Artist, sailor and surfer Ross Ryan is explaining the appeal of painting outside in the middle of a storm. “It’s about keeping it exciting,” he says. “Being in a studio with a white canvas is really intense. It’s all about your tea and your tunes – getting the AC/DC on to get you fired up – but when you’re outside it’s all there in front of you and you can just get on with it.”
Showing at the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh until 24 September, Ryan’s latest exhibition, Crinan to Catterline, is a stunning visual record of a 1,300-mile voyage he made in his 40-foot fishing boat, Sgarbh, between May 2021 and March 2022. Along the way he visited Barra, St Kilda, Oldshoremore, Durness, Thurso, Wick and Peterhead, before heading home again via the Caledonian Canal. Ryan only ever paints outside, sometimes in the kind of storms which would have most people running for cover, and as a result the works in this exhibition aren’t merely records of what he saw on his journey, but also records of the weather conditions he experienced. Paintings like Squall, Iona, 27/1/22 and Big, Bad Barra Blow, 8/2/22 feel kinetic in a way static images really have no right to, almost as if they’ve somehow absorbed some of the energy of the storms in which they were created.
"I think the adrenaline starts to kick in," he says, of the challenge of working in gale force winds, "and when you’re down on the beach or the rocks or the boat and the weather’s not great it becomes a bit like an operation, it needs military precision, it’s like ’OK, if I don’t put the lid on that it’s going to blow away.’"
"Maybe it’s a distraction from what you’re about to do," he continues, "but the process – I really love it. And you’re sitting right in the face of nature... it’s good – it helps keep you in your corner – it’s these big, powerful elements and you’re trying to record them."
Ryan grew up in Crinan and graduated from Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen in 1997, and when he’s not making art he runs charters on Sgarbh. He’s an experienced surfer, too – although, as he puts it, "more air than action these days" – and so this voyage around some of the best surf spots in the land was an opportunity to catch a few waves as well as to find fresh inspiration for his work. Before setting off, he ordered a brand new red surfboard, and even had the boat’s logo glassed onto the deck. Of all the surf spots on his itinerary, he was most excited to try it out at the legendary right-hander at Thurso East, but – after a promising start to his first session there – things went badly wrong.
"I thought it would be nice to get a new board, just to give me some inspiration to get out there again," he says. "So I decided, right, I’m going to get a really special one this time."
"Anyway, the conditions were good, I was picking off some smaller ones on the shoulder, which is actually where it starts to barrel more. I had a couple of nice runs on the smaller ones, but then a big set came through – I went for it but I went right over the falls. When I came up the board was full of hairline fractures – I’d completely shattered the glass job, and I’d also broken my toe."
"So I came out and I was quite cross, but then I was like, ’OK, it’s just a board, now I’m going to go and paint this wave.’"
The resulting painting, Thurso East, Caithness, 11/1/22, is a wonderful evocation of Scotland’s most famous surf spot, perfectly capturing the way swells here fold over the reef, and also the way their power seems to be magnified as they reel along from right to left.
Ryan also painted at nearby spot Bagpipes – an extremely shallow wave slamming down over almost-dry slabs of rock which is now on the international surf map, and is favoured by the kinds of professional free-surfers who prefer their waves on the hairy side. "It’s epic to watch, but I would never dream of surfing there," he says. “So yeah, to go down there when it’s two or three metres and no surfers around, but you feel that you’re doing your painting thing, you have the whole place to yourself... that’s the new buzz!”
Ryan’s final destination, Catterline, will always be synonymous with the artist Joan Eardley, and while he was there Ryan stayed in her former studio. His visit also coincided with some serious storms, and in the catalogue for the show, he gives a vivid description what painting there in these conditions was like. “With all my layers on, I dragged out the largest board from the van,” he writes. “Like grasping a pterodactyl by its wingtips, the huge board lurched frantically, crashing into the rocks in an effort to take flight… With the board secured, I laid out my tools, weighing down the palette with stones and selecting only the heaviest brushes.”
It’s a wonderful way to make art, but surely he can’t keep it up forever, can he? Or can he? “Hopefully I’ll be able to paint until my last day,” he says, “but I’m not going to be down on the beach when I’m an old man... well, maybe I am, but it won’t be the same sort of thing – there would need to be carers everywhere..."