An Ecologist Paints a Picture: In conversation with scientist-turned-landscape artist Stephen Redpath

The above image is titled ‘Cliffs’ © Stephen M. Redpath

After working as an ecologist for over 30 years, Stephen Redpath decided to retire early from his professorship  at the University of Aberdeen and take up landscape painting full time. In a conversation conducted over email, Hari Sridhar and Manini Bansal asked Steve Redpath about this decision, where his art draws ideas and inspiration from, and how being a scientist has influenced how he paints the natural world.

Current Conservation team: In 2019, after spending over 30 years working as an ecologist, you decided to take up landscape painting. Tell us about the origins of this interest, and what motivated you to make this switch at this point in your career?

Steve Redpath: I have always had a deep love of the natural world. My earliest memories are of birds and landscapes and associated feelings of joy and connection. I grew up in a creative household—my parents were weavers in west Wales—so there were always books on art and colour and design lying around. I always enjoyed drawing and painting. The woollen mill was in a beautiful part of the world and I spent much of my childhood outside, birdwatching, looking for nests, tickling fish and just messing about. I met a friend of my parents when I was 10 years old and he said I could get a job as an ecologist, which I thought was amazing. A job watching birds all day! So, I set course for a degree in Ecology, which I did at Leeds University in the north of England. I followed that up with a PhD and a job at the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology. I spent 13 glorious years collecting data and, yes, watching birds. But slowly I got sucked into management and committees and grant writing etc., which I didn’t enjoy so much, although it did have its rewards. However, I did particularly enjoy teaching and interacting with lively, young, ecologists full of passion for doing something positive in the world. 

About 15 years ago, I started struggling with my mental health, and in 2009 I had a breakdown. A couple of things really helped me out of this horrible time: my lovely family and art. I drew and painted and filled up books with, what were, to be honest, mostly pretty dreadful paintings, but the process of painting was so exciting and mesmerising. It also shut out the endless noise that was in my head. From that moment I made two decisions. One was to focus my academic life on human-wildlife conflict, which I found fascinating, and, secondly, to retire from my job at Aberdeen University at 60 years old and pursue a life as an artist.

Hill loch © Stephen M. Redpath

After 10 years, I had manoeuvred my University job into something that was very stimulating. The teaching was great, I was working on some fascinating research and field projects with some wonderful people around the world. I especially loved working with the Snow Leopard Trust, Nature Conservation Foundation, and with academics from a wide diversity of disciplines. I also had two amazing years spending time with brilliant ecologists, political scientists and psychologists in Sweden. Everything was going to plan. Then in 2019, I became ill and was eventually diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) or Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME). This is such a debilitating illness, which sucked the energy out of me and left me with reduced cognitive function (the doctors called it ‘brain fog’). I had to stop work and I was eventually forced to retire at the age of 57.

This was not what I planned, but suddenly I had time to focus on painting. It was odd. I had no energy, I could not read and on some days I even struggled to speak. But I could paint. It clearly used a different part of my brain. Since then, I have painted virtually every day. In my head, I have this huge store of images and feelings of a life in the natural world, after a career as an ecologist, and a feeling that I could let go and explore who I am through my painting. What a treat!

CC: Walk us through your process, i.e. how you decide what to paint and how to represent it? How much of what you draw is based on memory versus painting “live”?

SR: There is no single process, and, if I’m honest, I sometimes find it hard to understand what is going on. Some days, especially when my CFS is bad, I will sit and paint whatever comes out. In a way, I just observe myself. At these moments, I’m not trying to represent a place. I’m just lost in the joy of watching pigment, water and paper interact. It is wonderfully meditative. Once I’ve started painting, I may make a decision to add some contrast or introduce a new colour. So, I suppose, I observe and respond and observe and respond. (Picture 1)

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Picture 1: Stillness © Stephen M. Redpath

On other days, I will have a place in mind, for example, a bit of coastline or an upland landscape. Again, I won’t try and reproduce an exact representation—it is the feel I’m after. To me, painting is all about emotion—my response to the natural world and my attempts to capture that feeling on paper. I paint for me and I try not to think about how others will respond. So, in these situations, I chose a palette and I add a little more “editorial” control over the process, although, in reality, a lot of it is still simply observing myself (Picture 2)

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Picture 2: The Coll © Stephen M. Redpath

Sometimes, I will try to express a specific emotion, rather than a place. For example, it may be the frustration of living with CFS (Picture 3). In these cases, I start with that feeling and then let go.

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Picture 3: The Angry Mountain (living with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) © Stephen M. Redpath

I also sketch outdoors a lot (Picture 4) and, increasingly, paint in other media such as acrylics or oils (Picture 5). In addition, I bring my sketches back to my studio and use them as an aid. Direct painting is very exciting, but a challenge when you live with CFS. It is only something I can do on “good” days. But even when I sketch outdoors, I find that I am more interested in the feel of a place and less interested in, for example, whether specific trees are in the right place or I have the line of the mountain exactly right. There is a wonderful magic that can happen when you paint and observe for hours in situ. I find I start to see the landscape differently and this affects how I portray it. I see new colours and contrasts and the whole thing becomes emotional and alive. A connection forms between the landscape, the painting and myself. It is glorious and fleeting, and it is a state I’m constantly striving for. I find I have a dialogue with the painting—it “talks” to me and I talk to it and a relationship forms.

This all may seem a bit odd for a man of science, but it is how I perceive the process. I try not to think about it too much. I’m simply having too much fun. 

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Picture 4: The Tarland Burn © Stephen M. Redpath

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Picture 5: Ardmair Bay © Stephen M. Redpath

CC: That you sketch outdoors a lot suggests that you live and work in a place where you have easy access to natural landscapes. Could you describe the place where you live and also tell us a little bit about what sketching outdoors involves? 

SR: I am very fortunate to live in one of the most beautiful places in the world—Aberdeenshire in the north east of Scotland. It is a place filled with beautiful habitats, from the coastal estuaries and large sea-bird colonies up the famous rivers of the Dee and the Don to the mountains of the Cairngorm National Park. An endless supply of glorious places to visit and sketch. We also have that delightful northern light that is very special. I live in a small village on the edge of the national park, with mountains, forests, lakes and farmland within easy access (Picture 6)

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Picture 6: Aberdeenshire © Stephen M. Redpath

When I go for walks, I tend to take a sketchbook, pencil, charcoal and maybe some pastels or watercolours. I’m always looking—it may be a simple line I’m trying to capture in my book, or the fall of light and shade over a field, or the colour of a distant hill. I fill up books with simple sketches and often use these for later inspiration in the studio (Picture 7). Often, I will sketch with my non-dominant hand, or I sketch “blind”—without looking at the paper at all. I find these approaches produce more interesting and satisfying reflections of what I am observing.  

Picture 7: ‘Blind’ drawing to try to find the line of a mountain (page from sketchbook) © Stephen M. Redpath

CC: I’m intrigued by your method of drawing with your non-dominant hand or without looking at the canvas. Could you tell us a little more about how this works for you?

SR: Just like being an ecologist, being a painter involves careful observation. To me, this doesn’t mean trying to reproduce an exact representation, like a photograph, but being honest about the feel of a place, of capturing the interplay of light and tone and contrast, to represent the energy of a landscape at that time. To sit and really see, and then try to let that seeing flow onto the paper. Sometimes, I find that using my dominant hand hinders that flow, maybe because the hand has memories of movements and tends to move in specific ways. Using the non-dominant hand gives more freedom of expression and allows for uncertain movements, which add greatly to the picture. However, I think what I enjoy the most is drawing “blind” (Picture 8), through which I can spend all my time seeing and trust my hand to reproduce. It is amazing. Maybe the tree is in totally the wrong place (for example, in the sky), but the feel of the whole piece is there. I find it fascinating that you can capture the essence of something or somewhere even if spatial configuration is scrambled. 

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Picture 8: Quick ‘blind’ sketch of a starling sculpture © Stephen M. Redpath

CC: In a couple of your earlier responses, you’ve alluded to how being a scientist has influenced your art. Can you reflect on this a little more, in particular, about ways in which the scientist/ecologist view of the world both helps and hinders your art?

SR: Much has been written about the divide between Art and Science cultures. I tend to ignore all of that. They both seem innately interwoven in my life and I have always loved both. Consequently, I don’t feel that my life as a scientist hinders my painting. On the contrary, science has taught me the value of careful observation and patience, which are fundamental to life as an artist. My life as a field ecologist, working in amazing places, and observing birds and nature, has helped my painting enormously. 

Of course there are big differences in the practice of Science and Art, but I think both are trying to find truths about the world or about our individual experiences of living in the world. The main difference for me is that my time is no longer spent with a notebook and binoculars, but with a sketchbook (the binoculars are still there). I still love the excitement of natural history and the joy of finding a nest or walking in the uplands listening to calling curlews or exploring the coast and the large breeding colonies of guillemots and razorbills that occur near Aberdeen. So, on some days, I will watch and not sketch, and on other days, I will be painting and be unaware of the nest nearby. It seems a perfect life—living in a glorious place, exploring the natural world and trying to capture my experience of it on paper.

CC: What has changed about the way you, literally, see the natural world, i.e. the thought processes running through your head when you’re in nature, after you took to painting? Do you find yourself paying attention to different aspects now, compared to when you were a field ecologist?

SR: Interesting question. As an ecologist I used to be more attuned to species I was studying, but as I have focused on painting, I think I have become more attuned to the feel of being in a place, and I am certainly more aware of the light. Sometimes, I can get very moved by watching light and shadows play out over a hillside. It is a more holistic experience—the light, the contrasts, the colours, the tones, the sounds, the smells, the wind, the movement – all these things I feel more. Isn’t that wonderful!

CC: Earlier, you said that sometimes you draw upon a memory of a specific place when painting. Are there any instances where you have tried to capture, in your painting, a particular field experience, or even tried to portray a theme related to your scientific work?

SR: I had to think about this one. I have never tried to recreate a specific field experience or a theme related to my work. But why not? I think the general experiences I have been through—the landscapes I have lived in and walked in and got wet in and observed are there for sure. I also think the tension that is inherent to my work on conflict and those conversations with people with divergent views is there for sure, but I am less interested in trying to represent a specific event. It is more about absorbing all that work and then allowing it to come out as it comes out. My paintings are, in part, a reflection of my lived experiences as well as the reflection of direct observation. I know some people use art as propaganda—for example, to express a pro-conservation position, or highlight a particular problem, and that is fine of course, but that is not why I paint. I am searching for some sort of honesty and truth about the way I see and feel landscape and the way my experiences affect that representation. 

CC: What are your thoughts on how drawing and painting can play a role in the communication of science and conservation?  Are you aware of any examples where you think this has been done well?

SR: As I have said, I paint for myself. I paint because I have this compulsion to put pigment on a surface and watch how it interacts with water and other pigments. I paint because I want to capture how I see and feel the world around me. I know there are many brilliant artists who paint to highlight the plight of a species or the loss of habitat or to raise awareness of a particular issue. In that case, there is a direct and specific line of communication. Obviously, I still feel passionately about conservation and the plight of the natural world, and this will inevitably feed into my painting, but not in such a direct way. I am happy with a painting when it moves me and captures how I feel about a place. If that moves other people and makes them think about hope and the beauty of our world, then great. But it isn’t, specifically, the driver for me.  

A glimpse of sea  © Stephen M. Redpath

CC: After your retirement, have you continued to stay in touch with your earlier research interests in any way? If you don’t mind my asking, are there aspects of your university job and being an ecologist that you miss?

SR: My first love was natural history and I will always maintain that passion. As to my research, my chronic fatigue has made it almost impossible to stay in touch. I often struggle to read papers and follow argumentation. There is much that I do miss. I miss the amazing people I worked with all over the world and I miss the joy of teaching keen students. I do also miss the challenge of working on human-wildlife conflicts, but it was a stressful job at times. As an ecologist, I absolutely adored the fieldwork, and trying to understand the species I was studying; for example, I spent a long time trying to get into the head of a hen harrier! I miss that intensity. But now, I am content to observe and to try to portray a fleeting glimpse of the world I experience, on paper.

CC: Before we end, is there anything you would like to add, that hasn’t been covered by the questions I’ve asked, but is relevant to the theme(s) of this conversation?

SR: My whole life, I have felt passionate about the beauty of the natural world, and I had 30 years as a working ecologist / conservation scientist. I wanted to make a difference and help find positive solutions to some of the thorny problems we face. In many ways, this is a traumatic discipline, and I’m sure that contributed to my breakdown and ongoing feelings of anxiety. Working in this field, it is easy to become overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness. Art helps me deal with the effects of this trauma, and for that I will always be grateful. One of the joys of art is that it can give hope, connect people and touch something inside them to help them celebrate our world. Ecologists are not always good at speaking about hope and beauty and love. Art can open these doors and help start conversations about how we can find positive, effective ways forward. I would encourage anyone to pick up a pencil or brush and make some marks on something. Who knows where it will take you.

Follow Stephen Redpath’s work on his website and Instagram.