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Rural Minimalism (Revisited)

Rural Minimalism

My work recently has undergone two small but important shifts in focus.

The first is a compositional one.

I have decided to revisit some of the “rules” I first used in 2017 when painting my Welsh “Urban Minimal” paintings (see my paintings for my exhibition in the Cardiff MadeinRoath festival here).

My “rules” for composition and painting this project were:- no cars, no people, bright light. There must be shadows – at diagonals if possible and simplified forms – there must be as little detail as possible. I want to explore the interplay of the geometry of shadows and man-made structures – the tension between the 3D buildings and the 2D shadows. Simplified blocks of colour.

Urban Minimal Paintings by Emma Cownie
A Selection of my “Urban Minimal” Paintings

I later extended these “rules” to painting the villages of Gower, labelling them (half jokingly) “Rural Miminal” (read more here).

Lately, I have been reflecting on my recent body of work and have realised that many of these ideas got lost in the heady excitment of exploring the new landscape (and skies) of Donegal. Also much of my energy got diverted into recovering from my operation and subsequent recovery after I broke my leg/ankle. I spent several months painting watercolours in my bedroom (as I could not reach my oil paints in the attic)and that led me to think more about composition and simplifying forms.

Watercolour of houses on Gola Island

When I finally made it back to my easel, I could only manage short bursts of paintings so I focused on smaller pieces. The clear blue skies outside my window in Wales may well have influenced my fascination with the weather back in Donegal. Note that my use of colour has changed, they have softened, become more subtle. That’s because both the light and the landscape in Donegal is quite different to Wales. It’s also because I was observing more carefully.

Clouds of Donegal

This brings me on to my second shift. Colour. I was always aware that I played around with colour, brightened them just a little, to create cheerful and vibrant works. For many years I painted cheerful paintings when I, myself, was anything but.

Bright and Cheery!
Bright and Cheery!

Painting saved my sanity after a breakdown and going back to a teaching job that I found stressful. The bright colours were a bit of an emotional crutch, perhaps?  I am not sure.  They may have also been a result of hastiness/laziness, over-confidence  with a dash of insecurity.

My Colour Wheel

But change has been coming for a while. I was aware that I sometimes struggled with getting the colour of distant mountains correct. Often the problem lay in the fact that some of my colours were too strong and they needed softening.

I read somewhere that distant colours needed not blue or purple added into in them (as I had thought) but  it’s complementary colour. That’s the colour’s opposite  number on the colour wheel.

I bought a colour wheel to try and perfect those muted tones and watched a few videos on painting about tone and value. They didn’t really hit home with me.  My colour wheel did not have brown on it, I noticed. I had to look for another one.

Colour wheel with brown

My distant hills improved. I  held my paint brush up close to reference image more often before I placed it on the canvas. I used to only do that occassionally. Now I was trying to do it all the time. Work was slower as I thought and carefully considered my colours.

Painting of Tormore Island from Rosbeg, Donegal
Tormore Island from Rosbeg, Donegal (SOLD)

I saw a video that reinforced this growing fixation with getting colours exactly right.  I saw a video on  artist Mitchell Johnson’s Instagram Stories feed. I don’t know who made the video, otherwise I would include it here. I watched many times. Why was watching this clip so fascinating? I was getting excited about watching paint dry!

The tutor had three pieces of coloured card and he mixed the same exact shades of paint so that the paint seemingly “vanished” into the card. The cards were an acidic green, greyish blue and bluish grey.  The colour combination he mixed were fascinating as he added colours that I thought were not going work and yet in the end they did (often a dab of orange did the trick). I noticed that he was using a small pallette knife  to do the mixing. I ordered some palette knives to mix my paint with too. I have found that I can mix a larger quantity of paint. It means that the colour remains consistent.

The tutor made the comment that his students often asked him “Isn’t this close enough? Will this do?”. “No” he said. That sunk home. I knew I was guilty of thinking “This will do”.  No more.

So I set to combining these two “shifts” in thought. The return to simplified forms and the focus on naturalistic/realistic colours.

My first effort was a large painting of the townland of Maghery in Donegal. One or two houses in the middle distant were edited out to simplify the composition.  We decided to call this “The Polite houses of Maghery” because they have all been built looking away from each other! My husband says he finds this painting very calming.

Painting of Maghery_Emma Cownie
The Polite Houses of Maghery – Emma Cownie

I then revisited Gola Island to simplify my compositions futher. I had to resist the impulse the darken the shadows; to strengthen the colour of the pale pink sky, to add lots of yellow and bright greens to the grass. I think the result is also calming.  It is ever so less frantic and a bit more chilled than my previous paintings of the island.  There are still details, in the tiny reflections and pools of light on the doors and sills. You cannot have colour without light.

Oil painting of Gola Donegal by Emma Cownie
Traditional Two-storey House, (Gola)
Oil painting of Road on Gola, Donegal, Ireland
The Dusty Road (Gola), Donegal, Ireland

I suspect that these paintings better reflect my post-broken-leg state of mind. I go every where slowly and carefully (at the pace of a tortoise, according to my husband). I look at the ground to ensure that I do not trip. I gave up drinking coffee and caffeinated tea to reduce my swollen ankle so I am no longer pepped up on caffeine either. I always am mindful of where my feet are. I am now mindful of my colours too! Slowing down has helped me see colours better.

There are still many challenges to be solved. How will I include clouds in my rural miminal paintings? Will this approach work on a overcast day? Those are problems for another day!

Read more about 

PTSD and my art

Me and watercolours

My Urban Minimal paintings for the Madeinroath Exhibition

The Hollowed Community Exhibition

Composition and my work

Coloir Wheel and Colour Mixing

Read more

18 thoughts on “Rural Minimalism (Revisited)

  1. I like your more recent paintings better, especially “Tormore Island from Rosbeg, Donegal.”

    1. Thank you, Hien. It’s all part of a circular process. I keep coming back to certain themes and keep challenging myself to develop as an artist.

      1. I like this minimalist approach. The Tormore island would be my favorite because of those hills in the distance. But I like all of them really!

      2. Thank you Leueen. I like the hills a lot too.

  2. It’s interesting seeing these together. I’d look at a new group and think, yes, I like that better, then the next one and I’d like that better. Then I’d look back at the first one and like that better. To summarize, I really do like your work, in all its forms.

    1. Lol! Thank you, Ellen. I hope the different forms are not so different from each other. I keep circllng to particular themes (commissions knock me off my stride a bit as I am thinking about what the client wants rather than just pleasing myself).

  3. Really interesting and beautiful results Emma. I love your clean lines.

    1. Thank you Katherine. It’s funny, part of me thinks I should be doing “more” in the painting and the other part of me wants to paint a really big version on a massive canvas!

  4. Really enjoyed this article Emma, struck quite the chord with me.

    1. Thank you Georgina. I have found the minimalist side quite challenging although I find the paintings very calming. I have enjoyed looking at your travel posters. I am a big fan of travel posters through the ages (especially Paul Henry’s posters for Ireland)!

  5. Long time fan of your work Emma. The blog was an interesting read in explaining your thinking and emotion, something I don’t do enough of myself (I just paint a feeling rather than write out my thoughts. I might try too).

    I like your woodland paintings of old (one of my favourite subjects to paint) but your pallette is that much brighter / lighter. Interesting therefore to read your thoughts on use of colour.

    Anyway, to the main point, I like the minimalist style because somehow it reminds me of a Hopper painting. And the less ‘there’ makes the subject so much more fascinating. Wish I could say why more articulately! I guess it somehow gets to the essence? I don’t know. But it works.

    Thanks for the blog. Steven

    1. Hello Steven, The Welsh woodlands, when illuminated with sunlight are something to behold in real life too! I like what you say about “less” making the subject more fascinating. I always think that a painting needs to leave the brain to do some work – fill in the gaps. When we looks at things in real life, we gaze at them. Not everything is in sharp focus. It’s not a photogrpah, afterall. May be this is why paintings often can portray the feel of a place better than a photograph. With these paintings the struggle has gone on in my head. I spend a lot of time thinking, deciding what to leave out and what to include. Often parts of the painting get rubbed or scrapped off and repainted. That’s part of any artistic process, but its heightened with these paintings.

  6. In actuality, I like both methods…that is more subdued more natural colors and the brighter landscapes as well. I have one composite image I made for someone and found even giving the same file to the same printer, that I can get brightened greens with less yellow or the more natural subdued greens with more yellow. Like mangrove leaves for instance do have more muted yellows. While both look appealing to me, I think more people might gravitate towards the more brilliant print than the one looking more realistic. Generally I prefer realistic as we do get bombarded with color and sound in our highly saturated digital world. In the end its the eye of the beholder I guess. As a digital photographer, the bane of my existence for a long time was color space differences between prints,digital files and various display devices…sRGB, Adobe 1998 RGB and etc.

    It is so interesting to see where you as a painter can go with color and composition and interesting to see what you are saying through the photos even knowing the limitations of the monitors we see them on. Crazy right!!

    Yeah, though, as artist’s moods and methods do and probably should evolve to the delight of her clients and following!!

    Hope that 2021 is an amazing year in every way especially artistically!!

    1. Thank you for your thoughts, Judy. You are quite right about printing changing the tone and feel of an image. I have experience this issue when taking photos of my paintings, it often take quite a few shots before I get one that “looks like” the painting! Yes, I think that maybe I am partly moving towards more realistic colours because I am a little over stimulated by bright colours. It is the midst of winter here and I am surrounded my muted tones too. When the sun comes out again I may feel different. I am never known to stay in one place for long. I have a need to keep things fresh and find fresh challenges.

  7. […] catch my eye, something that I had previously missed. I recently painted a series of  “rural minimal” paintings based on the island of Gola, off the coast of […]

  8. minimal… potent… colorful.. love it!

    1. Thank you da-AL (Al for short?)

      1. as they say, call me anything you like just not later for dinner lol

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