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Up Bloody Foreland, Donegal

Up Bloody Foreland

Bloody Foreland is one of my favourite locations in Donegal. It is one of the wildest, windiest and most beautiful places I have been. The light is sharp and clear.  You feel healthier for breathing the air here.

House on Cnoc Fola
House on Cnoc Fola

The wind is always blowing. It is very remote and feels a bit like the edge of the known-world.

Derelict house, Bloody Foreland
A derelict house, Bloody Foreland

The name Bloody Foreland (Cnoc Fola in Irish means Hill of Blood) does not to refer to some past battle that took place here in mythic times, but  intense red hue of the rocks at sunset. The Irish language dominates here.

Folklore records that Balor, the one-eyed supernatural warlord was eventually slain by his grandson Lugh Lámh Fhada on the slopes of Cnoc Fola. Indeed, some say that the tide of blood which flowed from Balor’s evil eye stained the hillside and gave it its name.

Bloody Foreland, Donegal
Bloody Foreland, Donegal

I particularly like the incredible stone walls, made of massive granite boulders, that snake across the hills here. They date from the 1890s. They suggest to me a landscape where stones were plentiful and labour cheap. It is also the sort of place where writers come to get away from the modern world and think about writingDylan Thomas, travelled to An Port, further south to write poetry, but left without paying his bills.

Old Farm BuildingsOld Farm Buildings, Bloddy Foreland 

Bloody Foreland,  also makes a refreshing contrast to the slopes of Brinlack and Derrybeg, round the corner, which are heavily peppered with larger modern houses and bungalows from the era of “Bungalow Bliss“.

Houses on Bloody Foreland, Donegal
Houses on Bloody Foreland, Donegal

This is the first time that I have been able to paint Ireland whilst in Ireland. Previously, I have worked from my photos back in Wales. Now I think that being surrounded by these colours all the time is affecting my work in a different way.

I am experimenting a little with less detail and letting my under painting show through more – to give a greater sense of the roughness of the landscape here. I am feeling my way. I don’t know how my paintings will develop in the future, but not knowing is a sort of freedom from painting the same thing in the same sort of way.

Painting of Houses on Bloody Foreland

Up Bloody Foreland, Donegal

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Made it to Ireland!

In my studio

Here’s a photo-story about our move to Ireland. The photos are all by Séamas Johnston, my husband. He is also the architect of the move, the new studios and our new life. He’s been amazing. It’s great to see all his hard work finally come together.

Packing the Car, Brynmill, Swansea
Packing the Car, Swansea (before much stuff was packed)
Packing at Swansea
Endless Packing! It felt never ending.
Lateral Flow Test
Lateral Flow Test – one line means no covid. We discover that our tonsils are not that dangley bit at the back of your throat.  We also did a PCR test but there are no photos of that.
Ivrine
Irvine Moving Solutions –  they are moving our stuff – we saw their van coming off the Belfast ferry at Birkenhead!
Birkenhead Ferry
Stena Line Ferry Terminal at Birkenhead, Liverpool. It was a long wait to get on.
Early Morning Belfast
The otherside of the Irish Sea. Early Morning Belfast from the ferry
Meadow Cottage
How everything has grown at Meadow Cottage!
Meadow Cottage Studio
The studio window
Studio windows
Séamas reflected in the studio windows
Cat Patrol
Hattie doing “Cat Patrol with her eyes” on a new view
Multi-fuel Stove
We ALL love the new multi-fuel stove!
My new Studio
Finally, I am in my beautiful new studio. It was made by L E Haslett & Co. in Tyrone https://www.facebook.com/lehaslett
Studio view
I love the view from the studio. I cant wait until my stuff arrives from storage and I can get back to painting.

Just to warn you. I have access to wifi this weekend (on a 3 day trial) but we decided to use a different company for our internet but they can’t install it for another 10 days so my responses will be delayed. My business remains closed until the middle of this month (July 2021).

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Gola Staycation (2021)

Gola Staycation

Caravans tucked away on coastal inlets and islands are not an unsual sight in Donegal.  I am always impressed by their presence as there are no roads for lorries and it must have taken a good deal of effort and ingenuity to get it there. Getting to have a “Staycation” in 2021 amidst all the uncertainty of vaccine rolls out & third (or is it fourth?) waves looks like it will take an equal amount of effort! So instead join me in imagining the view from the static caravan’s wide window across the rugged terrain of Gola Island on this late spring morning.

Painting of caravan on Gola island, Donegal
Gola Staycation (2021) 100×65 cm
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The Art of the Large Landscape Painting

Landscape painting Ireland

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.

Painting of Gola, Donegal
Small and Big Versions

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.

A Beginners Guide to Composition
A Beginners Guide to Composition

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”.


I had been influenced by ideas of composition from photography and the work of artist-turned photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson,in particular.

Rule of Thirds - Henri Cartier Bresson
Rule of Thirds – Henri Cartier Bresson

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.

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.

Painting of Donegal Coast
Sailing By Edernish

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.

Over to the Rosses
Over to the Rosses 60x40xm
landscape painting of Ireland
View From Arranmore, Ireland 92x73cm

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!

 

Blogs on composition

http://photoinf.com/Golden_Mean/L_Diane_Johnson/The_Basics_of_Landscape_Composition.htm

http://www.workovereasy.com/2019/06/13/a-beginners-guide-to-composition/

https://feltmagnet.com/painting/Value-Pattern-Painting-Composition

 

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Our First Year in Donegal, Ireland

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! 

Mizty in the grass
Mizty in the grass (after a trim)

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).

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Seamas cutting things down

We painted things like fences, walls window sills and the gate.

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We can see clearly now…

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.

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The encroaching gorse

It’s springy stuff. I jumped up and down on it a lot.

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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. 66442595_10217375162305895_527527661619118080_o

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.

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New front door

Seamas painted the back of the house and got the hang of the petrol strimmer.

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4. Seamas’s winter visit. Part 1- More changes: – a new north-facing skylight put in by Paddy Campbell. Yeay. Light to paint by!

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New glass in the back door – so we can see the jungle outside!

Best of all, Tom had removed the gorse by the back of the house. It was gone!

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Just lovely pink rock!
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Thank you, digger!

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.

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We can see the fabulous pink granite rocks
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There’s a lot of rock

Finally, the brambles are gone.

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There’s a lot of land here!

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The path by the house is finally clear

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.

Update: June 2020 we had a portacabin art studio (designed by Séamas and Stephen Primrose) and built by H.E. Haslett Co. Ltd of County Tyrone delivered. It looks great. If you are wondering, the giant window which is positioned to for the northern light,  is round the other side. 

Portacabin Art Studio
Portacabin Art Studio

 

As you can see the garden has GROWN! I hope the insects and wildlife are all enjoying the overgrown garden. My broken leg and the pandemic prevented a another visit (and a lot of gardening) in 2020.

I am really looking forward to using this studio later this year (all going well with vaccinations, fingers crossed)!

Big window on the far side

Big window on the far side 

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A Donegal Year

It was a year ago that I painted my first painting of Donegal. Here it is. It is a small one.
Old School, Owey Island
Old School, Owey Island
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.  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. 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. I will freely admit I am quite obsessed by landscape spotted with old cottages on the Donegal islands, on Arranmore and Gola in particular.
donegal painting of Gola, West Donegal.
Spring Light on Gola
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.
Painting of Irish mountain
Swirling Clouds Round Errigal
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.   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.
Donegal painting
Back Road to Burtonport
 
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Going large! (Scaling up a commission piece)

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.

Painting of Gola, Donegal

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.

Painting of Gola, Donegal
Up from the Pier (in-studio)

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.

Painting of Gola, Donegal
Sketching out the commission

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.

Painting of Gola, Donegal

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.

Painting of Gola, Donegal
The artist (*ahem*) with the two paintings
Painting of Gola, Donegal
The Commission piece finished 120x80cm

 

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Tory Island, Donegal

Tory Island Donegal, paintimng by Emma Cownie

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.

Car at Magheroarty
Car at Magheroarty (Muckish Mountain in distance)
 

 

We were not quite the last people on the boat but all the downstairs 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.

Queen of Aran - Ferry to Tory
Queen of Aran – Ferry to Tory

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.

Map of Tory Island
Map of Tory Island

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.

One of the tors of Tory Island
One of the tors of Tory Island

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.

An Baile Thiar
An Baile Thiar

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 reef near 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 the National 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.

King of Tory (from Wikipedia)
King of Tory (from Wikipedia)

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.

Painting by Patsy Dan Rodgers
Tall Cross with History on Tory

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.

Tory Island
Tory Island (mainland Donegal in the distance)

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 of poitin 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.

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Cave to the sea

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.

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Tory Island Sea Stack
Painting of Tory Island
Tory Island

We spent a lot of time walking along the cliffs and back again, taking in the views.

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North Coast of Tory Island

 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!

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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.

Old winding gear at Port an Duin
Old winding gear at Port an Duin

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 fearsome cyclops warlord who could kill a man dead with a single glance of his evil eye! 

On Dun Bhaloir, Tory Island
On Dun Bhaloir, Tory

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. 

Tory Island From Dun Bhaloir
Tory Island From Dun Bhaloir

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.

Bench on Tory
Bench on Tory
Home maintenance on Tory
Home maintenance on Tory

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.

Three dolphins from a distance
Three dolphins from a distance
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Closer Up: Donegal Dolphin

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.

Find out more about visiting Tory Island here

Beside Magheraroarty Beach, Ireland
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Painting the Derryveagh Mountains

Painting the Derryveagh Mountains

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

Horn Head, Donegal
Horn Head, Donegal

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. 

View Towards Bloody Foreland

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.

Donegal painting
Across to Dunfanaghy SOLD

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.

Painting of Donegal mountains
Wild Wind Over Dunfanaghy SOLD

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! 

Rain over Dunfanaghy
Rain over Dunfanaghy SOLD)

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Echo Of Small Things

Painting of Donegal House

The title of this post comes from a 2005 album by 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.

Two Blue Tits
Two Blue Tits (detail)
Painting of Two Bluetits
Two Bluetits

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.

Painting of Donegal cottage with Mount Errigal
Near Dunmore Strand

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.

Near Dunmore Strand - detail
Detail (work in progress)

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”