Following his talk in the Learning Centre during the first week of The Natural Eye 2015 exhibition, we spoke to Society of Wildlife Artist Darren Rees about his one month journey aboard the Royal Navy’s Ice Patrol Vessel HMS Protector travelling from the South Atlantic to the Antarctic Peninsula.

After applying in 2014 to become an Artist in Residence with Friends of Scott Polar Research Institute, Darren Rees SWLA spent over a month in early 2015 aboard the Royal Navy’s Ice Patrol vessel HMS Protector travelling from the South Atlantic to the Antarctic Peninsula. Previous Artists in Residence include Dafila Scott SWLA and Emma Stibbon RA. 

There were many highlights to Darren’s adventure however the first morning at the Antarctic Peninsula was a stand out. They had to stop engines overnight to unclog the ship’s filters from too much krill (tiny crustaceans). When they woke they were in flat calm waters with a wrap around landscape of snowy peaks, glaciers and icebergs and humpback whales popping up everywhere. He estimated over one hundred.

Darren Rees, Matterhorn

As well as Humpbacks, Minke, Fin, Sei and Blue Whales, Darren saw a group of Killer Whales so he had a good list of sea mammals. However, Darren would have liked to have seen some Emperor Penguins (the largest) but sadly was unable to see any during his journey.

Throughout his journey, that started at the Falkland Islands, Darren travelled to many islands within and surrounding the Antarctic Peninsula. These islands include the Port Lockroy, Rothera (Adelaide Island), Horseshoe, Stonington and Deception Islands. 

Darren Rees, First Berg

When he wasn’t visiting islands, Darren could be found in the crow’s nest of the ship where he could see all around him - his “moving studio” as he described it. If he wasn’t at the crow’s nest he was under the helideck painting, where he was less covered from the elements and at times had to battle with the wind to keep the paper from moving.

During his visit to the Falkland Islands, he had three days to explore and paint the animals and landscape around him, a particularly productive time with the large amount of penguins around him. Darren spent his days painting Magellanic Penguins, Rockhopper Penguins and on his third day got to spend three hours with the King Penguins – a lifetime’s ambition.  During the time he had with the King Penguins at Volunteer Point he shot videos and took pictures that would later be used alongside his sketches and field paintings to help him create his work ‘King Colony’.

Darren Rees, Magellanic Penguins 

After departing the Falkland Islands Darren painted from the ship and he was able to sketch albatrosses and icebergs, which he described as “huge great big cathedrals in the sea”, drawing and painting quickly as they passed by.

Whilst visiting Port Lockroy, a former UK research and weather station, Darren sketched Gentoo Penguins in their natural habitat at close range. 

Darren at Port Lockroy

Darren visited Rothera Base on Adelaide Island where he spent three days, allowing him to see some of the marine biological tests carried out on some species to see how they would react to warmer waters. Darren also managed to paint huge elephant seals from around 30 feet away that were at the base at the time. 

Rothera Base also provided Darren his first opportunity to paint icebergs from land, giving him plenty of time to draw and go into more detail than he had whilst sketching from the ship. He described being on the island from an artist’s perception as causing “information overload” as there was so much to take in whilst being there.

Darren Rees, Sleeping Elephants

From Rothera Base Darren then travelled north through the Gullet, a very narrow passageway that could ice over. Before heading down some planes went to check if the ship could pass through. Unfortunately there was not a lot of wildlife whilst passing through the Gullet.

Further North the journey was not as comfortable but he did get to see more birds as they headed to Brazil. Towards the end of the trip he held a mobile art show for the crew of the ship, and before leaving he gave them a few paintings of them which he had painted.

Darren Rees, Parked Bergs

Painting in the Antarctic Peninsula is a different environment to what Darren is used to. It was cold as expected but Darren was well prepared with insulated clothing and he is used to painting with gloves. He had to use the sheltered and heated crow’s nest so whilst on board the ship he managed well. On land, on one occasion his paints started to freeze so he added a small amount of white spirit to the water. He said that it “seemed to work!”