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By Promote ShetlandNovember 9th 2020

The painter explains her long-held fascination with Shetland’s dramatic skies and stormy seas.

Known for her wild seascapes with dramatic skies, Ruth Brownlee is one of Shetland’s most beloved and widely collected artists. She has exhibited across the UK, with her latest solo show in February 2020 at Edinburgh’s Open Eye Gallery, a widely respected gallery of Scottish contemporary art.

Originally from Edinburgh, she studied at the Edinburgh College of Art. In July 1998, she came for a weekend workshop with Shetland’s South Mainland Art Group. She fell in love with both the islands and Tommy Watt, who was running the group, and by October she had moved, and was living with him in Sandwick, in the South Mainland. Tommy passed away from leukemia in 2010, but Ruth still lives at Sandwick with their teenage daughter, Alice. Her studio, caked in blue and white paint, has appeared in the Shetland TV series. She also runs a beautiful Airbnb, Sea Winds, with a view over Jimmy Perez’s house by the waterfront in Lerwick.

Here, she explains the inspirations and processes behind her work.

‘When I came up in 1998, I had no idea that this one weekend would change my life. I remember standing on Spiggie Beach on a misty, flat calm day, just looking at the colours and thinking: I have to come here to paint. At the same time, I realised I was falling in love with Tommy. I was engaged to someone else back in Edinburgh, but somehow knew I was meant to be up here with him. But October of that year, I was living with Tommy in Shetland, and painting in his studio at Sandwick. It very quickly felt like home; the place I was meant to be.’

Shetland very quickly felt like home; the place I was meant to be.

‘In my art, I’ve always been trying to capture that atmosphere; to try and put the Shetland I see and feel onto a canvas. A lot of it is about the sky and the light, which I feel like I’ve been chasing for 22 years. I’m never sure exactly what it is about the Shetland sky that captivates me so much, but there’s something about the lack of trees and the openness of it all, and then these stormy seas and shifting light. My dad’s a farmer and we grew up watching the weather, so that’s part of it too. Even when we’re just driving to Lerwick, I’ll be looking up, and my daughter Alice will be telling me to keep my eyes on the road.’

‘I like darkness and drama. Shetland is beautiful in the summer, but I don’t find it as inspiring. But around the September equinox, when the heather starts to turn, I can somehow feel the creative spirit seeping back into me. It’s as if black storms bring me this strange energy.’

‘I’m a very messy painter. To me, chaos breeds creativity. The rest of my house is very tidy, but everything in my studio is caked in paint. The scissors are 15 years old, and still work. More amazingly, so does my mouse, which I use to change the music. Our cat, Mittens, sometimes comes in and gets splashed, too. Amazingly, though, she knows when a piece of work is dry and she is safe to walk on it. Luckily, I have quite a limited palette, so I’m okay with the colours everything’s splattered with.’

The rest of my house is very tidy, but everything in my studio is caked in paint.

‘I sometimes work from photos, but a lot is from memory. Sometimes, I just have to look out of the studio window to get inspiration. I’ll work on thick cardboard, prepared with white primer, and sketch a rough layout, but nothing that I’ll get too bogged down with. Then I’ll build up the layers of acrylic paint. Shetland is so rugged and textured, and there’s a wildness and a sense of movement to the seas and the skies. So I try to capture that in the painting, and I try to let my emotions run into it. Music helps, too. I’ll listen to Beethoven, Schubert, London Grammar, Radiohead… and I love Max Richter, whose music somehow sounds like the atmosphere I’m trying to evoke. The trickiest thing for any artist is often knowing when to stop. I’ve often gone too far, and with one brush mark you can lose the painting. But my eye usually tells me when it’s done.’

'When I first came up to Shetland, I painted different things. I sketched more, and painted cliffs and rocks. But, now, it’s almost always seas and skies, because to me they’re the purest way to capture that atmosphere I’m always chasing. Those dark ominous skies have become my signature, and what galleries want. But I still feel like I’m chasing. I still feel that need to get that feeling into the work.'

Book Sea Winds, Ruth’s Airbnb

For more, see Ruth’s website and Instagram page.

Her art can be seen at the Shetland Gallery in Sellafirth, Yell, and at the Bonhoga Gallery in Weisdale, on the Mainland.