Here is a short series of paintings based on the shadows in a backlane in Swansea. The photographs I used for these paintings were taken a couple of years ago. I came across them in my folder of printed images and decided I wanted revist my “urban minimal” themes. The light in St Thomas is quite different to that in Brynmill, where I am at the moment. I don’t know if its because the sea is closer to this part of Swansea, or because Kilvey Hill has a particular angle of steepness, but on a sunny day the light is luminescent.
I particularly wanted to used a glazing medium called liquin, to see if I could add depth to my shadows. I first did an under-painting using red ochre and sepia and then used the medium to add colour to shadows.
Back Lane, St Thomas (Swansea)(2021)
As I grew in confidence I used more liquin medium to paint the drying washing on the line and shadows on the stone wall.
I think the darker shadows were more successful than the lighter ones.
I particularly enjoyed the contrast between the neat house with its clean, fresh drying washing and the apparent ugliness of the rough breeze-block wall in the backlane. This painting is very hard to photograph because of the very light and very dark colours. Some part of it end up too light or too dark! I think I got about right but I am still not happy with the final image. Just a reminder that you need to see a painting in real life to really appreciate it.
Dylan Thomas, the poet, grew up in Swansea and he descbed it as “An ugly, lovely town … crawling, sprawling … by the side of a long and splendid curving shore”.
About 5 years ago I went through a phase of painting a number of intricate paintings of Swansea. I loved the layers of Victorian and Edwardian houses with their high pitched roofs. I went to great effort to walk out onto the quay and the beach to take photos with a zoom lens. The quay is no longer accessible, as part of the walkway has since collapsed.
I recently reworked a couple of these paintings that I still had.
The Old Observatory, Swansea
Over to Bernard Street, Swansea
I was recently commissioned to paint another painting from this series. The commissioned work would be similar, but the composition and the execution of the work would be slightly different. I had mixed feelings about the project because I knew how fiddly these paintings are. These paintings take a great deal of concentration! I use a small brush for all the work on the buildings and they take several days of very focused effort to complete. Still, I hadn’t painted one for many years so I decided to paint one again. Perhaps it’s like a transatlantic flight, something that you can endure once a year but no more often than that. So here it is.
Still, for all my wingeing I can’t help but say that I was really pleased with the final painting. My head hurts from all that focusing on the small houses with their white gables and red chimneys. However, I did like thinking about the different places in the painting as I painted them. The perspective squeezes the buildings together in a way and makes them look closer to each other in a way they are not in real life, by that I mean, on the ground.
On the far right of the painting, on the beach, is what used to be the 360 Café and is now called The Secret. Next to that is the green building know as the Patti Pavilion, the trees behind it belong to the beautiful Victoria Park. They look so close to each other but in reality, the Patti Pavilion is on the other side of the busy Oystermouth Road.
The square building that stretches across the rest of the painting is the Guildhall, which contains the beautiful panels painted by Frank Brangwyn. Rising up behind these buildings is are the parts of Swansea known as Sandfields, Brynmill, and Townhill.
Once upon a time, they were villages or rolling farmland, but now they are all merged into the sprawling City of Swansea. As Dylan Thomas aptly described it “The town of windows between hills and the sea.” On rainy days the clouds descend on Townhill and it can no longer see or be seen!
I am now working on a medium-sized much “looser” Donegal landscape painting, before making a start on two more commissions.
You can now buy a print of this painting here. Click on “reproductions” tab to see your options.
To follow in Dylan Thomas’s footsteps you can visit his favourite places around Swansea:-
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.
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)
Top of Rhyddings Park
In light and Dark
Rhyddings House Swansea
Brynmill Primary School
Former Cricketers, Swansea
Former Grocers, King Edward’s Road, Brynmill, Swansea.
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.
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).
Bernard Street, in the Summer, Swansea
Bus Stop (back of Brynmill Launderette)
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.
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.
Here are the two paintings side by side so you can see the changes I made.
Life in the Uplands (2015)
Over to Bernard Street, Swansea
My next post will be about the paintings that I decided could not be reworked and what I did with them.
This post has been prompted by the response & comments I got on Instagram when I posted a photo of a painting I had reworked.
I came across this early painting when I was sorting through my crowded attic studio. I had forgotten I had it. It took a while to work out how long ago I painted it. It was 4 years ago! It was part of a series of night-time paintings of Brynmill, Swansea, I did in the course of winter of 2015-6. I later went on to develop a series of daytime paintings in the summer of 2017, which formed by the “Hollowed Community” exhibition as part of the Made in Roath, Cardiff, Arts Festival of that year.
I looked at my painting with my 2019 eyes. Sometimes a period of separation enables you to see the painting the way others do. Often this is a happy experience. Not in this case. I liked the light and the shadows but I thought it was a little untamed. The red brick pub opposite the chip shop, The Ryddings pretty much worked. The sky, however, was a bit too messy for me. I don’t usually rework my paintings but this one was bugging me. I nearly worked beautifully, but it didn’t. So I set about to repainting parts of it. Some window sills also needed straightening. The double yellow lines at the bottom of the painting certainly did. The sky then needed “flattening” to create a calmer and tighter painting. After I had done this, I felt a lot happier with the painting. It still has some of the exuberance of the original but it was more disciplined. It has more presence.
This chip shop has a long history; much longer than I realised. The Park Fish Bar used to have a sign out the front that says it’s Wales’s oldest chip shop (I’ll have to check it see if it’s still there the next time I pass it). It think it said “Since 1977” When I posted a photo of the reworked painting on Instagram Matt (@seamatt79) wrote that it had been a fishmonger or fish shop called “Park View Fisheries” since 1918. Apparently, they sold fish during the day and cooked the fish with chips in the evening. That’s a century of fish and chips in Brynmill. I don’t think there was a centenary celebration last year, which is a shame.
Matt said that he was there in the 1990s the Waterloo Place-side window was replaced (window on the far left of the white building in the painting). An old man who lived in Trafalgar Place came by and told the story of how he helped put the window in as a young boy when during World War Two a German bomb “landed on the corner of Marlborough Road and blew out all the glass”. The corner of Malborough Road is just to the left of the painting. A lot has happened since I painted the original in 2015. Jeff who ran the chip ship since the 1980s had retired and the shop has had two different managers since then.
I was also asked on Instagram by James Potter, another Swansea artist, what the original painting looked like. There are some things you just can’t explain properly on Instagram, so here it is on my WordPress blog!
Happy Christmas to all my fellow bloggers, followers, and readers alike!
I am preparing a follow up photographic project on the “Hollowed Community” scenes but first I wanted to explain what the original project was about. So I have reproduced the the introduction to my exhibition catalogue for the madeinroath festival here:-
My project explores the theme that the community of Brynmill in Swansea has become “hollowed” out by the proliferation of Houses of Multiple Occupation (HMOs), which house an ever burgeoning population of students attending Swansea University. HMOs in many streets constitute in excess of 50% of the houses. This ever increasing transient population has had a devastating effect on the sense of community in Brynmill.
Families and children living in the area has have dropped markedly since the increasing number of HMOs started to swamp Brynmill. This has had knock on effects for sustainability as families normally sustain communities with services and business catering for these families.
My project looks at the visible signs of this “hollowing of community” by looking at the time when students are not here, such as in the summer months. It is in this absence of students that I have attempted to catch this ghostly silence, this funereal quiet.
In streets suddenly empty, devoid of cars, elderly people suddenly appear on the streets, as if from hibernation and, most tellingly, the sparse number of children start to play in the streets and parks but so much fewer than before. It is as if the community is in a temporary mourning in this sudden quiet and the area looks more spacious, as it breathes out in the summer sun. This is I have painted, and documented, this lull before the next wave of erosion.
In this space I am reminded of those American realist painters who paint the quiet, the spacious and the still and revere a certain treatment of light and colour such as Edward Hopper, Jim Holland, John Register, Frank Hobbs as well as by Contemporary Minimalists such as Christopher Benson, Leah Giberson, Tom McKinley, Micthell, Johnson, Jessica Brilli and Emmett Kerrigan. I aim to bring an American sensibility to a Welsh urban landscape in my “urban minimal”* paintings, to contrast their sunny optimism with our cold reality.
I wanted to capture this temporary calm of summer in paint. So I started to take lots of photos of the local area with an eye to using them for the basis of paintings.
My “rules” for composition and painting
Bright light. There must be shadows – at diagonals if possible.
Simplified forms – there must be little detail in the final painting. 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. Simplified blocks of colour.
I hate pebble dash. It is boring and beige. Wales has far too many pebble-dashed houses. If are not familiar with the phenomenon its a “coarse plaster surface used on outside walls that consists of lime and sometimes cement mixed with sand, small gravel, and often pebbles”. Its a way of tarting up the outside of a house. I guess its cheaper than having the bricks re-pointed because it seems to stay that horrible porridge colour for ever. Welsh terraces in the towns and valleys are full of these dull fronted houses. I much prefer red brick. Or painted. Many of my houses for the “Hollowed Community” exhibition were red brick or painted interesting colours.
In Ireland it seems that all the Victorian terrace houses and cottages are painted in bright colours. (See photos of Cobh Harbour above )
Having a brightly painted house is a gift to the community. It does not matter if your house is a grand detached house with a sea view or a humble terrace, it is cheering to behold. When a whole street does it, it becomes a cause for celebration and art!
On Saturday we traveled to Cardiff on the train carrying several large bags of carefully wrapped paintings. I had been feeling tired and anxious about driving there so we decided to go by train instead. Over a decade ago I started having panic attacks on the motorway and despite hypnosis and therapy, I still cannot face the thought of driving on motorways. Or even the thought of accidentally ending up on an motorway, which is what happened when I had my first panic attack in Port Talbot. It’s worse when I am tired. So Seamas (my husband and fellow artist) and I, traveled by public transport.
Seamas arranged the paintings across the 3 windows and they looked even brighter than usual in the slight gloom of the hall. My paintings shared the upstairs hall with Charlotte Formosa’s “Fluro” exhibition. Her duo of very large paintings and decorated objects were a riot of luminous colours, textures and materials.
Poet Lucy Corbett had an exhibition called “poetry in a Bottle”. Her poems were bitter-sweet and thought provoking. She explained to me that she wanted to make poetry as ubiquitous as the advertising slogans we are bombarded with everyday. The idea being that people would take away the poems (not the bottles) and pass them on to others. I liked the ideas of the poems in bottles, as they reminded me of messages or distress calls launched by strangers from afar.
Three Cardiff ceramics students were also exhibiting their works upstairs in in the hall and in the stairwell. Their works were very distinctive and rather beautiful.
Downstairs was the intricate and fascinating work of Sheila Vyas. I could have looked at her mixed media work for hours. It was very powerful and emotional work. She also had the most gorgeous little dog with her that I wanted to take home with me!
The distinctive pitched roofs of the red brick Brynmill School dominate the area. Sitting on the crest of a hill they can be seen from miles around. From the seafront and beach to the south as well as from Uplands and Mount Pleasant to the north. It is one of two local primary schools. It is a handsome building. Bold red brick. Confident and happy looking. The other is the Welsh-medium school Ysgol Gynradd Gymraeg Bryn-y-mor, which had previously been Brynmill Infant’s school.
Brynmill School was opened on 31st August 1896 and was big enough to accommodate over a thousand pupils. In its early days, boys and girls were taught in separate classes. The girls were taught in classrooms on the ground floor and the boys on the first floor.
During the Second World War many buildings in Brynmill were damaged. On 21st February 1941, the girls’ school was hit and the school had to close for a fortnight. Rhyddings House was also badly damaged by a bomb and it became known as “the bombed house” and a place where the local children would play.*
The school undergone quite a few changes. The many tall chimneys and the tower on highest part of the roof are gone. Extensions have been added at the front and back of the school. There are relatively few school-aged children that live in the heart of Brynmill, those that attend the school most seem to walk from Uplands or are driven in from other areas of Swansea. Schools are at the heart of sustainability. Many rural communities have lost their post office, pubs and schools and then cease to fully function as communities. Brynmill School, however, has clearly worked hard to keep their numbers up and continue as a beating heart of the community.
*Information about Brynmill School came from an article by Juliette James “Life in the district of Brynmill in the early 20th century” published in “Minerva: Swansea History Journal, Vol 24, 2016-7.
I am very excited to have an article in today’s Irish Independent on Sunday about me and work by Niall McMonagle. Below is my expanded Q & A interview that was much edited to feature in Niall McMonagle’s What Lies Beneath feature . It’s interesting to see that the online version had a different […]
This is the second part of my expanded Q & A interview with Niall McMonagle of the Sunday Independent. Read part one here This section is more about how I work, my style and influences. Q: How do you choose your places to paint? And is there a particular time of year that […]
I am delighted to have another of my painting adapted for a novel cover by an Irish writer. This time my painting “Cottage on Bunbeg Harbour” (2019) has been used for the Spanish translation of Donal Ryan’s “Strange Flowers” or rather “Flores Extrañas”. I have started reading the original and I am thoroughly enjoying it. […]
In my last post I decribed visiting the abandoned fishing village of An Port tucked away in a remote corner of the Donegal shoreline (read it here). We were inspired to seek out this very remote spot by American artist Rockwell Kent, who visited and painted the area in the 1920s. I was waiting for […]
New Work & Recent Sales
Washing Line, Arranmore _Emma Cownie
Inishcoo (To The Fore of Arranmore) – Emma Cownie
Kinnagoe Bay (Inishowen, Dongal)
Over Glenlough Bay, Donegal-Emma Cownie
Still, On Gola (Donegal)
An Port, Donegal_Emma Cownie
House on Ishcoo, Donegal-Emma Cownie
On Rutland Island, Donegal -Emma Cownie
Spring on THree Cliffs Bay, Gower_Emma Cownie
Sun on the Reeds (Glentornan, Donegal)-Emma Cownie
View from the Pier (Portnoo)-Emma Cownie
From Port to Glenlough (Donegal)
Fishing Boat at Port Donegal-Emma Cownie
Portnoo Pier, Donegal_Emma Cownie
Down to Rossbeg Pier, Donegal
Errigal reflection (Donegal) _Emma Cownie
Errigal from Cruit Island. Donegal _ Emma Cownie
Over to Fanad Lighhouse (Donegal) _Emma Cownie
Errigal painting – A Commission 2022
From Arranmore (Donegal)- Emma Cownie
Abanoned (Glentornan, Donegal) -Emma Cownie
Ferry Home (Arranmore, Donegal) by Emma Cownie
Summer Morning on Pobbles Bay
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)