Capturing the crag: the story behind the art on our guidebook covers

Our recent release, Lowland Outcrops, is the third of our guides to now feature one of Christopher Smith-Duque’s fine-art paintings of iconic crags on the cover. In this article, we hear from the artist himself, as well as our Publications Manager, Rob, to explain why we’ve opted for crags over climbers for our new editions. 


From the Press (Rob Lovell)

The Scottish Mountaineering Club has been producing guidebooks for many many years, and with the previous series of books (concluding with the guidebook to the Outer Hebrides) coming to an end, we had an opportunity to redefine what the next set of books would look like. When we began working on the new design of the SMC Guidebooks we knew we wanted to do something a bit different for the covers… take any climbing guide, squint, and you see the same thing – a climber, on a rock, in varying degrees of extremis. The image represents one person’s experience of a rock climb at a specific point in time. For me, climbing is about more than the climber and the movement; it’s the people you are with, the experiences you have when you are there and the connection you hold with the venue.

Perhaps I’m biased but I believe that the crags and mountains of Scotland are some of the most iconic natural features in the UK, with some of the most impressive architecture, all alongside a rich history of climbing exploration – where better to showcase them than on the front covers of our books. Chris’s style of illustration picks out the most striking parts of a crag or mountain and allows the climber to project themselves onto the subject. I don’t need to see someone cranking up an E7 (impressive as it is!), I see plenty of that on social media. What I want to see is the essence of an area distilled into an image that any climber or scrambler can relate to – an image that will evoke the memories of an experience passed, or inspire a visit in the future.

With regards to why each crag, it comes down to picking something that is iconic and recognisable, lends itself to Chris’s style with clean bold lines and, in some cases, can also provoke intrigue – perhaps a crag that isn’t well known, or using a slightly different perspective.

From the artist (Christopher Smith-Duque)

It started as a chance conversation with Rob at a local bouldering wall here in Newcastle.

I had recently moved up to Newcastle leaving my climbing family (as I like to call them) in Southampton. This left me with an acute belay shortage, so I looked up some local climbing clubs and came across the Wanneys, of whom Rob was a member. I met Rob and in that initial meeting he found out that I was an aspiring artist with some graphic design experience and I found out that he was publications manager for the SMP.

At the time I was working on a painting of Beinn Eighe’s Triple Buttress, when Rob came to see it and spoke about how the SMC were looking for an artist to produce cover art for the new guidebook series, it became apparent there was a fit with what they were looking for. I have since been involved with diagrams and cartography for new releases from the Press and happy to report that painting is ongoing.

Acrylic on canvas. 76 x 60 cm.

Dumbarton Rock; inviting and social. Maybe it’s the beautiful orange-to-gold colours of the basalt as the crag gets the afternoon sun, or is it the groups of friends gathered around routes helping each other to send those boulder problems or get past the crux on the climbing routes? Most likely it is both.

Dumbarton rock stands out in the area because of its geology. The remnants of an ancient ~335 million year old volcano. Having emptied its magma chamber the core of the volcano collapses on itself and is ‘plugged’ by the last of its own lava to form a hard core of rock that resists erosion.

A compact crag not far from civilisation with its historic castle, Dumbarton Rock—or ‘Dumby’ as the locals affectionately call it—has a strong connection to the people that climb there. In composing this work, I looked to the variety of hues within the rock, contrasting the boulders, and their many chalk-marks – the tell-tale sign of bouldering parties, with the immaculate looking headwall with its thin technical crack lines.

See the cover: Lowland Outcrops
See the prints: Dumbarton Rock

Painting of Liathach.

Acrylic on linen. 120 x 100 cm

A candidate for the archetype scramble; the traverse of Liathach offers an inviting line of stupendous views, jagged pinnacles, and hands-on action for the hillwalker. With quartzite defining the peaks of this range, the ancient assemblage of red Torridonian sandstone, deposited as a result of erosion during a mountain building event, known as the Grenville Orogeny 1.1 billion years ago, are what make up the bulk of the Liathach traverse.

The summer conditions invite the onlooker to observe the subtle variations in colour and texture of the sandstone. The soft, worn appearance of the many bedding planes form a face wrought deep through time defines much of this landscape. I wanted to make sure it was the rock that leads you into the scene as it will be these rocks the hillwalker will scramble over when they reach the other side of that ridge and beyond.

See the cover: Highland Scrambles North
See the prints: Liathach

Church Door Buttress
Acrylic on canvas. 76 x 60 cm

This imposing crag on Bidean nam Bian, high in Glen Coe, contains climbing of incredible character and architecture. The crag is composed of great columns of andesite which would have erupted as enormous fire-fountains as part of a series of violent volcanic eruptions that formed the Glen Coe caldera over 400 million years ago.

An imposing crag formed of fire; Church Door Buttress is a state-of-the-art venue for steep, technical winter climbing. Here I felt it was crucial to emphasise the structural details by using heavy shading and well-defined lines to demonstrate Church Door’s intensity, both as a climbing venue, but also in its geological origins.

See the cover: Scottish Winter Climbs West
See the prints: Church Door Buttress

Lead image: Triple Buttress. Acrylic on canvas. 120 x 100 cm.