Failures are always a challenge. When I used to be a Secondary school teacher, I always learned more about teaching when I faced a difficult class than a nice docile one. They made me go away and think about what I was doing and how I could do it better. Painting is no different.
I have been thinking about the composition of larger paintings. When I used to think about painting a scene I used to think in terms of “that’s a small painting, it won’t “stretch” to a larger canvas”, or “That’s a mountain, definately, therefore, it’s subject suitable for a large canvas”. I am parodying myself somewhat but generally, I have this feeling that small birds belong on small canvases and big landscapes belong on larger ones.
My thinking was challenged by a commission I did in the summer where a client asked for a very large version (120 x 90cm) of a relatively small painting (41 x 33 cm). So I scaled up and despite my anxiety, it worked. This was important as my confidence had been dented by a previous large landscape painting that hadn’t work out for me.
It got me thinking about composition. I understood the basics and had looked of compositional grids in Artbooks as a teenager and thought I’d internalized them. I realized that I had got sloppy. I’ll explain.
I am not going to do an information dump about theories of composition here (I have added links to some good blogs on the subject below) but the “rule of thirds” is one that springs to mind here. The idea that you should look for naturally occurring in divisions of thirds in a scene and try and locate points of interest at the intersection of the “Golden section”.
Rule of Thirds
The Golden Section
I had been influenced by ideas of composition from photography and the work of artist-turned photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson,in particular.
I liked his use of diagonals in particular, and this has influenced my paintings of urban scenes.
When I came to Donegal I was so blown away by the vast overarching skies and majestic landscapes. I got very excited by everything I saw. I tried to capture everything. The houses, the mountains, the sea, and the sky. Most of the time it worked.
Swirling Clouds Round Errigal
From Ferry Coll
From Cruit Island
Wild Wind Across Dunfanaghy
Shored up near Muckish
Further Up Shore
You can probably look through these paintings and tick off the composition approaches I instinctively used; the diagonal, the pyramid, the rule of thirds and so on. They all worked.
Then, it really pains me to admit it. I lost it. I got carried away and overreached myself and painted this big beast.
What was I thinking? There is far too much sky in this painting. Worse than that, it was a large canvas. There are things I like about the painting, the light on the island in the bottom half of the painting, but the sky was just too vast. It pained me that I had such a large reminder of my errors of judgment. I don’t mind screwing up every now and then but I hate waste and that was an expensive canvas. It’s no coincidence that I am planning a blog post on reusing stretcher bars to stretch my own canvases.
My confidence was dented. It put me off large paintings for quite some time. It wasn’t until I did the commission I mentioned earlier, that I got thinking about what had gone wrong. I realized that I had to rigorously apply the same rule of composition to large canvases as I instinctively did to my small ones. So I tried an experiment, I took a successful composition of a medium size painting and did a much larger version of it. This composition was based on a compound curve.
It wasn’t a copy of the smaller painting. It wasn’t meant to be, although it was meant to encapsulate the same feel of the smaller work, with some adjustments. I have included some more detail, changed the tree, and added a shadow and a ditch in the bottom third of the painting. I think it worked.
I have since done another small oil sketch of another composition before I scale it up. It’s another diagonal composition. Although, the larger version will not be “portrait” format but my usual “landscape” orientation.
I will add the larger version later in the week. So you will have to wait to see if that composition works as well as this smaller one. Watch this space!
The landscapes of Donegal, Ireland have provided me with so much inspiration for my art I thought I’d share some background about our house just outside Burtonport. My husband, Seamas, has spent far more time and effort than me on Meadow Cottage. Thus, this blog post is a bit of a photo-essay as I have been absent for about half of these events. I have stayed behind at home in Wales, feeding our pets and keeping the Art business ticking over.
1. I thought I’d start with the Estate Agent’s photos. In Ireland, estate agents are called auctioneers, in the US I think they are known as realtors. Kenneth Campbell’s aerial photos are great, and doesn’t the yellow gorse look pretty? I changed my mind about gorse, later. What attracted me to the house (other than its location near Donegal airport, as well as walking distance from Burtonport, the ferry to Arranmore Island, a garage shop and Dungloe a short drive away) was the fact that unlike many Donegal homes, it had two rooms upstairs. Why do I care about an upstairs? Well, firstly I have only ever lived in a house with stairs and secondly and more importantly the light is better to paint by. Especially if it comes from a north-facing skylight. That will provide steady cool light. There was no north-facing sky-light only south-facing, but that could be easily changed
In our first spring visit, we concentrated on essentials for the cottages. Thankfully the previous owners were very generous in including a lot of furniture with the cottage so we just had to think about buying things like pots and pans and bedding. We started to explore the area. There was a large area behind the rocks which was overgrown with gorse and brambles. We made some inquiries about getting someone in to do the garden, but they didn’t quite come to anything.
2. Summer visit. Everything had grown. A lot. The grass was now waist-high! The brambly bit of the garden at the back now looking like something out of a sleeping-beauty nightmare.
We looked around at the gardens around us and saw a lot of neat lawns and hedges. Oh dear, we were the neighbourhood scruffs. We had a lot of work to do here. We had brought an electric grass-strimmer with us. It wasn’t much good. There was just too much grass. Even after Seamas had cut it was still a foot deep! Steep learning curve! We bought a petrol strimmer and Seamas studied it carefully. He would be back!
In the mean-time, we hacked away at the biggest interlopers in the garden. There were a couple of fir trees that had spread their seedling all over the grass and were also sprouting up through parts of the drive. They were also blocking the view of drivers pulling out of the side road onto the road to Dungloe. They had to go. I hacked down one with a hand saw and Seamas and I cut down the larger one together (you can see it behind him in the photo below).
We painted things like fences, walls window sills and the gate.
The cutting things down then extended (rather belated in our stay) to cutting back the gorse. There had been gorse fires in the spring that had been extensive and destroyed one family’s holiday cottage. It had been an important source of income for them. So I wanted to get rid of the gorse near the cottage. It had grown so much that it came up to the back windows of the cottage. We hired a skip and started to fill it. It was hard work. I am not used to it. Still, we got stuck in.
It’s springy stuff. I jumped up and down on it a lot.
We filled it up and when the skip was collected by Paddy Sharkey, he managed to jam a fair bit more in the skip and jump on it.
It was back-breaking stuff. What you needed, Paddy said was a “man with a digger”. We got the number of the man-with-a-digger, and a lot more besides, Tom Ham, and he called round to look at our rocks and gorse. Yes, he could do something with it, in about 6 weeks time. So we left for Wales, with plans.
3. Seamas came back in the to autumn to report back on some improvements he’d arranged to be done whilst we were away. Pauric Neely had put clear glass put in the front door to let light into the hallway.
Seamas painted the back of the house and got the hang of the petrol strimmer.
4. Seamas’s winter visit. Part 1- More changes: – a new north-facing skylight put in by Paddy Campbell. Yeay. Light to paint by!
Best of all, Tom had removed the gorse by the back of the house. It was gone!
That was great. The brambles were still lurking behind the rock. That was the next stage of the project. It was somewhat fortuitous then, that Seamas’s flight was canceled. He actually went to the airport and waited for his flight. He watched the two-engine plane starting the approach to its landing but very strong cross-winds prevented it from landing. So it returned to Dublin!
Part 2: – Seamas decided to stay another week for the next stage in the work. This was clearing the land behind the rocks and preparing the foundations to put in a couple of wooden clad cabins to act as an art studio and an art gallery. This was a lot of work.
Finally, the brambles are gone.
There’s a lot of land here!
Seamas has achieved a massive amount over the last year. He’s so happy when he’s in Donegal. He loves our cottage. He is never happier than when he’s working on it. There’s a lot more to do. He has more plans that he’s hatched with Tom, that I am looking forward to happening. I think that when I am back in the spring that I will be planting a lot of grass seed! I am looking forward to my second year and hoping to spend much more time here.
I would like to thank Kenneth Campbell, Pauric Neely, Paddy Sharkey, Paddy Campbell, Lucy of the Parlour Shop, who drove up from Killybegs on a Sunday evening (with her mum) to deliver a table and last but definitely not least, Tom Ham, for all their excellent work.
It was a year ago that I painted my first painting of Donegal. Here it is. It is a small one.
It’s quite a modest painting. You could say that I started off tentatively. I was feeling my way. The light in Donegal is very clear and the scenery is beautiful. That’s an overused word in this age of social media, but it is beautiful.
My husband, Seamas (he likes counting things) tells me that I have painted over 50 Donegal paintings (including 3 commissions). That pretty much averages out at one a week. I am pleased to say that I have already sold over half of them.
I discovered that I had to use a different palette from the one that I use in Wales. The greens and yellows were more yellow ochre than lemon yellow and the sea was more turquoise (but not quite as turquoise as I first painted) thanks to the clear water.
On The Way To Arranmore
From Ferry Coll SOLD
Over to Owey Island, West Donegal, Ireland
I loved the rocky landscape of the Rosses. It was a landscape like no other I’d seen before. Someone has said to me that it’s quite alien, like a moonscape in places. I love the granite rocks. We have a massive one behind our cottage in Donegal. I feel very affectionate towards it. It’s a protective presence, especially when it’s windy.
Over to Tullyillion
Of course, when you are in a different country to the one you were brought up in, everything seems fascinating. I have loved painting both the modern Donegal houses as well as the old cottages.
From Cruit Island
Over to the Rosses
House by the Wild Red Flowers (Arranmore)
I will freely admit I am quite obsessed by landscape spotted with old cottages on the Donegal islands, on Arranmore and Gola in particular.
Across to Inishbofin
This Beauty That will Pass
A House on Gola
Up From the Pier (Gola)
Oileán Ghabhla (Donegal)
Around Cloughcor (Arranmore)
Cottage on Inishcoo
On Eighter Island
The Red Roofed House
I haven’t really got to grips with the mountains of Donegal. What I mean is that I need to visit them a lot more, walk up them and get to know them better. So far I have just admired the “Seven Sisters”, including Mount Errigal and Muckish from a distance.
Across to Dunfanaghy
Mount Errigal from Ballymanus Beach, Donegal
Over to Kinclassagh
The Pig’s Back (Muckish) Donegal
Of course, the real joy of Donegal is the clouds. The changes skies. I am used to it raining, (I have lived in Wales for over 25 years) but the light is different by the North Atlantic Ocean. It is often more slivery, and more changeable.
Print of painting Bunbeg beach
Near Dunmore Strand
Rain over Dunfanaghy
I think about Donegal every day when I am in Wales. My husband will place his current favourite Donegal paintings in the bedroom and in the lounge so he can look at them whilst we still have them.
Here’s my most recent painting Donegal painting. I am currently working on a painting of Arranmore Island, unfortunately, it rained so much here yesterday, the light went and I have yet to finish it.
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.
The ferry to Tory Island runs all year round. In the summer months (June onwards) there are extra sailings. We had decided to get an early boat as Seamas, my husband said the weather forecast was for sunshine in the morning, cloudy around midday and then sunshine in the afternoon. I think we are learning to take weather forecasts for Donegal with a pinch of salt. Some forecasts for “cloudy” days translate into blue skies with a few clouds, others into a damp drizzle. We were optimistic but when we arrived at Magheroarty Pier it was overcast. Once we had parked in the generously sized car park, we had to hurry to get the boat. Magheroarty Pier is tidal, so sailings have to leave on time, time and tide wait for no man, etc.
We were not quite the last people on the boat but all the dog stairs seat were full so we stood on the top deck, me leaning against the body of the ship and Seamas found a large metal box to sit on, the dogs sat close to him. We could feel the movement of the boat as soon as the ferry left the shelter of the harbor at Magherorarty and at times we had to hang onto a metal grill that housed a lifeboat ring.
Two men who were standing nearby to us were talking to each other in Irish. Tory Island is probably the strongest Irish-speaking area in the country. It sounded a bit like a Scandinavian language at times – a third Irish speaker stood to one side, listening. They each looked very different from each other in appearance, one was very blonde, one was dark-haired and the third had white hair. The dark-haired man had freckles and light eyes. It is a “look” I have seen a lot in Donegal, Seamas says it’s common in County Derry too.
The trip took just under an hour. The motion of the boat made me feel quite ill by the time we reached firm land. I think being on the top deck made me feel the motion of the baot more than if I have been on the lower deck. It took me at least 30 minutes to shake the feeling of a dodgy stomach. Someone, later asked if we had felt ill on the crossing, and laughed when I said I had. It’s not unknown.
Tory Island lies 8 miles off the coast of Donegal. The origin of the name of Tory Island (Oileán Thoraí in Irish), isn’t universally agreed on. Yes, the word Tory may come from from the Middle Irish word tóraidhe; modern Irish tóraí; meaning a robber or bandit. Ever wondered why one of the oldest British political parties, the Conservatives, are also known as the “Tories”? The term was originally a term of abuse and meant “an Irish rebel”. The insult goes back to the era of Oliver Cromwell’s brutal campaign in Ireland when a band of Irish guerilla fighters was known as Tories.
Another explanation for the name, however, is that it may mean the “island of Tors”. The shape of the island from a distance is a tower, and its northern coastline is peppered with massive tors. This seems just as likely. I suspect that people, however, prefer the story of the name meaning Pirate Island instead of the Island of Tors as it’s more exciting. The remote location of the island has meant that the islanders have had (and continue) to rely on their ingenuity and resourcefulness.
They have lived on the margins of the so-called “civilized world” and kept to their own rules and customs, which were not necessarily those of the mainland. Famously they refused had fallen behind with their rents and rates and a British gunboat, HMS Wasp, was sent in 1884 to forcibly collect the arrears and evict the tenants. Luckily for Tory, it hit a reefnear the island and sank rapidly (not so good for the 52 who died). The locals put this stroke of fortune to the power of their cursing stone! This event is one of many Donegal stories about the spooky powers of Tory Island. You can read more in theNational Folklore Collection UCD Digitization Project.
One custom that marks Tory as different from Ireland is that they have a king. It’s not a hereditary position, rather one chosen by consensus as a leftover from the days of Gaelic chieftains. Patsy Dan was asked to become king by the children of the previous king Padraig Og Rodgers in the 1990s.
He was a talented musician and painter and acted as a very successful ambassador for the island. At a young age, he had befriended English artist Derek Hill, who regularly painted on Tory and he helped set up a gallery on Tory, where island artists sell their work. He was clearly an energetic man, as was known for personally greeting all the visitors to the island as the ferry arrived from the mainland. He apparently made a point of shaking hands with visitors and saying “Welcome to my island.”
Sadly, Patsy Dan Rodger, died last year and now rests in the churchyard. I saw his grave decorated a wooden cross and with stones around it. I did not take a photo because it felt like it would be an intrusion on the island’s grief. The island is without a king for the time being.
The island itself is a strange mix of very old and modern. People have lived here for over 4500 years. There are a few old cars and vans driving back from the harbour after picking up stuff at the pier.
Tory feels a long way from the mainland, although you can see the coast of mainland Donegal when the weather is clear. It is less than 2 miles long and only half a mile wide. My overwhelming first impression (once the cars and vans had driven off) and we had walked out of the tiny West Town (An Baile Thiar) was of birdsong.
Sparrows, larks and other moorland birds just singing their hearts out. The landscape is full of bold little brown birds, pipits and larks. Some of them even come near to you and sing, possibly as a challenge. We walked along a single tracked road eastward towards the other settlement or “clachan” on the island. We passed a Second World War torpedo that had been painted bright red and erected by the side of the road.
I marveled at the ground on Tory. To the south of the road, it seemed to be a dried bog and the north it was very stony ground, reminding me of a hardcore carpark. How had anyone, let alone over 200 (at one point it rose to 400) islanders managed to eek a living from such a tough terrain? I have looked at the small stony fields in Galway and thought how tough life must have been for the farmers, but this was much worse. The potato was a versatile crop and remarkably the blight that brought the Great Hunger to mainland Donegal, did not reach the island. Of course, the Tory islanders did not live from farming alone, they were also fishermen and brewers ofpoitin whiskey.
There was a group of German tourists ahead of us (they all seemed to be wearing blue jackets for some reason). They veered off the road to the left towards what looks like a dip in the earth. We followed them, so see what they have gone to look at and discover that is a massive hole with a cave down to the sea. I would not have guessed this was here from the road.
We carried on up to the northern edge of the island. What a view! I am not good with heights as the best of times and I felt quite ill looking over the edge. I lay down on the grass to take photos. The reddish cliffs and cream coloured sea stacks were stunning.
We spent a lot of time walking along the cliffs and back again, taking in the views.
There were sea birds flying and squawking. Lots of gulls and razorbills and one lone puffin to be seen. The birds of Tory are the highlight of the visit for me.
We then find the weather has closed in on us. We could see the mist and cloud descending on the lighthouse to the west of us, at the other end of the island. I’d foolishly hoped it would stay on that side of the island!
On the island, weather changes from moment to moment. I am reminded of the sign outside Derek Hill‘s house warning that “Winter weather can happen at any time in Donegal”. Yes, it can.
Mainland Donegal has vanished in a cloud of rain. We get increasingly damp, but not quite soaked through. There’s no shelter anywhere. No trees. No bus shelters (what an utterly daft idea, here). We have a lively discussion about the conditions (I keep thinking of that weather forecast of sunshine in the afternoon) and I optimistically suggest that it will pass soon enough. I am encouraged by the fact that the group of German visitors (off in the distance) haven’t given up and are scaling the heights of Ardil Iril, and are looking over the cliff. So we carry on and by the time we reach Port an Duin, which has a small concrete pier, the rain has halted.
We sit down on some rocks and eat our sandwiches and crisps. The dogs get some too and a drink of water from their bowl that I am carrying. The weather brightens up considerably as we climb up to the highest part of Tory. This is Dun Bhaloir (Balor’s Fort), which is an early Iron Age Fort, which is covered in piles of massive rocks, which were part of the defenses. Balor apparently was a fearsomecyclopswarlordwho could kill a man dead with asingle glanceof his evil eye!
From here we can get a view of the rest of the island snaking off to the west. It has brightened up now and we take off our coats. The dogs are getting hot and panting.
There’s a discussion about the return time of the ferry as Seamas’s smartphone has died (and I don’t have one). We’d asked about the times when we got off the ferry but after the long walk we aren’t sure of what we were told, was it 2.30 or 3.30? We could see the ferry heading back to the mainland at 1.30 so I reason that it will be at least 2 hours before it returns. However, we would easily be able to see it returning so we would just need to keep an eye out for it. So we started plodding back to An Baile Thiar and the pier. We were all very tired now. So we start the walk back to the harbour in An Baile Thiar.
We made it back to An Che (the pier) and could see the approaching ferry in plenty of time. I got some extra water for the dogs from a tap in the parish hall. This time we got seats on the ferry so I don’t feel queasy on the journey back. The German tourists are also on the ferry.
As we were coming towards Magharoarty harbor, three dolphins surprise us all appearing in the sea alongside the ferry. I saw a flash of strong blue-grey bodies and then the three of them arching in and out the water behind the ferry. All the passengers on the boat were very excited (as was I). These are my first wild Donegal dolphins. I spend a long time looking at my photos afterward, reliving the experience. I wish the photos were better.
I left with an impression that Tory wasn’t like the other Donegal islands. It felt a lot further away from the mainland for a start. Life was (and probably still is) tough here. When the rain covered the island we might as well have been a thousand miles from the mainland. I know that is true of all islands to some extent, but you really felt it here. We visited in summer, I can hardly imagine what it is like in the winter, surrounded by the raging Atlantic Ocean. I didn’t get to speak to anyone, beyond a “hello” but the islanders are very clearly very independent and resilent. Looking over my little guide book to Tory I realise that there was lots more to see on the island, that we didn’t have the time or energy to see, namely the lighthouse on the west end of the island, Derek Hill’s painting hut, the Art Gallery, or the round tower or the curious T-shaped “Tau” Cross.Next time, I visit, I will bring more sandwiches and a hat in case it rains again.
Donegal has lots of breathtaking scenery. I love the coast and the old white houses and a lot of my recent paintings have been concerned with depicting a more intimate impression of Donegal. I don’t like to get into a rut, and I will switch subject matter to challenge myself and keep my work “fresh”.
Painting mountains is one way of doing that for me. I have painted three pictures of the Derryveagh mountains since October 2018. They are based on a series of photographs we took on a trip to Horn Head. For an excellent interactive map of the area click here
I had been worried about driving along precipitous cliff tops and we had parked up and walked up to Horn Head. The view was great but the overcast conditions did not make for particularly good photographs. We climbed up part of the spongey hill. I call it spongey because every time I put my put on something that wasn’t a rock, it sort of sank into the heather or boggy grass. It was very unsettling. So I leap from rock to rock. From here we took in the strong breeze and could see across to Dunfanghy.
There were also sweeping views across back towards Falcaragh and Bloody Foreland (Cnoc Fola in Irish). What a great name that is, it refers to the colour of the headland, not to some gruesome incident of the past. The light was in the “wrong” direction for decent photos but the view was lovely.
On the way back down to Dunfanaghy, the sun broke through the clouds off in the distance, we stopped and Seamas took some pictures. These are the photos the three paintings are based on.
These paintings are quite a commitment, in terms of effort and resources as they are physically large (for me, anyway) and mentally demanding. I usually like to paint bright and quite detailed landscapes. These paintings, in contrast, were an exercise in subtly and knowing when and where to include more or less details.
With all of them, I begin with the sky and work my way down the canvas. As with a lot of my work, I use the paint quite thinly and I find this helps keep the clouds feeling “light”. They are just layers of water vapor, after all. The linen canvas I use is primed with a clear primer so it is brown rather than white in colour. I find this brown works well as a base for dirty looking rain clouds!
My first two paintings I initially painted the distant mountains a range of graduating purples until I stood back and realised that they had to be lightened a lot. I spent a lot of time holding up my paint covered brush next to my reference photograph to compare the shades. I learned that the mountains had a lot of warm grey in them.
The greens of the mid area and the foreground were much easier to gauge although I still visually checked that my tones were correct by holding the paint next to the reference image. The many walls and varying tones of the fields required a great deal of concentration. This was the most detailed part of the painting. I wanted the viewer to look into the distance rather than be distracted by detailed grass in the foreground. So the grass in the foreground is quite flat with only the odd change in colour to hint at roughness.
By the time I had painted the third, most recent, painting in the series, I had learned from experience to keep the colour of the mountains light. The falling rain over the far mountain meant that most of the tones of the grass and bogland were much more muted than in the earlier paintings. There was a lot of greys and purples in the grass and gorse.
Each of the three paintings, although they are of a similar view, each has quite a different feel to it. They remind me how on some days you can stand and watch the light and colours change second by second in Donegal as the clouds move and showers sweep in from the west. The last one does that the most. I think my next challenge will be to paint a mountain scene without any houses at all, just sky and mountain and resist the urge to add detail!
The title of this post comes from a 2005 albumby American musician, Robert Rich.
The inspiration for this album comes from mundane everyday experiences that culture usually overlooks, such as footsteps, casual voices and other ordinary sounds. Although I am sort of “New Wave” (that’s sooo old now, you’ll probably have to look it up) in my musical tastes, I have a sneaky liking for experimental music, if its “live”. I like how it encourages you to pay attention to all the sounds around you, instead of tuning them out with your thoughts. Its sort of mediative. The ordinary appeals to me.
The other day I finished one of my paintings, placed on the other side of my studio to inspect and found myself quite-spell bound by it. I could not stop starring at it. This is not always the way I am with my finished work. More often when I have been excited about a painting, finishing it is a bit of an anti-climax. Maybe, it wasn’t quite what I thought it was going to be. All I can see are the errors. The solutions that weren’t quite right, or not as good as they could have been.
So what was this painting that had me transfixed? You’ll probably laugh when you see it. It was a little painting of two blue tits on a branch. Not a spectacular painting, in any sense, I know. I realised, however, that what had me transfixed were the details. This is really geeky stuff. A shadow under one of the bluetits fell onto the branch below in a really pleasing way. It’s hard to show it here.
This is my most recent painting below. I choose to paint this because I liked the juxtaposition of the mountain behind the semi-derelict house.
I didn’t realise at first that the gable end window is boarded up. It could be mistaken for a blind. Maybe it is a roller-blind pulled down.
I think the back door is also boarded up. These things are not immediately apparent. There is a large boulder to the left of the house. There is also a pile of building bricks and a tarpaulin in the yard to the right-hand side and old rope in the drive. This is a house at the start or midway through renovations. The details I really relished painting were the shadows of the chimney, roof and the telegraph wire that dissects the window at neat diagonal. It’s only by paying attention to these details that the Donegal light can be properly conveyed.
I have always had a fascination for the ordinary details that are easily overlooked. I want to convey what a scene looked like at that moment. If you were really paying attention. Yet, I am not a painter who works in the hyper-realist style. I am not skillful or patient enough for that. I often cringe when I see my paintings close up because I think some of my brushwork is crude. Yet, “perfect” representation can seem dead and unlife-like.
I think in the errors, the gaps, our brains fill in the gaps the image can come alive. I like that my paintings aren’t just copies of what I can see but an interpretation; the colours brightened, edges sharpened or softened, some details omitted to make for a simpler composition. Deciding what to leave out or simplify is as important as what you decide to include. Rather like Robert Rich’s “Echo of Small things”
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 cottageoriginates 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 Irishhere, 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.
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.
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 poor tenants were thrown out!
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 villageof 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.
Read more about the history of the Irish cottagehere
Gola is a Donegal island I painted and thought about long before I set foot on its shores. I have written about it beforehere.Last month I was fortunate to visit it. The wind had woken me in the night. The early dawn had me awake by 6.30. I felt so tired and my limbs ached that I drank the last can of caffeinated energy drink that was sitting in our fridge (leftover from the epic drive up north).
We drove the 40-minute drive from Burtonport to the little harbour at from Magheragallon Pier, Bunbeg. The final part of our drive was along single-track road across flat grasslands which were home to both a graveyard and a golf course. That sounds grim but there’s plenty of space for both here.
It was the most perfect of days. The sun was shining, the sea was sparkling and flat and the sky was a hazy light blue. The sand was very light, but not white. The sea was incredibly clear and on a clear day like this, you could easily see the seabed, giving the sea a beautiful turquoise colour.
The pier is well set up for waiting travelers with benches and a portaloo. We sat on a bench and waited for Sabba the boatman to give to signal to get on board. Seamas, my husband, tells me that Sabba the boatman has been sailing since aged 7. He has a facebook page herewhere he will post times of sailings and photos.
It’s only a 15 minutes crossing. As soon as we set foot on the island, I am struck by the sense of peace here. Most of the sounds you are of nature. Birds singing. Sheep bleating. The wind. That’s it.
This is because there are very few motor vehicles here, one or two cars and some tractors.
Gola is in the Donegal Gaeltacht, where many people speak Irish. They are brought up speaking Irish at home and in school. So the signs are in Irish. Some have English translations, but not all did.
In 1911 as many as 169 people lived here but in the 1960s people started leaving as jobs and a better standard of living on the mainland and abroad had a stronger appeal than full-time life on the island. Only a handful of people live here all year round now.
It’s so peaceful. The land is covered vast stretches of long yellow prairie-like grass spotted with rocks and a few sheep and their sturdy lambs. The houses are scattered across the island along tracks.
Some of the houses are modern, others have been renovated and are still lived in during the summer months at least, others are boarded up but many lie ruined, without roofs or reduced to crumbling walls.
It was interesting to see the houses on Gola close up after looking across the water at them from Dunmore strand (see painting below). The houses are spaced much further apart than I supposed them to be. I was not satisfied until I had walked all the way to the southern tip of the island, so I could turn and look back at the houses. In this way, I could make sense of what I saw in early spring.
The houses are close but not that close. All of their front doors face southwards, towards the mainland. Mount Errigal and Muckish are off in the distance. I didn’t realise that you could see Muckish this far south. I suppose I have had never been here on such a clear day before.
I tried to take a photo of two camera-shy woolly donkeys in a field. They took exception to my presence and brayed very loudly at me. I got the message and left them in peace. Even the sheep eye you up, they are not used to strangers. They seem to look at you as if they are saying “You are not our farmer, what are you doing here?”.
Houses facing the mainland
On they way back to the boat we pass the infomation centre – an Teach Beag – its a large shed with tables outside. We are hot and I fancy a cup of tea. I try out the one bit of Irish I know on the man behind the counter “Dia duit” (“Hello”) I say. He then says something back to me which I dont understand. That stumps me. Turns out that he just said “Hello” back to me (“Dia is Muire duit”). I need to get a few more phrases/word in Irish under my belt!
This is Paddy Joe, who is 73 years old and still volunteers for the local lifeboat (training and teaching younger volunteers). It is noticeable how fit and active people in Donegal are, especially the men. We talk in English. I love listening to his accent, Irish is his first language. It’s musical. Part Ulster accent, part something else, something almost Scandinavian. Certainly, of the north. It sort of reminds me of the halting accents of Welsh-speaking farmers in North-Wales, as they seem to trip over their words as they think the right word in English.
Paddy Joe tells a story of going fishing down the Kerry coast and stopping in a pub for a drink. There are Irish speakers there but they do not understand the Irish speakers from Donegal, and the Donegal Irish speakers do not understand them either! I know that its similar in Wales, where Welsh speakers from the North use many different words from those in the West or South.
We decide to catch the 2 o’clock boat back as we have eaten all our sandwiches and the next boat is at 6pm. There is plenty more island to explore on another visit. We haven’t seen the sea arch at Scoilt Ui Dhúgáin, the lake Loch Mhachaire n nGall.
The boat is setting off, when Sabba spots two girls who came across with us at 11am. He returns to shore to pick them up. They get on the boat looking very relieved. They clearly didn’t fancy waiting until 6pm for the last boat back. The sky is starting to cloud over as we cross and by the time we reach Magheragallon Pier it is overcast.
When I decided to write this article I was not entirely sure I should. On Easter Monday I was gripped by the unfolding story of a massive, dangerous gorse fire spreading across the Rosses, a part of West Donegal. It worried that it would get completely out of hand and burn down people’s homes and destroy their livelihoods. I was checking twitter and my newsfeed for news of what was happening on an hourly basis to see if the fire had been brought under control. I was also worried about our own house in the Rosses. I love the area very much and feel attached to it. Yet, I felt guilty of being an outsider, what my husband calls a “Sasanach” (Saxon) or a “blow in” to the area only concerned about my house when brave local people were fighting desperately to quell the fires and save their homes. Actually, I was full of admiration for the community spirit and sheer grit and determination of the local people to fight the fire and save each other’s homes.
Donegal is often called the “forgotten county” on account of the belief that it is ignored by the government of Ireland, even in times of crisis. Maybe it’s because it’s so far away from the capital Dublin, or because of its location on the border with “troubled” Northern Ireland. On Monday that perception seemed to be borne out by events.
It had been an unseasonably warm Easter weekend. It was the warmest for 70 years. This followed on from the warmest Irish winter on record, that was also drier than average. Unfortunately, this has dried out the moorlands in many parts of Ireland. In recent weeks there have been many fires over moorland in Ireland and the UK; Limerick, Kerry, Down, and across 700 acres of Yorkshire. Moorlands (and in Ireland the boglands) are “usually” by their very nature wet and soggy places but climate change has changed all that; in these drier conditions, (along with the heather and gorse that grow on them) have become tinder-boxes. Spring and early summer is the most dangerous time of year for gorse fires, between i.e. March and June, when ground vegetation is dead and dry following the winter period.
The Rosses in West Donegal seems particularly vulnerable to gorse fires breaking out. Gorse is a stubborn plant with thick branches, prickly thorns and vibrant yellow flowers during the spring and summer. It is also highly flammable. At least three gorse fires broke out last week; one near Kinclassagh, one near Crolly and another near Drumnacart, Annagry, which actually destroyed two homes.
House destroyed by gorse fire in West Donegal
House destroyed by gorse fire in West Donegal
The gorse fire that broke early in the morning on Easter Morning between Loughanure & Annagry was a different order of scary fire. The dry conditions coupled with the ever-present wind whipped it up and it quickly got out of control and spread over a large area threatened many homes. Fires in windy dry conditions will soon leap and fly. Just to complicate things there was a separate fire at Belcruit/Kinclassagh. It has since been claimed that a fire hydrant, in the village was blocked, preventing fire crews and locals from having a readily available water supply to combat the blaze.
When this fire started 5 fire engines came to try and put it out. By the end of the day, 15 fire engines had come from all over Donegal. One fire engine even came across on the ferry from Arranmore Island. Hundreds of local volunteers also came out to help, many of them were fighting to save their own homes from being destroyed. Trenches were dug, houses were doused with water. It must have been hard, dirty and frightening work. Farmers brought slurry spreaders filled with water to douse the area. Others looked after the people fighting the flames, bringing them bottled water and food.
One fireman told a local newspaper, the Donegal Daily: “This is unreal stuff. I have battled a lot of gorse fires over the years but this is amongst the most dangerous. “Everything is bone dry and there is a strong wind so these are perfect conditions for the fires to spread rapidly.”
Photo credit Brid Sweeney
The local authorities and the Pat “The Cope” Gallager, the TD for Donegal, lost no time in asking (at 9.30am) for The Irish Air Corp for helicopters to help fight the fire. For some reason, they were not forthcoming. The Council waited and waited. Then a group of the firefighters fighting the separate fire near Belcruit were trapped by the flames. The area had been doused by water, so they weren’t in immediate danger, but it was a very worrying plight for them to be in. I can’t imagine what that must have been like to be surrounded by flames, like that.
Donegal County Council decided they could not wait any longer for the Air Corps, and decided to hire a private helicopter to fight the fire. It took 7 hours before the Air Corps finally arrived from Dublin on the scene at 5pm and proceeded to scoop up 42,000 litres of water from the nearby sea and lakes and drop them on the fire. They seemed to have made all the difference.
The Firemen at Belcruit escaped the flames when water was dropped on the fire, clearing a safe path for them. It must be a very difficult job aiming the bucket at the fire but from the video clip here, you can see the Air Corps are very good at it.
I got quite a shock when I saw the photo of Kinclassaagh below on twitter. It is a village I have painted a few times. You may be able to pick out the blue house to the left of the photograph below, which is in the centre of my painting “In the Shadow of Errigal”. The houses in the village are presumably being in doused in water in preparation of the worst-case scenario.
In the Shadow of Errigal
Fortunately, by the evening the fire was eventually brought under control and no new fires have broken out. The images of the aftermath are shocking. So many houses are surrounded by blackened gorse. They were clearly very close to being destroyed. It must have been the stuff of nightmares for the people who lived in them.
The fire will have been devastating for local wildlife and bird populations, their chicks and nests were not saved. This is the sort of event that Birdwatch Ireland calls “carnage in our mountains and hills, yet silence from our Government”. Rare plants whose precious seedlings have just emerged are also scorched along with hares, badgers, lizards, frogs, mice and all sorts of beetles.
When I first heard of these terrible wildfires, I assumed that it was due to climate change and global warming. Yet, when I did a bit of research, I found that it was a bit more complicated than that. Yes, dry winters and summers are factors but it seems that there are other reasons that have contributed to this issue, not only in Ireland but in the British Isles as a whole. So it seemed to me that these issues need to be dealt with more urgently than they have been so far. For all our sakes. Tackling the problem of the gorse fires could actually help with the issue of climate change.
Most gorse fires are started by humans, although we don’t actually know how Monday’s fires were started, and it seems pretty clear that they were not started by a local farmer. In many cases, however, it seems that wildfires are started deliberately by landowners, or by arsonists, or even accidentally by tourists’ barbeques (as in the case of the recent fire in Yorkshire). Northern Irish fire service estimates that in one month in 2017 they dealt with more than 500 fires, of which 466, it believed, were started deliberately.
Gorse is so difficult to clear, its not uncommon for farmers sometimes burn the land so it can be cleared. It is currently against the law in Ireland to burn land from 28 February to 1st September. This is to protect nesting birds and their young. Paradoxically, part of the problem is that these fires don’t happen often enough. Many Irish hill farms have been abandoned or neglected and regular burning has not taken place, allowing layers of detritus to build upon the ground while gorse and heather have grown leggy, meaning that fires are harder to control. Thus, the rise in the number of gorse fires may have more to do changes in farming practices than climate change, as such.
In an ideal world, I believe, upland farmers would not be paid to clear land but instead, be paid to grow native trees on their land. Yes, call me a tree-hugging hippy, but by reintroducing trees, shrubs, birds, insects, and large mammals would have their ancient habitats restored. Ireland needs more trees. The world needs more trees. This is a good way to tackle climate change, instead of cutting down the rain forest at ever increasing rates. More trees also reduce the risk of flooding. A recent study by Bangor University (the one in Wales) found that water was absorbed 67 times faster by native woodland than on grass. Once 80% of Ireland was covered in trees, now it’s only 10.5%; the lowest in Europe (the average is well over 30%). Of that native trees comprise just 2% of the total! These incredibly low numbers are primarily due to human activity in the 18th and 19th centuries, and to a lesser extent also activities in the early 20th century.
The government does plan to increase Ireland’s tiny forest cover to 18 percent by 2046, under the Strategic Plan for the Development of Forestry, but unfortunately, the vast majority of new trees are Sitka spruce tree farms. These are non-native trees, planted in crowded, rows, robbing light from the forest floor. They do not encourage wildlife in the way that native trees would. They are barren places. They also need fertilizers and pesticides. They are patently, the wrong trees. The woodland League recently ran an excellent scheme supported by President Michael D Higgins, called “Forest In A Box”, involving 700 children in nine primary schools in Co Dublin, Co Offaly and Co Clare. The “box” in question is a native tree seed box – a metre square – which can provide up to 200 healthy native trees every two years. It would be great if this scheme could be rolled to the whole of the country, maybe there are plans to do so.
One thing they are not short of in West Donegal is community spirit. On Monday evening, the brave people of West Donegal will come together again, for a massive clean-up operation to collect all the objects like water bottles, spades and face masks that were dropped whilst fighting last week’s fire. Yet again it will be all hands to the pump. It will also be a good opportunity for the brave, hard-working people of Donegal to “debrief” after such a traumatic experience. This fire won’t be forgotten for a long time, but fortunately, no lives were lost.
(Here’slink to a beautiful Irish language series on Irish trees, it’s well worth watching, because it’s atmospheric, poetic and informative. Click the “CC” logo on the bottom right of the screen for English subtitles )