HERE is the shipping forecast: it’s cold. Really cold. The wind is so strong even the sea gulls are looking miserable and Ian Rawnsley tells me he thinks it’s a storm force five or six at least today. The clue, he says, is in the waves – anything above storm force three or four and you start to see white horses at sea and they are certainly in evidence today, galloping towards us. The clouds are also a giveaway – they’re big and dark and in a desperate hurry to make their way across the sky.

Ian Rawnsley doesn’t mind it though. In fact, he’s used to this kind of weather, having lived here in Troon for years, and actually sees a day like this as inspiration. Wherever he goes, he carries a little sketch book around with him and its pages are full of impressions of the sea, the waves, the sky – streaks of blue and rolls of black. All of it is research towards the bigger goal: an ambitious, unprecedented artistic project that is only just starting.

Rawnsley’s aim is to sail through every single region covered by the shipping forecast, the famous and much-loved BBC radio broadcast of weather reports for the sea around the British Isles, and record his visits in paint. The idea is partly to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support, but it is also a project with personal meaning for Rawnsley: painting the shipping forecast means heading out to sea, but it also means heading back to his past.

Rawnsley was born 54 years ago in Derby but has lived everywhere and as a boy he remembers the thrill of listening to the radio and specifically the shipping forecast. “I was a Radio 4 kid,” he said. “The sort of kid that had a transistor radio under his pillow and even when I was at school, I was listening to the radio until two in the morning and then getting up for school. It was always there.”

The shipping forecast was always there too and it’s the words describing the 31 sea areas that Rawnsley particularly remembers: words like Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire and German Bight; Trafalgar, FitzRoy, Fastnet and Shannon. The shipping forecast has been broadcast in Britain in some form since the 1920s (although telegraph messages go back even further to 1861) and Rawnsley thinks it’s that regular rhythm of the message – every day, four times a day – combined with the mystery of the vocabulary that draws listeners, whether they are seafarers or not.

“It’s the mystery,” he says, “but it’s also very cosy and suburban and it’s a series of wonderful words and phrases that have a poetic sense. Even Seamus Heaney, one of his sonnets includes some of the words. There is the immediacy of the radio and the cosiness even if you’re sitting somewhere in Birmingham or the Home Counties and you can hear 'immediate storm'. If you use your imagination, you have a connection with the storms and the fishermen out at sea.”

This is an important element for Rawnsley as his shipping forecast project gets going: the connection for the people who are actually out at sea and for whom the forecast has real consequences. “There is an educational element,” he says. “It’s bit of a homage to people who work on the sea and quite often get taken for granted. It’s about the sea itself and the people on it – they work there, or use it for pleasure. And ultimately, the sea is a dangerous thing. I have a great appreciation for people who go out on trawlers – it is the most dangerous job in the world going out fishing, especially out here.”

It is partly because of his respect for the men and women who crew trawlers and other vessels that Rawnsley decided his shipping forecast project should involve a physical visit by boat to every area. In 1998, the artist Peter Collyer painted the entire shipping forecast area, and his efforts were recorded in the book Rain Later, Good, but some of the shipping areas were painted from the coast and in one case from the air as Collyer flew over it. Rawnsley is an admirer of Collyer but thinks anything other than an actual sea voyage in every area is cheating so that is what he is determined to do.

Five of the 31 visits – Thames, Malin, Cromarty, Fair Isle and Forth – have already been completed and the first of them was Thames. The budget for the project is tight so Rawnsley has been relying on the generosity of fishermen, sailors and ferry companies to support his trips and on the Thames he was taken out by a local barge company. The resulting picture shows the sun pushing its way through the fog at four in the morning and Rawnsley says he was trying to show not just what the Thames looks like first thing a cold and dark morning but also what it feels like.

“The paintings will not be a photographic record of the place, but the feeling,” he says. “It’s an amalgamation of many strands of feeling, colour and emotion blended together.” He also says it’s a mixture of excitement and nostalgia, particularly nostalgia for the visits he made to the seaside when he was a child.

“Most people can relate to the sea, and it’s about nostalgia and memory and I realise that this project takes me back to when I was younger, when I started painting. I started painting the sea when I was about 12 – my parents bought me a little box of oil paints and the first thing I did was the sea. Holidays were always on the coast and I’ve always had a fascination for the sea; the boats and the shipping forecast gave me something tangible. It’s always been there.”

The second area Rawnsley visited was Malin off the south-west coast of Scotland, which he reached by lobster boat from Girvan. The boat stopped off at Ailsa Craig, where Rawnsley explored the abandoned buildings that were once used by the lighthouse keepers. They then circled the island as Rawnsley took the pictures that will form the basis of his painting. The work, which is he still completing, stands on his easel in his studio at home in Troon.

The other painting that has been completed is Fair Isle, which shows a giant wave crashing over the dark blue of the sea. Rawnsley visited the area, around Shetland and Orkney, after hitching a lift on a Northlink freighter to Lerwick, and is already well into planning some of his other visits. He thinks the hardest one will be south-east Iceland, although he already has a sailing company that is prepared to take him out from Plymouth which means he could bag several of the sea areas off the south coast of England in a day or so.

He also hopes that, when it comes to the Fisher area, off the coast of Denmark, he will be able to enlist the help of the actor Timothy Spall, who is a client of his. Spall has bought several of Rawnsley’s paintings and endorsed another of his projects, The Wee Ones – a Painted Journey around Britain, which featured 100 small works in oils. Spall owns a barge and Rawnsley hopes he will be able to hitch a ride and get his Fisher painting in the bag.

When finished, the paintings will all be 50cm x 50cm and by the end of the project there will be more than 300 artworks in all: 31 main paintings and 10 limited-edition prints of each one. He has also asked 31 writers to contribute something to the project and already Sir Andrew Motion, the former Poet Laureate, and Liz Lochhead have agreed to take part. And there will be an album as well of original music by the composer Andrew Phillips inspired by the shipping forecast.

Standing in his studio, out of the rain and wind we experienced earlier down on the beach, Rawnsley says the whole project is emotional for him. When he was at university (he originally trained to be a geotechnical engineer), he studied a little meteorology and loved the words and phrases like “occluded front”. He also used to live in Dublin where he loved to listen to the foghorn. And now here he is in Troon, where he can see the themes of his life in front of him: always the weather, he says, and always the sea. “I have made a rod for my own back,” he says. “I have to go to sea.”