Painting Trek around Annapurna Mountains in Nepal.

 In Spring 2005, Allan set off for a trek with only a rucksack, sketchbook and paints around one of the most stunningly beautiful mountain ranges in the world.

Himalayas in Watercolours

'This is the end of the road' call the driver.  I thought not a moment too soon as I stepped off the cramped bone jerker of a bus from Kathmundu.  I had arrived at Besisahar the trail head for the start of the Annapurna Circuit, a classic 300km long distance trekking route around the Annapurna Mountain Range in Nepal.  Over the next two weeks, I would travel on foot with rucksack and painting kit through some of the most remote and stunning scenery on earth. Travelling up lush green foothills along an ancient trading route through the remote mountains, climbing and crossing the snowy and windswept Thorung Pass at 5415m high, descending into the lunar like desert of the once remote Mustang Kingdom, then descending into the deepest gorge in the world, surrounded on either side by 5 mile high snow peaked mountains and finishing at the tranquil Lake Phewa by Pokara.


A few decades ago this route was a very arduous expedition like journey involving the hiring of many porters to carry food, cooking utensils, fuel and tents.  However, since the late 1970's this trek has become a popular route with Western trekkers and over the years many, lodges, tea houses or bhattis offering basic food and board have sprung up along these ancient trading routes to meet demand  and bring prosperity and jobs to the communities living in those areas.  Today, it's possible for a single traveller to complete the journey in 14 days staying at trekking lodges for accommodation and food making redundant the need for a cooking stove, fuel, dried food and tent to be carried on the journey. One can even check for email messages from home at a couple of villages on the way.


To complete this painting trek journey, I had to travel light. Taking only the essentials. Weather proofs, warm sleeping bag, fleece jacket and shirt, hat, gloves, dual trekking trousers/shorts, 2 T-shirts,  sturdy footwear, water papoose, sunglasses, sun block and first aid kit with water purification tablets.  My watercolour painting kit was limited to a compact Winsor and Newton paint set with 8 half pan colours and a few additional Winsor and Newton Series 1 paints, small white plastic 10 well palette, two sable brushes (no. 10 and 5) and 25mm flat wash brush, a small collapsible water pot and A3 white polypropylene sheet, as a drawing board with elastic bands to hold single sheets of 300gsm Saunders Waterford paper.  Also, I packed a compact Kodak Digital camera to take snap shots for reference.


One way of getting to know more about the people, culture and to translate the many dialects along the way is to hire an experienced guide. A few dollars per day can hire the service of an excellent guide. This can be invaluable for gaining local knowledge of terrain, weather, good accommodation and food, customs of the many ethnic communities on route and of course companionship for the many hours spent walking in a wilderness area.      


A daily routine was quickly established.  This involved rising around 7am to practice Tai Chi, wash and have breakfast, usually in that order.  Once the sun had burnt off the morning chill, trekking would start around 8am and continue at a slow pace with plenty of rest stops to catch one's breath and to take in the wonderful scenery.  After 4-5hours trekking, walking would stop for the day.  After lunch and a nap for 1hour, afternoons were used to sketch or paint and photograph the surrounding scenery with each day having different subjects to inspire an artist with a breath taking painting scene in every direction. Sketching and painting outdoors with limited equipment can be challenging at first. However, one adapts very quickly and a small boulder becomes your seat, a mountain stream becomes your water supply and cast Yak hair creates a lovely scumbling texture.  After 2-3 hours of sketching or painting it was time to wash for dinner.  Evenings were usually spent relaxing over a meal with fellow trekkers, guides, porters and friendly staff talking about their highlights of the day.  Guides telling stories of trips and eccentric clients. Porters singing Nepalese folk songs and trekkers discussing their plans and expectations for the following day's walking. Usually, after a pleasant evening with fellow travellers I would turn in to sleep around 10pm looking forward to another inspiring day on the trail.


There are two main seasons for attempting a painting trek around the Annapurna Circuit. The first from October to mid December and the second from late February to May.  Other times of the year would be unsuitable due to the Thorung La Pass being cut off due to snow from mid -December to late February and the monsoon season starts from June through to September, which makes walking treacherous with rain and slippery slopes.  In late April 2005, I did my painting trek and I found the weather to be hot enough to wear shorts and T-shirt during the day, apart from the one day walking over the Thorung La Pass, which required warmer clothing, and at night trousers and fleece were needed to keep out the cold.


Light in Nepal is very vivid.  Having been born, raised and now living in Scotland and used to painting scenes of its brooding mountains, misty glens and occasional glimpse of blue skies, I found the daily early morning clear blue skies above the Annapurnas quite mesmerising, along with the turquoise mountain rivers reflecting the sky above, which had me reaching for my Phthalo blue tube to capture the moment, every time.  No photograph I had seen previously had prepared me for this delight.


Since my teenage years, I had yearned to visit the snow capped Annnaprnas, after having read the book 'Annapurna' by French mountaineer Maurice Herzog who in 1950 led an expedition to the summit of Annapurna, which at the time was the highest mountain over 8000m ever climbed.  After having risen one hour before day break, I climbed from the village of Ghorapani to the top of Poon Hill (3210m) for the panoramic views of the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri Mountain Ranges at sunrise.  Waiting in anticipation with a small group of fellow trekkers and guides for the sunrise was similar to waiting for a major sporting event to start (i.e. the first ball served at Wimbledon) and we were not to be disappointed and sighted the peak Maurice Herzog had climbed all those decades ago.  In the finished painting of Annaprunas to capture the light blue of the sky and daybreak, I used a 25mm flat brush to apply clear water across all of the sky, then introducing a wash of Phthalo Blue, starting at the top, brushing horizontal back and forth across the paper down to the snowy mountain tops and leaving the lower right hand side of the sky untouched. Into that area, pale Lemon Yellow and Light Red was applied whilst the paper was still wet to give an interpretation of the day breaking across the sky.  I used Ultramarine Blue for the shadows on the snow capped peaks, mid-distant mountains and on ground from trees in foreground.  Several pale washes of Lemon Yellow, Yellow Ochre and Burnt Sienna were used on the sunlit areas of the mid-mountains and foreground.  Lemon Yellow and Phthalo Blue were mixed to produce the green for the trees in the foreground.  In the finished painting of Dhaulagiri's I used similar a technique, colours and tones as the Annapurnas painting.  To interpret the mist lying in the valleys around mid distant mountains, I used Ultramarine Blue to create the shadow area and lifted out areas with a wet brush and paper tissue to give the effect of mist lying in the valleys.  When I view Annapurna's the words of Maurice Herzog come to mind "mountains had bestowed on us their beauties, and we adore them with a child's simplicity".  

Published in The Paint Magazine (March 2008).


..found this ploughman coaxing his buffalo to plough the land under a scorching sun.  The soil had a unusual ochre appearance and the sun soon baked the newly turned soil.



 guide explained that a Brahman's (caste members) homes are easy to recognise as they paint the outside of their house in ruddy red colour.






 ...two buddhist monks appeared  and I was able to include them in the scene crossing the river.





 ...above Manang a porter struggled with his heavy load up the steep winding path every step was an extreme effort.


 the sunset on the Annapurnas I had reached the end of the journey, I wonder when I would return to these majestic mountains to paint..hopefully soon