Micro-Commissions: Helen Scaife

rising pillars of aberdeen painting showing large wave and aberdeen in background

Earlier this year, we introduced you to our Round 3 Micro-commission winners - Clive Ramage, Amy Benzie and Helen Scaife. We are delighted to say that their micro-commission artworks will be added to our museum collection!

In today’s blog, local painter and Round 3 Micro-commission awardee, Helen Scaife shares her creative process behind the piece ‘Rising Pillars of Aberdeen’.

Artists have always been inspired by the sea and there is plenty to prove this at Aberdeen Archives, Gallery & Museums (AAGM), although I don’t think there is a lot on display facing the issues of climate change. I am a painter of the sea, a teacher of Painting and Drawing and I also work at Aberdeen Art Gallery, Provost Skene’s House and Aberdeen Maritime Museum as a Museum Assistant. When I first saw the painting 'Sovereign' attributed to Arthur Smith in the Maritime Museum, I was struck by how wild the sea appeared right near the recognisable landmarks on the cosy Aberdeen harbour. It made the harbour and civilisation look quite vulnerable in my eyes.  

Paddle Steamer "Sovereign" Entering Aberdeen Harbour, oil painting showing choppy sea and steamer entering harbour

Paddle Steamer "Sovereign" Entering Aberdeen Harbour

When the opportunity to apply for the third round of micro-commission came up, I knew 'Sovereign' would be a good starting point. I proposed a modern response, drawing our attention to everyone’s vulnerability due to global warming through human extraction and overuse. These are my initial sketches for the idea.  

details from Artist's development showing sketches of harbour and paintings of waves


I have tried to capture the present day Aberdeen using similar techniques and warm colours for the buildings, which are lit up, against the contrasting blue of the elements - sky and sea.  

When I was successful with the commission in January, I was delighted and made a start sketching straight away. It was hard to get a good viewpoint of the harbour due to the changes since 1836 but with support from Shona Elliot, Lead Curator, I made sketches from Nigg Bay Golf Club and battled with the elements, then decided on a scene with Footdee Marine Operations Centre, Mitchell Tower (Marischal College), the Citadel, and the Clock Tower in the distance.  

development painting showing large wave and Aberdeen in background


I have always been fascinated by Da Vinci’s drawings of water, including 'A Deluge'. They are imprinted on my mind and come back to me as dreams or during meditation. This motivated me to find ways to show a sense of power in the water through sketches and test pieces in mixed media.  

The waves are not so much a literal portrayal of sea levels rising as about global warming looming over us which is a big issue.  

collage of final piece sitting on easel with small plastic toys on it


Music became very important to me for motivation and to get different rhythms and feelings into the different areas of the work. For the sky I was painting to Mozart for loose gestures and for the sea I painted to Kae Tempest’s 'Salt Coast' to get a moody feeling.  

I explored a range of ideas for text on the piece and collage. I decided on “The planet deserves the best, easy to forget with all the phone distractions”. The reason I have used plastic waste, especially toys, in the painting, is because they are made from oil and take a very long time to decompose and yet they seem to be discarded so easily. The flood water in the mid-ground is made up of collaged travel adverts to far away resorts such as “Maldives - Full Board 7 Nights”. Obviously air travel is contributing to global warming as well as the burning of other carbon sources. We all need to consider ways of changing our lifestyles to help reduce global warming and, although it is hard, we need to all think and talk about the climate change debate.  

I look forward to seeing the final painting in the art gallery and thank the Friends of AAGM for supporting the third round of micro-commissions. 

Rising Pillars of Aberdeen (details) 2023, Helen Scaife © the artist

  Rising Pillars of Aberdeen (details) 2023, Helen Scaife © the artist