By Krystina Scheller
“What’s special about the arctic is the light. That is what I tell people to help them understand my obsession with a part of the world that many feel is too cold and stark to bother with. Those people have never seen the light or the complex beauty of the ice.”
For the past 15 years, Frances Brann has been painting watercolours both above and below the Arctic Circle, using her sailboat and full-time home, Snow Dragon II, as her studio. But it is the North with its unique low-level Arctic light and limited vegetation allowing her to study the bones of a landscape that keeps drawing her back.
“I’m able to focus on my surroundings and take the time to really look and see what’s there, that’s what really inspires me to paint. Even when you are taking a photo, you are mainly looking at the superficial play of light and not focused on the structure. Painting makes me have to understand the structure and how it goes together.”
Since Frances’ boat is her studio and form of travel, her subjects are viewed from the water. Sometimes the location is mid-ocean, sketching icebergs on the way to Greenland from inside Snow Dragon’s pilothouse or bundling up in her float-suit and drinking numerous cups of hot tea to paint Barentsoya from the cockpit on the way to Svalbard.
“It’s important to me that my paintings have a spirit of their own, they need to paint themselves to work. My landscape paintings are done with very little planning; it’s not until I have my paintbrush in hand that I know what my focus will be. The only thing I look for beforehand is the light — is it showing me the dimensions?”
While her landscape paintings are painted on location, directly from the scene at hand, capturing the magic of a specific moment, her composite paintings are inspired by the feeling of an area and are not dependent on a specific location or light situation when painted. Instead, these paintings are often done while Frances is waiting out unfavourable weather at anchor.
“Even my composite paintings, which take more planning than my landscapes, are more playful and humorous than they are contrived — at least I hope they are. They come to life from my experience in a certain area. While walking along a beach in Svalbard, I came across a piece of whalebone that reminded me of a sculpture, a natural piece of art sitting amongst the stone. That combined with the imagery of the pilot whales I had seen earlier and the purple and gold tones in the rock of the raised beach is what inspired my painting, Whalebones.”
Frances has pursed art in a variety of mediums since she was a child and her passion for travel can be blamed on her parents who covered the walls of their home with maps, opening Frances eyes to the world around her. But it wasn’t until she moved to Alaska as a young adult that she began discovering elements of the Arctic that would form a lifelong fascination with the area.
“At the time I was drawing with graphite and colour pencil and using the inspiration of my surroundings as a professional woodworker. It wasn’t until after moving onto Snow Dragon that I worked up the courage to pursue watercolour, an unforgiving medium that had always intimidated me.”
Watching Frances paint, you would think she’s been using the medium all her life. She is able to absorb herself in her work to the extent that she often doesn’t even realize her palette or approach is changing until she happens to place a painting from one area next to another. Her almost meditative approach is what allows the character of a place to come to life on paper.
“When I paint, I completely lose track of what is going on around me. I might miss a meal or not respond to a question. It’s not that I mind someone talking to me; I just don’t always recognize what’s happening outside of my painting.” Recently Frances exhibited her work in England, her childhood home. She wasn’t sure what the reaction would be to her paintings from Norway, Greenland, Alaska and Svalbard and there were a few people who looked at the location of her watercolours and shivered, saying the places were too cold. But to her surprise many of the visitors to her exhibition could relate to her work and some had even been to the places she had painted and shared their stories.
“After my exhibition ended, I received an email inquiring if any of my Svalbard paintings were still available. It turned out that the woman wanted to buy one as a birthday gift for her husband who used to work on a submarine and had fond memories of seeing Svalbard on the horizon when they headed for the North Pole.”
A reminder that even when one leaves the Arctic, the memory of the area lives on, beckoning you to return whether it be to live, visit or paint.