The west coast of Ireland is dotted with islands, big and small but also plenty of sea stacks. Perhaps, they were once sea arches, I am not sure. If they were the crown of the arch fell in to create these majestic pillars. They can be seen from miles away. Even on misty days. This one, Tormore (in the painting above and below) is miles away, near a very remote location called Glenlough Bay. There is something exciting and other worldly and timeless about it.
Rossbeg (sometimes spelt Rosbeg) is a tiny townland on the west coast of Donegal, just three miles south-west of Portnua and Nairn. This is the Dawros Peninsula. There is a pier and a scattering of houses, some are modern, but many are old cottages, probably used as holiday lets.
There is another beach around the corner too.
The beach and the view is just perfect. The water is so very clear that the rocks and seaweed are visible from quite some distance from the shore.
There is a definite shift in the seasons. In summer here, the light seemed to stretch on for eve; well past 11pm. Suddenly the days have started shortening fast. It is now dark before 9pm. It has rained solidly for the last two days. In typical Donegal fashion, the sun has come out and everything is bright and fresh.
Artimus (aka Artie) our Donegal rescue cat has just passed me to go outside in the catio to smell the breeze. He used to be a stray. It’s hard to believe as he’s so beautiful and such a softie. He now enjoys the warmth and comforts of indoor life (especially hiding under the towel rail) but he still enjoys the smells and sounds of rural life outside. We lost three pets in the last year (two cats and a dog) and I am not letting him outside when there’s a busy road at the bottom of the garden. I cant face the heartache, if I dont have to. So Séamas, built a catio. Or the cat veranda as I like to call it. Both of our cats, enjoy it but Artie, especially so but not when it’s cold. He’s been in and out of it four times in the last twenty minutes. I think he wishes it was warmer. He must have found life as a stray really tough!
Errigal from Cruit Island, Donegal:-This was one of a pair of large paintings I started before I got ill. It sat in it’s greyscale state for over a month and a half until I recovered enoungh stamina to complete it! Large painting require a lot of strength as you lift your arms/hands above your head, even if you are just moving the canvas. I was very glad to finish it.
I enjoyed painting the rolling landscape; splattered with rocks. I took great pleasure in adjusting the colours in oil paint and “tightening up” the details. The rash of rocks amongst the boglands is quite unique to this part of Donegal. Further south towards, Glencolmcille, there are far fewer bolders and rocks. There the bogland blankets the landscape uninterupted. There are far fewer houses there too. This area of Donegal, the Rosses, however, is dotted with houses old and new. I like that the old houses nestle in the nooks and crannies of the landscape; keeping out of the prevailing westerly winds and showers.
Some places cannot be found on google maps. Sometimes you have to get out an old fashioned paper map and look for yourself. I have a small collection of Ordnance Survey “Discovery Series” maps of North-West Ireland. I spend a lot of time looking at them and familarizing myself with an unfamilar landscape. Up until last year, I spent more than half of my life in Wales, and I have so much to learn about Irish Geography and History. My favourite map is number 1. Where I am right now.
I have noticed that there are a lot of “Tramore” beaches in Donegal, – its probaly not that surprising that it means “Big Beach” in Irish. There’s a Tramore beach opposite Dunmore Strand at the north end of the peninsula they build Donegal Airport on. Just to the north of the long beach that lies to the west of the runway, there’s a tiny island that can be reached at low tide. It’s called Oileán na Marbh, Isle of the Dead. I was intrigued. So we went to visit yesterday, on a blustery day.
It is a poignant island on the edge of the land; it is in a windswept and wild place. In accessible at high tide. Both beautiful and very sad. For it was on this island that over 500 stillborn and unbaptised babies were burried between the time of the Great Famine in the 1840s, and 1912. For centuries, until 2007, it was taught by the Catholic Church (and also by the Anglican Church) that unbaptised babies did not go to heaven when they died, but to a place called “Limbo”, and therefore could not be buried in consecrated church land. In other communities it was common to bury these unbaptised mites on the outside of churchyard walls, or in even farmer’s fields. In this part of Donegal, however, this island, served as the final resting place; in limbo between the watery world and the mainland. It was also where the local community buried the bodies of sailors that would sometimes get washed up on their shores.
Today, it is a popular spot for wild swimmers and campers. And yes, in case you are wondering, the sea really is that incredible shade of blue. In the distance you can see the islands of Gola (to the right) and Inisfree Lower, and behind that, Owey (to the left). A truly liminal space on the margins of the physical and spiritual world.
Oilean na Marbh, Donegal _ photo credit James Henry Johnston
While many of you are baking in England and dealing with a hosepipe ban, in Donegal it’s cloudy with occasional showers. I thought I would share you my recent newletter. They have ended up being quarterly. It depends of how much news I have and how busy I have been. I always make it strong on the visuals and light on the words! I also make the typeface large for reading on smart phones!
It took a while, but I finally worked it out. On sunny days Lidl’s car park in Dungloe is pretty full but the shop is quite empty. Just across the road from is the entrance to the River Walk. I have eyed this entrance many times as I have bundled the shopping into the back of the car. Mothers with prams and toddlers are often headed this way. Yesterday I finally crossed to road and wandered into a magical woodland. No teddies to be found but a magical woodland with fairies and a giant troll. Here he is.
Here’s a selection of images from the walk. It was inventive, funny, engaging and charming in equal measure. I just loved it.
I wonder how many sightings of magical creatures have been reported to the Elf-13 office at the EU? A fair few I shouldn’t imagine.
No sooner than I arrived in Donegal and made a start on two large paintings than Seamas and I came down with Covid 19. Apparently the current wave has been mopping up many of the people who had thus far avoided the horrible virus. I never gave up wearing my mask in shops but I still caught it. Darn! So I have spent most of the last two weeks sleeping and lying in bed trying to do very little, in the hope that my immune system will bounce back and my energy levels will return to normal.
I am also feeling faintly stupid but very delighted because I only just realised that Claire Keegan’s novella “Foster”, is the basis for the film “The Quiet Girl”. My oil painting “The Traditional House, Gola” has been used for the cover of the reprint of “Foster”. Actually, never mind the covid, I nearly fell over when I made the connection.
I must have seen these adverts on TG4 (the Irish language chanel) because I thought of this film by it’s Irish language title “An Cailín Ciúin” – as just about all the dialogue is in Irish. I didn’t realise that it was the same story as “Foster”.
It’s story about a nine-year-old girl, Cáit, who is sent to spend the summer with her aunt Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley) and her husband Seán, who live in the Rinn Gaeltacht, County Waterford. The film is directed and written by Colm Bairéad , based on Claire Keegan’s story “Foster”. It has won a whole pile of International awards, rave reviews and has been breaking box office records in Ireland and UK. I am really excited and greatly honoured to be connected, even in a tenuous way, to such an amazing project!
I am now going back to bed, in the hope that I haven’t over done it.
I have decided that perfect is the enemy of good, and I need to give up on the idea that I should write lengthy blogs posts, as I end up writing nothing! So here goes,
One of the many great things about being back in West Donegal is that I can paint much larger paintings as my art studio is much bigger here than in Derry. So I now have two on the go!
These are both painted in acrylic paint. I find it easier to make adjustment in the value/tones in acrylic before I move onto a layer of oil as a final layer. Acrylic can act as a foundation layer for oil, but not the other way around. I had forgotten how physically tiring painting a large painting is. My arms are tired!
We are about to decamp to Donegal for the summer/early autumn. I have mixed feeling about returning to oil paints. It’s been a quite a steep learning curve getting comfortable with acrylic paint but I feel like I finally got there. I am not sure what it will be like to paint in oils again; oh the the joy of easy blending! I am looking forward to being able to paint larger canvases. I will continue my practice of laying down an underpainting in grey-scale paint, regardless.
Here are some of my recent acrylic paintings, mostly of Inishowen Penisula (Donegal)
And finally a few also of my favourite, Gola Island.
The weather forecast is for cool weather, so I will be packing some light jumpers. I have found, however, that forecasts are pretty unreliable for Donegal so it could be very pleasant. I am looking forward to the sweet breezes!
You probably think that artists are good at creating paintings/images in all mediums; oil, watercolours acrylic paints. Many probably are, but I am not. I need to work at it. It’s a bit like being an athlete. You might be great at football but it doesn’t automatically mean you are a great sprinter, tennis player or swimer. Although there are athletes who have successfully switched disciplines, like Usain Bolt, who started his career as a footballer; extra training is needed. I think painting is like that. Almost all of my experience up to now has been in working with oil paints but in the last six months I have been working hard at painting in acrylics. Why? I knew that in our small house in Derry, until we got stairs put into the attic space, that oil paints and with their associated mess and fumes weren’t going to work.
Unfortunately I feel like I have been hitting my head against a brick wall for several months. I have learnt a great deal, using acrylic mediums and varnishes is very technical, but I won’t go into all the detail of what I have learnt. The strange thing is that the finished paintings looked good but the process of creating them was slow and frustrating. Here are some early examples;
This last one is my favourite but it took weeks to complete rather than days. I just don’t have the patience to spend that long on one smallish painting.
I also used acrylic paint for underpaintings for my oil painting, which worked better for me. It enabled be to paint faster, but this approach would be no good in Derry where I couldn’t use oil paints.
So why was I taking so long to complete these acrylic paintings? Acrylics don’t act like oil paints, that can be a good thing as well as a bad thing. You can correct mistakes easily. Acrylic paint is a relatively recent invention of the 1950s. It’s essentially a plastic. It is amazingly versatile but it’s origins as a polymer presents a couple of challenges that I have struggled with for some time. The first issue is that it dries fast. Really fast. I found that it dried on my palette within minutes. I hate wasting paint, so I made my own wet palette, so that the paint on my palette dries within days and not minutes.
It still dried very fast on the board/canvas on which I was painting. That meant that large areas, such as skies, werevery difficult to paint without looking patchy. I learnt to mix up large quantities of paint so that if I needed to, I could repaint a small area of the sky. Otherwise, the whole sky had to be repainted.
The second big issue I had was somehing called “colour shift”. Acrylic paint dries dark. This is because most makers of acrylic paint use white binder that dries clear, so it looks light when you apply it, but goes dark as it dries. It seems to affect blues and browns particularly badly. I tried painting patches of colour to see who was the worst offender.
Although Windsor & Newton’s paints use clear blinder and have little colour shift, I didn’t particularly like them as a paint. I am not sure why I didn’t like them, possibly I just prefered to colour range of other manufacturers. Anyway, in the end I bought lots of Schminke PrimAcryl paints which also use a clear binder and results in only a small colour shift.
Finally, I decided to experiment with indirect painting. This is a method where by an underpainting in grayscale is done first and light layers of colour are applied as a glazes.
Again, its’s not as speedy as painting in oils (although I have used brown-tonal underpaintings in the past – with oil paintings, see here).
So here are two paintings I painted tonal underpaintings, and then added colour through a series of glazes.
Lambing season at Fanad Head (Donegal) – Final version
Greyscale study of Fanad Lighthouse – painted on a blue ground, which I left in the sky area of the painting.
This approach seemed to work well for acrylics. Although I am still not as quick as I am in oils, this process enables me to produce paintings with greater depth of colour and more accurate tonal values. It is especially good for getting distant mountains right, something I have struggled with in the past. I am hoping that I have finally got the hang of working with this medium. I think it’s the end of the beginning rather than the beginning of the end. There’s always so much to learn with painting no matter which medium you use!
Rossbeg (sometimes spelt Rosbeg) is a tiny townland on the west coast of Donegal, just south of Portnua and Nairn. There is a pier and a scattering of houses, some are modern, but many are old cottages, probably used as holiday lets. The day we visited the weather was calm and sunny. It was just perfect.
Oiláan Na Marbh is a poignant island on the edge of the land in Donegal. It is inaccessible at high tide. Both beautiful and very sad. For it was on this island that over 500 stillborn and unbaptised babies were burried between the time of the Great Famine in the 1840s, and 1912.