Finding a Trail Less Travelled

The Cairngorm National Park is where I’m drawn to when I think of my Dad. He taught me to ski on the mountain and we often explored Glenmore and Rothiemurchus – this is where I feel most connected to him. I share some brilliant memories with him here.


Growing up in Balloch, a tiny village outside of Inverness surrounded by farms and forests, I spent a lot of time outdoors, exploring a small patch of woodland – the ‘local forest’ – with friends, climbing up trees, building makeshift shelters and playing on homemade swings. My parents also often took my brother Fraser and I camping on the west coast and in the Cairngorm National Park, which instilled a life-long love for Scotland’s wild places.

My Dad was a sponge of Scottish history and geography, and his work took him all over the country, onto land, private estates and farms that require access permission. He wasn’t a documenter, however, as he preferred his pair of binoculars round his neck rather than a camera, but I remember him pointing out birds of prey, animals and trees, and reading every plaque he came across. When we returned from the various trips, I drew the animals and hills he’d pointed out to me. Through him, I was building and recording my own knowledge of Scotland.

In late high school I took up photography and got my first ‘good camera’, which was a pivotal moment, for the ability to capture subjects in immense detail inspired me to pay closer attention to their subtleties. I’ve always been precise (even whilst drawing those animals as a wee boy), but now I wasn’t just drawing from memory – I had transportable and personal images that I could draw and redraw, and, in doing so, develop my style and affinity for the pen, whose control I love. 

After Culloden Academy I studied animation at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, Dundee, then worked a few random jobs (none in my desired field), went to France for a ski season and, eventually, found myself back in school – this time at Moray House, in Edinburgh.  

At this time, whilst studying for my teaching degree, my dad started to have problems with his balance. After lengthy tests, we were told he had developed a brain tumour. Drawing, and later climbing, became my coping mechanism. I felt helpless in Edinburgh, nearly four hours away from Inverness, where Mum and dad were battling through things.

As such, I started doing landscape doodles in a sketchbook, at first simply exploring various mark-making techniques with a pen – lines, dots, squiggles – with no particular mountains in mind. Soon, however, I found mark-making styles I enjoyed and started working from my own photographs, often of places I’d frequent with my father. This process of creating drawings based from experiences and places allowed me to connect with him when I wasn’t able to do it physically. I dedicated an Instagram account, ‘Highland Doodles’, to these tiny drawings which eventually evolved into my illustration account.


Highland Doodle with Dad

Highland Doodle

Slowly, my drawings became larger, more detailed, and largely informed my current creative practice. When outside, I am always seeking interesting compositions. I’m influenced by the changing landscape, seasons and weather, and I appreciate the strong use of light to create depth, usually from a single light source, like the sun. With a drone and camera, I’m able to capture these fleeting moments and bring them back to my studio, where I work from the photographs, sketching in pencil first and then working logically – grid-like – in pen. 

The pencil sketch is detailed and precise, and includes guidelines and blocked out areas for shadows. When I’m happy with the pencil composition I change to pen and add the longer, establishing lines. The thinner lines come after to create details like trees, geology and grass. At this point, my drawing still feels flat and lifeless, so it’s time to add the dots to create the shadows and depth that transform the drawing. I work from left to right, top to bottom, like reading a book.

Loch Morlich, Cairngorm in Progress

Sligachan Bridge, Isle of Skye in Progress

After graduating in 2017, I moved back home to Inverness to teach. This brief period of my life is sparse with memories . . . I may have unintentionally forced a lot of it from my mind. As I progressed through my first year of teaching, not only was I struggling with this new career, but I stopped drawing and, mostly, I was trying to come to terms with my dad’s illness. He didn’t seem to be recovering at all, and in September 2018, he passed away – one month after beginning my second year.

Ultimately, I think the odds were always stacked against me for progressing as a teacher. I taught for two years before taking a ‘career break’, which in hindsight, was due to depression. I was struggling with my mental health and a change was needed. My partner, Laura, and I were also on the brink of buying a flat – we had saved and saved to finally get a place of our own – but in September 2019, one year after dad had passed, we bailed on buying the flat and instead bought a one-way flight to New Zealand. 

In a converted camper van, we drove around the islands for six months. I suddenly found myself with time and a clear head, and I started drawing again. I sold a few drawings of places in New Zealand to people I met while driving around. It was such a cool feeling – selling my original artwork to near strangers.

Hamish the van

When we returned, COVID hit hard. I had no job, so with the gentle push from a friend, I built a portfolio and a website. I worked a few part-time jobs and taught again, but quit after four months. I’d been declining commissions due to a lack of time, and I knew it was time for another crucial decision: work for a system I don’t fully agree with, or take a risk and work for myself . . . I chose the latter. 

2022 was my first year as a full-time illustrator and artist, and what a ride it’s been – I was selected to design Banff Mountain Festival’s artwork, which is showcased globally!

Banff from Above, Lake Louise

I’m now continuing to build my business and to branch out of the safety of my hometown, Inverness. I will be at a few markets, which are great for meeting people face to face and networking. I’m trying to build a business that doesn’t stagnate and to collaborate with brands and companies with similar values to mine. It’s a slow process and requires a lot of research, but I’m nearly booked with commissions this year, which is great! 

One of the projects I’m most excited about is for a major podcast company releasing a new show about individuals who live wild and inspiring lives. As we’re constantly fed hollow nothingness on social media, this podcast addresses the sense of loss in society. It’ll be a slower, uncut insight into people’s lives, and it’ll inspire listeners to explore and appreciate their surroundings. Getting outside and learning about the environment is key to a lot of issues we’re currently facing, and it baffles me that people fly to another country, spend time there, fly back home and never explore their own country. Scotland is particularly awesome because you can explore nearly anywhere – long may this continue.

I’m also focusing on my own outdoor pursuits, especially with summer fast approaching. Mountain biking, climbing, hiking – I’m an all-rounder, really, alright at some and master of none, but I get huge enjoyment out of building new skills, photographing new memories and recreating them in pen. Established within my output is a respect for nature, so through the generation of ideas and physical work, I want to help people connect with Scotland’s landscapes and to advocate for these wild places, just as my dad did for me.

An Lochan Uaine (Green Lochan), Cairngorm

Loch Morlich, Cairngorm

Rogie Falls

Lead Image: Bealach na Ba 

Creator’s biography

2023 is Jack’s second year as a full-time artist and illustrator. After jumping ship from a career as an art teacher, he has pursued his goal of building a creative business. Adventure, sustainability and happiness lie in the foundations of his business as he attempts to navigate the complexities of the art world.

His current work is detailed and concise. He looks for interesting compositions in the natural world, seeking balance but intrigue. He works from his own photographs of locations, spending time in different places and experiencing their character.

It all starts with a rough pencil sketch; if the composition comes together, he’ll add more details in pencil before reflecting and then getting into the inking. He works logically, sticking to a practised process, building detail with lines and dots to create depth, shadow and atmosphere.

Etsy Shop: JSpowartIllustration
Instagram: @jack_spowart_illustration