What’s it like walking through the hills of Scotland with a blind painter? Just ask Dan Thornton.
Thornton, a Seattle-based filmmaker and film instructor, met Scottish landscape painter Keith Salmon in 2013 while studying visual impairment and cinema at the University of Edinburgh. After a number of interviews and studio visits with Salmon, who was a subject in a university research study, Thornton was invited along on the artist’s hill walks through the Scottish countryside.
Thornton filmed as Salmon trekked through the wilderness with his partner, Anita. Those treks would serve as inspiration for Salmon’s paintings.
The terrain was often challenging — sometimes snowy, steep, rocky, or bone-chillingly cold, but they were simply part of Salmon’s creative process.
Back in his studio in Irvine, Salmon arms himself with paints and pastels and gets to work.
Thornton describes Salmon’s style as living in the same vein as great Impressionist artists like Vincent Van Gogh. “He works almost violently. He has a lot of muscle memory since he has formal training. You get an idea of the sheer intensity of his painting.”
From his year of research and multiple treks through the hills with Salmon, Thornton produced Walking with Keith, a short documentary, which debuted at the Fragile Festival in Tallinn, Estonia in 2013. Two years later, Thornton is finishing up Glen Rosa: The Life and Art of Keith Salmon, which is an extension of his previous short documentary.
So why focus on the painter?
Salmon is an award-winning, classically trained artist whose landscapes range from incredibly detailed to entirely abstract. Salmon lost most of his eyesight to diabetic retinopathy about 15 years ago — but he never stopped making art.
“My attraction to him [started] in a conversation where I was like ‘Well, how do you do what you do?’ and it wasn’t just about him being visually impaired. Every time I talk to him, I’m talking to him as a cinematographer to a painter. I never think about his visual impairment when we’re talking about work,” says Thornton.
When Salmon is in his element in his studio, he constructs landscapes from layers of pastels, graphite, and oil paint and then uses a blade to peel off layers as he sees fit. Some of Salmon’s landscapes clearly show the countryside while others are swirls of color. Salmon describes his painting process on his website:
In recent times I have tried to find ways of working that allow me to overcome the problems inherent in producing very visual material, with very limited vision. I have tried to explore my new and changing view, recording, (using oil paint and pastel) not what I see, but rather how I now see my surroundings.
The paintings have become thicker, the paint at times almost bludgeoned into place, the surface scraped and re-built forming overlapping layers of colour and glimpsed highlights of line and form.
Although still based on places known to me, the images I produce are becoming more distorted and broken. My drawings, built from numerous coloured lines woven together, are more like organised scribbles.
“Keith is just uncanny. Even in his most abstract stuff, you can still tell that it’s a landscape,” says Thornton. “[People] will go to a studio and they’ll be looking at [one of Keith’s paintings] … and people will go like ‘Oh yeah, that’s Rannoch Moor.’”
Still, audiences seem to fixate on Salmon’s blindness, which can be uncomfortable for him when he’s forging a name for himself in the United Kingdom’s art scene. After all, just like any other artist, Salmon just wants to sell his paintings, Thornton says.
“[There’s this] novelty of the blind painter,” says Thornton. “Keith really struggles with how he’s seen in a public way. He knows people are attracted to him because he’s the ‘blind painter’, but he’s not necessarily comfortable with that in terms of [people] evaluating his work.”
For Salmon, his work documents the world through the vision that he has. As a result, his paintings are atmospheric, sometimes mystical, and – above all – transportative, sending viewers to the cliffs of the Scottish seasides and the tops of mountain summits.
“I think that’s really what the film is about – identity, creativity, [and] ability as opposed to disability,” Thornton says.
Dan Thornton is headed back to Scotland in just two weeks to shoot the last scene for Glen Rosa: The Life and Art of Keith Salmon and he could use your help. To support his documentary, donate here. To hear more from Thornton, check out his podcast Whatever It Takes.