On a voyage of discovery and exploration in his own artistic practice, illustrator Stu McLellan taps into the grace and mystery of whales to prompt his series of work

Words: Caroline Wheater Photographs: Stu McLellan

While artist and illustrator Stu McLellan has now settled in landlocked Gloucestershire, his heart is close to the sea – a feeling reflected in his latest hand-drawn images. Stu grew up near the Northumbrian coast and has always had an affinity with the sea. However this particular artistic journey began at the end of 2016, when he started creating a series of ‘pebble mandalas’ to explore a more meditative style.

A mandala is an Eastern religious symbol of the universe and unity. To model the repeat patterns in each pebble picture, Stu used real stones, gathered from the north coasts of Devon and Cornwall. For him, each one holds memories of favourite places, such as Hartland Point and Widemouth Bay, where he and his wife Verity now take their three young children for seaside holidays. ‘The sea is a very soothing place, the rhythm of the ocean is like the measure of a breath, and it allows a letting go,’ he says. But his exploration didn’t end there. In autumn 2017, Stu felt a strong urge to draw a whale with a body full of stars. ‘My first couple of watercolours were of an enormous, non-specific cetacean, which I found extraordinary. I pinned them up on the wall to mull them over and returned to them a few days later.’ The images still resonated strongly and Stu set about drawing a blue whale in ink – his first Sky Whale, which has since been joined by other baleen whales including humpbacks, dwarf minkes, North Atlantic rights, a fin, a vaquita and a harbour porpoise.

‘For me, whales are symbols of the profound beauty that exists in the world. They embody an ability to navigate huge depths and distance, and represent both incredible strength and gentleness with an extraordinary grace, given their size. The starscape within them represents a sense of wonder. These are both things that move us deeply on an emotional and spiritual level. I’m plugging into conservation issues too – it feels utterly unthinkable to exploit or endanger a cetacean, such majestic, mysterious creatures.’

Stu works in various scales, from small pictures 30cm wide up to those that are a metre long. Referring to various research materials ranging from natural history books and internet images, he does a pencil sketch first, just an outline, then gradually builds up layers of ink, bringing out the mouth shape, the eye outline and the throat folds. ‘I use three colours of acrylic ink – indigo, black and white – colours that speak of the sea and which reflect the colours of the whales in real life,’ Stu explains. He then blends each application of ink with water until the whales and their starscapes emerge, as if out of the blue. They are gentle, they are giant, and almost as beautiful to behold as the real thing.

For more artists inspired by the sea, head to our People section or pick up a copy of the magazine


Original ink drawings from £175 to £425; limited edition prints from £40 to £80; greetings cards also available. Buy his work at etsy.com/shop/stusshed.

You can also find Stu’s work at Clovelly Pottery in Devon, and at A Little Bird Told Me gallery in Wendover, Buckinghamshire

Follow Stu on Instagram @stusshed

For more coastal artists, head to our People section or pick up a copy of the magazine