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Ellis O’Connor is a Scottish landscape artist who lives in the Outer Hebrides, on the island of North Uist. In her bag are paints, blue and green, and a canvas. The outdoors are her studio, the mountains are her models. We like that way of living. So we caught up with her to talk about the Scottish mountains, her process, and the changing climate.

Scottish landscape artist Ellis O'Connor sits on a cliff side and looks out holding a canvas and pencil

Ellis, what is your earliest memory of the mountains?

I’m part Irish and my family would come to Scotland every so often and we would venture on road trips up in the Highlands. I think I was about 10, and I remember we drove through Glen Coe and I remember the exact feeling I had running straight up one of the mountain faces. It was a feeling of being overwhelmed and staggered by the peaks. I’ll always remember it. 

What drew you to paint landscapes?

We are living in a time where we have tamed the earth, the land is no longer thought of as important and is open to destruction and disregard. I focus on the details, seeing it as more than just an empty remote space and giving its power back. I am aiming to get people connect with nature again, to understand it’s sheer power. 

It must get difficult at times…

I produce a lot of my initial ideas when I’m outdoors, and actually enjoy the process even more when the weather is extreme. The movements of the elements find their way in and It’s an experience to be surrounded by the vast landscape and brutal force of nature. Especially when trying to battle with a roll of paper flattened down by a loose rock!

"The movement and the rhythms of sea and land, tangible moving rocks, the merging of the sea with air"

Those original charcoal drawings and small paintings made on-site then become the basis for larger work on canvas painted back in the studio.

Works made outside represent immediate responses to changes within the landscape around me; the movement and the rhythms of sea and land, tangible moving rocks, the merging of the sea with air, advancing rain, mist, and ever-changing light – elements that seem to be about something intangible.

What makes the Scottish landscape unique?

The variation! Scotland is home to the oldest rock in the world: Lewisian Gneiss which is found all the way up through the North West Highlands and Islands. We have many many Islands each all different in their characteristics and atmosphere and the history is astounding. I absolutely love the fact that you can travel to parts of the country and feel the layers of time through the rocks, the ruins, and the many castles.

What’s your favourite way to travel?

With my rucksack on my back with my paints and sketchbooks, as light as possible with minimal equipment!

We like lists!

Well I stock up on the waterproof and insulated gear, my trusty old pair of hiking boots, my camera to capture the interesting places that I see, my Trakke bag which is normally full of art materials and various sketchbooks and a map!

Where else in the world has grabbed you?

I tend to gravitate towards places that are cold, wild and extreme. 2 years ago, I spent 6 months living in the far north of Iceland in a town called Olafsfjordur which sat right below the Arctic Circle. It was a residency was called ‘Skammdegi’ Festival, which translates to dark winter in Iceland.  I spent the 6 months living through the extreme weather and the dark period there from October to April. I didn’t see the sun for about 2 months throughout the darkest time. It was a mad experience, but truly amazing to live in a way where you are completely at the mercy of the elements around you.

You must have a book of memorable trips!

I do! Last October I sailed for 3 weeks around the Archipelago of Svalbard in the High Arctic with a group of artists and scientists. I still don’t think I’ve fully processed the experience as it honestly felt like I was on another planet.

That experience of working as an artist in the Northernmost settlement in the world has completely developed my work, provided me inspiration to fuel plenty of works for the future whilst also being able to witness the effects of climate change first hand.

"There is a massive ecosystem where everything is connected and everything is tangible and vibrant."

Have you sensed a change in the landscapes since you began to paint them?

I always try and notice the minute details, and it doesn’t take long to notice what is quickly becoming a big problem. There is a massive ecosystem where everything is connected and everything is tangible and vibrant. What is affected in one area will eventually affect something in an area far from it.

And not just in the high Arctic, there are changes right here on our doorstep: the sea temperature is warming, sea levels are rising and shrimp and octopus are travelling north. The whales are being washed up on our beaches because they are following them. There haven’t been many sightings of whales in these waters before now.

What does the future hold for you?

Live simply, work with the earth and not take from it, travel to some more interesting places, live and enjoy my life on North Uist with my wonderful partner on the croft, continue to develop my art practise, build an artist studio on the land right in the middle of a wild landscape and be outside as much as possible! 

You can see Ellis’s future projects here and her latest work here.

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