I like to explore nooks and crannies and I usually use a map to help me. This way I can find interesting scenes to paint. I love looking at maps but I didn’t have one in Donegal. I thought I’d get one with the hire car but instead we were given a Stat Nav (Satellite Navigation). You can’t spend hours looking at the lay of the land on a Stat Nav. It spent the holiday in the boot of the car. I thought we’d get one in a filling station but in Ireland you don’t fill up your own car and wander into the garage shop to look at car related stuff and packets of sweet, you have a friendly young chap filing your car up for you! We sort of knew where we were going. My husband, Seamas, had spent hours “driving” down the roads and lanes of Donegal on Street View Google.
So, in the spirit of adventure I turned off the coast road, which runs from the airport to Dungloe, in search of the sea. The roads are narrow but fortunately we didn’t meet anyone coming the other way. After following an undulating single track road, it widened out and then seemingly vanished over a hill into the sea. I didn’t fancy doing a lot of reversing so I parked up to explore on foot. Over the other side of the rise was the beach. It was low tide. The track I’d been on ran down to beach and then started up again on a island on the other side of the beach.
This is Fall Island and it is only 300 metres long. There is only one lone house on the island. The house was shut up for the winter.
I was fascinated by the rocky landscape and the houses perched on the rocks. These rocks are made of granite. Granite is an igneous rock which it was once magma which crystallised as it cooled down. It’s a dense and useful rock. It can be cut, carved and shaped. It is also resistant to water and pollution.
The granite rocks along the coastline are massive. Monumental. Their edges smoothed by the sea and the wind.
Hedgehogs and bears have the right idea about winter.
They hibernate and miss the dark winter months. I am finding this winter quite a struggle. In the last fortnight most days have been characterised by gloomy skies and poor light quality. In previous years I have struggled to get much painting done. I have spent hours tapping away on the computer looking up at the black sky outside my window, waiting for the sun to rise so I can start painting, and then often abandoning work at 2pm when the light goes. The best light to paint by is undoubtedly daylight, and my attic studio is blessed with a lovely northern light, but I needed to extend my painting time, to keep working.
A couple of years ago I invested in a “Professional” artists’ light. It was pretty pricey at £60 ($75US) but I hoped it would be worth it. I think it helped me paint on for about half an hour after the light had faded but not much more.
So I decided to add to it with a photographer’s’ daylight lamp. These have screw fittings so I had to buy a converter so that it would fit the clip fitting that I also bought. The whole set up did not cost much more than £12 ($15) so just on price it was likely to beat the expensive artist’s light. The bulb arrived, but when I opened it up I was so surprised it’s strange appearance (it was easily twice the size of the regular light bulb) that I laughed so hard that I dropped it, and it and smashed! Drat (not my actual words). I then had to order another one and wait all over again for a new one to be delivered.
It was worth waiting for. It was pretty good. It was cheap too. So I got a second one to place either side of me. This enabled me to paint on for an hour and half after the light had gone. This year, I have gone for a “full-Hollywood-lighting” with three of these beauties blazing away. The artist’s light has been relegated to acting as handy arm to clip the photographers’ lights to! I don’t even bother to switch it on, anymore, unless it’s really dark.
Now I think I can paint any time of the day or night (almost). It’s best for augmenting natural light and extending painting times. In yesterday’s gloom I was still struggling to see pale yellows and light greens. I am very tempted to see what a fourth one will do for me.
Interestingly, despite all this artificial light I find I still need my SAD lamp to keep me relatively cheerful and regulate my sleep patterns. I have found that if I don’t get a good shot of SAD light around 7pm I awake at 4am bright-eyed and decidedly grumpy. That extra burst of light helps tell my brain that I should not wake up until 6.30, at least. That’s the best I can do most days. I long to sleep in til 9am but for some reason I just can’t.
What do other artists do to keep working in the winter months? Or you sensibly, wrap up warm and go to sleep for four months like hedgehogs and bears?
Here’s another artist’s solution to the dark days of winter.
“May the friendships you make, Be those which endure,
And all of your grey clouds, Be small ones for sure” – Extract from an Irish Blessing
“Behind every cloud is another cloud” – Judy Garland
I have had an ambivalent relationship with clouds. I prefer bright sunshine. I In fact I have obsessively looked for bright sunshine and shadows to paint. I have found the relationship between objects and their shadows exciting.
This can be difficult in Wales where we can get days or even weeks of overcast or wet days. So when the sun is out I go mad, rush all over the place taking reference photos to paint later in my studio. I have been guilty of often portraying Swansea only in its best light. Someone once said I made Swansea look like a Mediterranean country.
Don’t get me wrong, on a sunny day it’s beautiful place and I have painted dark and rainy scenes too (see below) but not the rain clouds as I prefered painting bright blues skies.
I have never really been happy with how I painted clouds. They never quite came off the way I wanted them to. The paintings looked fine but I had not enjoyed the process of painting them. For a long time I could not quite put my finger on what it was that I was finding dissatisfying about the experience.
So I did a bit of research and read up on something called “scumbling” and watched a video on youtube demonstrating the technique.
This is a way of applying paint with a dry brush to painted canvas. This way a broken layer of paint is added allowing the colour underneath to show through. J.M.W. Turner was the king of scumbling. Think of that painting of his “Rain, Steam and Speed” where the steam train is emerging out of the clouds of rain and steam. This is my humble effort at scumbling.
I was quite pleased with it but it did not pass the “praise test” with my husband, Seamas. He’s my most valued audience and source of feedback. It’s not that he didn’t like the painting, he just didn’t say anything at all about it. So I decided this technique wasn’t quite working for me.
I watched a few more videos on Youtube where artists knocked off beautiful clouds in a matter of minutes.
This just seem to make things worse. I swirled the paint around on the canvas and it all just felt “lumpy” to me. I scrubbed the canvas. Humph. I decided Youtube videos were great for tips on mending jeans or adjusting security lights but not for painting techniques. I had to find my own way. Or truth be told, I forgot about it for a while.
Finally, I think I have started to make a break-through. It came from being in another country, Ireland, where the skies are full of constantly changing clouds. This was something quite different to the light of Wales. To start with I tried to painting bright sunshine, as I do in Wales.
I like the light in these painting a lot. Then I was tempted by the landscape to explore the changing skies too. You can’t paint Mount Errigal without a swath of clouds around its shoulders.
I started to get sucked into the drama of the Donegal skies. I slowly discovered the key, for me anyway, is very thin layers of paint. After all, clouds are just water vapour. They are made of tiny fine particles of water. They are not solid things and this was where I had been going wrong, making them solid things. They are not.
Ironically, this is what exactly what the Youtube videos were showing me but I needed to find my own way of doing it. I didn’t like painting a layer of opaque blue and then adding cloud on top. I prefered a number of very thin layers of paint. The natural colour of the linen canvas I use, actually helped contribute to the colour of the “dirty” rain clouds.
So my clouds got thinner and finer.
So that a puff of wind would move them along. Or light luminate them.
So, I have started painting “overcast” pictures where the light is slivery rather than golden. I can be a challenge because the light affects all the colours, the greens are flater and duller and I am using yellow ochre and naples yellow far more than I do painting sunny Welsh landscapes.
Finally, my favourite recent painting is the one I did of Muckish mountain. I loved the massive rounded clouds that seemed to be echoing the humped shape of the mountain.
I have only started feeling confident painting clouds and I think I have some way yet to go. Fortunately, I won’t be short of clouds to paint in Wales and Ireland.
I am fascinated by rock stacks and Donegal has plenty of them. I like to think of how these massive structures have gradually been eroded by wind and waves over thousands of years, forming first sea arches and then stacks.
I also love the colour of the rocks and the wild Atlantic Ocean. The ocean is incredible shades of blues, greens and mauves, mixed in with browns and frothing surf. Although I feel I am getting better at representing the layers of Donegal sky and clouds, but capturing the movement of the seas is still frustrating me.
If you to find out more about Owey Island see Ian Miller’s Unique Ascent’s website for detailed descriptions and incredible videos.
Just thought I’d add a post script about the “Holy Jaysus Wall”. I think if you look at photo of it you will understand the name. It makes me feel ill just looking at it!
Here’s a fascinating film clip from the 1970s about Owey Island’s postman, Neil McGonagle, who used to visit the dwindling population on Owey Island by small boat four times a week to maintain the island’s contact with the outside world.
I wonder whether the post to Arranmore Island, Donegal, goes astray a lot. There are two other islands with similar names off the coast of Ireland and Scotland. There are the Aran Islands off Galway Bay to the south as well as the Scottish Isle of Arran. Arranmore or Árainn Mhór, in Irish Gaelic.
It lies off the west coast of County Donegal, Ireland. It is the largest inhabited island off County Donegal, with a population of 514 in 2011, down from 528 in 2006, 543 in 2002, and over 600 in 1996. The island is part of the Donegal Gaeltacht, with most of the inhabitants speaking Ulster Irish.
There is a frequent ferry service from Burtonport and this old cottage was spotted nestling into the rocks of one of many islands, Inishcoo, en route to Arranmore. There is no ferry service to the many little islands scattered off the coast of West Donegal. People get to these remote islands in their own little boats. There are landing stages and steps down to sea cut into the rocks. Of course, you could always swim to Inishcoo. Amazingly, the local cows do.
I sounds mad, but I didn’t have a map when I was driving around Donegal. I sort of hoped I could buy one in a petrol station but I never did. The Hire Car people lent us a Sat Nav but I could not be bothered to plug it in and it stayed in the boot the whole week.
I am very lackadaisical when it comes to planning holidays, I think all my energy goes into the logistics of getting there. Anyway, I assumed that my husband would tell which places were worth visiting. Afterall, he had spent hours “flying” up and down the roads of Donegal on StreetView. I sort of knew where I wanted to go; Bunbeg, Bloodyforeland, Falcaragh, Dunfanaghy, Derryveagh, Kincasslagh and Dungloe and the distances between them were not very great.
On the only properly sunny afternoon we had in Donegal, I took a left off the road from Dungloe to Kincasslagh. The sign said “Cruit Island Golf Club”. I reasoned that golf clubs are usually located in beautiful places, near the coast. So I followed a single track road and over a small concrete bridge on to Cruit Island. If you look at the map above, you can see that Cruit Island is long, three miles long, in fact.
Cruit Island at Low Tide
After a pleasant drive along a single track road, and passing what can only be called mansions at the north end of the island, we reached the golf club. Now in the UK golf clubs can be funny about other people coming onto their property, but there was nowhere to turn the car so I kept driving. Eventually we reached the golf club car park which looks out across wild waves to an island. This was no calm inland lough. This was the Wild Atlantic. The wind was fierce and the waves crashed and boomed.
It was mesmerising. The island was just across the turquoise water. It was dotted with houses, some clearly derelict, others in good order. I didn’t know it at the time but this was Owey island.
It turns out that Owey island is uninhabited for much of the year, having no permanent residents, but people do live there in the summer months. It was last inhabited on a full-time basis in the mid 1970s. The last residents were three old boys who were moved to the mainland of Donegal, or as the islanders call it, Ireland. All the houses were built on the south side of the island, facing Cruit Island Golf Club. The north of the island is too rocky and too exposed to the north Atlantic Ocean gales.
My eye was drawn to one building in particular. Standing on the brow of a hill, its missing roof caught my attention. It had also had a walled yard behind it. I was too far away to be able to tell whether this was a derelict old building or an incomplete new one. There are many incomplete “new” buildings littering the Irish landscape.
This turned out to be the old school. The walled yard was the play ground. It was a tiny school with just one teacher who would have to teach all ages of the small number of island children. It was a school for the younger children, and when they were old enough the children would then be sent to the mainland for their secondary school education.
Apparently, the school children had to bring a sod of turf to school each morning. The turf was fuel for the fire and the idea was that they provided the heating for the school room in the cold months. It has been pointed out that as the teacher’s table and chair were at the front of the room, they would usually sit right in front of the fire. When I used to be a teacher, I used to teach in a “temporary” demountable classroom (it had been there for 40 years) and in winter, I would often stand next to the gas fire, myself. So I liked that idea!
In Steven Spielberg film “Close Encounters” (1977) Richard Dreyfus experiences a close encounter with a UFO and subsequently becomes increasingly obsessed with subliminal, mental images of a mountain-like shape and begins to make models of it, including one made from his mash potatoes.
I bring this up because my husband got a bit like that with Mount Errigal. It has a very distinctive shape and it can be seen from miles around. My husband was always pointing it out to me. His father used to help run a boxing gym called Errigal in Derry, Northern Ireland, so it has an added resonance for him. Again and again he’d announce “There’s Errigal” to me.
It looks like it should be an extinct volcano, but I’m not sure entirely that it is. We saw it when we flew in from Dublin, from the runway at the airport, from the beach at Carrickfinn, From Bunbeg beach, from the Rosses, from Gweedore. Its barren surface is rather moon-like, but when the sun catches its slopes its quite mesmerising. When it was hidden by cloud you knew the sun wasn’t going to come out for some time. The surface isn’t covered with snow but light-coloured quartzite scree that glows pink in the sun.
I would like to climb it one day. I have been told it only takes a couple of hours (from the other side). In the meantime there is a nice time-lapse film of clouds floating past Errigal for you to watch.
You can purchase my Donegal landscape paintings here
The Rosses (in Gaelic, Na Rosa) is a region in the west of County Donegal, Ireland. The name comes from “Ros”, the Irish word for headland. It is a curiously rocky place. Not rocky, in the sense that national parks in the American west, like Utah and Arizona, are made of 100% rock, but rather the bedrock is covered with a thin layer of earth, with slabs of rocks and boulders poking through. It’s a barren but beautiful landscape, studded with a myriad of lakes and inlets of the sea.
It may feel like the edge of the known world but this area has been inhabited “since time immemorial” according to Wikipedia. Coastal places like the Rosses, in Donegal, looked out onto a massive highway – the sea. Missionary Celtic saints were busy in this area in the 6th century AD. These saints relished a challenge and liked to travelled up and down the Celtic waterways to spread Christianity to nearby Scotland. In the 1990s it was fashionable to argue that these Irish monks had in fact, “saved civilisation” by copying the books being destroyed elsewhere by Germanic invaders, eventually bringing them back to the places from which the books had come. Part of this movement included women like St. Crona or St. Crone (Cróine) , a female religious of royal blood. She found a monastery in Termon near Dungloe. She was a cousin of the the better known St. Columba (St. Columcille in Irish) one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland, who founded the monastic settlement at Iona.
Much later (about a thousand years or so) in the 16th century, a number of ships from the Spanish Armada sank off or landed off its coast. Some 24 to 26 Spanish Armada ships are believed to have foundered off the Irish coast in 1588 while returning from a failed invasion of England by King Philip II. This is not just local myth as the wrecks of two Spanish ships were discovered by archaeologists in shallow water near Burtonport, Donegal, in 2008/9.
What happened to the survivors of these wreck is unclear. We know that as many as 9,000 Spanish soldiers and sailors lost their lives off the Atlantic coast of Ireland, either through drowning or were killed by English troops or Irish chieftains after they were washed ashore. However, not all died. Some Irish who were sympathetic to the Spaniards sheltered them and some kept them on as soldiers. Local legend, credits black-haired locals as being descents of these men, but they are possibly the descents of much earlier people who came from the Iberian peninsula after the end of the last ice age.
I found this area both beautiful fascinating. Donegal manages to combine a sense of isolation with company, should you want it. This area is littered with houses, old and modern. Many homes are built on the rocks, or have massive rocks in their gardens. People have had to work around the boulders and outcrops.The prevalence of pines dotted across the landscape gives the area a Scots or Canadian feel to it; Caledonian in fact.
Although in many senses there is plenty of space, houses seem to huddle together in clusters, isolated but within sight of others. A lot of them (the newer ones, anyway) face out towards the Atlantic Ocean. It seems that in many cases old cramped cottages have been replaced by larger modern buildings. Many tiny cottages, or abandoned derelict buildings are overshadowed by bigger ones. The smaller cottages ended up as holiday homes for visitors. Most of the houses are painted white, but with some older stone cottages and out-houses are left “au naturel”.
On one of the few sunny afternoons we had, we raced round taking photographs of the houses on the rocks. Each bend in the narrow road revealed different vistas. It was hard to decide which one I liked the best. Not only did these houses look out to the sea, behind them were hills and mountains. My painting “Round the Rosses” captures a typical cluster of old and new homes perched on the top of rocky landscape. The light from the afternoon sun glints in the windows of the large house, that faces out to the ocean. The older, smaller buildings look to the east; away from the force of rain and storms and towards the rising sun.
Donegal, or Dún na nGall, meaning “fort of the foreigners”, felt like a very foreign place to me.
Or rather, I felt like a foreigner there. Every time I opened my mouth to speak, I was very aware of how very English I sounded compared with the Ulster and Scots accents I heard around me.
Donegal is one of the nine counties of Ulster. Historically, Ulster lay at the heart of the Gaelic world made up of Gaelic Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. It looks a lot like the landscape of Scotland too. It is in the Republic of Ireland but six of the other counties of Ulster were partitioned from Ireland to form Northern Ireland in 1921. My husband grew up in one of these counties although his paternal grandmother came from Gweedore, in Donegal.
My husband is from Northern Ireland, so his accent fitted pretty seamlessly with all the others. People understood his jokes and laughed heartily at them. I sometimes notice, back in Wales, people don’t always understand his accent and just nod and agree with him, missing his wonderful witticisms. Here, however, he came into his own. He stood and chatted with people as if they were long lost friends. It made me realise what a daily effort it must be for him to live away from his country.
Here, it was me that was a fish out of water. My husband often had to “translate” behaviour for me. Like the time we ordered veggie burgers and chips in a cafe in Falcarragh. The meal that arrived on our table was massive, American-size portions of food, in fact. As I tuck into my meal, Seamas quietly told me that I had to eat everything, or else the cafe owners would be offended. Oh dear! This was some challenge. I valiently made my way through the burger and many chips but ultimately failed, leaving a few chips and a bit of salad behind. However, I didn’t need to eat again until Breakfast the next day. All this food gave us energy to drive north-west to Dunfanaghy and then north to Horn Head.
In Dunfanaghy, I came a cross a billboard that informed me that Puffins visited Horn Head. My excitement turned to disappointment, when I soon realised that Puffin season ran from March to September, and we had missed them!
Views going up to Horn Head, views towards the mountains of Derryveagh
Horn Head and the view to the north.
On our way back to the car, we scrambled up the top of a hill. The land feels foreign to me. It’s not like the largely-benign landscape of Wales. If you step off the path or a rock, you don’t quite what you will meet. Springy heather, can drop away to soggy nothingness, peatland below. This happened to me a couple of times and made me very cautious.
Just to end with a video of the view from the top of the hill. I still haven’t mastered the slow panning shot. Wind is a constant feature of the “Wild Atlantic Way”. I like to think of it as a lot of fresh air, the sort you just want to drink in.
The night before last, I woke up in the dead of night, not sure if I was in Ireland or Wales. It’s now five days since we returned from our week in Donegal, in the Republic of Ireland.
It’s taken that long to recover my energy levels. I hadn’t fully recovered from the virus that keeps coming back, and it was adrenaline that powered me round the place. I don’t get out much, to be honest, and everything was exciting to me; the airport in Cardiff (on 4 hours sleep), the flight over Wales, looking down at our house, even the long wait in Dublin Airport for the connecting flight to Donegal was interesting. I hadn’t been to Dublin for years (and by years, I actually mean a couple of decades) and it had changed beyond recognition. I enjoyed watching how things are organised and how they connect (when I am not in charge of them, that is).
The final flight into Donegal airport was stunning. Most of Ireland is a patchwork of small green fields until just before you reach the approach to Carrickfinn Airport. Then the fields melt away to be replaced by an expanse of mountains and rusty red boglands.
Donegal is at the north-western corner of the Republic of Ireland. Facing out towards everything the Atlantic has to throw at it. It is very big, very beautiful and very empty. More people live in the city of Swansea (241,300), than in the whole of Donegal (158,755). Swansea is 380 km² and Donegal is 4,861 km². No wonder Swansea feels very crowded.
The stunning landscape is immediately apparent, but what took a little longer to dawn on me was just how really friendly and well-mannered people are. People wave and say hello when you pass them in the street, when crossing a road cars pause and stop to let you cross, when driving, its a battle of “who’s the politest” at junctions. When people stop for a chat, they chat for 20 minutes or even more.
I love driving around Donegal because the roads were pretty empty. I am not a fast driver, and wiggly roads without crash barriers are certainly not on my list of favourite things. Add a drop down a steep hill, and you have me driving at a snails’ pace. So what a joy it is to crawl along these hairy roads with no one behind my car. In fact, at Horn Head, I was getting nervous about sheer drops and bends so I pulled over and left my car to walk the last few bends to the viewing point. No cars passed us, either the way up or on the way down. It was a joy.
I think I was happiest walking along the wind-swept beaches looking at the sea. The wind was always blowing. We quickly developed “Donegal-hair”, from the wind. My husband’s hair started to look that guy from the 1980s band Flock of Seagulls. On some beaches, the sand was almost white. I loved the Atlantic Ocean. It was a strong dark blue, but where the waves lifted, green showed through. The sea was so clear that the shallows, were green too.
One of my favourite beaches was Ballymanus, which is just round the corner from Carrickfinn Aiport. From the rocks you can see Mount Errigal, the highest peak in Donegal. It’s a curious dome-shaped mountain and looks like it should have been a volcano, but I don’t think that it was. In this painting I tried to capture the deep blue of the Atlantic and the ever-changing cloudscape. The colours of Donegal are very different to South Wales. There are more purples and greys and the light is cooler, less golden. Painting this picture has helped “embed” Donegal for me. It will be in my dreams for a while longer, I think.
I have been suffering from writer’s block. I started this post in March this year. I keep writing, rewriting it and then not publishing it. The problem isn’t that I don’t have any thing to say. It is more that I have too much to say and I didn’t know where to start or how […]
You have may well have seen images of County Sligo, Ireland, without necessarily knowing that’s where it is. It’s home to one of the most poplar views on Social Media. Here’s an example: And many more… It’s quite disconcerting to come across a view that you are very familar with but have never visited […]