Ruth Brownlee: Capturing The Essence Of Shetland

by Alastair Hamilton -

Ruth Brownlee is one of the best-known of the many artists practising in Shetland. Her much-loved seascapes can be seen in homes in and beyond the islands. Ruth’s solo shows have delighted gallery visitors in Aberdeen, Edinburgh, East Lothian, Glasgow, Harrogate and London, among other places. She has participated in group shows too, in locations as diverse as Wigtown, Crieff, Much Wenlock and Bergen.

Ruth was born near Edinburgh in 1972 and she studied drawing, painting and tapestry at Edinburgh College of Art, graduating in 1994. She has worked and studied in the USA, Norway, France and Cyprus. She particularly enjoyed a print-making residency at The Center for Contemporary Printmaking, a studio and gallery in Norwalk, Connecticut. “I’d like to have had longer – I only had two weeks. I felt I was just getting into it by the time I had to leave.”

Today, Ruth and her work are embedded in Shetland’s cultural life; so much so, indeed, that her studio – a lovely space overlooking the sea – was used in the filming of the fourth series of BBC1’s Shetland. “That was good, yes”, she laughs, “it was really good exposure!” The studio and its fittings and equipment have taken on the tones and texture of her paintings, even down to her computer mouse.

However, her move to the islands was a matter of chance. In 1997, she’d been exhibiting hand-made greetings cards at a trade fair in Birmingham, which Emma Gibson from Lerwick’s Peerie Shop happened to be visiting. Ruth wasn’t on her stand at the critical moment, but Emma picked up a business card, which she later passed on to Mary Smith at the Bonhoga Gallery in Weisdale. Mary got in touch and Ruth’s paintings were soon seen in several of Shetland’s leisure centres.

Serendipity shaped what happened next, too. Her work was seen by Mike Finnie, a painter and, nowadays, jewellery designer, and by the late Tommy Watt, curator at the Shetland Museum. They persuaded Ruth to take part in a workshop in 1998. Ruth recalls that Tommy loved one of her paintings so much that he not only bought it but, to her amazement, painted a copy on his kitchen wall. From October 1998, she and Tommy were together until his untimely passing.

In the 20 years that Ruth has spent in Shetland, her style has evolved, but her search for the essence of the islands continues. “It’s the constantly changing weather and light, and the openness. Having been brought up on a farm, I’ve always been used to having open spaces: but the light, definitely, and the coastal landscape and the sea. It’s dramatic: in one day, you can have four seasons, can’t you? I seem to be on a mission to capture the painting that encapsulates everything about Shetland. I don’t think I’ll ever get it: but the sea and the sky in one painting - that’s my main joy.”

Ruth doesn’t find the same fascination in painting the land. “Even I question, why am I so obsessed with just the sea and the sky, and not interested in putting buildings in? When I first came to Shetland, I was painting headlands and cliffs, but I’ve come away from that. Occasionally, I do paint a headland, but I find myself painting over it, because that’s not what it’s about. It’s about trying to capture the atmosphere. I just feel that I’m on this journey. I just go with how I’m feeling at the time, what I’m seeing, and what’s in my head.”

Texture is "really important" in her work, something that she thinks was reinforced by her training in weaving tapestries with wool. "I wove large scale tapestries, 5 feet by 7 feet - they were very abstract in comparison.”

Ruth’s technique involves mostly acrylic paint, “but I mix media and I also put in pumice gel – and sometimes my hair’s in it! I put on a layer of gesso, but then sometimes an idea comes, and I just start painting. I apply the paint onto board. I suppose I ought to be moving on to canvas, but I’ve never really enjoyed working on canvas. I like to be able to work on the flat and with board I feel I can score into it.

I’m very aggressive with the brushes, but it goes back to that need to get texture into it. And I use rags. It’s almost drag painting, a combination of brush and rags. I want to move the paint around and get that sense of movement. I like that feeling of the sky moving in my work.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, Ruth finds autumn to be the best time of year to paint, because of the colours – “and the gales are arriving!” Yet, although the light and the weather are the keys to her work, music also plays a part in her inspiration. She’s been listening to the British contemporary composer, Max Richter, and an Icelandic composer, Ólafur Arnalds. “Music takes me places in my head: I like to get music into my work.”

Among contemporary painters, Ruth particularly likes the work of the Norwegian painter, Ørnulf Opdahl, and it seems the admiration is mutual. “I feel really, really honoured. I know him, I’ve met him several times, and he even gave me the ultimate compliment, saying that we were related through our work. His pieces are massive. And then there’s an Irish painter, Melita Denaro; I used to look at her work, too.” Others she admires include Mark Rothko (1903-1970) and the Cornish painter, Peter Lanyon (1918-1964). But of course she’s also in contact with other Shetland-based artists and the steady stream of new arrivals: “Shetland is definitely a good place for an artist to be”.

“Shetland is definitely a good place for an artist to be”

Will her direction or style change? “Sometimes I think I should be pushing my work towards being more abstract, but it’s not what I’m after.” A friend on Facebook reminded her of one of her earlier paintings from years ago, which included the edge of a cliff, and “it just made me realise how much I’ve come away from that”. These days, too, she tries to get away from a distinct horizon: “I must get away from that line!”

Certainly, Ruth’s painting is distinctive, as a visit to her online gallery confirms. Her use of colour, enlivened by a wonderful luminosity and texture in water and spume, is masterly. It’s no wonder that her work is so admired locally, nationally and internationally. We’re fortunate that that her ability has been so successfully matched with the inspiration that the islands provide.

Posted in: Creative Scene