The Yorkshire Challenge has many peaks (not just three)
Conquering The Three Peaks is a test of stamina and fitness – painting them is a test too
The Three Peaks Challenge was traditionally run annually and for many Yorkshire inhabitants, it was a right of passage. The challenge consists of 24 miles, to be completed in one day, over three North Yorkshire peaks: Pen-y-ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough. (I understand one of the fells actually just edges into Cumbria)
The challenge involves climbing the three hills, scrambling over rocks, dancing through bogs and leaping streams. I know, I tackled it many-many years ago.
The original 'race' and template for more recent additions was invented here in Yorkshire in 1954. The Yorkshire Three Peaks are within sight of each other (and that's a painting I intend to do some day soon) so are walked, run or cycled, in one continuous stretch – no rest on a bus between the climbs unlike two newer 'Three Peaks' challenges in other parts of the country.
Here in Yorkshire, we manage to do windswept, boggy and cold, really well. However, the toughness of the terrain and bleakness of the weather is not the reason painting Yorkshire's landscapes makes me a better artist. It's not about being hardy, though painting en plein-air (outdoors) up on the North York Moors, even in Summer, does toughen you up.
No, the reason why generating Yorkshire art tests an artist is the landscape's richness, its variety. The county of Yorkshire contains a diverse set of habitats difficult to match elsewhere in the UK (Possibly because it's the biggest county in the UK). Each distinctive type of terrain is a challenging artistic peak and tackling them helps me work toward being the very best artist I can possibly be.
Some of my studio based oil paintings
Yorkshire is a work of art
Ther's nowt o' comfort fo' thee up North, tha knows
Challenging yourself to paint difficult subjects is when you really develop as an artist. Repeating essentially the same painting in endless variations isn't the way to become better at painting.
Only by making paintings with very different or even completely new problems to solve, do you improve. Figuring out things is when you experiment and try ideas out – you change how you work. Changing how you do things leads to improvements – it's that simple. There's many failures along the way of course, with two steps forward, one back, sometimes.
The trap, though, of what's called the 'comfort zone' – a place where you just do what you've always done in the way you've always done it, because it's safe – is where an artist's talent goes to die.
So this is why being a painter who makes Yorkshire art makes me a better artist. There are more artistic climbs to conquer here in Yorkshire than I can shake a stick at. Settling into a comfort zone to avoid failure means only painting a fraction of what Yorkshire offers.
North York Moors
To the North of York, a city at the heart of the county, is the logically named North York Moors. We tell it plain and simple here in Yorkshire. These high heaths are heather covered, bleak expanses of moorland worthy of any Wuthering Heights romance. Stunningly transformed into a beautiful majestic landscape beneath big blue skies when the heather flowers and the sun shines.
This landscape is especially challenging for a landscape painter. It might sound surprising, but it's all too easy for a finished high moorland painting to look strangely featureless and flat. This is because of the big scale of the landscape. The top of the moors are rather stately in their contouring. No sharp drops, few rocky outcrops and only isolated stunted trees. It's a challenge I mean to rise to because when the heather blooms, there's a unique and sublime beauty which needs to be put on canvas. It's taken a while, but I think I've figured out how to approach painting the moors. I've identified some sites and views, but have yet to test my theory.
The North York Moors is officially unique. It contains
the largest continuous tract of upland heather moorland in England and is designated a
Special Area of Conservation
This is according to a Government body called JNCC (Whatever that stands for - link below). The North York Moors are also the second largest Site of Special Scientific Interest in England (Only The Wash is larger) – what better reason to try to do landscape paintings of it?
To the West of York are the Dales. The Dales are hardier and harsher than the rest of Yorkshire, with limestone just below the surface on the tops, making the grass thin and trees knarled up there.
The Dales are part of the Pennines, a backbone of high peaks running from North to South. The Three Peaks are part of the Dales. These hills take much of the bad weather blowing West across the country from the Atlantic in the East. This might explain why the hill tops look like soil has been striped from them in places by howling winds, revealling a rock skeleton beneath. Below the exposed and weathered tops, though, the valleys are filled with a lushness and echo to the splashing burble of energetic streams. Rich emerald grass fit for livestock makes it one of the best parts of the country for sheep farming and gave rise to the iconic grey stone Dales barns littering the valleys and lower slopes of the fells.
This landscape is in some ways easier to paint than the North York Moors because it's the opposite of featureless. Yet here there is challenge for an artist, precisley because there are so many features to go at. The complexity of stone walls, sheep, rocky outcrops, barns, forests, lush valley bottoms contrasting with glowering peaks and the haze of dampness even in Summer, is prone to make paintings busy.
Busyness quickly robs a painting of impact and emotion.
I've been making countless trips West to the Dales sketching and intend to make it 'a project' some day, hopefully soon (famous last words as ever, oh for more hours in the day). The Dales are a romantic landscape, both tranquil and at the same time, dramatic. The beauty of the place is heart stealing – it steals mine everytime I visit – so the Three Peaks painting I have in mind will get painted. I've found the spot where my easel should be placed, so it's just a matter of time. Conquering three peaks at once will be quite a day!
We've only covered two fifths of why Yorkshire art challenges an artist. There are three other areas of outstanding beauty in the county beckoning to be painted.
Nestling between the Dales to the West, the North York Moors to the North and another range of hills to the East is The Vale of York. Protected from much of the bad weather coming from the West and North by the hills, it's indeed a green and pleasant land in the Vale. A rich arable landscape worthy of any poets pen. Within it sits the City of York, with York Minster visible for miles.
The Vale is the least hard to paint in my view. Perhaps because it's a landscape which is common throughout the UK and therefore it's familiar and well understood. By that I mean, you could probably make-up a landscape of flat farmland and lush forest, and it would probably look about right. For me it's the flatness that has in the past posed a problem. When I was younger I painted the landscapes near my childhood home in the flattest part of the vale. I was never quite satisfied with them and felt their flatness presented a challenge I'd not seen or addressed. It's perhaps why, now, I always seek movement and exaggorate any I see.
The hills to the East of the Vale of York are called the Wolds. These are entirely different to the moors and Dales. Softness abounds. The hills themselves are rounded on a huge scale. Snaking through them are softly sloping and winding vales. These valleys were created by glaciers melting and their river-like quality is a testament to their history. There's an elegance to the Wolds in Summer and an epic drama to them in winter. Witnessing rain storms blowing across the Wolds is a sight to behold at any time of year.
Attempting to create Yorkshire art inspired by the Wolds is often about scale. I've been stumped for some time with how to capture the big sweeping vistas without a big sweeping canvas to work on. Finding smaller viewpoints focussing on, say, an eddy in a vale, is picturesque, but the curving lines can appear made-up to those unfamiliar with the place. The landscape takes on an unreal appearance in paintings if you're not careful. While I aim for landscape paintings that have an otherworldly magic about them – and I'm not talking about putting fairies and goblins in them – the Wolds can end up being a bit cartoonish in the wrong hands. It's a project I'm in the middle of right now.
Now we come to the last area I'm going to discuss today, and that's the East Coast of Yorkshire. My this is so rich and diverse it's truly overwhelming. From the low level, windswept and fragile Spurn Point in Humberside (Part of the East Riding of Yorkshire) in the South all the way up to the sweeping beach at Redcar near Middlesborough in the North, there is everything in between. Sweeping beaches, castles on hills, lofty cliffs, some chalk cliffs and rocky coves. The seasside towns on the Yorkshire coast each have a distinctive character of their own. There are fishing villages clinging to the shore, the great historical port of Whitby with it's associations with Dracula, the Victorian splender of the pier at Saltburn-by-the-sea or in the promenades at Scarborough, and the traditional beach holiday towns like Bridlington.
Where to start. If an artist manages to capture one part of the coast, they have to resolve a whole set of different problems if they move only a few miles either way. I've been focussing on Bridlington and the near-by haven that is Flamborough Head for some time. I'm hoping to switch back to Whitby for a time. The challenges here are too numerous to speak of individually. There are more subjects and differing landscapes to test your artisitic skills against than one knows what to do with.
So if an artist is going to call themselves a Yorkshire Artist, which is what I'd like to do, then there's a lot of work I need to put in before I can claim to be worthy of such a title. It feels like it's a big work of art I'm attempting, but hey-ho, into the breach.