Interview: Keith Salmon, landscape painter

IN HIS little studio in Irvine, Keith Salmon casts a longing glance towards the window. The weather is bright but changeable, grey clouds race across Irvine bay. It's the kind of day he likes best for walking in the hills, and he is itching for a good hike.

• Keith Salmon works at work in his studio

It was the same kind of day in the scene he is currently painting, he says: on a canvas on his easel, the beginnings of a mountain ridge is picked out in gold. They were walking in the Mamores, the ridge of hills between Loch Leven and Ben Nevis, he explains, approaching the final ascent to Am Bodach in the teeth of a snow shower. "And then suddenly the driving snow started to clear and Am Bodach was rising up in front of us, a wall of rock."

These moments of illumination are special to all climbers, but particularly to Salmon, for whom vision has a special significance. He has lost much of his sight in the past two decades due to diabetic retinopathy, and walks using a white cane. Yet thanks to a mixture of determination and ingenuity, he has been able to continue to do the two things he loves best: walking in the hills and painting.

Just over a year ago, Salmon, 50, won the Jolomo Award for Scottish Landscape Painting, the largest privately funded art prize in Britain, with a first prize of 20,000. The innovative approaches he has developed in his art to solve the problems of his declining sight impressed the judges, who only learned he was partially sighted after they had named the shortlist.

The artist John Lowrie Morrison – known as Jolomo – who launched the Awards in 2006 to encourage emerging artists to paint the Scottish landscape, praised Salmon's "intensely personal vision… which is sheer poetry in expression and handling of materials". As the 2011 Jolomo Bank of Scotland Awards are launched today (Thurs 23) at the National Galleries of Scotland, Salmon looks back on the year when "everything took off".

"I've been so much busier since the award, it's made a big difference. Without it, it would have been difficult financially. There would have been pressure on getting paintings done, and I would have been tempted to do some paintings which I might not normally do just because they might sell better. The award took the pressure off, it allowed me to paint what I wanted to paint – and it's generating more sales."

Salmon, who had given up his incapacity benefit to paint full-time just a month before winning the award, says it couldn't have come at a better time. As well as being shown at various galleries in Scotland, his paintings will be seen in London next week as part of a show of all seven Jolomo 2009 finalists with Caledoniart.

Next year he will have solo exhibitions at the Strathearn Gallery in Crieff and in Germany. "It was perfect timing, it couldn't have been better. Still, I've been battling away since I left (art] college in 1983, I'm due a little bit of good luck!"

This summer he was given the opportunity of a four-month residency in the town of Speyer in Southern Germany. As well as brief trips into the countryside to paint the rich agricultural patchwork of the Rhine Plain, he painted a series of pictures of the town's dramatic Romanesque cathedral.

"Being in Speyer made me realise how little I can see. In Irvine I whizz around, but when you know a place you can operate really well in it. That forced me into thinking I'll paint something close to me. The town is dominated by the Dom (cathedral]. At first I thought it was beautiful, then I thought it's a bit of a monstrosity, it has four great towers – it reminded me of Battersea Power station. I got to know it like I know the hills, a lot of what went into the work were my observations, all the times I walked round in different light, at different times of day." He pulls out a painting of the great sandstone frontage, gold in the afternoon sun, glimmering and indistinct, which nods to Monet's paintings of Rouen cathedral.

Salmon was born in Essex but grew up in Wales where he developed his twin loves of climbing and art. He trained at Falmouth School of Art, where he specialised in sculpture, and did "a whole array of jobs to pay the bills" while he climbed and painted. However, in his twenties, his sight began to fail rapidly. He was warned that he could go blind, but doctors managed to save some sight in one eye with laser treatment.

"By Christmas 1991 I thought, I can't go walking in the hills, it's too dangerous, I can't see where I'm putting my feet. But my partner Anita and I had already booked a walking, backpacking holiday for the following summer in the west of Ireland. I thought, 'I can't just walk on the roads, we've got to find a way of getting back to the hills.'" So he bought a walking stick and began with moderate forays into familiar hills, with Anita acting as guide. By the summer, they were confident enough to go to Ireland, and he has hiked ever since.

Ironically, it was the decline in his sight that prompted him to concentrate on painting: "I thought it would make sense when I've got sight to use it. The retina (in my right eye] is very badly damaged, very weak, and there is still a chance that at some point it might say 'enough is enough'. If that happens, my plan is to start working as a sculptor again." He began painting increasingly seriously when he and Anita moved to Irvine ten years ago, finding ways to get around his vision problems by working with pastels on top of paint, and using magnifiers for finer work. As a result, he has developed a unique painting style.

The painting was in turn fed by walks in the hills. "I could walk in the hills but I felt I shouldn't be doing it. I was registered blind, I thought I'd be severely criticised if something did go wrong. Then I heard about a mountain skills course for visually impaired people at Glenmore Lodge. I phoned up – and I was sold on it within minutes.

"It wasn't so much the new things I learned, it was the fact that I met another six idiots – everyone says you must be mad to go out in the mountains when you can't see – who wanted to go and get out in the outdoors regardless of their sight. And because it was run by the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, it felt like they were saying, 'It's OK for you guys to go out in the hills, as long as you're prepared and know what you're doing like anyone else.'"

On the course he also met the climber who has become – along with Anita – his regular guide.As his climbing skills grew, his friends encouraged him to try more and more ambitious climbs. "One evening, we were in the pub with the local mountaineering club – I think they made sure I had a couple of pints first – they said, 'How about coming to Glencoe and doing Curved Ridge on the Buchaille Etive Mor (a serious climb even for sighted climbers]?' We needed perfect conditions, so we cancelled a couple of times because of weather, but eventually we got the perfect day.

"It's probably the most serious thing I've ever done, it was magnificent. Afterwards I went to meet the others in the bar – I was using my white cane and it was very dark, I was clattering around banging into people's chairs. I heard another climber say, 'Blimey, that guy was on Curved Ridge today!' It was such a proud moment."

Meanwhile, in his studio, he works constantly to improve his painting. "It's developing slowly, I hope each year I take the paintings a few steps further. When I won the Jolomo Award I was tempted at first to do things completely differently, but I've never done that, I've always just gradually developed my work.

"Over the last couple of years, I've been trying to use slightly thicker paint and big six-inch brushes," he lifts one from a nearby table. "These were my dad's house-painting brushes – I think he would be pleased that I'm using them in my painting!"

• The Jolomo Scottish Landscape Painting Awards: The 2009 Finalists One Year On will be at the Royal Opera Arcade Gallery, Pall Mall, London, September 27-October 2, see www.caledoniart.com