Expedition artist, Toby Wright, puts the spotlight on environmental constraints by describing his experiences of painting some of the most spectacular natural landscapes over the years and how these images have changed over a relatively short period of time.
Reconnecting art and science around climate change
In 2015, I got the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of well know artist, Tinier, on a conservation campaign through the arctic regions of Svalbad, Iceland and Greenland. The Elysium Expedition aimed to create inspiring images of the Arctic to help improve public awareness of the need to protect the Arctic. There were several photographers, but painters were in the minority. More and more, science and conservation missions are bringing artists into the mix. It was a trip of adaptation with new challenges every day. The outdoor conditions of the Arctic are a great test for any painter. I do everything I can to work with life and interact with my subject in the flesh to capture the atmosphere that I see. After this trip I wondered what other places I could take my skills to.
My next trip was off the coast of Mexico to swim with sealions. I first had to solve the problem of waterproof drawing materials. I drew many sketches to understand how the sealions move. After five days with them I started to get an idea for a composition and my first underwater themed painting. The painting represents what I could never have captured with a single photograph and is the reason I felt compelled to try this project.
What started as a project around studying the old masters more closely, became an opportunity to tell a story about climate change. To witness the state of glaciers today and compare them with someone who painted them up to 250 years ago, is more than we can do just with photographs. I am inspired by many pioneering painters from the past who took their materials outdoors to face the elements. Using Sargents’ painting of Courmeyeur, I put the area into Google maps and using street view was able to get closer to understanding which mountains Sargent had been painting. 3D mapping enabled me to align the peaks to work out the angle and then find the spot. It was interesting to witness the change in the glacier he was painting. By painting my own view of this valley, I am adding my own eyewitness account to the evolution of these ice giants as they shrink further back as temperatures rise. I find it educational to witness what these ice giants are doing in response to climate change. Its from my onsite work that Ie can return to the studio to create a larger canvas inspired by my subject.
By looking at great painters of the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, we have a huge time arc to compare with current situations. Photographs and statistics can be useful, but they don’t go back as far as the works of Turner and numbers tend to turn off people’s attentions very quickly. Art can have an impact in a different way along with individual stories of how the artists got there and what they had to overcome to seek out this beauty.
For me, it’s about the work that’s involved to get there and what it means to live the experience rather than painting it from a photo or from a comfortable tourist viewing deck. It’s a message of getting out there and seeing the world for yourself. You don’t have to climb a mountain. It can be the woods in your neighbourhood. Getting out there and getting to know each of our natural neighbourhoods is a big step towards growing an interest and taking care of our environment on a global scale.