Working as an SWLA wildlife artist is not for the faint-hearted. Members work outdoors in all weathers. Sitting on damp ground or numbing rock, stooping to avoid their silhouette showing against the sky, they wait for their subject. When it arrives, they try to capture its moving shape, often from a fleeting view through binoculars or telescope. They might grapple with a paintbrush in cold fingers, or struggle to control drying paint in the hot sun. But years of this sort of commitment leads to the extraordinary images shown every year at the Natural Eye exhibition in London. 

This project, however, took the challenge to a new level. The SWLA was approached to help publicise the Argyll Coasts and Islands Hope Spot, the first of its kind in mainland UK. The local community were delighted to be given this international recognition of the quality of their marine life, but then faced a problem. From the shore, the surface of the sea can look uniform, with no clue as to the hidden wealth below. How to inform and engage others with these world-class natural riches? Most people are not able to explore beneath the waves as the water is cold and the currents strong. And so the Society of Wildlife Artists became involved.

Many of our members have experience of drawing underwater, thanks to diving bursaries provided by the Wildlife Trusts. In July and September this year, two groups of artists visited Argyll. They were overwhelmed by the variety of marine life that they encountered, but also by the scale of the task. All the normal rules of fieldwork were turned upside down, sometimes quite literally. Even before entering the water, they struggled, pulling on multiple layers of neoprene. Once submerged they experimented with weight belts to keep themselves stable and learned how to stop their masks from steaming up. They practised the best way to carry a drawing board whilst leaving hands free for swimming, how to stop pencils floating away and how to prevent paper disintegrating in the water.

"I was lucky enough to be part of the first group of artists to visit the Argyll coast as part of the project. It was an amazing experience to dip your head beneath the surface and be met by an extraordinary burst of colour and texture. The underwater landscape led from rock and sand at the shore to the majesty of the kelp forests and the serenity of the eelgrass meadows with 'flocks' of brittle stars. It was an exhilarating experience and even though the wetsuit was a trial to get on I could not wait to get into the water and was reluctant to get out. My last time in the water was late in the day. I had borrowed Hans the boatbuilder's workshop and had managed to make a wrasse sculpture. I knew the other artists were planning a final trip to The Rapids but I thought I was too late to join them after a long day welding. Luckily I managed to tag along. 

The current was quite strong as the tide was going out so Chris Rose and I buddied up to 'ride' the tide along the narrow sheltered neck of the sea loch. It really felt like flying as we were pulled along the strait, skimming above the different weeds and catching glimpses of wildlife in the 'valleys' between the forests. I kept popping my head up to check how far we had gone and suddenly I saw a face up ahead. For a moment I thought it was one of the other snorkelers but realised it was a common seal! I was far too excited and yelped to Chris, pointing to where it had been. We dipped back underwater and for a few magical seconds, the silvered almost luminescent shape of the seal turned right across in front of us. Magical!" - President, Harriet Mead 

All the artists wanted to stay in longer than the cold water allowed because there was so much to see. Louise Scammell, an experienced diver in the seas off the southwest of the UK said: ​“The richness and diversity of the underwater life here is extraordinary. I’ve not seen anything like it anywhere else.”

Louise Scammel SWLA Plumose Anemonies

Chris Rose SWLA Jellyfish

Bruce Pearson SWLA Otter

John Threlfall SWLA Shore

Bruce Pearson SWLA Starfish

Harriet Mead PSWLA Wrasse

Works from this project are on display as part of The Natural Eye 2021, the Society of Wildlife Artists Annual Exhibition from 14 to 24 October 

View The Natural Eye 2021