There is a definite shift in the seasons. In summer here, the light seemed to stretch on for eve; well past 11pm. Suddenly the days have started shortening fast. It is now dark before 9pm. It has rained solidly for the last two days. In typical Donegal fashion, the sun has come out and everything is bright and fresh.
Artimus (aka Artie) our Donegal rescue cat has just passed me to go outside in the catio to smell the breeze. He used to be a stray. It’s hard to believe as he’s so beautiful and such a softie. He now enjoys the warmth and comforts of indoor life (especially hiding under the towel rail) but he still enjoys the smells and sounds of rural life outside. We lost three pets in the last year (two cats and a dog) and I am not letting him outside when there’s a busy road at the bottom of the garden. I cant face the heartache, if I dont have to. So Séamas, built a catio. Or the cat veranda as I like to call it. Both of our cats, enjoy it but Artie, especially so but not when it’s cold. He’s been in and out of it four times in the last twenty minutes. I think he wishes it was warmer. He must have found life as a stray really tough!
Errigal from Cruit Island, Donegal:-This was one of a pair of large paintings I started before I got ill. It sat in it’s greyscale state for over a month and a half until I recovered enoungh stamina to complete it! Large painting require a lot of strength as you lift your arms/hands above your head, even if you are just moving the canvas. I was very glad to finish it.
I enjoyed painting the rolling landscape; splattered with rocks. I took great pleasure in adjusting the colours in oil paint and “tightening up” the details. The rash of rocks amongst the boglands is quite unique to this part of Donegal. Further south towards, Glencolmcille, there are far fewer bolders and rocks. There the bogland blankets the landscape uninterupted. There are far fewer houses there too. This area of Donegal, the Rosses, however, is dotted with houses old and new. I like that the old houses nestle in the nooks and crannies of the landscape; keeping out of the prevailing westerly winds and showers.
Commissions are usually pretty interesting because they will challenge me in some way or another. This particular commission’s challenge was about scale. Now, I don’t usually paint large paintings because I just don’t have the space to store many of them. I have a few but I am not keen to paint many more as and I find it difficult to paint in a crowded attic studio, both on a practical level (if you look at my photos carefully you can see its crowded in my studio) and also psychologically (it starts to bug me). So if a commission requires me to go large I am quite excited by that prospect. Excited and a bit scared.
This commission was based on a relatively modest-sized painting I had recently painted of Gola Island, Donegal. This is 41x33cm, that’s 16 x 13 inches for non-metric people.
Up from the Pier (Gola)
As you can see from the studio photo, the original fits on the seat of a chair. It is a favourite of mine. I have many favourite paintings, this is my current one.
The commission canvas size was to be 120 x 80cm (47×32 inches). Which is pretty big for my little studio. The canvas I could cope with, but the cardboard box it was arrived in is annoying me as it’s ended up by the railings by the steps to the attic. It’s in my way.
So I pondered the issues with scaling up this painting. The joy of small paintings is that you can hint at all sorts of things with a brushstroke or two and the brain will do the rest of the work. There’s no hiding place when the canvas is over a metre in size.
So the first change in my approach was scale. I printed out my reference photo on a much larger piece of paper. My original photo wasn’t much bigger than 10cm (4 inches) square. Don’t ask me why. I like to print off a lot of images at one time and then ponder which one I want to actually paint. For the commission, the photo was closer to A4 size (7×11 inches) and amazingly, I could see much more detail! So I focused a lot of attention on the buildings and caravan on the horizon. I paint with a small brush get the details of the light on the houses and ruins.
I generally work from left to right when I am painting so as not to smudge work with my hand and the next part I worked on were the rocks and the grassy verge to the left of the track. The real joy of painting vegetation in Donegal is the many varied greens and yellows. I love picking out the different hues. I have to make sure that my colours match the colours in the reference photo as closely as possible. It sounds daft, but I hold up the paintbrush next to the photo to check I have the right tones.
The grass and bracken in the main part of the painting were carefully reconstructed. Saying that I use much larger brushes than I do for my smaller paintings. I make sure that blocks of yellow ochres and green grass or darker bracken are in the right place. There are both warm and cool greens here. There are splashes and smudges of oranges, pinks, jade and turquoise in there too. I am trying to convey not only colour but the shape of undulating land; where the grass has grown up and in some places, covered completely the old stone walls. The island is covered in lots of wooden fence posts, but I don’t want to paint in all the wires as the eye wouldn’t see them all in that much detail so I pick out just a few of them. I wanted to recreate the spirit of the smaller painting rather than create a new painting so I have to adjust a few patches of grass, on the left-hand side of the painting, so their bluish tones echo the first painting and balance the colours in the whole. The tiny golden yellow flowers that are gathered at the bend in the pinkish track are added.
The sky is painted last. Sometimes I paint skies first, especially if it is a cloudy or stormy sky, but in this case, it’s a blue powdery summer blue and it comes last. It has the effect of bringing the whole painting together.
The commission next to the study painting of Gola
So the final stage is to sit with the painting and check that it has the same “vibe” as the smaller study painting. I think it has. I regard it as a big beast, but one I like.
I wonder what it would be like to have a massive studio where you could store bigger paintings? Would I paint larger paintings? Well, in the winter when light is short I would still paint smaller works that could be completed relatively quickly, but in the summer months when I have acres of daylight? You bet.
I love the Donegal islands for their peace and quiet. Oh, the relative absence of cars, the abundance of nature but I particularly love their houses. You may have noticed that I painted quite a few of them, lately; lovely long strings of houses.
I love their simple clean lines. I enjoy the old-style aesthetic. In Donegal, houses were whitewashed and woodwork was painted red. You still see a few houses like this. Sometimes you might see one with a thatched roof. Usually, their thatch has been replaced with tiled roofs.
When is a house a cottage? When it’s small and old and hand-built by its inhabitant, I suppose. In England, the term cottage originates from the Anglo-Saxon term for the peasant or “cottar”, in Irish the word for these houses is “teachin” or “teach beag” which means small house. You can watch a short film on how to say “teach” in Irish here, you may think that word looks like an English word, but it’s pronounced very differently in Irish.
Cottages literally grew out of the landscape that surrounded them. It stands to reason that in the past homes were built from local materials. If the stones and wood had to be carried by donkey or man-power it wasn’t likely to come from very far away. Stone would predominantly be used in coastal and rocky areas, muddy clay in the midlands and even turf in boggy areas.
Cottages came in different sizes; from the tiny laborer’s cottage or Bothán Scóir (a one-roomed house with mud floors and often not even a window); the byre dwelling (a slightly larger cottage that was shared with the animals) to the thatched mansions – two-storey thatched farmhouses that were often extended from single-storey cottages as the occupants become wealthier.
In Donegal “direct entry” houses were typical, where the front door open directly into the room with the fireplace. The most popular form of cottage is that with the living area at the center with the hearth fireplace and a bedroom on either end.
The fireplace or hearth usually formed of stone and located at the center of the house with a bedroom behind it to further absorb the heat. Most families lived in a single room.
In rural Ireland, they did not usually own the land it stood on. This is why landlords could evict tenants for non-payment of rent (usually, if they wanted to replace people with more profitable sheep), even those the occupants had built those houses themselves. In the case of John George Adair of Gleanveagh, he had the houses pulled down after the tenants were thrown out! This was common eviction practice. Anyone who has seen the excellent film Black 47 will know that this practice, could and did, lead to the death of old and frail tenants in winter.
Houses were designed through necessity. The general rule was that the front door of the cottage faced south, to shelter the house from the prevailing westerly winds. Windows were small in order to retain heat in the winter and to keep cool in the summer. Ground floor windows usually faced to the south, not on the gable ends.
There were often small windows on the first floor of the gable walls where there were loft accommodations. The walls of a cottage were typically about 600mm thick to support the roof and beams, this led to the attractive deep window reveals found in most cottages.
You may have noticed that many old Irish houses are not one single unified block, but are made up of several extensions, a kitchen at the back, an extra room to the side. Homes were enlarged when money was available. Often this money was earnt far away from home as hardship forced family members to look for seasonal work far away in Derry, Tyrone or even in Scotland.
Modern houses in Donegal, like modern houses in most places, are comfortable, spacious with plenty of windows. Older people, here as elsewhere, I suspect prefer bungalows for their lack of stairs.
Yet, there is still a space for the old style. On Cruit Island there is a holiday village of new-build holiday homes in the “old” style.
They are single story with thatched roofs but they are large, comfortable, and furnished with wooden rocking chairs, and folksy bedspreads. They also have a beach a stone’s throw away. Obviously, there are real old houses you can stay in on Cruit Island too.
I sometimes wonder if I am painting a “fake” version of Ireland. I am giving the impression that all of Donegal is covered in little quaint white houses? It isn’t, but they are there. Especially in the Rosses and on the islands. Not all of the houses are quaint in North-West Ireland; the “bungalow blight” that affects parts of Donegal has been commented on by others. I suppose I am drawn to the clean lines of the old houses.
This is a theme I have explored in a different context, previously. A couple of years ago I explored the “Hollowed Community” of Brynmill and painted the Edwardian terraces that surround my home in Swansea. I was also interested in a lost community. The old way of life (pre-internet) that is fast vanishing, where your neighbors lived next to you for years, not for weeks or just the summer months.
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 […]
An Port has loomed large in my imagination for a long time. It’s very remote and quite difficult to get to. To reach it, you have to drive down a very, very long single track road (it’s about three miles but it feels longer) on the way to Glencolmcille. There are plenty of sheep and […]
Rossbeg (sometimes spelt Rosbeg) is a tiny townland on the west coast of Donegal, just south of Portnua and Nairn. There is a pier and a scattering of houses, some are modern, but many are old cottages, probably used as holiday lets. The day we visited the weather was calm and sunny. It was just perfect.