Almost every year I go to the Degree Show at Dundee’s Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art to see the work of the latest cohort of graduating students. It is where I studied, so the visits are always very enjoyable because you inevitably meet old friends, and although my main interest is the work in the textiles department, I do like looking round the other departments. Some years ago during one of these annual visits, I saw the work of a painter who has gone on to be well known world wide and has work in many public and private collections, including the private collection of HRH Duke of Edinburgh. Derek Robertson was born and grew up in Fife and since studying at DoJCAD he has established himself as one of Britain’s leading wildlife and landscape artists. He has won numerous prizes, is regularly featured in the press, television and radio, including writing and presenting a number of TV programmes. He is the author of books and regularly gives talks and demonstrations; the list of credits is extensive.
Derek was one of the invited artists at this year’s Pittenweem Arts Festival and when I visited the Festival I took the chance to say hello. His work attracted a lot of visitors during the Festival but on the day I was there I was lucky to be able to find a few minutes to say hello and have a chat.
I started by asking him as we were both graduates of Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, Dundee, what were his memories of his time at art college and does he feel the teaching and his time there has had a lasting influence on his artistic practice?
- Yes, I had some great tutors including Will McLean, Ian Howard, Alan Robb and Bill Cadenhead. The course had a great sense of inquiry and experimentation and we were encouraged to explore other practices through other departments – in fact, we were given great support from other department staff. Although my degree course was drawing and painting, my final degree show was largely in sculpture and printmaking. It is important to realise too how much influence and inspiration you get from your contemporaries and I had a great year and fantastic studio partners who were supportive, enthusiastic and constructively critical.
It is always interesting to hear about the working spaces and practices of artists so can you describe your studio? Do you like to work with music or the radio playing or do you prefer silence?
- I have a beautiful cabin-type studio that overlooks the shore and the estuary of the river Tay. There are a lot of birds on the beach and I regularly see otters and seals – once even a beaver. The studio is painted off white inside. I keep it pretty clean and tidy as I have a store room in the house. I alternate between music, radio and silence depending on what I am doing and what mood I am in. I find changing from one to another every 20 minutes keeps me alert and gives me a useful change of pace. However, my studio is often “under the sky” wherever I am painting wildlife out in the field.
When you go out to record wildlife what materials do you prefer to work with? Is your outdoor work kit extensive or do you work with only a few materials to make that first record?
- I usually use an A3 ring-bound book of Saunders 300gsm not watercolour paper. I keep some sheets of coloured paper in the back of that to work on if it is too bright to work on white paper. I have a box of half pan watercolours and a few tubes of watercolour paint. That is accompanied by a collapsible, plastic water jar and a pencil case which has some biros, 2B pencils, conté pencils, a putty rubber and a scalpel. Sometimes this also has outdoor kit plus food, water a camera and binoculars and telescope. At the lightest I will take an A4 cartridge sketchbook and a pencil case…..but I always carry binoculars.
How much has or does the countryside of Fife, the ability to move from rolling fields to sea shore, influence your work?
- Much of my work is within an hour travel of home and Fife is a landscape I both love and understand. Not only does it infuse my work but I have a mental map of what wildlife I can find in certain places at particular times of year and what places I would like to go and portray in different weathers and seasons.
You are well known for your beautiful wildlife paintings but I find the series of Migrations paintings both powerful and moving. Having recently produced work that explored an aspect of the migrant crisis, I was interested to see how you had expressed the feelings you had during your visits to refugee camps and the parallels you drew between migratory birds. Can you tell me something about this body of work?
- I am privileged to spend my days in wild and beautiful places painting birds. I am fascinated by them: by their abstract shapes, their song, their behaviour, their migrations. I have sketched them, and helped in scientific studies of their migratory journeys from the Arctic right down into Africa. Three years ago I watched as “The Summer of Boats” unfolded into a refugee crisis and I saw newscasters reporting from beaches on Mediterranean islands as desperate people came ashore. I recognised these islands as the same places I had travelled to watch and sketch migratory birds and now here were people in a similar state of immediate survival, taking the same lines of flight as the birds I portray.
Through the course of a year, I travelled through the UK and Europe, through the Mediterranean to the Middle East. On my travels I spoke to refugees, to locals and to volunteers and I sketched what I saw: the people, the places and the birds. One of the interests that ecologists have in birds is that they are important environmental indicators. If the populations or migration of the birds change, this points to change in the environment that could be of grave concern. The issues are complex, but academic studies draw a link between climate change, conflict and refugee crises – that cause further social and environmental stress. In these complex systems, ecologists look to the birds to indicate what might be happening to our world. They are telling us something we can now recognise for ourselves, and how we address the intertwined issues of climate change and refugee crises will define who we are and what societies we live in for generations to come.
I documented what I saw on my travels and expressed these interwoven topics through a series of paintings back in the studio, but often the stories I heard and the things I saw were difficult to express and too hard to portray. I often concentrated my attention on the details and the surface texture – the ephemera of the boats and camps and studies of the birds that I found there. The project challenged me artistically and personally and I often found myself very far outside my comfort zone. I taught art classes in refugee schools and organised art activities for unaccompanied children in some of the camps. I was mugged in Sicily, caught in a riot in Calais and escorted off sites by armed police and soldiers, but my experiences were matched by the inspirational humanity of the many refugees and volunteers that I met. The work produced has been shown in London (The Lush Symposium, a series of talks and presentations and a televised interview with Chris Packham), The Scottish Parliament (a series of talks and receptions at the exhibition) and the Pittenweem Arts Festival (Critic’s Choice in The Scotsman and “If you only see one thing today” in The Independent).
Such experiences will stay with you, I imagine, long after you leave the areas of conflict and I think the paintings beautifully express the situation of the refugees. The links you make with the migratory paths of the birds is especially touching. Have you interesting projects starting in the near future?
- I have more exhibitions of the Migrations project and projects and talks about this organised with Glasgow, Oxford and Cambridge Universities; with New Networks for Nature Conference, The BTO Conference and the Nature in Art Museum…plus other venues and projects which are still in discussion.
Thank you Derek, this has been fascinating. It has given me a real insight into your practice and I appreciate you taking the time to speak to me with such a busy schedule. I look forward to seeing future work and we will hopefully have another chance for a chat sometime. Full details about Derek’s extensive credits and awards plus more information about his paintings, including the Migrations series, can be found on his website at this link Derek Robertson
Looking forward to my next Studio Conversation.