Toby Wright’s Painting trip to the top of the world: Part 1

Chapter 1: Svalbard

There is a hesitation in writing about such an incredible experience, because words don’t seem to do it justice. Adjectives seem trite and meaningless next to the grandeur of nature that towers above you. But, in an effort to share the journey and my attempts as a painter to capture what I could, I must start somewhere.

I took with me enough materials to paint in oil, draw in charcoal & white chalk, and sketch in my large Moleskine. It wasn’t possible to paint every day, due to the weather, constant movement, and the various outings to spot animals. The trip takes us through Svalbard, along the pack-ice at 81°N, to east Greenland, and finishing in Iceland. It starts with flying to the world’s most northern airport of Longyearbyen, an old mining town. This town is literally on the edge of wilderness; it is prohibited to walk beyond the village’s perimeter without an armed guide. Beyond this row of mountains there is nothing, or rather everything, depending on your point of view. It is the land where the polar bear reigns supreme.

The light is everywhere, with a constant glow through the clouds throughout the day and night. The instinct to sleep is absent. The light keeps your body switched on, and the grand proportions of the landscape are hypnotizing. People I meet are from all over the world, and of course, a certain type: practical clothing, beards, world travellers, seeking to face the elements. To get accustomed to the upcoming temperatures, I spend these few days painting and sketching outdoors. Cold fingers are always the first thing that prevent us from working for long periods outdoors. The issue with shifting light here, is not in its intensity or elevation, but in its orientation. The risk is to feel comfortable about the general consistency of light, and not realising that the sun has moved across the sky so far, that you are no longer painting what you started with.

We embark on the Polar Pioneer. Before we even leave the bay, an obligatory emergency drill to familiarise everyone with the on-board escape routes, the life jackets, and the “cosiness” of the life rafts. The light is low as we depart, as we follow the edge of the distant glacier that I have seen looming over this town from afar, for the past 3 days.  Glaciers: living mountains of ice, sliding, crunching, and sculpting the earth below it. Aside from offering stunning designs, colours, and sounds, they are a monumental presence. Connecting air, land and feeding the sea with icebergs. They are the quiet giants of this world, and I can’t wait to get up close.



The first days are filled with zodiac cruising out in the ice filled fjords, roaming untouched expanses of nature, encounters with unfamiliar creatures that, unlike us, are built for this unforgiving environment.  Predictably, this large expanse of nature is belittling, but it is the sheer unforgiving elements that reduce our human size, or the human ego to minimal proportions. Back on the ship, from the top deck in this bay, I paint my first view: a glacier. The ship is anchored, and I set up facing the glacier, but the ship is very slowly moving around. Several times, I have to shift my easel around the deck to keep track of my subject. It’s sunny, and with no wind, my fingers last long enough.

The bay offers us sights that were not expected so early in the trip. Arctic foxes, reindeer, bearded seals, arctic terns, and several pods of belugas just feet from us. The area is filled with ice, big and small, with fascinating erosion patterns.

Alkafjellet, where some go scuba diving, to discover all sorts of creatures below in the dramatic sheer face of the plunging cliffs. Above water we see the last of the nesting guillemots, and arctic foxes, picking up the fallen fledglings. We got very close to walrus today.  Naturally curious, they kept swimming towards us, as our zodiac pilot (Goran Ehlmé) continuously positions us so that we have an escape route, in case they decide to come and try their tusks out on our soft little boats.

Goran Ehlmé is particularly knowledgeable about this species, considering his extensive commitment in documenting their unique feeding patterns underwater. And his naps in their company while filming for the BBC. 14 hours after the walrus, and we are at the pack-ice. We wake up to the sound of ice scraping along the side of the hull, as we push through. We are at the furthest northern point for a non-commercial ship, before needing an ice breaker: 81°N. Our ship is ice-reinforced, and pushes these blocks out of the way relatively easily. The ship was moving slower, so I could have a bit more time to work. Even if the blocks were passing us by, I tried to capture what we were seeing, in the same manner as I would design shifting clouds or waves in plein-air.


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