Bethan Nadin’s paintings of the Scottish Highlands made a formidable impression the first time I saw them; however, their effects were only fully realised a few months later when I was belaying my climbing partner in Coire an Lochain, staring in amazement at the blocks of granite stacked like bricks of a house. I’d never perceived rock as though I was experiencing déjà vu: I remembered Bethan’s unique blend of colours and block-like contours.
Since her childhood, Bethan has always loved painting and spending time outside. When reflecting on which came first (the chicken or the egg?), she recalls practically being born with a paintbrush in her hand, though also being taken up Stac Pollaidh by her mother who was seven months pregnant—and as a result, almost being named Pollaidh! The first mountain she climbed with her own two feet was Cnict, in North Wales, at the age of four, and her activities have since expanded to include hill running, walking, climbing, cycling, mountain biking and sea kayaking.
When she was eight, Bethan started art lessons with Dianne Kettle, in Middleton by Youlgreve (Derbyshire), where she learned to paint watercolours, charcoal, acrylics and pastels, often using her father’s photographs of the Peak District for inspiration. She has since developed a notable style and created an impressive portfolio. She was awarded a Jolomo Scottish Schools Painting Prize when she was a student at Golspie High School and won the ‘Making it Personal’ Design Award during her undergraduate degree at Gray’s School of Art. In 2021, she had her first solo exhibition, ‘Out There’, at the Alchemist Gallery in Dingwall, and she was awarded the Peak District Artisans Young Emerging Artist.
As someone who also spends much time inhabiting Scotland’s artistic and outdoor spheres, I was curious to explore the ways in which painting and landscapes influence each other to offer new perspectives and insights. Her works are both personal and shared, sweeping and precise, and are marked with consummate dynamism that evokes the various emotions and moods one experiences in Scotland’s outdoor spaces—all at once.
Alexandre: How do your outdoor activities influence your perceptions of the environment?
Bethan: Each activity offers a different perspective, and art often is about perspective. The way in which you can interpret a landscape changes depending on how or where you are viewing it from. For example, the sea cliffs look—and feel—very different when walking along the top compared to climbing up them (being literally faced with the rock), or when looking up at them towering above you from a sea kayak. Doing these activities also immerses me in the close-up—the colours, textures and detail—as well as providing a view of the wider landscape. There is a certain ‘wow’ factor to a landscape and place that can only be found by first-hand experiences. To paint it, I have to know it; to experience the atmosphere and gain a real sense of place.
A: Similarly, how does the creative process help you discover places?
Bethan: I have a fairly creative approach to discovering places—I like to explore, to be curious, and while most people can follow a prescribed route, I prefer to wander off the beaten path to find my own perspective or interpretation of a place. There are perhaps parallels between the ways I explore and paint, and so the question can be flipped: these outdoor places help me discover my creative process. I paint from a place of knowledge and understanding, a mountaineer’s perspective, but returning to a landscape through painting allows me to look much more closely at it than whilst running through it or climbing on it. I never go out looking for any particular thing while adventuring, but a landscape’s drama, its atmosphere and moods, all conjure a unique sense of excitement, and my paintings are a response to these heightened experiences. They reveal the colours, shapes and textures that already exist, but my enthusiasm for the place exaggerates them.
A: What are you trying to convey in your paintings?
Bethan: The energy of a place; the feeling I get when I am there. Often this is something I feel words cannot convey but a painting might. I grew up in the land of authors who I would consider to be ‘nature writers’. There is no way I can describe nature the way they do—that is, in words, but I can create impressions of wild landscapes, and I think my work can complement what they are finding in the landscape. Empty straths and glens, derelict crofts as a result of the Highland Clearances . . . there are many stories associated with the landscapes—both personal and historical—and not everything can be written. For example, I was inspired to paint the corrie of An Teallach after an epic solo descent in poor conditions, and felt compelled to return to the mountain on a good day to channel that experience into a painting. I am inspired by nature, yes, but it isn’t the landscape that inspires so much as the experience of being there. The feeling is the energy, so I use the energy of colour to bring out the energy I feel in the moment. I hope my paintings convey not only the beauty and the drama, but also the potential danger.
A: I certainly felt that energy burst forth from the colours the first time I saw your paintings. Every time I come back to them, too, that feeling is never subdued. What is unique about Scotland?
Bethan: The Scottish landscape, [and] the Northern Highlands in particular, is vast, dramatic. The climate is renowned for having four seasons in one day. You never quite know what to expect and there is always something to bring you back down to earth, or reality. Whether it is an unexpected hail shower or snowstorm on a sunny day, or the clegs and the midges! Scotland is rich in flora and fauna, it feels wild in a modern world that seems set on building everywhere. It can be remote. Isolated. But also magical and beautiful. It is where I feel most at home.
A: You have a unique style. When did you develop this?
Bethan: Although I have been painting, drawing and creating things all my life, it is only in more recent years that my work has started to find this particular shape and style . . . and I imagine it will continue to develop! I did my undergraduate degree in Fashion and Textile Design, so my eye for shape, pattern, colour and motifs derived from there. I also spent three months working with a high-end textile company in Mumbai during my degree, and Indian culture influenced my work which became really vibrant and colourful, for I started to make an association between vibrant colour and energy. I am often drawn to colours similar to spices and sometimes wonder if there is a sense of nostalgia there. I later spent a few months on the Bridge House Art portfolio course in Ullapool, under the tutelage of Eleanor White and Kitty Jones. They helped me develop a sense of scale and technique, and here I began to find my own style and response to the landscapes around me.
A: We’ve already established the natural sphere as integral to your art, but are there any painters that inspire you?
Bethan: There are many painters who inspire me, from Dali to Van Gogh. However, the three who stand out in my own journey are: John Lowrie Morrison for colour, who encouraged me to find my own style; James Hawkins at Rue art for his sense of scale, but who also told me during a feedback session at Bridge House Art in Ullapool that my work in progress was ‘almost really good!’, and whose comment continues to inspire me to always produce my best work and to push myself; and finally, Joan Baxter, who although is not a painter but a world-renowned tapestry weaver, has inspired me with her integrity, knowledge of the highland landscape, and the ways in which she incorporates design and colour with historical and mythical references—from selkies to Viking longships—in her landscape tapestries.
A: In that regard, how much value do you place on visiting exhibitions and museums?
Bethan: A lot. I distinctly remember seeing an exhibition of Mark Rothko’s work when I was 13 years old at Tate Modern in London. His earlier work was bright, yellows and oranges, happy colours that uplifted me. Then I walked into a huge room with enormous canvases of dark reds, greys, blacks, depressing colours. I felt awful. This was the work he produced a month before committing suicide. This experience and the effect it had on me was a result of physically being there and seeing the work for myself. I learned the impact of colour, which is a very important part of my work. You cannot get a true feel for the work from a tiny image on a screen. It is important to see it for yourself.
A: Do other mediums inspire you as well?
Bethan: I could go on about William Morris and his textile designs, or influential fashion designers such as Alexander McQueen and Yayoi Kusama, but we’d be here all day! I do love listening to music when I paint; from traditional Scottish folk to classic rock or modern dance music, music has a powerful way of triggering emotions and memories, and I try to channel this energy into my work. I also photograph as a way of documenting places and composing images. I record and refine composition before I even get to a canvas!
A: Let’s dive deeper into your painting process. Can you describe your working habits?
Bethan: The more paintings I do, the less I need to be in control of the process. I used to draw out the image on the canvas before I started painting, marking the middle and quarter points on each side to get the scale and perspective right. Now, I trust my own instinct and just go for it with big brushes and paint, gradually building up the image over time. When I am fully focussed and in a flow state my painting is instinctive—responsive to the material and the colour. At other points, I stand back to reflect on what I am doing, where the painting is going, and I take photographs to record the progress and to constantly review. This process feels less like ‘colouring in’ and more about my own interpretation and feeling, similar to when you are climbing and are fully focussed on working out a route—a bit like problem-solving in the moment.
A: What can an outdoor enthusiast offer the artistic sphere?
Bethan: A love of nature. Respect for the environment, a different perspective to landscape painting; the encouragement to go out and explore, to get out of your comfort zone, feel the elements and be immersed in the landscape; to switch off from life for a day or even a few hours and be with yourself for a while. Art is about communication and teaching, and everyone will have their own take on it.
A: On the flip side, what can the mountains give to art?
Bethan: Experientially, mountains offer drama, changing light and weather conditions, incredible shadows, shapes and colours; but they are not static. Although I can bring love, passion and experiences to paint their natural beauty, these environments are in danger. I am currently working on a painting of an old quarry in Wirksworth, and I am fascinated by the way nature is reclaiming the machine-cut landscape. It feels more natural and wild than most of the farmed land around it, but environmental degradation is a real concern, and even agricultural practices are impacting the landscapes we know and love. I contrast my outdoor experiences here in the Peak District with the more wild, natural places of Scotland. These are all places that need to be looked after—restored even—and valued for what they are, rather than marked with a monetary value. I want my paintings to say: ‘Look, stop, observe. See what we have and value it, look after it.’
A: What do you consider the role of the painter to be today, in the 21st century?
Bethan: To communicate, to teach, to inspire, to convey thoughts and feelings that words fail to describe . . . perhaps even simply to share a part of themselves with the world. Painting is a very introspective process; my paintings are a part of me, my life, and putting them on display is like exposing myself to the world. It can be very scary. Good art should hold a mirror up to the viewing public, and my work is my personal mirror; it is what I see. However, perhaps the role of the painter is subjective to the artist and cannot be defined so broadly. No one hat fits all. Perhaps as an artist I can bring the ‘wow’ factor so many outdoor enthusiasts feel into their homes?
A: What are you working on now?
Bethan: As part of my award from the Peak District Artisans, Young Emerging Artist 2021, I have just completed a solo exhibition at the Courtney Gallery in Ashbourne, which has been well received. Presently, I have a number of commissions before deciding what’s next. I want to paint more of the Northern Highlands, as well as other places in Scotland. Whenever I am home I gather as much inspiration as possible. Maybe a plan for another exhibition in Scotland?