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The Art of Composition (or how to avoid going off at a tangent)

Art of Composition

I have found that my energy is slowly but steadily returning after my operation on my broken leg in March (although painting light is shrinking with the shortening days).  I spent much of the spring and early summer sitting in my chair wishing I could go outside into the fresh air or climb the stairs to my attic studio. I painted watercolours instead, and thought a lot about colour and composition. I learnt to simplify my images and edit them with more ruthlessness than I had done before.

Gola Island
Gola Houses (watercolor)

I have attempted to carry these lessons into the compositions of my oil paintings. I suspect that I need to go further. I am always torn between a desire to accurately convey what is probably a well-known location to local people, and the need to create an effective composition. In otherwords I want to create an engaging painting, regardless of whether a viewer has visited Donegal or not.

Painting of house on Gola, Donegal, Ireland
Blue Door, Gola (oil on canvas) SOLD

Here’s an example of editing my composition. I used several reference photos for this painting of Bád Eddie (Eddie’s Boat) but you will see that I decide to leave out the all the lamp posts. I felt they made the picture look cluttered. I also left out the the skylights on a couple of the houses for the same reason. I did, however, decide to include a couple of series of fence posts on the right side of the painting as they lead the eye down the hill.

Bad Eddie at Bunbeg
One of the reference photos for Bád Eddie at Bunbeg
Painting of Bad Eddie, Bunbeg,Ireland
Bád Eddie, Ireland. (Oil on canvas) SOLD

I have gone further with my editing of the reference image in my most recent painting of Arranmore. This is a painting of a (probably abandoned) white house that I had painted a watercolour of earlier in the year .

Watercolour of Irish cottage, Donegal
The White house, Arranmore, Ireland (watercolour) 

A lot of the compositional work is done when composing the reference photograph, but there is often a bit more tinkering to be done to clarify the image further.

Landscape painting of Arranmore by Emma Cownie
The White Bridge, Arranmore, Ireland (100cm x 65cm) (Oil on canvas)

Here you can see that I have again removed most of the telegraph poles, just leaving one further down the road. The fence posts as usual, get to stay. The ones on the right led the eye down the road. The central part of the painting on the right side is too cluttered for my liking too. It’s very confusing for the viewer. I have since discovered that this is because there are too many “tangents“. The word “tangent” usually just indicates that two things are touching, but in art the term describes shapes that touch in a way that is visually annoying or troublesome. This also describes those telegraph poles I removed. It all makes for an image that is easier to “read”.

Tangent Chart – From emptyeasel.com

I also removed a several of the buildings so that there is a clear view over to the tiny island of Inishkeeragh with its solidary summer home. Finally, I also simplied the pair of yellow buildings to the far right. I found the semi-abstract result pleasing and I felt that the lack of detail balanced the detail in mud, rocks and grasses on the near side to the left of the painting. I like to balance detail with areas of flat colour, such as the roof of the house or the sea, as I think that too much detail all over makes the head sore. The human brain doesn’t process images in this way any way. Our eyes/brains will focus on one or two areas and “generalise” other larger areas of colour.

Thus, I hope I have created a succesful painting rather than slavishly copying a photograph.

White Bridge Arranmore, (in situ)
White Bridge Arranmore, (in situ)

Read more about avoiding confusing tangents in compositions here  

and also in this article Compose: A Touchy Subject 

or watch this youtube clip

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Bád Eddie, Bunbeg, Ireland

Painting of Bad Eddie by Emma Cownie
From Magheraclogher Beach (Bunbeg)
From Magheraclogher Beach (Bunbeg) (Private Collection)

 

I decided to apply the detailed techniques I have used for painting the hilly city of Swansea to the rural homes of the coastal townland of Bunbeg. I am usually drawn to painting old fashioned Irish cottages, as I like their clean lines and simple shapes. This time, I decided to challenge myself by painting modern Irish houses. The homes of this part of Bunbeg are almost all modern homes, although there are one or two old cottages tucked in amongst the two-storey houses. I found the arrangement of houses on the hilly a pleasing one. I was particularly keen on the road that snakes its way down the hill on the far left of the composition. I decided to leave out all the lamp posts as I felt the cluttered the scene. However, the real joy of the composition is rather unexpected (if you have never seen it before, that is) shipwreck on the right-hand side of the painting. Bád Eddie. 

Mageraclogher beach, Bunbeg,  on the West coast of Donegal,  is a vast, beautiful, and usually windswept beach. It is like a natural amphitheater. In its center,  fleetingly illuminated by the autumn light, just for a moment is the ruined hulk of a boat.

Painting of Bad Eddie, Bunbeg,Ireland

Bád Eddie, Ireland. 

This is a shipwreck, known locally as Bád Eddie, Bád meaning boat in Irish/Gaeilge.  I initially thought “Bad Eddie” was a nickname like Paul Newman’s character in the movie The Hustler, “Fast Eddie”. It made me think the wreck had been some sort of errant boat, but no it just means Eddie’s Boat in Irish. This is, after all,  Gaoth Dobhair (Gweedore), an Irish speaking area of Ireland. 

There are shipwrecks and there are shipwrecks. I am very familiar with images of bones of the Helvetia that have lain submerged on Rhossili Beach on the Gower Peninsula for over 120 years. Bád Eddie, however, is loved in a way that the Helvetia can only dream of.  She has starred in a pop video with Bono and Clannad, no less! She has had a film about her life made and broadcast on the TG4 the Irish language channel (see the film below, it is well worth watching), she has her own popular Twitter account too – Bád Eddie @CaraNaMara

Bád Eddie’s Twitter Page

Bád Eddie, isn’t her real name. She was actually named Cara Na Mara (Friend of the Sea). Her first career was as a fishing boat and she was originally built in Brittany, France, and bought by local fisherman Eddie Gillespie. In 1977 she needed two planks repaired and she was towed ashore onto Magherclougher beach and somehow got left. The repairs were never done and she has lain here for over 40 years.  So this, if there can be such a thing, is a  happy shipwreck. No one died when this ship was washed up. No one had to rescue the crew.  There are no sad memories, except for Eddie who never fixed his fishing boat.

Bád Eddie in her better days: From Twitter

In fact, Bád Eddie has helped create nothing but good memories.  Over the years she became the playground to the local people and families on holiday in Gweedore. She has featured in thousands of family holiday photos and locals include her in their weddings, communions, even christenings. Sadly, the Atlantic Storms have taken their toll on Bád Eddie, and there’s less on her today than when I saw her two winters ago.  

Decorated for Christmas: Image Donegal Daily
 

The locals love her and also recognize that she is a big tourist attraction and they want her preserved to keep that tourism alive. So there is an ambitious plan to create the first permanent sculpture in the sea in Ireland, a stainless steel full-size replica of the boat, incorporating what is left of the structure. I think a sea sculpture is a brilliant idea. There are some amazing sea sculptures in England,  “Another Place” by Antony Gormley at Crosby, Near Liverpool in England and “The Scallop” by Maggi Hamblin at Aldeburgh, on the Suffolk coast – both have had their share of controversy (The Scallop has been called “The most controversial piece of Art in Suffolk”) but  they have certainly increased tourism to their areas. I don’t imagine the Bád Eddie sea sculpture will cause too much controversy. The difficulty is around getting enough money together to build it.  The project has the support of Donegal County Council, but more funding is needed so a gofundme campaign has been set up.

You can support the campaign here https://ie.gofundme.com/f/bad-eddie

 

Read more about the campaign to save the wreck here.  

https://www.rte.ie/news/ireland/2020/0829/1162078-bad-eddie-donegal/

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/31/donegal-locals-campaign-to-turn-beached-boat-into-work-of-art 

Watch Bono and Clannad  with Bád Eddie

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ty2V7yRPbCc&ab_channel=ClannadVEVO

Wild Atlantic Way Stories 

Bád Eddie

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A Donegal Year

It was a year ago that I painted my first painting of Donegal. Here it is. It is a small one.
Old School, Owey Island
Old School, Owey Island
It’s quite a modest painting. You could say that I started off tentatively. I was feeling my way. The light in Donegal is very clear and the scenery is beautiful. That’s an overused word in this age of social media, but it is beautiful. My husband, Seamas (he likes counting things) tells me that I have painted over 50 Donegal paintings (including 3 commissions). That pretty much averages out at one a week. I am pleased to say that I have already sold over half of them. I discovered that I had to use a different palette from the one that I use in Wales. The greens and yellows were more yellow ochre than lemon yellow and the sea was more turquoise (but not quite as turquoise as I first painted) thanks to the clear water.  I loved the rocky landscape of the Rosses. It was a landscape like no other I’d seen before. Someone has said to me that it’s quite alien, like a moonscape in places. I love the granite rocks. We have a massive one behind our cottage in Donegal. I feel very affectionate towards it. It’s a protective presence, especially when it’s windy. Of course, when you are in a different country to the one you were brought up in, everything seems fascinating. I have loved painting both the modern Donegal houses as well as the old cottages. I will freely admit I am quite obsessed by landscape spotted with old cottages on the Donegal islands, on Arranmore and Gola in particular.
donegal painting of Gola, West Donegal.
Spring Light on Gola
I haven’t really got to grips with the mountains of Donegal. What I mean is that I need to visit them a lot more, walk up them and get to know them better. So far I have just admired the “Seven Sisters”, including Mount Errigal and Muckish from a distance.
Painting of Irish mountain
Swirling Clouds Round Errigal
Of course, the real joy of Donegal is the clouds. The changes skies. I am used to it raining, (I have lived in Wales for over 25 years) but the light is different by the North Atlantic Ocean. It is often more slivery, and more changeable.   I think about Donegal every day when I am in Wales. My husband will place his current favourite Donegal paintings in the bedroom and in the lounge so he can look at them whilst we still have them. Here’s my most recent painting Donegal painting. I am currently working on a painting of Arranmore Island, unfortunately, it rained so much here yesterday, the light went and I have yet to finish it.
Donegal painting
Back Road to Burtonport
 
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Painting Bunbeg Donegal

Painting of Errigal

Bunbeg. The word has a pleasing sound to it. It’s short, easy to say and has a nice rhythm to it. Most place names in the British Isles are simply descriptions of locations, or who used to own it. That is not always obvious to modern English speakers because the descriptions originated in Anglo-Saxon, Welsh,  Gaelic (Scots) or Gaeilge (Irish). Therefore, when speakers of the Celtic languages use a place name they have a ready made description of the place. It’s the same with Bunbeg. Bunbeg is the anglicised version of “An Bun Beag” which means the “the small river mouth”.  I know very little Gaeilge but once you start picking up words you see them everywhere. Beg meaning small – there’s Derrybeg (Doirí Beaga) just round the corner which means small oak.

Bunbeg is located in an area of Donegal known as Gweedore (Gaoth Dobhair), known as a bastion of Irish music, language and culture and home to legendary bands such as Clannad and Altan. If you are as old as me you may well remember Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” which was a hit in the UK way back in 1989 and seemed to be played everywhere. Enya was originally a member of Clannad.

Gweedore is the largest Irish-speaking parish in Ireland with a population of just over 4 thousand people. I enjoyed listening to two fisherman having a good gossip in Irish at Bunbeg harbor round the corner from here. I no idea what they were saying but the conversation went at a good pace. I enjoyed just the sound of the language and comparing it to the sound of Welsh which I am familiar with.

IMG_4066
Fisherman (not gossiping) in Bunbeg Harbour
IMG_4944
“Eddie”

Anyway, back to Bunbeg. The vast tidal sands that stretches across the indent in the coastline is known as Magheraclogher beach. When I say, vast I mean vast. It is one of the best known beaches in Gweedore, largely in part because of the distinctive shipwreck that’s been there since the 1970s.

It is known locally as ‘Bad Eddie’ or Eddies Boat. It has regularly appeared in Music Videos as well as providing the backdrop for countless wedding photographs and instagram posts. That mountain in the distance is Errigal, which also features in countless music videos, photos and paintings.

Photo of Bunbeg with Errigal in the distance

“Eddie” with Bunbeg and Errigal in the background

Usually photographers shoot him at low tide. Here’s the photo they use on Wikipedia.

270px-Bunbeg3333
Bunbeg – Wikipedia image

I decided to paint a different view of Bunbeg, without “Eddie”, because I liked the reflections of the clouds in the shallows, I thought it made for a more dramatic composition.  I thought the rain clouds also gave a better sense of the mercurial nature of weather of Donegal. It was also windy when we were here although, I would say that wind is a pretty much a constant feature of the “Wild Atlantic Way”.

Painting of Bunbeg Harbour, Gweedore, Donegal, Ireland.
From Magheraclogher Beach (SOLD)

This beach is popular with dog walkers and tourists as it is easily accessible, with a car park. Yet, I say “popular” the other people we saw were dots off in the distance.

For information on the history of Gweedore area click here