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Selling Art Online

Selling Art Online

I was delighted to be asked to do an interview with Toby Buckley for the Net Gallery  about selling art and marketing. It was published recently on the “Artist Virtual” section of their site.  I thought I would post it here too:-

Stock Image

With successive lockdowns resulting in the closure and cancellation of many of the galleries, markets, festivals and art fairs that artists rely on to make a living, 2020 and 2021 have seen many artists trying their hands at online sales for the first time. To help anyone taking a jump into the online marketplace, we spoke to Swansea- and Donegal-based artist, Emma Cownie, to get some expert advice.

Emma’s distinctive oil paintings have featured in exhibitions around the UK and are even available from lifestyle giants John Lewis, but she doesn’t rely on these outlets to get her work out there. Spending “at least 50%” of her day marketing, Emma mastered the art of online art sales long before lockdown, selling over 200 pieces, originals and prints (many of which went directly to collectors) in 2018 alone.

Primarily selling work through her own online gallery, Emma has also sold work via online sales platforms like Artfinder and Singulart.

TNG: How did you come to settle on your current sales methods?

Emma Cownie (EC): My original sales methods came from the idea of being a “creative entrepreneur” which meant involving collectors and followers in the creation of my work. I did this mainly via blogs which described the creative process, from initial thoughts, going to actual locations, images created, then the painting process, right through to descriptions of the art when placed online. This allowed followers of my work to have an emotional stake in my work, to be part of its creation.

I have retained collectors from this formative period. It has always been important to bring followers with me on a creative journey, so that they are part of the process, buying one’s work, encouraging me as an artist via comments, likes and support. They are part of the process… Art is not created in a vacuum, and shouldn’t be sold in one either.  This is especially true when the places I paint, as landscape paintings, have personal attachment to followers and collectors also. In fact, they often purchase work of places close to their heart. I like to blog about work and my inspirations even today. Art can be remote sometimes so I feel it should instead gather people in.

TNG: How can an artist make the most of social media to boost their sales? 

EC: Social media is essential to boosting sales, to the uploading of new work and to the celebration of new sales. It keeps collectors and followers up to date on your artistic journey and lets them share in your success and development. An artist’s promotion is often done by people on social media who like your work. It is important to engage with other artists too, supporting each other via shares, comments and likes.

Most sales are a product of a network of social interactions with supporters and it is important to keep busy online. The more one interacts, the more one’s work seems to become visible which in turn helps sales… I also use social media to engage with followers about my work and it’s creation, and this helps too.

TNG: What is the first thing you’d recommend to someone who is trying to get their online art sales off the ground?

EC: Be yourself. By that I mean, collectors are looking for original work, art they have not seen before. They are not looking for derivative work. Novelty and originality are strong selling points. So it is important to develop a style of painting that is distinctively your own.

TNG: You have written that positivity is a key factor in selling art online. Why do you think celebrating success is so important in online sales? 

EC: When I post an image of a painting when it has sold, it invariably gets more likes and comments than when posted originally. Collectors and fans like to know an artist is succeeding. Collectors like reassurance about your qualities as an artist and that they are buying a quality piece that will keep its inherent value (obviously the value may also increase through time). They also like to see an artist developing and to be part of that journey in some way. Buying their work makes them intrinsic to that development.

Sales also confirm a collector’s taste in spotting talent, that it is just not them who sees an artist’s talent.

The Glynn Vivian, Swansea

TNG: What should an artist include in their bio to make themselves appeal more to potential buyers? 

EC: Collectors like to know if an artist has exhibited in “brick and mortar” galleries too and whether you have work in private collections around the world. I have found that a bio should contain pertinent personal information too. In my case, I started painting in a more concentrated manner following a car crash and painting helped me through the post-traumatic consequences of the crash. Painting helps me in my daily life. Some find this inspiring and it helps them understand where I am coming from.

I also mention my own inspirations and how they shape my work and my style of painting. This also gives them insight into where I am coming from in terms of art history.

TNG: How important are high-quality artwork images, and how would you recommend creating these?

EC: It is essential to upload high-quality artwork images. It is important that the images are as accurate as possible in representing the work. Collectors are relying on this when purchasing art online and remotely… I usually photograph on a greyish, overcast day too.

I get frustrated by artists who clearly have used a flash on their camera to photograph work as it can be seen in the bleaching out of the colours on one side of the painting… If you’re not using natural light, then artificially light a painting from both sides simultaneously. If an artist does not take their work seriously enough to photograph properly it sends out a negative message to collectors.

TNG: What’s more important when pricing works – a wide range of prices to appeal to all wallets or a consistent price that emphasises the value of the work? 

EC: Both. My first slogan was ‘Quality Art At Affordable Prices’ which had a range of prices from £30 to £900. As my work has sold over the last 8 years, my prices have incrementally risen. My most expensive painting is £2500, as I still want more people to feel that they can buy art, that it is not an elitist activity, everyone can and should own art as it is so uplifting and adds such value to one’s life. It is a gift that keeps giving.

I would offer a range of prices based on size of canvas used but have enough small, reasonably priced paintings to get sales going and to boost confidence. It is a great feeling selling art. It motivates you to do the same again.

It is important that prices rise in line with sales, however, and work should be priced accordingly.  Make incremental changes every time you sell and prices will keep going up but not in a way that discourages sales.

Art by Emma Cownie

The two artworks below, Suburban Cottage and With a Road Running Through It, were created using a minimal style that Emma has been developing over the last 4 years. We asked Emma to tell us a bit more about each piece.

Suburban Cottage by Emma Cownie. Image courtesy of the artist.

Suburban Cottage – “This is an urban minimal oil painting of Sketty, a middle class suburb of Swansea in Wales.  “Urban Minimal” was a deliberate attempt to simplify my paintings in a style similar to the American Minimalists. Much of my work has been influenced by American realists and minimalists. Urban minimalist paintings were painted in accordance with my ‘rules’ for composition and painting:

  • No cars
  • No People
  • Bright light. There must be shadows – at diagonals if possible.
  • Simplified forms – there must be little detail in the final painting. I found this the most challenging ‘rule’ to stick to.

“I wanted to explore the interplay of the geometry of shadows and man-made structures – the tension between the 3D buildings and the 2D shadows, the simplified blocks of colour.”

With a Road Running Through It by Emma Cownie. Image courtesy of the artist.

With a Road Running Through It – “I painted a series of paintings of cottages on the island of Goal, off the coast of Donegal, Ireland. I tried to paint in a style similar to that of ‘urban minimal’. These ‘rural minimal’ pieces pared paintings down to the basics. Minimal texture, simple but interesting compositions, strong light and  shadows, all intended to create a sense of the still, the quiet, a moment in life that is both now and eternal.”

Article by Toby Buckley.

To learn more about Emma Cownie and her work, be sure to check out her website: You can read more of her advice about online art sales in her article on Medium. 

Toby Buckley

Read the original article here 

The Net Gallery

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Can lockdowns have upsides for creativity?

Can lockdowns have upsides for creativity

Last night I dreamt I was making a turquoise green rug.  Odd as I have no plans to make a rug.

We have all shifted from being bit-part players in the Hollywood film “Contagion”  to being Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day”. Although numbers of new cases have fallen in Wales,  Covid is still very close. Our neighbours came down with it two weeks ago.  So lockdown still feels very necessary, even if it seems unending. There have been times it has felt unbearable.  When my parents’ second Pfizer vaccination was moved from early January to March I was very disappointed. When I read that the Prime Minister’s father, Stanley (who has broken lockdown rules more than once), got his second jab in mid January I was very angry. I had to cook some scones to distract myself from my feelings of anger, fear and frustration. They still haven’t had their second jab.  Who knows when our vaccinations will take place. Online calculators predict mid to late April for the first one and then July for the second one. I seems so far away so I try and put it out of my mind and live in the day. It’s not always easy.

During the first lockdown, I couldn’t leave my bedroom, as I had a leg in plaster. Then in the summer, once I was able to get back into my studio, I was kept very busy with a series of painting commissions. I worked on them one after another using other people’s images. I  had to squeeze “my own” work in between them. I did not have a lot of time to reflect on what I was painting until now.  I haven’t had a commission since before Christmas and this has given me a lot of freedom.

This freedom has also presented quite a few challenges. Lockdown means that I cannot go out and take new photos of Gower, and I definately cannot leave South Wales. I am working from photos taken over a year ago. Some of the images are much older than that.  I trawl through my collection again and again, hoping for something to the 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 Donegal.

Paintings of Gola, Donegal
Some of my recent rural minimal paintings

I have also been looking at the paintings of American artists such as Fairfield Porter, Lois Dodd and Randall Exon.

Fairfield Porter
Fairfield Porter
Lois Dodd
Randall Exon
Randall Exon

Then I try and forget them as I dont want to copy them.  I decide that I need to achieve both simplicity and “depth” in my work. I am not exactly sure how to do this. So I keep painting.

All the time I am thinking and ruminating. I have recently returned executing underpaintings in red ochre and sepia.  I have done this before.  It’s not a straight forward process. Sometimes, I feel like I have made a small but important breakthrough, and at others I feel like I have hit a dead end. Often I feel like I am hitting my head against a brick wall. It’s like that uncomfortable feeling of boredom, before you think of what to do next.

Painting of Tenby Harbour
Sketch of Tenby Harbour  from 2019 using red ochre and sepia paint
Back Lane, St Thomas (2021)
Back Lane, St Thomas (2021) – on red ochre/sepia underpainting

Boredom and forced inactivity is very good for creativity, so long as you put away your phone. Scrolling isn’t good for creativity.  It seems that in the absence of stimulation the brain will fill in the gaps for you. Maybe brain was keeping me busy by making a rug in my dreams? People with something called Charles Bonnet Syndrome, which involves visual hallucinations for people who have lost their sight, have had worsening symptoms during the pandemic. Not so good.

I also read this week that scientists believe that about 42,000 years ago the earth’s magnetic poles flipped and flipped back again. This event is known as the “Laschamps excursion”. It had a catastrophic effect on earth as the protective shield magnetic fields, which usually provide protection against damaging cosmic radiation, was disrupted. This resulted in huge electrical storms, widespread auroras, and lots of cosmic radiation. It possibly also played a role in a major events ranging from the extinction of Australian megafauna, accelarating the growth of ice sheets,  shifted rain belts and helped bring about an end to the Neanderthals!

Researchers have called this danger period the ‘Adams Transitional Geomagnetic Event’, or ‘Adams Event’ for short – a tribute to science fiction writer Douglas Adams, who wrote in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that ’42’  (i.i. 42,000 years ago in this case) was the answer to life, the universe, and everything.

Why? Because out of this apocalyptic era came the emergence of red ochre handprints left on cave walls in places like modern day Spain, France and Argentina. Red ochre – the same pigment I use for my underpaintings.

Red Ochre

It has been suggested that humans may have used the pigment as a sunscreen against the increased levels of ultraviolet radiation hitting the Earth as a result of the depletion of ozone. The ancient greeks and romans used kohl eyeliner for a similar reason, although the ancient Egyptians used it for fashion purposes too.

Kohl Eyeliner
Kohl Eyeliner – Not just fashionable!

There seems to have been an increasing use of caves between about 42,000 and 40,000 years ago. This was  possibly as shelter from the more intense sun. We know that something important happened around the same time, as there was a surge in figurative artworks, including cave paintings, rock sculptures, and bone, antler and ivory carvings that date from this period.

Swimming Reindeer carving

It has previously been argued that this was due to a change in the human brain (listen to the episode on the Swimming Reindeer carving in the BBC’s series History of the World in 100 objects) but it may well have been that stone age people experienced a form of lockdown sheltering in their caves from the extreme sun.

Paleolithic Art in the Roucadour cave
Paleolithic Art in the Roucadour cave

Perhaps they were already doing these things but now left tangible evidence of it amongst the rocks. Not only did they decorate these places, they also made music  and no doubt held ceremonies (or maybe parties) ate, had sex, and left carvings. The time in the caves probably helped bind communities. I am quite envious of the face-to-face socialising they must have had. It may well be that Neanderthals and humans also got it together in the caves as suggested by a jaw bone of part human/neanderthal ancestry that has been found in a Romanian cave, dating from this period.  Afterall, a tiny percentage (1.5 to 2.1) of Neanderthal-inherited genetic material is found in all non-African people.

(Image credit: The University of Tübingen) Flute made from vulture bone

It seems very odd to ask if lockdown can be good for us. Obviously it’s good for our physical health, reducing the levels of covid and deaths in our communities, whilst we wait to be vaccinated. It has undoubtedly done a lot of damage to people’s mental health, not to mention their waistlines. It has ruined a lot of businesses that rely on social interactions. Many people have really struggled with the limitations  of life, my parents have not been in a shop since last March. Many people have also struggled with being forced-fed a daily diet of fear by news bulletins. Young people in particular have sufffered during a lockdown that largely protects their elders, not their peers.  It can have an upside for creativity. I suspect, however, that that thousands of books, essays, diaries, plays, sketches, paintings, songs, pies, cakes, puzzles,  X-box games and even rugs (turquoise or otherwise) have been written, draw, painted, made, read, eaten and listened to during this lockdown. It has been suggested that Shakespeare may well have written Macbeth and then King Lear in plague quarantine. After the boredom and frustration comes creativity.

It’s what makes us human.

Read more about Boredom and Creativity here–RgDass7STe/index.html

Read more about the Adams Event 

(The first two include short explainer video clips)

A magnetic field reversal 42,000 years ago may have contributed to mass extinctions

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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

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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

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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Art in “Difficult Times”

Art in Difficult Times

This is about two very different artists who lived on different sides of the world almost 80 years apart. Although their lives and times were very different their response to difficult times, although superficially seemingly very different, have a lot in common.

The first artist is called  is Evelyn Dunbar. I fell in love with this painting of hers when I happened across it the other day. I had never heard of her before but the painting made my heart sing. Such a beautiful painting – full of poise and elegance. I loved the different shades of green in this neat Sussex garden. The artist had caught the thin light of very early spring perfectly.

A Sussex Gaden 1939 _Evelyn Dunbar
A Sussex Garden 1939 by Evelyn Dunbar

This image appeared in an article about an online exhibition by Liss Llewellyn’s of Hidden Gems,  which included the work of Evelyn Dunbar. I am a keen “collector” of female artists, both famous and overlooked. Evelyn was in the overlooked category. Who was she?

Evelyn Dunbar
Evelyn Dunbar

Evelyn Dunbar (b. 1906) was the youngest daughter of a Scottish draper who grew up in Kent, England. She was a talented student, first winning a scholarship to the local grammar school, and then she later studying art at the  Chelsea School of Art from 1927 to 1929, and then winning an Exhibition at the Royal College of Art.  In 1940 she was appointed an official war artist, becoming the only woman (amongst 36 men) to be given a full-time salaried position by the WAAC  (War Artists’ Advisory Committee).

Her brief was to record civilian contributions to the war effort on the home front. Her initial subjects were the activities of the Women’s Voluntary Service, WVS, and later in the war, the Women’s Land Army, also known as Land Girls. I find her work both beautiful and fascinating. In this series of paintings “Putting on Anti-Gas Protective Clothing,” I am torn between looking at the body language between the two female figures struggling with the unwieldy clothing and the way the light catches the protective clothing and their faces.

Putting on Anti-Gas Protective Clothing
Putting on Anti-Gas Protective Clothing

I loved her paintings of the land girls and the farms they worked on. I love her treatment of warm light on the land and in the rooms of the hostel. The compositions were dynamic, full of movement, and told many micro-stories. These paintings are not about individuals but about community.  We can see the girl’s faces and each of them is an individual but it’s not about individual heroism, as such, but the collective effort. It’s clearly hard work on the farms.

Singling Turnips

Life is not comfortable. Those girls look exhausted.

Land Army Girls Going to Bed

Friendship and warmth are evident in the body language. These are self-possessed women, getting on with their lot in the war.

Women’s Land Army Hostel

What does a painting do that a photograph can’t? Emotion. Colour. Although the tones are muted (lots of mustards and browns) it’s the details that say so much. The girls sitting on the table sewing, head bowed over her work. The strong sense of community and determination. The details of the hairnets, hairbands and rolled hairstyles are fascinating to 21st centuries eyes.

Army Tailor and ATS Tailoress (1943) 

These paintings were commissioned by the government, and in many respects, they were propaganda designed to raise morale, as some of them they were exhibited at the time. They certainly give status to what was obviously back-breaking or even dull manual work as well as being a social record. Look at the earnest concentration on the faces of the ladies in the painting of a “knitting party” – you can almost hear the busy needles clacking – look at those hats too. Centre stage are the blankets they have completed. This event was clearly heavy on the knitting and light on the party! There is gentle humour here, we are not, however, invited to laugh at these ladies but to quietly admire them.

Dunbar, Evelyn Mary; A Knitting Party; IWM (Imperial War Museums);

Compare these with a modern-day response to the “difficult times” we live in. Li Zhong, is my second artist. He is a professional artist from Shanghai. Early this year he created a massive series of paintings called Raging EpidemicFrontline WarriorGrassroots PerseveranceLogistical SupportSuspension of Classes, and Anti-Epidemic Sketches.  Yes, a pithy title. These paintings were completed over a shorter time frame than Evelyn Dunbar’s, Li Zhong painted two a day, and were an unofficial and personal response to the pandemic (although the artist clearly had an official audience in mind).

Like Evelyn Dunbar, Li Zhong is a skilled and assured artist. His series of painting uses a traditional and very anciennt Chinese style of painting, ink wash painting, for a modern subject. The black ink is diluted to various concentrations and shades, and then is painted onto a highly absorbent and delicate rice paper. Once a stroke is painted, it cannot be modified or undone.

Li Zhong – artist at work

“The reason why I created the paintings was to show the benefits of a socialist country, and this is different from capitalism in the West. As an example, Chinese people are a people for whom solidarity is key; we are a hardworking people. During New Year’s Eve, Chinese families gather together. However, many people sacrificed this precious time with their families to help fight the virus. Many medical staff went to Wuhan. I was very touched by these actions. They are so noble, but they are just ordinary people like us. They are not only the medical staff, but also grassroots staff and officials, community staff, many people who gave up their traditional festival. And this is difficult for other countries to do,”

These were not straightforward portraits of key workers, but more snapshots of Chinese society in an extreme situation.

There are many parallels with Evelyn Dunbar’s work – especially the focus on gesture and body language to convey humanity and warmth, whilst earnestly working for a common good. This is particulatly, essential in Zi Zhong’s paintings as almost all the faces are obscured by masks, only eyes can be seen.

A citizen is helped to put on his face mask – Li Zhong

What I like about Li Zhong’s paintings as that his work doesn’t just focus on the heroic medical staff but, Like Evelyn Dunbar’s Land Army and WVS workers, those in the background fulfilling vital work, the volunteeers delivering madicines and sewing machinists making medical garments for the battle gainst Covid 19.

The Mercury company is in full production – Li Zhong

I think that we do need to think of this pandemic as a war, one in which we all work together for the sake of the whole community. Asian society are much better at focusing on the importance of the whole society over the wishes and desires of the indiviual. Yet, in the early months of lockdown in Britain the desire to help the vulnerable in society, to support medical staff to pull together was evident.  Within 24 hours of a governmental call for citizens to join the NHS ‘volunteer army’, 500,000 people had signed up. By early April, over 750,000 were enlisted and started undertaking tasks such as delivering medication from pharmacies, driving patients to appointments, or making regular phone calls to isolated individuals. We was very grateful for the volunteers who fetched and delivered medicines to our home when a broken leg mean I could not leave my bedroom. Yet, somehow, people’s focus has been lost and confused over the summer in the muddled messages we receive from the authorities. Infection rates are rising again.

I think we could do with inspiring art like that of Evelyn Dunbar and Li Zhong to remind us that this particular battle, will not be over by Christmas. It’s a marathon and not a spirit. We have to get more creative in the ways in which maintain contact with those who are socially isolated. Donegal portrait artist, Andy Parsons, for example, is painting portraits of elderly volunteers over three sessions via Zoom.

Andy Parsons painting one of his online portraits

However, when it all gets a bit too much to bear (as it does from time to time) we can always calm ourselves by immersing ourself in nature, or failing that looking at Evelyn Dunbar’s beautiful painting of a Sussex garden.

A Sussex Gaden 1939 _Evelyn Dunbar
A Sussex Garden 1939 _Evelyn Dunbar

Read More about Evelyn Dunbar Below:- – includes a great short video about the rediscovery of her work too

See more of her paintings here

Read more about Li Zhong below

Painting an epidemic: An interview with Li Zhong (李钟)

Read about Andy Parson’s project

Over 70s invited to have their portraits painted via Zoom

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The Art of Destruction

“When a picture isn’t realized, you pitch it in the fire and start another.” (Paul Cezanne)

“Angry Dog” (c. 1938-43) by Edvard Munch – Please burn!

Artists create. Over the years they can create a lot. Not all of it is good.

A while back I read an article about a man who had been left hundreds of paintings by a relative of his, an aunt I think, who was an enthusiastic amateur artist. My recollection of the paintings is that they were bad. Really bad. I mean, I would have struggled to keep one of them (hidden in a dark corner of the house) but he had hundreds of them! Sadly, they weren’t quite bad enough to be added to a collection of the wonderful Museum of Bad Art.  Yet, the loving nephew was going to keep and treasure them all! This story has haunted me. As artist Robert Glenn wrote, “There’s enough bad art in the world already and we don’t want to add to it by leaving substandard stuff out and about.”

I just don’t have the room for everything so a cull has been taking place. I have been destroying old paintings of mine that I don’t think are up to the mark. It’s a form of curation. In fact, I believe that destruction and renewal are central to the all creative processes. Writers cut and redraft. I think of the time I wasted reading Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman”, which turned out to the first draft of the much-superior “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Harper Lee was right not to want to publish it. Painting is the same.

An element of destruction and renewal has always been part of my process. If part or all of a painting isn’t working, I would much rather scrub the paint off the canvas and start again than let it dry and attempt to paint over the error. I usually have to work myself up into a minor frenzy to do this. I feel better looking at a scrubbed canvas than one that is “wrong”. Sometimes, I might spend a whole day on a painting that I scrub away and start again the next day (to the dismay of my husband). Usually, this is down to poor light. I don’t often do this, but I think its important to be able to”kill” your work so that better work can come forth. It’s reassuring to know that great artists like David Hockney have also destroyed unsatisfactory work in the process of creation.

Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures). David Hockney destroyed an earlier version of this painting

Over the years I have stored older, or just less successful paintings away in the attic, behind stacks of other paintings. They fall into two categories a) early work done on cheap canvases. These are easy to destroy with a metal spike. You get what you pay for, I suppose. I actually like some of these paintings, especially the animals and so I have taken a sharp knife to them and carefully cut them from the stretchers.

Saved for another day

I have decided to store these in a large folder the rest will destroyed; and b) work done on linen canvases I don’t think are up the mark. I wont show these to anyone. Again I will cut the canvases from the stretcher to keep the wooden frames to reuse with a fresh canvas. The canvases will be cut up and thrown away. If I had a large garden I’d burn them.

These need to be cut up!

I have tried reusing canvases in the past by sanding them down and painting gesso on them but I am never really happy with the result. I use paint too finely. i like a smooth surface. This is a luxury. In his early days as an impoverished artist, Picasso would often paint over pictures he thought unsuccessful because he didn’t have the money to buy a fresh canvas.

Picasso "Still Life" 1922
Picasso “Still Life” 1922 – on the front


It is important to conduct the destruction in private so no one can make you feel bad about it. I have found the process quite cleansing. I did not realise that every time I looked around my crowded studio and glimpse the edges of an unsuccessful painting that it brought me down. They reminded me of my failures. That I was a lousy artist. Out comes my imposter syndrome! Ironically, if an artist sells a lot of work, they have little evidence of their successes around them.

Stretchers can be reused

I think that most artists have to come to terms with destroying work that isn’t up to the mark. One of two duff paintings can make all the others look bad. It’s sometimes difficult to decide as many artists develop their style, improve their technique, or just explore new themes so their earlier works can seem at odds with their later stuff.  How to decide if it is bad or just different? Lucien Freud is an excellent example of an artist whose style changed significantly throughout his career as he found his own style of painting.

I once went to an exhibition of Cezanne’s early work In Paris and decided, that with the exception of the House of the Hanged Man, most of it should have been burnt. We know that Cezanne burnt his poorer work so it must have been really, really bad! We are best not seeing it.

House of the Hanged Man
Don’t put this one of the fire!

Likewise, Vincent Van Gogh should have burnt more. Before he discovered colour and light in the south of France in 1888, he produced a lot of dark and miserable work that no one wanted to buy. Yes, its interesting to see his journey as an artist, but I don’t think the world would have many of these early brown works if he’d burnt them.

Claude Monet was prolific. He painted around 250 “Water Lily” paintings over the last three decades of his life—but originally, there were many more. Before an exhibition of the paintings in 1908, Monet destroyed a group of them with a knife and a paintbrush, disappointed by their quality in comparison to “better” canvases. Time magazine called this a “rage of perfectionism”.


Monet was at this time struggling with his eyesight and was diagnosed with cataracts in 1912. Over the next decade, both his vision decreased progressively as well as his colour perception. Monet had surgery in 1923. He recovered excellent near vision and reasonable distance vision in the affected eye, but he complained bitterly about the world appearing too yellow or sometimes too blue. It took almost two years before he finally told friends that his color vision felt normal. After his surgery, Monet destroyed many canvases, maybe as many as thirty of them. I can only imagine his rage as I saw these substandard works.

Francis Bacon also frequently destroyed work he was not happy with. He worked on the Screaming Pope paintings for about 20 years and some of them turned up as recycled canvas which had been used by an amateur painter, Lewis Todd. When these scraps were discovered the Todd paintings shot up in value. They are still on the lookout for a pope’s screaming head! Below Todd’s paintings (left) Bacon’s scraps (right)

Francis Bacon was not at all thorough about destroying his work. In 2007 a group of damaged Bacon paintings was found in a skip outside the artist’s London studio by electrician Mac Robertson. He sold them.

Georgia O’Keeffe, was another painter, like Monet, who had difficulties with her sight, and who destroyed her own work. Her decision to destroy work was also about keeping her reputation strong. Curation. 

She had been diagnosed with macular degeneration in 1964 at the age of 77, and by 1972, her vision had fallen below 20/200 despite attempts at laser treatment, and towards the end of the 1970s she gave up painting altogether. In the 1980s “she wanted to go into storage to destroy some of the paintings that she didn’t think were at her level,”  Some allegedly destroyed works have apparently slipped through the cracks.

The one that got away

Red and Green II (1916), one of her first watercolors, is listed in her notebooks as having been destroyed after she showed it once in 1958 at New York’s Downtown Gallery. Yet the work surfaced in a Christie’s New York American Art sale in November 2015. 




Some conceptual artists have made a career out of destruction but that’s not what I am talking about here. I am talking about Monet’s “rage of perfection”. It is not vandalism if its your own creation. Sometimes, after a distance of months or even years, you can see your creations clearly. I once only “saw” a painting of mine clearly as it was leaving the room in a collector’s arms.  “Ah”, I thought “That’s a lovely painting”. It’s not always the way. Sometimes, I look at a painting from several years ago and wonder “What was I thinking?” I hadn’t been able to see it before then.

Self-portrait Between the Clock and the Bed

Being able to let go and destroy work is a sign of emotional health. I am not doing so well as many of these paintings were done over a decade ago. I don’t think Edward Munch, who suffered from terrible anxiety exacerbated by excessive drinking, could let go of many of his paintings let alone destroy them.

He was in the position that he did not need to sell his work and he ended up with a collection of almost all his art on the second floor of his house. He even called his paintings his “children”! In Self-portrait Between the Clock and the Bed, which he painted in the years just before his death, Munch seems crowded out by his “children” on the wall behind him. I think they should have been made to leave home!

Anyway, I digress. Artists and writers should be allowed to destroy early work, failures, something that was really only a first draft (Harper Lee), a work in progress or a cry for help (Edvard Munch’s Angry Dog, surely?). It’s not always easy to do. That first novel should stay in the locked drawer and those early paintings and sketches go into the bin. So those paintings of mine in lying in that folder may yet end up on a bonfire! 

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Tale of two paintings: Reworking a Swansea painting

As a rule, I don’t rework my paintings. Either they work or they don’t. Here’s the exception. This is a large painting (80x100cm) that has hung in my hallway for the past five years. It was for sale on an online gallery a several years ago but for some reason, it was taken off. I am not sure why.

Painting of Swansea by Emma Cownie
Life in the Uplands (2015)

I didn’t really look at it until this summer when it got moved into our bedroom and I looked at it again. I was talking to my mother and sister on messenger/facetime and they saw it on the wall behind me – “Oh, that’s a nice painting” they both called out. “Oh, no that’s old,” I said as if it was a dress I had smuggled back from the shop. Why wasn’t I proud of it? I thought about it. It was an example of my early work when I was going through a phase of drawing lines around everything. I believed this was in the style of the fauvists like Derain and Matisse.

To be honest, it worked at the time but my painting has changed a lot since 2015 and I wasn’t comfortable with those lines. There was no light. I love painting shadows and light and yet there were none in this painting. Curiously, the omission of the skyline helped give a lightly claustrophobic sense of being in a crowded town. That was its real strength. It was a forerunner of my urban minimal series of paintings of Brynmill which culminated in my “Hollowed Community” Exhibition in Cardiff in 2017 (see examples of this series below)

Why had I painted this scene on an overcast day? Why had I cropped it in so tight so there was no sky? I really could not remember. I tried to find the view again. I spent some time hanging out of the windows at the back of our house trying to find the same angle. Eventually, I discovered something similar from the attic window.

View out of my Window
View from the attic

There were a lot more trees. These are the plane trees line that Bernard Street. This road runs from Brynmill uphill to Gower Road, in the Uplands. The trees branches are cut back to stumps every year to control their growth but they burst forth every summer again (See three of my urban minimal paintings below, which feature the trees of Bernard Street).

It wasn’t the only thing that had changed in the last 5 years. Many of the houses had been painted in a different colour. A tin roof towards to centre of the middle (on the right) was now orange with rust. The sunshine also created shadows and changed the colour of many of the roofs.

So I started painting and worked on this when I wasn’t working on commissions. I changed the colour of the chimney pots in the foreground of the painting.

Work in Progress (Summer 2020)

It took some time as I ended up pretty much repainting the whole canvas. The end result was painting with more depth and yet a “lighter” feel. There were still some of those lines but I had reduced them so they did not dominate the painting. I was much happier with this version of Brynmill/Uplands in the sunshine.

Painting of Uplands Swansea by Emma Cownie
Over to Bernard Street, Swansea (2020)

Here are the two paintings side by side so you can see the changes I made.

My next post will be about the paintings that I decided could not be reworked and what I did with them.

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Our favourite (deceased) female Irish artists Part 1

After writing about Paul Henry’s work in my last blog, I was embarrassed to realise that I am very ignorant about Irish Art/History, especially female artists. So to remedy this woeful ignorance I set myself the challenge of list of my favourite Female Irish artists, in the spirit of my earlier series of blogs on Our Favourite Female Artists.  I initially thought about a top ten but I failed miserably to limit myself to 10, I came closer to 18 in the end. I am absolutely no good at throwing stuff out, and my list of artists is no exception, so I have organised each selection by the date of birth of the artist.

I will freely admit that my taste is pretty traditional, preferring figurative to abstract art but I do like a lively personal life too (I am rather nosy). I also like and admire the work of long-dead artists, especially those who lived and worked in the period from the 1870s to the end of the Second World War. I think that I feel that I can safely admire their work without accidentally copying it, which always seems to be a danger with living artists. A lot of the information in this blog is taken from the Catalogue for Irish Women Artists 1870 -1970 Summer Loan Exhibition and Wikipedia.

It is a universal truth female artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries worked under very different circumstance to male artists.  In 1870 women were seen as amateurs in the art world and lacked the opportunities for training, exhibition and sales. They were chaperoned by men and when in 1893 they were eventually let into professional schools such as the RHA school, they were barred from life drawing and anatomy classes (think of those unsuitable naked bodies!). Despite these limitation (or maybe because of them) many Irish female artists traveled abroad to train and returned to Ireland with wider horizons than their male contemporaries.

Female artists from the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, c. 1910

Visual arts were seen as a ‘genteel hobby’ rather than a genuine vocation for women. Many of the Irish female artists of this period came from well-off, if not always extremely wealthy, origins.  A middle-class Protestant background was more likely to be an encouragement to female artist’s talents, rather than working-class Catholic roots. They also generally remained single and only a few became mothers.

Sarah Purser (1848 – 1943)

Sarah Purser by J.B. Yeats

The female artists of Ireland tended to come from wealthy (usually Protestant) backgrounds.  Sarah Purser was no different, as she was born into privilege although she made her own fortune through hard work and canny investments. She was the daughter of Benjamin Purser, a prosperous flour miller and brewer. At thirteen she was sent to school in Switzerland where she learned to speak fluent French and began painting.

When in 1873 her father’s business failed and she decided to become a full-time portrait painter. She used her many social connections to gather commissions – she famously commented “I went through the British aristocracy like the measles”.

She was a trail-blazer in many other ways too. From 1911 she held regular social gatherings for Dublin’s intelligentsia at her home, Mespil House. Sarah became wealthy through astute investments, particularly in Guinness, for which several of her male relatives had worked over the years.

In 1924 she founded the Friends of the National Collections of Ireland and was instrumental in setting up the Hugh Lane Gallery. She was also the first woman artist to be elected a full academician of the RHA in 1925. Elizabeth Coxhead remarked, “At thirty she was the oldest and most serious, with no time to waste on cerebral love affairs and agonies of the soul”. I have a sneaky feeling that Sarah was not interested in men, anyway.

W.B.Yeates, Maude Gonne (A Republican and Suffragette) and Michael Davitt (lying in state), She also painted the not-so famous.

Rose Maynard Barton (1856 – 1929)

Rose Barton RWS (1856 - 1929) St Patrick’s Cathedral Watercolour, 27.5 x 18cm
Rose Barton RWS (1856 – 1929) St Patrick’s Cathedral Watercolour, 27.5 x 18cm

Tipperary-born Rose Barton began a long relationship with the Royal Water Colour Society of Ireland in 1872 when she first exhibited with them. Three years later she spent some time in Brussels, taking painting and drawing classes, and in 1878 she exhibited for the first time at the RHA. The following year she sat on the committee of the Irish Fine Art Society.  


Her watercolours, mainly painted in Dublin and London, are distinguished by an emphasis on the almost tangible atmospheric effects of weather conditions. She became known not only through these original works but also through her illustrated books of both cities


Her version of smokey London was very appealing.

She was a great observer of children. The child in white in the painting on the right isn’t a girl, but George, Prince of Wales!

Gladys Wynne (1876 – 1968)

Gladys was the was the fourth daughter of George Robert Wynne, Archdeacon of Aghadoe, Killarney, County Kerry.   She was a watercolor artist, who spent most of her life in Glendalough, County Wicklow, living in Lake Cottage. Landscape was her chosen field and she painted the area throughout her career. It seems that Gladys might have preferred a different life, that of being a wife and a mother as she apparently turned down a proposal of marriage, and regretted having done so. Her work is very chocolate box-ish but I like their gentle character. 

Now to two a female artists who interest me because they were witnesses to, and involved in, the Irish Rising: Kathleen Fox and Estella Solomons.

Kathleen Fox (1880-1963)

Kathleen was the daughter of Captain Henry Charles Fox of the King’s Dragoon Guards. She was from an Irish Catholic upper middle class family with a British Army tradition. She attended the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, studying under William Orpen. As it was almost impossible to get a female model for the nude in Dublin,William Orphen brought girl models from London. He also allowed his students to talk and smoke in his life-class. 

Whilst in Dublin, Kathleen got to know Constance Gore-Booth (Countess Markievicz) and Willie Pearse (brother of Pádraig). After 1912 She spent 4 years in Europe, returning to Dublin in 1916, and she witnessed and recorded some of the events of the Easter Rising first hand. She sketched at the scene as Countess Markievicz and her 118 fellow rebels were surrendering to British troops outside the Royal College of Surgeons, St. Stephen’s Green. Conscious of the existing political tension, she completed the painting in secret and then sent it to a friend in New York for safekeeping.

The Arrest of Countess Markievicz
The Arrest of Countess Markivicz

Unlike many of our other female artists, Kathleen became a mother, although as she married at the relatively late age of 37, perhaps she had not expected to do so. Whilst in London, Kathleen had met British army Lieutenant Cyril Pym, and married him in 1917. Cyril was killed in action in 1918, and she gave birth to their daughter later that year. In the 1920s she focused  establishing herself as a portrait painter. Her work was shown in London at the New English Art Club, the Society of Women Artists, and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. She later became known for her paintings of interiors and flowers in the 1940s and 1950s.

Estella Solomons (1882-1968)

Stella-Solomons-Folder1-5_0001croppedEstella’s family, the Solomons, came to Dublin from England in 1824, are one of the oldest continuous lines of Jews in Ireland. Her father, an optician whose practice in 19 Nassau St., Dublin, is mentioned in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

From age 16 she studied Art in Dublin and London. Estella was a committed nationalist who sympathised with anti-Treaty forces during the Easter Rising and Civil War. Her studio in Brunswick Street (now Pearse Street) became a regular rendezvous for Dublin’s artistic and political community, including Arthur Griffith and Horace Plunket. She was a member of Cumann na mBan, an Irish republican women’s paramilitary organisation, and her studio was often raided, leading her to burn portraits of those she harboured, for fear they could be used as evidence against her.

She painted landscapes and portraits, including Jack Yeats, Arthur Griffiths, poet Austin Clarke, James Stephens and George Russell. She later married poet and publisher Seumas O’Sullivan, although her parents opposed the relationship as O’Sullivan was not of the Jewish faith, so they waited until her parents had both died to marry in 1919.

Solomons Donegal Landscape
Estella Solomons – A Donegal Landscape

Joan Jameson (1892 – 1953)

Joan Jameson was the daughter of Sir Richard and Lady Musgrave of Tourin, Cappoquin, Waterford and she studied in Paris at Academie Julian. She was a member of the Society of Dublin Painters (founded in 1920) which provided exhibition space for many of female modernist painters. I like her depiction of life of ordinary people, such as fishermen and farmers but also the daily work of womem, as shown in the painting of two women making the bed (bottom right). 


Norah McGuinness (1901 – 1980)

Norah was a rebel. She rebelled against her Protestant family of coal merchants in Derry by becoming an artist. Norah won a three year scholarship to study at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin at the age of 18. Her family did not approve of her choice to study art and become an artist. I think that she is unique in my collection of female artists in that respect. Norah moved to London to study at the Chelsea School of Art. In 1923 she won an RDS medal and the following year exhibited for the first time at the RHA. During these years Norah supported herself by designing sets and costumes for the Abbey and Peacock theatres and illustrated books. Her travels and her quest to gain artistic knowledge had her travel from France to London, to New York and then finally settling in Dublin.

With Nano Reid (see my next blog post) she represented Ireland in the 1950 Venice Biennale. This was the first time Ireland participated in this international exhibition. Each artist showed 12 works and in Italy at least, the response was positive – the Italian President even bought McGuinness’s painting “The Black Church”. You can read more about Norah’s career here

Norah’s personal life was pretty scandalous by any standards. Norah married Geoffrey Taylor also known as Geoffrey Phipps (a poet – known as the “Irish Adonis“), in 1925 but the marriage was dissolved in 1929, because Norah had been having an affair with writer, David Garnett and Geoffrey started an affair with American poet, Laura Riding. Geoffrey ‘behaved like a gentleman’ in allowing Norah to divorce him in an undefended case. Then the Daily Mail splashed on its front page the judge’s summing up, with vituperative condemnation of the scandalous immorality of bohemian writers.

Laura Riding’s 1934 novel “14A”  reads like some crazy bedroom farce, with a ménage à quatre involving writer Robert Graves (“I Claudius” etc), his wife Nancy, Geoffrey and Laura and culminating in both Laura and Robert throwing themselves out of different windows. Laura’s book portrayed Norah as a jealous hysteric and thief. So Norah sued the publisher for libel, and the book was immediately withdrawn from circulation and did not appear in any authorised bibliographical or biographical account until 1976. The Daily Mail was still getting excited about these antics in 2018!

Phoebe Donovan (1902 – 1998)

Phoebe came from a well-off family in Wexford. She began painting as part of a local art group. Donovan grew up on a farm and raised animals and sold eggs to gather the money needed to attend art college. Eventually,  she studied Art in Dublin. Sean Keating taught her portraiture. When the Art school closed for the afternoon, she would “make sure to get locked in so I could keep painting; usually still-lifes.”

Her dedication to art meant she never considered marriage. “Art is a full time job – you just can’t live a normal life,” she explained. “I always painted better when I was lonely. Not just alone. Lonely. I put more into it.” Throughout the 1930s and 40s Donovan was a member of the Society of Dublin Painters.

Phoebe Donovan - Vinegar Hill
Phoebe Donovan – Vinegar Hill

In this selection, Phoebe Donovan’s work is my personal favourite, largely for her painting of Vinegar Hill. I love the sense of airiness and the treatment of the foliage.  This selection of female artists is pretty diverse. Many of them were very determined indiviuals who challenged traditional gender roles by supporting themselves (and their families) through their Art, rather than marrying. Some led quiet lives, others were actively involved in politics. Most of them traveled extensively, and at least one of them was a working mother. For an fascinating personal life and good old front-page scandal, though, you can’t beat Norah McGuinness. Actively rejecting contemporary social conventions, these women independently pursued their own goals as artists, educators and pioneers.


To read more about Irish Art see:-

Catalogue for Irish Women Artists 1870 -1970 Summer Loan Exhibition


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A Better Day: Paul Henry Reimagined

A Better Day by Emma Cownie

I was recently commissioned by a collector to paint a version of a painting by Paul Henry.  This was quite a daunting request. At the moment, my top three favorite (dead) painters of the Donegal landscape are Paul Henry, and William Hubert Craig and Letitia Marion Hamilton.

Born in Belfast, Paul Henry studied art in Belfast and then Paris. He lived in London briefly, and then moved to Achill Island on the West coast of Ireland in 1910, with his artist wife, Grace. They lived here  until 1919 when they moved to Dublin. His paintings depict the West of Ireland landscape in a beautifully spare post-impressionist style.

Paul Henry’s paintings portray the rugged mountains, wind-swept trees, dark boglands and towering clouds of the west coast of Ireland.  His images of  Ireland are genuinely “iconic”. This is because in 1925 he was commissioned by the London Midland and Scottish Railway Company to design a travel poster.

irish-railway-poster-connemara-ireland-by-paul-henry-23-p (1)This poster for Connemara was distributed throughout the world (mostly in North America) to encourage tourists to explore the west of Ireland.  The Irish Times commented in that year: “If thousands of people in Great Britain and America have been led this summer to think over the claims of Ireland as holiday ground it is largely through the lure of Mr Paul Henry’s glowing landscape of a Connemara scene.”

Many people bought reproductions of the poster and more posters followed. 



Many of Paul Henry’s landscape paintings are in public galleries and museums but they also turn up at auction on a regular basis and almost always do “very well”.

The small painting that was auctioned this July, was the one I was commissioned to interpret. This was “Claddagh Village” painted in 1928. I do not know what the painting sold for, but the estimate was for a whopping €40,000 – €60,000

Claddagh Village
Claddagh Village

I had to think quite a bit about this painting and Paul Henry before I started work on my own version. I have never done versions of other artists’ works, although I have seen artists sketching famous paintings in art galleries.  I am the sort of artist who peers very closely at the surface of a painting in a gallery, to try and get a sense of how a painting was made.

I suppose I approached this task in a similar manner. I peered carefully at the impasto brushwork in the photograph of the painting. I looked at how he had laid the colours down. Although the paint was thick in places, in others it was applied thinly and the colour of the canvas/grounding showed through the paint. There was something about Paul Henry’s paintings that bothered me. I could not quite put my finger on it. How can I put it, they were all very blue, even when they had red in them. Indeed, “Claddagh Village” had curious splashes of red on the right-hand side of the painting, and I wasn’t sure what they were meant to represent. Was the hedge on fire? Surely not.

Part of the answer it turns out that Paul Henry was mildly colour bind. So when he used red it was probably squeezed neat from the tube. Greens, warm, cool, or otherwise, are often absent from his paintings. This caused me to pause. Should I copy Paul Henry’s colour scheme or use my own palette of colours? I decided I needed to know more. So I research the subject matter a bit more.


Claddagh was a fishing village in County Galway. It’s thatched cottages were pulled down in the 1930s, but old photographs of the original houses still survive.

These photos gave me a good sense of the chunky shape of these very old houses but not their colours. So I looked for modern photos of Galway thatched cottages for the colour. I finally, found some images of puffy clouds over Connemara and put together a reference sheet for colours and shapes. I decided although I would use Paul Henry’s composition I would not copy his colours, as such, use the reference images in the way I usually paint pictures.

Visual References for Paul Henry
Visual References

Once I had settled these questions in my mind, I put them to mind and painted. My canvas was about the same size (24x30cm) as the one he used (23x30cm). My choice of blue for the sky was very different from the beautiful (almost) duck egg blue Paul Henry used. My cloud was a summer cloud.

My shadows had more blue and mauve in them, that Henry’s which had a lot of grey/brown in them. Interestingly, had I been painting a watercolour version I probably would have copied his choice of colour for the shadows.

I dithered over the russet-coloured bush. I wondered if it had been green in real life or if the painting was done in autumn. In the end, I left it russet. I don’t think I conveyed the thickness of the thatch as well as Henry did. My thatch looks too new.

Right at the end as I painted the grey stone wall, I realised with an oddly blinding clarity that the smudges of red could only be a rain shower! How stupid was I to think that the bush was on fire? The whole painting was about a pair of small rain clouds producing a tiny gust of rain, whereas my version was about a hot sunny day.

Paul Henry’s painting is an infinitely superior painting to mine as it has movement too; in the rain shower, how he has painted the road, the depth of the shadow/reflection on the gable ends of the houses. He handles the paint so confidently. It tells a story, about a sudden shower, whereas mine is about space and empty street. I always thought that Paul Henry was the master of simplifying a scene, I just had not appreciated how effective his use of impasto paint was. I found that very appealing.

Now I understand why artists will make copies of the great masters, because you cannot truly understand how a painting is made until you try and put together your own version.  Looking at the surface of a painting will only get you so far in understanding it. I was not attempting to copy “Claddagh Village”, although that would have been interesting, but reimagine it. As many husband joked, it’s Claddagh village, just on a better day.

Claddagh Village – My version
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Back in the studio!

Finally, I managed to scale the steep steps to my attic studio! One step at a time. Holding on the handrails.

Ah, what pleasure it was to be back in the attic. It has a view out the back of the house. It is a great pleasure to look at the wooded parks and hills of West Swansea instead of the unrelenting concrete streets and terrace houses out the front of the house. I have a number of commissions to fulfill but I wanted to “warm up” with some small paintings first as I have been working with watercolours for the past two months. Here’s a selection:-

My first reaction to oil paint was how slow it all is in comparison with watercolours. With watercolours, most of the effort goes into planning and preparation and then the execution of the painting itself is quick. Putting oil paint on the canvas was more laborious that watercolours. I also had to rummage around for looking for the right sort of paintbrushes, a few times. I could not quite lay my hands on what I needed. But,  ah! The paint did what I thought it was going to do. What joy! If I changed my mind about a composition or decided that something did not work I could wipe it off the canvas. It did not reproach me for making a mistake by showing it to the world for ever! Nice!

Anyway, I sat down and started a series of new Donegal paintings. Here they are.

Painting of Donegal Cottage
Wee House on Gola, Donegal (SOLD)
Painting of Storm Clouds Over Inshbofin, Ireland
Storm Over Inshbofin, Ireland (SOLD)

Painting of The Two Tin-Roofed Sheds, Ireland

The Two Tin-Roofed Sheds, Arranmore, Ireland

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

Landscape Arranmore Ireland

The Old Stone Shed Arranmore Ireland

These paintings are from the past few weeks. I have also worked on two commissions. It has been slow work at times as I often need a lunchtime nap to keep my energy levels up. I do my rehab exercises several times a day which can be very tiring. On a positive note, I finally got to speak to a physiotherapist, Josh, who has been very helpful. He has posted exercises to me and giving me guidance on how much to do.  I can walk upstairs reasonably well, but downstairs one step at a time. When I get tired my ankle gets sore and I limp. I try and avoid that if I can.

What did I learn from watercolours? That I can and should edit and play around with compositions more. I simplified my images as much as I could. I changed the skies or left out an inconvenient house. I found this freeing and I brought an element of this to my oil paintings. For some reason, I have felt to need to be truthful to the real-life locations I painted. I realise now that I don’t have to. I can happily leave out a telegraph pole or a lamp post if it confuses the composition.

What do I miss about watercolours? The tidiness. Clean clothes and hands. The lack of chaos. The speed. The brushes that don’t wear out by the time you have finished a large painting. The lightness. They convey the lightness of birds better than oil colours. Also the convenience, I could pack away all my paper, paints, and brushes in one big bag. I am looking forward to using them outside when I can walk much longer distances!

Emma Cownie Artist
Painting in the studio with my leg up!