in the hand do present you with new bits of detail. It’s sometimes useful to record that experience, and sometimes I add things from it into field paintings. Generally, it’s much nicer to do a bird in the field though, without it actually being held. In the book there are two paintings of a long-eared owl. I did one when it was in the hand for ringing, just a picture of the head, but the other one I did later, after I had released it. I released it on the edge of the loch, hoping the bird would just land opposite me, up in the cliffs. And very fortunately it did. I left it for about half an hour, then approached it from the other side of the loch, about fifty metres away, and spent a good few hours just sketching it there using a telescope. I’d been after an owl for ages and had never seen one before in such an accessible, visible position. It was nice to have ringed a bird and released it, to have watched where it landed, to leave it and let it relax, and then to go back and to sketch it from a distance. In October it isn’t easy to work in watercolour, especially when you’re in a wet and windy spot – the second owl painting, the one with it on the cliff, I worked on first in pencil, but I then worked-up the drawing in paint later, due to the changing weather. The experience of seeing and feeling the owl in the hand did help with this, although not as much as the hours of direct observation of it in the field."
In late September, October and November large numbers of Grey Seals come to the Isle of May to breed. The last chapter of the book is dedicated to these animals, and the final series of paintings and drawings show the small young pups, the adult females and the huge adult males. One of the most striking features of these images is the portrayal of water; specifically that of the tidal pools in which the adult seals like to wallow. I ask Keith how he goes about painting water – the movement, colours and patterns that are changing all the time. Is the image in his mind moving or still?
"When I draw and paint water, most of the detail is sketched there and then at the time, outdoors in the field. Again, the weather can make things very difficult. With the seals, it’s usually October and November time and its often easier, and necessary, to just sketch in pencil first, then maybe work things up in paint a bit later. The seals are often lying reasonably still but the water around them is usually moving quite a lot. The seals I like are the odd ones – maybe ones with their flippers up, or in other interesting poses. The light is very important as well. There is always lots of reflected light, sunlight, and deep, shifting shadows in the water around the animals. These scenes definitely present a challenge for me to sketch. I like that though, and I like the little details – like how the wet rocks compare with the dry rocks, or wet fur compares with dry fur. It all adds to the variety of textures in a picture. Also, I like the sort of cool atmosphere at that time in autumn, with the yellow light you get in November, just when the sun’s going down (not that there’s a huge amount of daylight then anyway). It just all adds up to give a bit more to the atmosphere of a piece.
"I spend a lot of time observing the water and I retain a lot of the moving detail in my head. On a typical day, I might sit at the top of the beach where the seals are, where there are so many subjects to choose from, and I’ll pick one that really interests me. The seals in the water are always in a place where the tide is either coming in or going out, so you’ve got to be fairly quick in drawing and painting them. Seals are much easier than birds though – they’re like stationary big slugs really – so you can get the basics down quickly and then go for the patterning, the detail, the light, and the reflections on and around them.
"I think eyes are very important to give things a bit more life, especially in the way I work, in quite a lot of detail. A lot of people just paint eyes with a white dot as the reflected light, but when you see the actual precise areas of shadow and reflected patterns, as well as the sunlight in the eye, it all comes to life nicely. Giving things life is not necessarily deliberate, I just try to show all the different shadows in the eye, and the actual reflection of the sun’s rays and the outside world. It just gives a bit more depth. That’s the good thing about optics nowadays, you can be quite far away from the subject and yet very close and intimate at the same time, and I like exploring detail like that.
"I spend a long time studying birds and other wildlife, and I draw what I see. I think, nowadays, not many people really watch birds intently or concentrate much attention on them for very long. Everything is just done in sound bites – quick, quick, quick! Sketches and paintings, however, are really hours of distilled observation. I go for poses and light effects that interest me and hold my attention, rather than just standard sideways images … and, you know, if you’re not drawing things side-on or in a standard way all the time … well, often it just gives birds like shags a bit more attitude, and makes paintings and drawings become more real and alive. It’s all part of the challenge, and is all part of what I’m striving for."
You can find out more about Keith Brockie's work on his website.
Will Miles is an ornithologist and artist from Cambridge, currently living and working in Fair Isle.