IF aerial photographs of the hedgerows of East Lothian had been taken over recent weeks, they might have captured some strange markings on the ground.
Two round indents at the front and then two deeper, rougher grooves behind – the kind of impression you might expect a giant, crouching hare to leave. In fact, the dents are the sign that naturalist and artist Darren Woodhead has been at work.
“It’s a very definite imprint,” he says laughing, explaining that after arriving at his chosen spot early in the day, he kneels (a sitting position he’s adopted since he was a child) and remains there until dusk, watching, waiting and painting.
Based in East Lothian, Woodhead’s watercolours are stunning, painted outside and drawn directly in brush, they capture not only the landscape, but a sense of the shifting mood and movement of a place as well as the ever-changing light. A graduate of the Royal College of Art, most recently, Woodhead was artist-in-residence on the BBC’s Winterwatch, a role he reprised after participating in both Springwatch and Autumnwatch last year. The programme was filmed at Mar Lodge in the Cairngorms and from painting live on air, to presenting on the red button, it’s clear that Woodhead loved every minute of his involvement. The only disappointment was that it was milder than he’d hoped.
“I’m one of those strange people who likes the cold,” he says. “A couple of nights it got near freezing which was great.” Woodhead’s work is shaped by the conditions in which he paints and he loves the impact of lower temperatures.
“In a way my painting is as much about the environment as the subject. Often the way the paint dries, or the way it’s behaving, changes hour to hour, minute to minute sometimes. When the weather dropped to near freezing, fabulous things started happening to the paint. I love that.”
For Woodhead, battling the elements is a vital part of his artistic process. “If it’s moist outside the paper will get physically heavier, or the surface might be frozen to the touch. It’s magical.”
In low temperatures, the paint crystallises into ice rosettes on the paper.
“It happens instantaneously,” he says, “as soon as you put the mark on, it’s like shattered glass. It stains the paper that way. It’s just like the crystallisation that you get on your car windscreen. I push watercolours, it’s almost like a forgotten medium. It’s so simple but so complex and that’s what I love about it too. It’s just paint, paper and a bit of water but it’s so much more than that. It’s endless, absolutely endless.”
For Woodhead, colours, forms and patterns all exist in nature, but there’s more than that, there are also events. Whether he’s kneeling in a hedgerow or sitting on the flood plain beneath the Cairngorms, he knows that something is always going to happen. “Yesterday I was sat in my hedgerow and a sparrowhawk came and grabbed a robin in front of me,” he says. “Fantastic. It’s purely by being somewhere and just watching that you witness these things.”
He loves the cold, he loves rain, but wild elements present practical problems. When it comes to equipment, Woodhead is determinedly low fi – paring his kit down so that it all fits into one bag.
“I’ve got an umbrella which means I can control what’s going to happen a little bit. But it’s got loads of holes in it now. I could do with a new one. I’ve got six or seven colours, big brushes – I love my big brushes – my brushes and palette always go in my hand luggage, I’d be heartbroken if I lost those.”
He also has a water pot which is equally precious. It’s not bone china, or pewter, it’s a cut down bit of a plastic water bottle.
“It’s been worldwide with me,” he says, laughing. “I’ve had it for eight or nine years, my little cut in half Volvic bottle. If I lost that I’d be heartbroken as well.”