Interview: Keith Salmon - visions of beauty

THINGS began to come together for Keith Salmon when he decided to unite his two passions: hill-walking and landscape painting. Now his atmospheric, innovative paintings have netted him Scotland's biggest painting prize, the £20,000 Jolomo Award for Scottish Landscape Painting.

But what is more remarkable is the story which lies behind his achievement. Salmon, 49, is partially sighted and overcomes the odds on a daily basis to do the two things he loves most: climbing and painting.

Salmon, who lives in Irvine, received his award last night at a dinner at Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow. The founder of the awards, painter John Lowrie Morrison – known as Jolomo – praised his "intensely personal vision… which is sheer poetry in expression and handling of materials". He talked about Salmon's work in relation to the 19th century German artist Caspar David Friedrich, who advised artists to "see your picture first with the eye of the spirit".

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Three runners-up for the Jolomo prize were announced from the shortlist of seven artists, which was chosen anonymously from a field of more than 70 entries. Toby Cooke, 22, who is about to graduate from Edinburgh College of Art, took the second prize, worth 5,000, and third prize was shared between Jack Frame, 25, from Helensburgh, and Alastair Strachan, 49, from Glasgow, who received 2,500 each.

Morrison launched the Jolomo Awards for Scottish Landscape Painting three years ago to encourage emerging artists to paint the Scottish landscape. The first winner, Borders-based Anna King in 2007, has since had her work exhibited all over the country and all nine artists on the shortlist have moved forward significantly in their careers.

Morrison said yesterday: "There is no doubt in my mind that the future of Scottish landscape painting is in safe hands. When we were judging this year's awards, I found myself genuinely excited. The whole process just seemed to keep gathering momentum.

"All the winning work shows wonderful qualities of a personal vision of the Scottish landscape, an incredible range of handling of materials and a real feeling for the qualities of paint. The four winners have shown they have the ability to develop their skills and their vision. We look forward with great excitement to their development."

Salmon's distinctive style and use of materials have partly evolved from finding solutions to the problem of losing his sight, which started to deteriorate in 1989 due to diabetic retinopathy. He said: "My paintings are more about the atmosphere, because I don't really see much detail when I'm out. The work has developed out of necessity. I had to find ways to create pictures, to do the kinds of things I want to do without having the sight to do it.

"I developed ways of painting with big brushes and scribbling into the paint with pastels, building up layers and layers and then using a blunt blade to scrape the surface back in places; ways to create fine marks without having the sight to do fine, accurate painting."

Salmon was born in Essex but grew up in Wales, developing a love of walking in the mountains from an early age, both in Wales and on family holidays to Scotland. He graduated from Falmouth School of Art and worked in a variety of jobs – "But the only thing I ever wanted to do was be an artist." When he was in his late twenties, his sight began to deteriorate and seven years ago he was registered blind. He is blind in his left eye, but has some – restricted, but stable – vision in his right. He uses a series of magnifiers in his studio, but is not able to view his paintings from a distance. However, he was determined not to give up either of his passions, continuing to walk regularly in the mountains and to paint.

"I've found that I don't need very much (sight] to do an awful lot," he says. "It's really been a case of saying I can't do things the way I used to do them, but I can do them if I adapt and change. That's been very much the case with both my hill-walking – I've learned to walk with a guide and walking poles – and with painting."

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It was when he moved to Scotland ten years with his partner, Anita, that he decided to concentrate on landscape painting. His paintings are informed by his hill-walking – he spends about 50 days per year on the hills in all weathers and has said he hopes to use some of the prize money to pay for a mountain guide.

"We go out in most conditions, we have crampons and axes. In fact, on really cold, crisp days, the air clarity is so good that I see much more than I normally can. That makes the cold, icy days extra special.

"Until I moved to Scotland I'd never done any serious winter walking. Early on, I heard about a course on mountain skills for visually impaired people. Although I didn't learn much that was new, I met other people like myself who wanted to carry on walking and it gave me the confidence to carry on.

"My paintings are informed by the colours, the weather, the changing atmosphere, which is one of the things that's really special about the Highlands. They are memory-joggers for the walks that I've done, just as good as any photo to me."

He described a recent trip to Assynt, where he walked in the hills for a whole day without meeting a single soul. "That's what's so special to me about the Scottish mountains. I could waffle on for hours about how good it is. For me to walk in stunning scenery, magnificent mountains and not see anyone for a whole day, that makes it a very, very special place.

"But I'm also very, very keen that the paintings go beyond just being a landscape painting. I try to making paintings that are about the Highlands, about my experience of them, but equally about the paint and the marks, the pure aesthetic quality.

"I'm constantly trying to improve. The only reason for painting is to try to do a better painting. When I start a painting, I've learned from the previous painting, so the next one hopefully moves the work on – though it doesn't always work, of course!"

In recent months, Salmon made the decision to pursue his painting professionally. "I've reached a stage now where I'm thinking, 'Yes, I can really push it forward.' I've realised it's no good just painting, I have to make sure that people know about what I'm doing and can find it and see it. I have to promote my work and myself. It's a steep learning curve.

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"I know it's been a long time since I left college, but I can probably say that I'm an artist now."



AGE: 22

Lives: Edinburgh Studies at: Edinburgh College of Art (he graduates next month)

• Toby says: "I entered on the recommendation of a friend, and it made sense as I have specialised in landscape painting throughout my four years at college. Scotland offers great character in her landscapes, especially in their light and colour. I started working primarily with urban and architectural landscapes, then looked at rural settings, and am now interested in conveying a mixture of both."

• John Lowrie Morrison says: "Toby Cooke's serene, Rothko-esque works have a dream-like quality that makes you want to stop and stare and be drawn in."



AGE: 49

Lives: Glasgow Studied at: Edinburgh College of Art

• Alastair says: "My inspiration for doing cityscapes came from travelling round the Far East. When I returned to Scotland, I was interested in converting this form to views I was more familiar with here. There aren't many opportunities for landscape painters to receive critical or monetary recognition in Scotland today, and this award goes some way towards recompensing that."

• John Lowrie Morrison says: "Alastair Strachan shows a loose but deft use of paint. His Glasgow cityscapes, though they are small works, give the monumental scale of the urban landscape."



AGE: 25

Lives: Helensburgh Studied at: Glasgow School of Art

• Jack says: "I'm from Kent originally, and moving to Helensburgh (made me feel] like an alien in many respects, because of the fundamental difference of the landscape from anywhere I had lived previously. The process of identification with a new landscape doesn't come immediately, and I think at first that informed my work and gave it a more objective point of view. But having lived here for several years now, I am beginning to feel a greater emotional attachment."

• John Lowrie Morrison says: "Jack Frame's paintings on Perspex are luminous, vibrant and extremely tactile."