Laura Drever is an Orcadian painter whose work grows out of her deep love of Orkney’s undulating landscapes and shifting light. Her paintings are steeped in engagement with this place and the experience of walking these particular landscapes. “Teebro” is the title of her upcoming solo exhibition at the Pier Arts Centre, a word from the Orkney Norn, the old Norse language once spoken in these islands, meaning “shimmering summer light.”
Laura and I first crossed paths about 20 (!) years ago, when she was just finishing her undergraduate studies at Edinburgh College of Art and I was just beginning to teach there. Even then, I could see that Laura already had a clarity of purpose about her work, an artistic direction that stood out as distinctively Orcadian, and a steady commitment to her creative practice that has only grown and deepened with time.
I dropped by to visit her in her Kirkwall studio recently, to get a sneak preview of the work she was just putting the finishing touches to before sending it to the gallery. It’s a substantial body of work created over the last two years – her original exhibition date was pushed back by Covid closures – so it has been a long time coming. It’s worth the wait.
These new paintings shimmer with bronze and golden light like the swaying seed-heads of grasses blowing in the wind. Forms that recur throughout these works retrace the shapeliness of Orkney’s rounded hills, the flight paths of birds, and the pathways of her long walks in the landscape and along the coast.
“Breck” detail, 2022. Oil on canvas
Laura speaks about moving away from the more sombre palette of her earlier work to embrace colour and light:
Looking at the seasonal changes and new light and new growth – perhaps the last couple of years have contributed – I’m looking for a positive relationship with the landscape as I am walking in it, and seeing the seasons change, and just paying attention, noticing. That special light might last just half an hour, but you have to go and make yourself available to it, go and be in it.
Orkney is an incredibly dynamic landscape. It’s always in movement because the wind is always blowing and the sea is always moving and the light is constantly shifting as the clouds pass. It’s never static. The grass is always shimmering. Something’s always in motion. Laura’s new paintings really catch that with their rippling, iridescent surfaces built up through densely tessellated, repetitive brushmarks. Laura talks about “making the paintings move, making the light come alive within it”. These paintings make the viewer move too. Every new angle of vision or slant of light opens up new ways of seeing them.
This concern with how a painting, although a static ‘thing’ can shift and respond with the movement of light or the viewer’s line of sight, is something Laura and I both share. Another common interest is working through a process of layering and accumulating a surface with a slow and repetitive process of mark-making that’s built up over an extended period of time. I asked Laura about how this process originated for her:
It’s to do with changing to working with oils, and to start with it was about getting to know that new material and the brushes and how the paint behaves. But it’s allowed me to take time and think about each mark, and why I’m making that mark and where I was making it from.
“Brodgar” detail, 2022, Oil on canvas
Her paintings are recollections of her walks in the Orkney landscape. Laura doesn’t generally use a sketchbook much, so the paintings are not a direct representation, but a re-enactment in memory.
The repetition and the slow timeframe allows me to step back and really think a bit deeper about the place or that moment or that piece of light that came down. Then I can really re-immerse myself in that walk when I’m doing it.
Laura sees her long, twice-weekly walks in the landscape are as much part of her creative practice as the time she spends in her studio. Spending a lot of time out in the landscape like this allows her to go beyond the obvious and notice that when you look really closely at the vegetation you see so much colour and light in it, but when you step back those colours disappear. The Orkney hills may often look plain brown or green from a distance but seen close up they are a riot of colour.
She has really enjoyed the opportunity to work on larger scale paintings that the Pier Art Centre exhibition has offered her.
I love the physicality of painting. You’re using your whole body to paint them. It’s like being on the walk again. The rhythms of walking become part of the paintings. Making these marks will take me back to a mile of walk, and I’ll retrace those steps while I’m painting. When I start a painting session, whether that’s half an hour or three hours, I take myself back to the start of the walk.
Time is part of this work. Like a long walk, going step by step, brush-mark by brush-mark, incrementally, through steady effort and patience, the distance is covered.
“Cuilags” detail, 2022. Oil on canvas
Laura says she has relished the challenge of working bigger:
I like the physicality of the bigger scale, feeling like I’ve worked really hard! I like to know that’s in there, I’ve earned it to be finished! The artist’s touch is really important to see.
It’s a journey that’s an exploration too. She explains how her process, while repetitive, is not automatic and that a painting can evolve and go through many stages of development. Sometimes a painting has to be ‘pushed back’ completely and reworked because it’s taken a wrong turn. They often begin with washes of strong colour that’s progressively veiled and worked over and over, so only flashes of it spark through. Certain motifs do however reappear.
I don’t know what the work is going to look like when I start, but now I have finished all these works it’s become really clear there’s certain shapes in the landscape that keep returning. I realised that every time I’m out walking, whatever direction I’m going or wherever I am, I always look for the Hoy Hills. So every time I come back and start painting some of those lines feature. It’s unconscious at the time but seeing 40 works all together I really see it.
However often those distinctive hump-backed hills of Hoy might appear as a leitmotif in Laura’s work, the horizon isn’t a big feature of the way she represents these landscapes. She is less concerned with picturesque ‘views’ than with revisiting the experience, moving through the land rather than observing it from a distance. Like Nan Shepherd, who wrote in “The Living Mountain” of going ‘into’ the mountain rather than up it, Laura talks about going “through the landscape, not walking on it or in it but going through it. And when I come to paint it, it feels like that as well. I get it twice, once when I’m out in it and then again when I’m painting I’m back in it.”
Laura Drever at work in her Kirkwall Studio
Laura consciously makes time for her walks.
If I don’t make time for it then I find I’m struggling to pick up a brush and vice versa. Part of the whole practice of being in the studio is being outside as well.
An Orcadian born and bred, Laura doesn’t feel the need to travel far afield for inspiration. Her work grows out of deep love and familiarity with landscapes close to home.
There’s a strength in getting to know the thing your making work about really, really well, taking the time to be out in it. Making a record of that place while it’s changing all the time.
Laura may be treading the same familiar paths on the landscape again and again, but in her work she’s keen to keep exploring new pathways. Recent funding from Creative Scotland is supporting a period of research and development that will ensure she keeps moving on after this show is installed.
What feels exciting is that there’s still a lot to learn. There’s no full stop, the more you learn the more you know there’s still to learn.
“Teebro” will be on at the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness from June 18th to August 20th.