Adapting to the landscape – painting with sound

Keith Salmon is a British fine artist. His work is principally semi-abstract Scottish landscapes which are created based upon his experience as a hill walker. Even though he is registered blind Salmon has climbed more than one hundred of Scotland’s Munros, many of which have been captured in his artworks. His recent works move into the addition of sound to his paintings.

My name is Keith Salmon and I am a landscape artist living and working in Irvine, Scotland. The paintings and drawings I’ve created over the last 20 or so years have been based on the walks I’ve done in the wild upland landscape of the Scottish Highlands. They are however, not traditional landscape paintings as they have developed out of necessity, out of 30 years of experimentation and adaptation following diabetic retinopathy that caused the loss of much of my sight in the early 1990’s and led to me being registered as ‘blind’ in 1999.  Despite this however, my work still received the Jolomo Award for Scottish Landscape painting in 2009 and since then it has taken me to Germany, Brazil and the USA. For the last eleven years I have worked professionally from my studio in Irvine and have exhibited widely throughout Scotland and the UK. Severe sight loss then, doesn’t necessarily mean an end to hillwalking and a career in the arts; but it does make it somewhat more challenging.

When my sight first started to fail, I quickly realised that I would have to reinvent myself as an artist. I tried all sorts of ways of working but gradually turned to painting using large brushes to create fairly abstract works based on the urban landscape of my home town Irvine and its surrounding countryside.

‘Untitled’, Oil, 30 x 30 cm

Prior to my sight loss I had always loved observational drawing, just going outside, sitting down and trying to record in line the scene before me.  Suddenly I found that I couldn’t really do this in the same way any longer.  It took me some time before I realised that I could however, still create detailed drawings by simply scribbling line. In this way I created vague and more abstract representations of my new surroundings. I used hard wax pastels, building the drawings up in layers.

‘Harbourside, Irvine’, Pastel, 50 x 35 cm

I was pleased with these ‘organised scribbles’ but at this stage still didn’t have a real focus or direction for my work.  Then, while out walking a hill on the edge of Rannoch Moor with my wife back in 2002, I realised that this was where the focus of my work should be. I was introduced to the hill walking by my father when I was quite young and gained a real love of the wild places in Britain.

Overlooking Rannoch Moor

By the time I moved to Scotland in 1998 my sight was already very poor but with the help of my wife Anita, I continued to head into the hills. We’ve adapted the way we walk so that Anita now guides me where needed and I use walking poles that not only help to keep me balanced and upright but also provide me with much tactile and audible information about the terrain underfoot. That said, at this time I still lacked confidence and was uncertain as to whether someone who was registered as blind should be out wandering the hills and mountains. Things changed though in 2001 when I signed up to a remarkable week long course being run by the Mountaineering Council of Scotland at Glenmore Lodge, the national outdoor centre in the Cairngorm National Park. The course was a Summer Mountain Skills Course for Blind and Visually Impaired People and it really helped me regain confidence in my abilities as a hill walker and indeed, it was probably one of the most important weeks of my life. Following the course, we started getting out far more regularly, joining forces with experienced walkers and tackling hills I never thought I’d be able to climb again.

I see very little detail in the landscape when I’m out, but rather perversely the first Scottish landscape paintings I did were fairly representational and traditional. I was trying to paint the landscape as I remembered it, not as I now saw it. The scribbled pastel drawings were a far better representation of my new surroundings and over time I slowly developed works that took this further and were a combination of both painting and drawing

‘Towards the Bridge of Orchy Hills from Ghlas Bheinne’, Acrylic and Pastel, 2018, 76 x 23 cm

I used large brushes and acrylic paint to create the patterns of colour and tone that I still saw and then scribbled into them with pastel, creating random but fine marks to suggest texture and detail

‘Descending from Ben Oss’, Acrylic & Pastel, 2006, 76 x 22.5 cm


‘Mists clearing Beinn Toaig’, Acrylic & Pastel, 2007, 47 x 47 cm


‘A freezing February afternoon, Beinn an Dothaidh’, Acrylic & Pastel, 2012, 80 x 80 cm

While the level of my sight, (albeit very limited) remained stable, everything was quite good.  I was able to develop my skills both as a painter and hillwalker.  We were out walking very regularly and these trips gave me huge amounts of information and experience on which I could base my work.  Between 2001 and 2008 I completed around 250 paintings and we climbed over 100 Munros as well as many other Scottish hills and mountains.

At the summit of Beinn Leoid, Sutherland

On A’ Mharconaich, my 100th Munro

We experienced them under all sorts of conditions and at all times of year and my work has tried to capture something of the nature of being in these wild and sometimes remote places.  From the acrylic and pastel paintings, I started to develop work in traditional oil paint.  Most of these paintings tend more towards the abstract, are generally larger and use very large old horse hair brushes and thick layers of oil paint to generate physical texture and line on the canvas.

‘Below Clach Lethaidh, winter’, Oil on canvas, 2014, 80 x 80 cm

I allow each layer of paint to dry before dragging more over the rough textured surface.  In this way the ridges of the under-lying hard paint are picked out as subsequent layers are brushed across them. This creates fine lines and marks that I would be unable to paint in a traditional way with a small brush.

‘Approaching snow shower, Rannoch Moor’,, Oil on canvas, 2015, 80 x 80 cm

Adding sound to my paintings

In 2014 however, my sight started to deteriorate again.  With the very real prospect of becoming totally blind at some point in the future, I realised that I would have to adapt once more in order to continue working as a professional landscape artist.

I considered a number of options including returning to sculpture in which I’d trained at art school back in the late 70’s and early 80’s.  In the end though, I was drawn to the idea of using sound with my paintings. I had no idea at the time exactly how I might do this or what form the new work might take, but I did have a very clear idea of the kind of natural sounds I would like to capture and work with. I wanted to record the very subtle sounds of the wild landscape that I’d been exploring and painting for so long; the wind blowing through the grass and heather and buffeting the high crags, water trickling through the peat and splashing at the loch-side, the sounds of the local insects and birds.

In December 2014 I was working on a large-scale drawing project in a local public gallery. I was making a 5m long, 1.5m high graphite drawing and was recording each days’ work with a time lapse camera.

The finished Glen Rosa drawing, Harbour Arts Centre, January 2015, 5 m x 1.5 m

At the end of each days the gallery technician posted the footage on-line. I had plenty of time while working on the drawing to think about my ideas of using sound and as chance would have it, the technician was Graham Byron who happened to be a professional sound engineer with many years’ experience in the music and audio industry. I told him of my idea to add sound to the paintings and it was just crazy enough for him to want to get involved! He lent me a sound recorder and suggested that I should take it with me when we went walking and just learn how to use it on the hoof.

Over the next 18 months I made all sorts of recordings as we wandered around the Highlands. I quickly learnt that the peace and quiet of the Scottish Highlands wasn’t as quiet and peaceful once I really started to listen to it. We are all so terribly noisy and in these remote areas even the slightest man-made sound travels a great distance and is easily picked up by the microphone. But of course, once I got the recordings back in the studio, Graham’s audio engineering skills came into their own. I quickly started to get a better idea of how we could use these sounds as part of my work.

As we were making the first tentative steps to adding sound, another chance meeting, this time with Seattle based independent film maker Daniel Thornton led to Graham and me being invited to join a very interesting audio-visual project being developed by Microsoft researcher Neal Joshi. This culminated in the creation of The Oregon Project, an innovative audio visual art work that used Microsoft Kinect technology to give a unique audio interpretive experience of three large scale drawings that I did of the wild Hells Canyon region of north east Oregon. The work was premiered at the “9e2 Art, Science and Technology Exhibition” in Seattle in October 2016 and again, in a new configuration, at the Tent Gallery in Edinburgh in March 2017.

The work we did with Neal and Dan was really quite successful and generally well received, but at the end of the project both Graham and I felt that it was too technology based for what we really wanted to do. The Oregon Project was really all about using technology to make artwork accessible to other blind and visually impaired people, while I, perhaps rather selfishly, simply wanted to use sound to allow me to continue creating landscape art despite my failing sight. During the course of preparing for the Edinburgh version of the Oregon Project, Graham introduced his close colleague Drew Kirkland to the work. Drew is another very experienced audio engineer specialising in producing the very highest quality sound in live venues. At the end of the Edinburgh show, and after much thought, the three of us took the decision to drop the use of the Kinnects in our future work and instead try to make something in which the technology was hidden within the creative process, not upfront in the gallery. Now, three years on, our first all Scotland collaboration is finished.

Kylesku Project – An Audio Visual Landscape

The Kylesku Project is our first all Scotland collaborative landscape artwork. Comprising a 30 minute long high quality stereo soundtrack and five 120 x 120 cm oil paintings, the work explores the magnificent landscape near Kylesku in Sutherland through the use of paint and sound.

In May 2017, my wife Anita and I spent some time walking the track along the northern shores of Loch Glendhu near Kylesku. Over the course of the walk I made a series of sound recordings capturing the changing conditions along with sounds of some of the birds and insects found in this wild and remote landscape. These initial recordings were the starting point for the Kylesku Project.

Keith Salmon, making recordings for the ‘Kylesku audio visual project’, Sutherland

On returning to Ayrshire, Graham joined me at the studio and together we started working on the soundtrack. As the walk along the shores of Loch Glendhu had been made over the course of about ten hours, we decided to create five separate sections within the soundtrack, each one relating to a different location and time of day. The weather had actually changed considerably throughout the course of the walk with conditions calm in the early morning but becoming increasingly windy into the afternoon before once again easing to give a peaceful calm evening.

As the work developed, Graham engineered the soundtrack to include several very subtle computer-generated tones which follow the rhythms of the natural sounds and help enhance mood within the piece. In one of the sections he has also placed the sounds of me painting in my studio. These are set well back in the mix and offer a glimpse into the physical nature of the painting process. Originally mixed to 5.1 surround sound, we decided to re-mix the finished soundtrack to stereo for ease of delivery during exhibitions and also in order to be able to create a digital version of the work that could be played through TVs and computers as well as screened in cinemas. We see this as a form of video art that will hopefully introduce a new and perhaps younger audience to both landscape art and the Scottish Highlands in general

As the soundtrack came together, I started working on the five corresponding paintings. Based primarily on memories of the locations where I recorded the sounds for each section, I have added to the range of marks by using oil sticks and trailed tile paint within the traditional oil colour to try and interpret the natural sounds

Kylesku Project painting 2, (detail)

Interestingly, some of the marks I made in these paintings resemble the sound wave forms Graham sees on his computer.

Sound graphic

While he has done much work on the engineering and compositional side of the sound, Drew has been the technical consultant for the project. He has provided both expertise and equipment to ensure that the very highest audio standards have been maintained throughout the development of this innovative new work. Over the last six months we have been organising the first full exhibition of the Kylesku Project. It was to take place in the small town of Lochinver, a few miles to the south of Kylesku in NW Scotland and it was planned for this summer. Unfortunately, due to the current health crisis, the show, which was to have included the five paintings and soundtrack along with the digital version, has been postponed until early summer, 2021.

Looking ahead

The sound has been quite an interesting journey from the early days of listening  to a stereo file recorded on the side of a mountain or loch, through the complexities of the Microsoft project where there were 20 channels of very different audio content being triggered by motion tracking  tech to the stage we are at today. It’s very easy to get carried away with the technology in the Comfort of the studio but the whole purpose of the sound is to enhance the experience in an immersive way.

As a group we have thought very hard about the constraints of showing and selling the work. With technological advances over the last 25 years, we can now create an audio-visual landscape that would have been too expensive and complicated to replicate in the past. As with the rest of the art however, quality has to be the main focal point along with practicality.

If we have a small exhibition area to show in, a standard high quality stereo format is best. This is also very important for retail, most people have a stereo system be it CD, vinyl or digital and it is quite achievable to provide the imagery and audio in an accessible format that suits both galleries and collectors. This is all familiar to most of us and yet it still conveys the intimacy of being there in the landscape with the artist. That said however, there is one other format that we’ve been talking about for a few years and we can’t ignore it any longer.

The concept of ambisonic audio is probably not that well known, but it is becoming more of an accepted audio technology within the gaming and virtual reality fields. It wasn’t of course designed for this back in the 1960s when it was all about quality and space within a sound field, but the important thing is that it is absolutely ideal for what we are now doing and we are currently experimenting with it for our second large scale piece of work.

This new project is based on the Stoer peninsular in Sutherland and it is demanding in every sense. The weather is obviously an issue when working in the North of Scotland, but we have already done a lot of preparatory work. We spent a week staying at the Stoer Head lighthouse back in January 2018, doing sketches, shooting photographs and video and recording all sorts of sounds.  These include the sizzle of the sand as the waves recede on near-by beaches, the various sea birds and the sea crashing against the huge cliffs, which, along with the wind are the crucial audio components. The next stage as far as the sound scape is concerned is to record the area in a few different weather conditions with an ambisonic microphone, this is an instrument with 4 axis that allows you to record in excellent quality 360 degrees around a point as well as anything happening above or below the microphone. We have been extremely lucky to be technically supported throughout the process by Sennheiser and Sonosphere who are developing quality solutions for this type of sound recording project. The good thing about putting all this work in is that the sound scape becomes totally scalable from stereo to as many channels as you want, which means we can put the exhibition into much bigger or smaller spaces and even provide a virtual reality digital download for anyone seeking this kind of experience.

So then, the Kylesku and Stoer projects are the first in a series of planned artworks that combine the historic traditions of landscape painting with modern audio recording technology to create a more immersive landscape art experience and one that is also more fully accessible to people with visual impairment. For me, as an artist who is losing his sight, the opportunity to work in collaboration with Graham and Drew has been incredibly important. It is allowing me to continue my traditional landscape work while at the same time giving me a very contemporary way forward should I become totally blind.

KBS Audio Artwork – Painting with Sound

Drew Kirkland – Technical Consultant – ARK Production Consultancy

Graham Byron – Sound Engineer and Designer


Painting is a very solitary business for the most part and I spent many hundreds of hours each year just working alone in my studio. That said, when it comes to installing these large exhibitions and making the field trip to Stoer, we’ve received many hours of unpaid but much appreciated assistance from Graham’s wife Tracy, his brother Gary and my wife Anita.


Keith Salmon – Scottish Landscape Painting



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