I have been experimenting with different supports and media. The Jessica Brilli painting on wood got me curious about how it would be different from painting on canvas.
I could find very little information about the experience of painting on wood panels (but lots of information on how to prepare them). So I realised that I had to use trial and error to find out. I ordered some gessoed wood panels from Cork Art Supplies who delivered them very promptly.
My first effort was this painting. I painted a light ground of red ochre in oil before I laid down the painting. I found that achieving fine detail was much easier than on canvas. However, the colours didn’t behave the way I expected them too. My sky started off too dark. I found it was easy to wipe off the oil paint and repaint it a lighter shade. I found that white areas also needed a further layer once they had dried to give them the solidity I required. The painting took much longer than I am used to to dry.
I have painted in acrylics on canvas before and struggled with the speed with with the paint dries on the palette. I used to find the the paint had gone hard in the 20 minutes since I started painting. It drove me mad. However, after extensive reserach I worked out how to make a wet palette so that I could slow down the drying time of paint on the palette. I decided to use the quick-drying acrylic paint as an underpainting.
The acrylic painting was more of a sketch than a proper painting. The process forced me to simplify my images further and the final layer of oil paint gave the image a greater depth and richness of colour.
Some of the acrylic sketches really challenged me as the paint did not move and work in the way I was used to with oils. The greens and yellows were too transparent and looked messy. It was impossible to lighten colours, like the leading edge of the fence post, once they had gotten too dark.
The final layer of oil paint, however, enabled me to make my colours much more opaque and to to add much more detail in places, especially on the wire fence.
My final painting was a studies in mauves, blues and greys. I had added an additional layer of light grey gesso as a ground before I started painting.
I enjoyed experimenting and I ended up painting several painting at the same time, as I waited for paint to dry between layers. The whole process forced me to confront my short-comings as a painter of acrylics. I did not enjoy that. It made me feel uncomfortable and brought out my “imposter” anxieties. I need to do much more work in this area to develop my skills.
It was also rather time-consuming and probably not a great project to undertake in the winter months, in Donegal, when good light is in very short supply. I am not sure that I would spend so much time on the underpaintings in future, as I liked my first painting the best. Although I would where there are large areas of white. I did enjoy painting on the wood panel and I will continue to experiment with them.
Last Thursday morning Bingo, one of my two cats, collapsed in the front garden under a hedge and we had to take him on the long drive to the vets to end his suffering. It broke my heart. I had had him for over a decade and loved him dearly. Hattie, his cat companion of the last 6 years, misses him too and she has been outside looking for him. That’s even sader. We are keeping her indoors for now.
So my concentration hasn’t been great. I have struggled to write anything, although I had almost finished another blog. Every time, I looked at images, trying decide what painting to start next, I am crippled by indecision. So I have been painting instead a series of small studies. Playing with composition, and simplifying images. The idea is to reduce detail to the minimum.
I then moved on to slightly larger canvases. The photographs of the paintings don’t quite capture their colour. Unfortunately, they have a blueish cast to them.
Inishbofin #3 30x24cm
I will continue with these and hopefully I will find it within me to paint some much larger versions. In the meantime, we have a large rescue cat we have named Tadhg (pronunced “Tag”) from Burtonport Animal Rescue, in the office. He is named after a famous Irish rugby player, called Tadhg Furlong, on account of his robust physique.
Unfortunately, Hattie hissed at him when she first saw him, so we are introducing them very, very slowly. Swapping scents and feeding them on opposite sides of the same door etc. Tadhg was a stray and hasn’t had much experience of the indoor life, so he’s getting used to things like doors (they move when you rub up against them, you know) and mirrors (there’s a big black and white cat in window thing in the bedroom next door he’s worried about). He also loves carpets and heating. When he wants a break he sits under the chair in the corner of the room. I hope we can successfully integrate Tadhg into our animal family!
The rain finally stopped yesterday morning and the temperature rose a few degrees. We just had three days of steady rain. The temperatures also went up a bit. I was amused to discover that this “event” made the news. The headline in “The Donegal Daily” an online newspaper read: “Weather- Another Mild Day in Store for Donegal”. This publication is favourite of mine. It is a heart-warming mixture of stories with happy endings (swimmers get into trouble in rip tide but they are all rescued by a passer by and a lifeboat crew), lost dogs, sport stories and local crime cases (often from two years ago).
Anyway, we felt encouraged by the dry (ish) weather to do some light food shopping in Dungloe and then drive to an Affordable Art Fair in Derrybeg, Gweedore. This Art Fair was held at An Gaillearai, which is located at Ionad Aislann, Na Doira Beaga (Derrybeg).
We have never been to Ionad Aislann before and I was very interested to see what this cultural centre was like. I know that “Ionad” means a centre of some sort in Irish but I didn’t know what the word “Aislann” meant. I tried looking it up on google translate but drew a blank so I thought it might be someone’s name. It was wrong. “Áislann” is a word derived from combining two words from the Irish vocabulary of South West Donegal, Áiseanna (facilities) and Lann (building).
The centre also houses, amongst other things, a public library and nursery. When I looked it up here I discovered that the building hosted much more than that: a theatre/cinema, sports hall, meeting rooms, local history centre, PC centre, a gym and a tea room! This cultural centre was set up in 1992 expressly to cater for local people as well as for visitors to the area, including the many artists like me who come to live here. It was also meant to help strengthen bonds within the local community via cultural/artistic pursuits and leisure activities.
The Gallery is large and airy and there was plenty of room for visitors and artists. Everyone was wearing masks too which was reassuring.
As our house is already over flowing with paintings we generally don’t buy other people’s art (although I have one painting by Welsh landscape artist, Warren Heaton, in the bedroom) but we changed the habit of a lifetime yesterday and bought two small paintings at the art fair. I know that Séamas wanted to buy more. We left the two paintings on the wall with red stickers next to them (hoping that sign of success would encourage more sales) and will go back on Thursday to pick them up.
After so long in lockdown and avoiding people, it was really great to go out somewhere and to meet new people. Ionad Aislann certianly did its job of helping to strengthen the bonds between local community via cultural/artistic pursuits and leisure activities. It was well worth a visit and if you are in area I would highly recommend stopping by. The Art Fair is on for several more days, from 12 to 5pm until this Thursday 14th October 2021.
Our visit to the island of Inishbofin last month was one of those rare “perfect” days in life. The weather was warm and sunny with enough of a sea breeze to blow away any viruses. We have been looking and admiring from afar the tiny, remote island of Inishbofin, off the coast of Donegal, for quite a while now.
It is 3km/2miles from the pier at Machaire Uí Rabhartaigh / Magheraroarty but that didn’t stop me painting the shoreline of the island a couple of years ago. I also wrote about the island (here) long before I ever got the chance to visit it.
It is very easy to confuse the Donegal island with the more southerly Inishbofin near Galway on the internet as google likes to show you maps and ferry pages for the Galway island, even if you type in “Ferry times inishbofin, Donegal”. I think this must because a regular ferry service in Donegal was only started this summer by Harry Coll and his brother, Owenie. Harry has recently retired from his life as a fisherman in Killybegs, Donegal, and decided to buy a boat called Saoirse na Mara II ( which translates, I think, as “Freedom of the Sea II”) in order to run a daily ferry service to the island. As far as I can tell, they have not received any government funding to help them in their venture.
You will notice that the flyer for the ferry is in Irish and English. This is an Irish speaking area of Ireland, the Gaelteacht. This was the first place I heard Irish spoken this year, in fact. Inishbofin is an Irish-speaking community and it was a real pleasure to hear people speaking Irish/Gaeilge, although I could only pick out the odd word as I only have a very basic understanding of the language. We were told by the islanders that “Inishbofin” is actually pronouced “Inish-bofin-yeay”. You can here that pronunciation in this Irish-language video here.
The name Inis Bó Finne means “island of the white cow” in English. The white cow, Glas Gaibhnenn, was owned by a blacksmith on the mainland but was stolen by Balor, the mythical one-eyed King of neighbouring Tory Island and hidden on Insishbofin. This wasn’t any old cow, it was a magical cow. It had huge teats that never ran dry which produced an unending supply of milk. Obviously, such production required a great deal of fuel and in no time the cow ate all the grass on the island and had to move on elsewhere. The island is tiny, a mere 2km long and 1km wide or about half a square mile/300 acres so I could well believe that the Bó Finne ate all the grass pretty quickly. Yet, although it looks tiny from the mainland yet it doesn’t feel that tiny when you are on the island.
The first inhabitants are believed to have been of Scandinavian origin, who arrived at the time of the Viking raids on Ireland’s coast in the C9th and C10th. Their descendants are thought to have been exterminated by Cromwellian soldiers in the mid-C17th. I wondered whether they had all been killed as I noticed that all the islanders had blue eyes, possibly suggestive of Scandinavian genes. Subsequently the island was settled by mainlanders from Donegal escaping oppression, poverty and famine. We met one islander who jokingly said his family had “recently” moved to the island, in the 1840s.
It is said that the islands potatoes, like those of neighbouring Tory Island were unaffected by the potato blight which destroyed the main food source of Ireland’s peasantry in the mid-C19th. The blight, and other factors (such as criminal mismanagement of resources by the British Government) led to An Gorta Mór or “The Great Hunger“; starvation and famine fever which led to over a million deaths and mass emigration.
As recently as the 1960s, a population of roughly 120 islanders enjoyed a tranquil, if tough, existence, fishing and farming. Nowadays, only a few islanders spend all year on the island, farming on a part-time basis. Many of the houses on the island have been renovated, mostly for use as holiday homes. From March to October many of the former inhabitants return to fish for lobster, crab and Atlantic salmon, or to gather shellfish and pick edible seaweeds such as cairrigin (carrageen) and creathnach (dulse) from the rocks. Other families move back for the school holiday in the summer months. The new ferry service has made visiting the island even easier for families and day trippers.
The morning we visited the island there were lots of people waiting at the Magheraroarty Pier for the ferry and the Coll brothers made several trips to bring them all over to the island. The trip only took ten minutes and the sea was smooth. Stepping off the ferry we were transported to a tranquil and calm world. All the time I was on the island I saw one car and heard only birdsong and the wind. It was bliss.
Inishbofiners working on a roof
Drying in the sun
The island has two halves connected by a narrow, sandy col. There are two villages on the island, one near the harbour of An Clachan (Cloghan), and the other a short distance away at An Garradh Ban, also known as East Town.
The southern half of the island is fertile and was cultivated in the past in the traditional “clachan and rundale” manner, involving communal usage of scarce arable soil and cattle pasture. The ancient field boundaries are still in place, though the fields have now reverted to grassland, providing essential habitat for geese and especially corncrakes – flourishing here, unlike in the rest of the country.
Aerial View of Inishbofin (from BoffinFerryDonegal.com facebook page)
The islanders are very friendly and several people stopped to chat to us to tell us about the island. They have a reputation for speaking to visitors (preferably in Irish Gaelic, but in English too) and like telling stories about the island and its history. One of the islanders, Daniel, mentioned the mystery of the missing millionaire. In 1933 Arthur Kingsley Porter, a professor of Fine Arts at Harvard University, bought Glenveagh Castle in the heart of the Derryveagh Mountains and made it his home. He also built a house on Inishbofin which he used for weekend breaks with his wife. On the morning of 8th July 1933 Kingsley Porter disappeared after going for a walk the morning after a massive storm, and was never seen again.
Conspiracy theories abound. Had he accidentally fallen from a cliff or had he taken his own life? Had Arthur been murdered? Or had he faked his own death and re-emerged with a new identity on mainland Europe? All of these are a possibility, as Arthur was gay at a time when it was illegal and regarded as deeply shameful (50 states criminalized same-sex sexual activity until 1962). To make things worse, Harvard, Arthur’s employer was running an anti-gay campaign. The college held a secret court to expose and expel gay students and faculty. Two students, accused of being gay, had already died by suicide. Arthur was fearful his homosexuality would be revealed and there would be a scandal. So here we have a possible motive for suicide.
At the inquest – the first to be held in Ireland without a body – his widow, Lucy, told of her frantic six-hour search with local fishermen. “I think my husband must have slipped off the cliffs, fallen into the sea and been carried away,” she said. Some of the islanders thought that his wife might have done away with him. Yet at the same time there were rumours of a boat that had been seen near the island at the time of his disappearance. If anyone had the money to start a new life in a new country it was Arthur, and Arthur knew Paris with its gay nightlife well as he had studied there as a student in 1923. I suspect however, that if he had started a new life in Paris, he would have eventually been recognised by one of the many American emigrées who also lived there.
Anchorage on Inishboffin is too exposed to leave boats afloat and so they are pulled up onto the foreshore.
Inishbofin has witnessed a number of maritime tragedies. In 1929 an island fishing boat was cut in half by a steamer in thick fog off Bloody Foreland, and all but one man drowned. Another boat was swamped in 1931 in the “keelie”, the sound between Inishboffin and InishDooey. During the Second World War, in December 1940, a Dutch ship by the name of Stolwiik broke down after leaving a covoy in a westerly gale. The Arranmore lifeboat made truly heroic rescue of the crew. Read more about it here.
The island has a stunning coastline and a view that include Mount Errigal, the Seven Sisters and seascapes stretching from Cnoc Fola to Tory Island.
I will end with some a film and some paintings of Inishbofin by the very talented artist Cathal McGinley. His paintings were on exhibition in the parish hall on the island – my photos aren’t great but I hope you get a sense of the intense colours and energy of the paintings. Cathal chatted to us outside his beautiful cottage for over an hour and kindly gave us a cup of tea and a bag of carrigeen.
It was quite a shock getting off the ferry at the busy pier at Magheroarty after the incredible peace of the island. We will be back.
Getting there – The Ferry
The journey only takes 10 minures (weather permitting)
To book the ferry from Magheroarty Pier to Inishboffin Island:
– Telephone Harry on 087 4345892
– Text – Whatsapp – Viber message to 087 4345892
– Email on: email@example.com
– Social media (facebook / Instagram) www.boffinferrydonegal.com
Before I moved to Donegal, if you had asked me to name a constant feature of Donegal weather, I would have said the wind. Don’t get me wrong – the air here is refreshing. It’s like drinking water when you are thirsty. My husband says its the negative ions. There is usually a breeze, sometimes its a gentle one but in autumn and winter it can become a punishing gale that howls around the house, making it hard to sleep at night.
We have a grey breezy day here today, with rain forecast for later. Hopefully the breeze will help blow away the midges that are hanging around our garden. Midges, if you havent come across them before, are tiny flying insects that, at best annoy you and at worst bite you. The Irish version may or may not be related to the infamous Highland version, I am not sure. Yesterday afternoon we watched them swarming in a cloud outside our kitchen door! They like grey damp days, not like the days in my three paintings!
These paintings attempt to capture this summer’s stillness when there was very little breeze and it was uncharacteristically hot. Clouds are usually a feature of the skies here but there were several days when there were none. It’s climate change manifesting itself in these spates of hot summer days and (soon to come) fierce autumn and winter storms.
Here’s my summer newsletter. I am shutting up shop for a month from 20th June to 20th July. All going well, we will be safely installed and open for business (online at least) in Donegal by mid-July. I am already longing to get back to my painting routine. I can’t quite believe that after being ground so long by my broken leg and the pandemic that we will actually move house/studio to another country by then. It’s a huge step! Fingers crossed it all goes smoothly!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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 .
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.
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”.
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.
Read more about avoiding confusing tangents in compositions here
I am very excited to have my paintings choosen to accompany the acoustic piano version the single, ‘Out Of My Mind’ by the Opacas. Thank you The Opacas for inviting me to collaborate, and to Patrick Boyle in particular who made the beautiful video!
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 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)
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 […]
What’s in a name? It’s complicated The name of the city I am living in right now is contentious. It’s official name is Londonderry but no one here seems to call it that, not even the council. Most people in the city itself, Protestants as well as Catholics, call it Derry. This suggests it is more […]
The ‘Illuminate’ festival is running over two weekends in Derry, 17th – 20th and 24th – 27th February, from 6pm – 9pm. We visited it on Thursday night. It was very cold (double socks and thermals weather) but mostly dry. This was important was all the sites we visited were out of doors. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience and a brilliant introduction to Derry.
New Work & Recent Sales
Kinnagoe Bay (Inishowen, Dongal)
Still, On Gola (Donegal)
On the Way to Kinnagoe Bay (Drumaweer, Greencastle)
Down to Doagh Strand (Donegal)-Emma Cownie
Lambing Season at Fanad Head
Fanad Lighthouse (Donegal)
Down to the Rusty Nail
Carrickabraghy Castle, Inishowen
Upper Dreen_Emma Cownie
Portmór Beach, Malin Head, Donegal
Down to the Rusty Nail, Inishowen
The Walls of Derry
Painting of Derry City
Derry Walls by Emma Cownie
Shipquay Gate by Emma Cownie
Over to Owey Island (Keadue) Donegal
Lighting the way to Arranmore
Old Stone Cottage in front of Errigal (Donegal
Boat at the Pier, Gola
House on Inishbofin, with distant Seven Sisters (in studio)