An artist’s own report on painting in Greenland and the dilemma of painting with watercolors in a frozen landscape
Ice has always fascinated me as an artist. It began when I was confronted with huge columns and daggers of ice hanging down waterfalls in winter or frozen lakes high up in the mountains. I soon moved on to sketching and exploring glaciers where one could actually get inside ice caves and witness amazing iridescent colors. Sunlight pierces through thin translucent ice – blues, greens, yellows and many more. Later I would abseil down crevasses to sketch natural ice bridges in dramatic locations.
The Arctic nature is even more dramatic. Mind-blowing ice formations sculpted by wind, water, and sun, coruscating sparkles of light dancing across the surface of an iceberg, or moving water and mist that seem to bring the ice to life. All of this makes ice an enthralling subject to paint, and there is little that can surpass the magical qualities of transparent watercolor washes in capturing these shimmering images that change color before your eyes. For sketching and painting in the Arctic, of course, the big problem with watercolor is that working in below zero temperatures can make it a monumental challenge.
History about painting in frozen landscape | Greenland
For the early Arctic explorer-artists, it proved quite a battle to capture scenes in color during low temperatures. By the early nineteenth century, watercolors became available in cake form which made them easily portable. Normal practice was to sketch a scene with pencil, noting down the colors and later, in the comfort and warmth of the ship or camp, apply the colors.
George Back, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy in the early 19th century developed a numerical code for colors which he would annotate on the sketch to use later when laying on the colors. In 1875-6, while painting in the warmth of the ship below decks, surgeon Edward Moss would run up and down between decks to check the colors of a scene. The Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930) created some delicate watercolors of his expeditions, showing excellent control in laying the washes when the temperature allowed. Artists often returned home with scenes of the most fantastically-shaped icebergs imaginable and most were fairly close to the truth.
Gin without tonic in Greenland
These days we are far better off as far as materials and equipment are concerned. We don’t have to manufacture our own colors and they are ready for instant use. We can also take photographs, of course, but for me, it is impossible to capture all the subtleties of the colors and tones in ice with a camera, and these aspects are so important in giving a painting a feeling of true authenticity. When using watercolors, I add gin to the painting water to stop or slow down the rate of freezing, or use it inside a hollow-handled plastic brush-pen. Sometimes I apply color with watercolor pencils onto dry paper and later, when I’m back at base, brush on some water to create a watercolor effect. In extreme cases, after applying the watercolor pencils I sometimes rub snow across the sketch to make a crude »watercolour« and then draw into it with a pencil or pen to capture the detail.
Occasionally, I simply draw in pencil and, like the early explorers, make notes of the colors and main tones, then complete it in watercolor later. I often enjoy painting watercolor sketches when the temperature is hovering just below zero, as the freezing washes can create wonderful reticulated effects on the paper. However, several brushes are needed for that as they quickly freeze up to hard points. Nature is incredible in its capacity to surprise us.
Mind the gap on the Greenlandic ice cap
Painting on the Greenland ice cap is an enlightening experience for the artist who is used to more normal landscapes. Apart from your companions, there is nothing to give a sense of scale to the ice formations or, e.g., a moulin so large you could drop a train into it though there are no trains on the Greenland ice-cap! In the morning, you have to wait for the sun to melt the glacial streams before you can sketch them, and then there is the problem of painting light-colored water against a light-colored background, rather like a polar bear in a snow-storm. Shadows and darker tones and colors help, but often we need to exaggerate the tones simply to make the stream or the cascade stand out.
Many of the best subjects are in dangerous places where one slip can send you into oblivion. Will Williams, one of my companions, watched helplessly as his painting pot slid down a slope and then disappeared into a gaping hole in the ice. In such places, I screw an ice peg into the rock-hard ice and anchor myself and my gear to it before starting to sketch, especially my Wienerbrød (Danish pastry) which is important for morale!
Gymnastic leaps on ice in Greenland
On the ice-cap one of the most fascinating features we came across was an ice canyon – a massive crack in huge ice cliffs. The ice on the bottom looked extremely dubious in places. This was obviously the bed of a glacial stream that had sunk and been covered by a new layer of ice which in places looked as though it might well crack under our weight, so most of the time we straddled the floor and dug our crampons into the side walls as we progressed round snake-like bends.
Eventually, our route was blocked by a deep pool, which even the most elaborate gymnastics would be hard pressed to circumnavigate, but by then I had managed several sketches. At least the ice had stayed firm. It’s no fun when the ice starts to break up beneath you as it did one time when I was sketching an ice bridge over a glacial stream. Having to make the mother of all leaps with all your painting equipment in your hands does not induce a feeling of relaxed watercolor painting but on that occasion, I had no choice.
The ice fjord | North Greenland
One of the most spectacular places in the world to observe ice is the Ilulissat Icefjord in North Greenland. I liked to sit and observe the monstrous icebergs carefully, noting how they changed throughout the day as the sun moved around. Icebergs are magnificent reflectors of light, thus creating fascinating images as they »bend« the light. Sometimes they appear jewel-like, lit up in sparkling light, while at others when in silhouette the same mass of ice can look like a fleet of strange dark-grey battleships.
Again, as artists we have the problem of scale – how do you make an iceberg almost the size of a mountain actually look big in a painting? Including birds can help, but introducing a small kayak or a fishing boat into the scene adds not just a sense of the immensity of the iceberg, but a little life and color.
Glorious landscapes | Greenland
After several expeditions and visits to Greenland, I never tire of painting ice and can’t wait to return, each time with new ideas for subjects and how I am going to tackle these awesome scenes. Although the ice is thinning out, Greenland is still a truly beautiful country and in my new book, David Bellamy’s Arctic Light, I have made it a celebration of the glorious landscapes, the people, and its wildlife. Apart from the stunning Arctic landscapes and wildlife, one of the qualities I love about Greenland is the sense of utter peace and quiet. I have many fond memories of working on paintings and journals in some remote hut, with spectacular views all around, and in the mad hustle and bustle of modern cities, it is these thoughts that keep me sane. Long live this glorious wilderness that we should all treasure.
About the author
- David Bellamy is an artist and author living in Wales, who is never happier than when working in the wild scenery. He has written eighteen books and his latest, David Bellamy’s Arctic Light will be published by Search Press in the early summer of 2017.