Claire Harkess: ‘Fine Feathers’ at Strathearn Gallery

ONE of the United Kingdom’s most accomplished and renowned wildlife painters, Claire Harkess RSW, opens a new solo exhibition, “Fine Feathers”, at the Strathearn Gallery in Crieff from 22 April.

Perthshire-based Claire has previously travelled worldwide, with the Arctic, Antarctic, and Galapagos Islands all providing inspiration for her paintings but, for this new collection of works, Claire has looked closer to home to study animals we are lucky to all encounter in our every-day life: Birds…

No-one is more entranced by the bird world and their habitats than Claire and her fascination and admiration of them shines through her work as she strives to capture the fleeting glimpses, fluttering and soaring wings and melodic birdsong, all within their own environments.

“It’s the joy and challenge of each moment that keeps me returning to this world – there’s always so much going on,” she said.

“This exhibition is a collection of moments – exploring everyday birds and flora. Painted over the seasons, different aspects come to the fore from a bursting rose in July to the skeletal framework of a rowan tree where blackbirds wait for breakfast to be served.”

An award-winning watercolour artist, Claire deserves to be considered a modern master of this notoriously difficult medium.

Her work was recognised on an international level in 2017 by winning the David Shepherd Wildlife Artist of the Year award in London – a revered wildlife art competition and exhibition that each year attracts entries from some of the most talented artists around the globe.

It is Claire’s use of different techniques, paper types, and continually pushing the boundaries of her carefully considered compositions that is pivotal in her painting.

In this current collection, she combines heavy papers and boards with infinitely fragile transparent Chinese papers for different effects.

Rich swathes of vibrant colours have been created by building up and washing down layers and layers of paint – a stark contrast to the delicate, but powerful compositions with minimalist brushstrokes.

“Working in watercolour offers a directness and energy that suits the subject matter,” she explained. “The balance of pigment, water, paper, brush is key.

“Sometimes a calligraphic brushstroke is enough to convey the dynamics of flight; others, it’s the joy of unlimited paint pouring, uncontrolled and unpredictable, taking days to dry.

“The excitement of seeing the results, which pigments have pooled or separated and the puzzle of how to develop and complete a painting continues to feed my passion for the medium.”

She added: “Incorporating collage brings a quality that cannot be expressed through paint alone.

“I enjoy bringing together disparate elements – treasured painting segments, various paper types or printed script.

“There is a difference whether using a cut or torn edge and sometimes a hairline of gold leaf is added along the join.

“This idea comes from ‘kintsugi’, a 500-year-old Japanese technique of restoring broken ceramics.

“The cracks left visible, filled with lacquer and gold are seen as stronger and more beautiful than before.”

Always central to every exhibition of Claire’s paintings and dear to her heart is recognition of the fragility of the natural world and conveying how vulnerable some species are through her work.

“So easily taken for granted, it is unthinkable birdsong should ever fall silent,” she added.

“Yet for a long time birds and the natural world have faced a myriad of threats – over exploitation, climate change, habitat loss, and most recently the devastating avian H5N1.

“Their call is our call and this exhibition is a small shout out on their behalf.”

Fine Feathers opens at 10am on 22 April and runs until 21 May. Claire will attend the opening on 22 April between 11am and 1pm.

The Strathearn Gallery
32 West High Street
PH7 4DL.