Mountain Art by Christopher Smith-Duque

I’ve drawn from an early age, but my interest in rocks can be traced back to when I was given a Ladybird Book called ‘The Story of Our Rocks and Minerals’. I remember being captivated by the drawings and diagrams that explained how it all worked and realising that I could go out and collect rocks myself. It wasn’t long before I started begging my parents to take me fossil and mineral hunting. Fortunately, they listened, and holidays usually involved some sort of geological excursion, collecting specimens, visiting museums and talking about the surrounding rocks on fishing trips. I went on to complete a degree at Leicester University and then a PhD in geoscience at the University of Southampton, before spending a few years in academic research and travelling to some amazing parts of the world along the way.

When I’m thinking about a painting, I tend to focus on three things: geological structure, composition and colour.

During my PhD, I was introduced to rock climbing, a sport that involved rocks, visiting beautiful places, and having adventures in good company. I was hooked. Through climbing, my art took on a new focus. I wanted to explore how the history of our crags and mountains gives these places their character and influences our experience of them. For example, that perfect crack climb is the result of rock shearing under the immense forces of mountain building, which can be seen in the way the layers of rock are offset. The same is true on a larger scale: the rhythmic deposition of sands and muds in vast river systems over 1.2 billion years ago is what makes the stunning Torridonian landscape so unique.

Liathach sketch

A large part of why I paint is because I want to express the features that I believe make our mountains so enticing to us as hillwalkers and climbers. By conveying the features that give crags their unique character, I hope that some of the rock’s story can be seen in my work. I also paint simply as a form of escapism. With my collection of rocks, photos and guidebooks to hand, I revisit my own experiences in these wild places.

When I’m thinking about a painting, I tend to focus on three things: geological structure, composition and colour.

First, I look at what happens between the rocks: where snow settles, where grassy patches form, and the relief expressed by contrast and shadow. At this stage, making notes about the geology helps inform the composition. For example, where the fault lines are on a rock face tells me where to paint the snow.

For composition, I think about the perspective of the walker or climber. A crux move or the way the light catches a particular outcrop are important parts of what makes a place so special. I also study climbing guidebooks and geological diagrams, observing details while bringing in my geological training to fully characterise the scene. At this point, I usually do a few pencil sketches of possible compositions, bringing the rocky features into the fore in graphic detail while keeping other aspects, such as the sky, as simple as possible.

Liathach sketch 2

In terms of colour, observation is key. The study of rock samples (sometimes from my own rock collection) and photos of the subject area under different light conditions provide the basis from which I can experiment with different mixes and select my palette.

When I paint, I typically use small brushstrokes on a fine canvas surface, building up the layers to achieve detail and depth. Painting in this way takes time, even with fast-drying acrylics, and a large canvas can take several weeks to complete, but this is time well spent, and by the end, I feel as though I truly understand my chosen subject.

Author biography

Chris divides his time between painting, house renovating, and guidebook production, and enjoys most things that rocks have to offer – climbing, hiking, skiing, fell running, and geology. His art is informed by his experiences in academic research and time spent in the great outdoors, from climbing on the sun-drenched sea-cliffs of Cornwall to swinging axes in the Cairngorms.