Looking at the Wild West: Mary King

7 Mar 2011 in Highland, Showcase, Visual Arts & Crafts

MARY KING has painted the mountains of Assynt and Coigach in the north west Highlands so many times she knows them with an intricacy few other people can claim.

“I KNOW them so well, they almost fill themselves in when I paint them,” she says. “I know there’s a bit of rock here, a bit there. I know the way the light’s likely to be falling on them at different times. I suppose I look at the landscape in that intimate way, as a painting or a possible painting, without even realising it.”

Artist Mary King

Mary KIng

For sixteen years Mary has been based in the north west, and has made her living by selling her distinctive landscape pictures. She works mostly in pastels, though sometimes pencil or ink, to create exquisitely detailed images of mountains and lochs, woodlands and moors, islands and sea.

In a time when we have grown used to the vibrant, sometimes violent, colourscapes of JoLoMo and his imitators, Mary’s pictures are remarkable for their muted faithfulness to the subtleties of light and colour in this sparsely populated land.

Mountain scene by Mary King

Quinag from Loch Assynt

Her skies reflect all the moods and tempers of the changeable climate. Her art is not remotely pastoral: there are no romantic or impressionistic images of croft houses or boats here, just an effort to show the reality of wild land, untrammelled by people.

As attempts to share the sensation of being alone in the wild, her paintings rarely contain any man-made objects, other than an occasional path or wall. “I like paths. A path’s fine because it’s drawing you along and you could be on a walk on your own, but houses are a no-no, because there could be a person in that cottage.”

Shore scene by Mary KIng

Shore scene

She describes in pained tones what happens when someone commissions her to paint an inhabited part of the landscape. “I can just about paint the harbour, lots of sea and sky with a couple of little houses in the distance on one side and a couple of yacht masts sticking up on the other side, but that’s about all I can manage. To paint a row of cottages, ah-ah, no, I don’t think so!”

This may sound like an artist’s whim, yet Mary has been making her livelihood from her paintings for years, and can sound ruthlessly pragmatic about her work. Describing her process from a walk to the painting on the wall, there is much that comes down to commercial imperative.

“I know what scenes people want to buy,” she says. “I look around the gallery and think we’re a bit short of, say, Suilven pictures, so I’ll paint another one.”

The paintings do sell, mostly to tourists and she has run a profitable gallery business since 1993. Her typical customer is, she says, “a couple in their thirties, newly married or with a new house, who have been coming to the area on holiday for years, would love to live here but can’t because their jobs are elsewhere, and who finally have the money to treat themselves. Or ditto, but retired.

“There are families staying in caravans who buy prints: they don’t have much money but I have affordable things.”

Beach and mountain scene by Mary King

Beinn an Eoin from Achnahaird Beach

Both Assynt and Coigach have a huge return rate for summer visitors, and Mary knows people who will treat themselves to a painting every year, gradually building up a collection of their favourite views.

Mary’s gallery started out in an old kirk in Achiltibuie which had been used as a hay barn, hence the name ‘Pictureshack’, which she has continued to use as she has moved to other venues. Now the gallery is on the main street of Lochinver. Mary also sells photographs by John MacCarthy, and paintings by Mary Frame from the Cotswolds and Kitty Watt from John O’Groats. She chooses other artists to share her space with care.

“I’ve always been very clear that I don’t sell knick-knacks. It’s a gallery, not a craft shop. By the same token, I didn’t want too many artists. It would be too easy to get to the stage where every gallery you go to would have the same set of painters.” The result is a business that is distinctive and successful.

Originally from the South Downs in England, she moved to Yorkshire as a teenager, studied art in Bradford and Leeds, then worked at The Art Shop in Ilkley before discovering and falling in love with the north west of Scotland. She has never looked back.

Mary King takes to the water in her lkayak

Mary King takes to the water

Her creative process starts, naturally enough, out in the landscape. She walks a lot, with a passion, and takes photographs and makes sketches for later use. To create pastel pictures she usually works from photos, because, she points out, “the light changes every two seconds.” She favours Sennelier pastels on dark-coloured pastel card, a fine sandpaper, and Caran D’Ache pencils.

Work on a picture begins with the sky, the most difficult part of the process. “I’m famous for my skies,” she says, “but actually I really struggle with it. My heart’s in my mouth the whole time. Then once I’ve done the sky, the rest is easy.”

Asked what else is hard about painting Assynt, she says, “nothing. It’s easy to paint this landscape because it’s so beautiful and so dramatic that almost anything is going to end up looking good. People say it’s hard because it’s so vast, but because I know it so intimately, I don’t feel the need to put it all in one picture. You have to be selective.”

While Mary has lived in the north west, a revolution in land-ownership has happened, first with the Assynt Crofters’ buy-out of the North Assynt Estate and then the community buyout by Assynt Foundation of a huge area including the iconic mountains of Suilven, Canisp, Cul Mor and Cul Beg.

Close detail of loch shore by Mary King

Detail of loch shore

Writers, notably Norman MacCaig, have been exercised by the land ownership question. Does it matter to a painter who the land belongs to?

“Wild land belongs to itself and should be left to itself.” Mary says. She is dubious about the concept of ownership, wondering, “Can anyone really own a mountain?”, but she believes that the community buyouts have been positive. “The change I’ve seen since the buyout, I think it’s tangible, the change in attitude. People want the best for the land, and that’s great.”

Mary’s other passion is travel, and every year she takes months out over the winter to go globetrotting, seeking out other wild places, exploring and volunteering on environmental projects. Her future plans include running painting holidays, and she has her eye out for a country where the weather is guaranteed. But it will take a lot to rip her away from the lochs and mountains of the north west.

“I’ll never really leave,” she says. “Standing on a mountain and seeing nothing but rock and water, that’s what I love. When I’m out walking or in the kayak, I still sometimes can’t believe what I’m seeing. My eyes aren’t big enough to drink it all in. I just think it’s funny that everyone doesn’t look at this place that way.”

© Mandy Haggith, 2011