Wild Hebridean seas a big draw for Ross Ryan's sailing and painting adventures

Last September, the artist Ross Ryan set sail from Crinan aboard Sgarbh, a 40-foot wooden fishing boat dating from 1947. His plan was to make a 60-day solo voyage around the Hebrides using the boat as his floating studio, and the results of his adventure are now on display at the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh. In his introduction to the exhibition catalogue, Ryan says that the idea of going sailing in the stormy months of autumn conjured up romantic images of 'nursing the stove as the wind played tunes in the rigging' but that the reality was 'somewhat less cosy.' That's putting it mildly. Last autumn turned out to be even windier than usual on the west coast (anyone remember Hurricane Ophelia?) and Ryan says he often found himself 'holed up in small guts waiting to be allowed to continue north.'

Ross Ryan, painting while rounding Ardnamurchan point "in a blow"

However, if sailing conditions were a little more challenging than he’d been anticipating, Ryan still managed to create some wonderfully evocative paintings, etchings and charcoal drawings during his time at sea, many of which had already been sold when I visited the Scottish Gallery show on its opening day. Among the highlights are large-scale seascapes painted on Barra and Iona and atmospheric oil and pastel sketches of fishing boats tied up in Mallaig harbour. One or two of the former are reminiscent of the work of Frances Walker in terms of the way they focus on and explore unusual rock formations, although the instinctive, gestural style is very much Ryan’s own.

Ryan didn’t restrict himself to painting from the safety of port and beach during his island odyssey – he also made work while at sea, and not just in flat-calm conditions either. Rounding Ardnamurchan Point in a Blow is one of the more dramatic paintings in the exhibition – a chaotic scene of scumbled oil paint waves and intimidating charcoal cliffs, with sunlight breaking through the clouds behind Ardnamurchan Lighthouse, like a promise of plainer sailing ahead. Alongside the painting there is some text by the artist explaining the conditions in which it was made.

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“Sgarbh dug her nose deep into the waves,” Ryan writes, “casting spray right back to the stern... Months of dreamy but slightly practical thoughts had now become actual. Was it possible to paint with a sea running? My heart pumped noticeably as I grabbed a large board and jammed it between some tyres and the mast. The other tyres I used to steady my palette and a few fat brushes – this was no afternoon for fine sable hair.”

Seal Bay, Isle of Barra (oil and charcoal on paper) by Ross Ryan

As the painting shows, Sgarbh wasn’t a million miles away from getting smashed to matchwood at the foot of the cliffs in the left of the picture, so the artist had to remain focused both on the painting in front of him and on maintaining the course of the boat.

“I lumped on the oil with my hands and drew into it with charcoal,” he writes. “Then a fast approaching squall soon had both boat and work awash. I moved onto my knees for balance and wrapped one hand around the shrouds (wire mast supports). The painting started to roll down the board into small streams of white and grey. To stop it going onto the deck I bent the board inwards and let it flow onto the palette like a melting snowman. The squall passed. I started again.”

The official description of this painting says “oil and charcoal on board” but perhaps “oil, charcoal, rainwater and seaspray on board” might have been more accurate.

Ryan’s seascapes are the stars of the Scottish Gallery show, but the artist also managed to capture some quieter moments. In Sgarbh From Castlebay Bar, Barra, for example, his little brown boat is shown anchored just in front of Barra Castle beneath a calm, pale pink evening sky, dwarfed by the nearby CalMac ferry, while in Super Moon, Sgarbh is pictured bobbing serenely beneath an enormous moon covered with large, cartoon-like craters.

And perhaps Ryan’s preconceived ideas about his voyage, about “nursing the stove as the wind played tunes in the rigging,” weren’t so unrealistic after all. In an etching entitled Life Below Deck (and dated 8 November 2017, so completed towards the end of the journey) we get a look inside Sgarbh’s cosy cabin. There’s an old-fashioned Roberts-style radio sitting on the chart table, along with pens, notebooks and bottles, and, on the floor, a pair of wellies drying in front of a well-fed wood-burner.

Ross Ryan: The Logbook - A Solo Winter Voyage is at the Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh, until 2 June, www.scottish-gallery.co.uk