This is the second part of my expanded Q & A interview with Niall McMonagle of the Sunday Independent.
Read part one here
This section is more about how I work, my style and influences.
Q: How do you choose your places to paint? And is there a particular time of year that you favour?
A: Light and colour draw me to a subject. I am looking for a strong composition and clean colours. Usually bright light and strong shadows, so any time of year except for summer. I paint large paintings in the long hours of summer instead. Composition is key to my work. I also like to express the quiet like various American realists like Edward Hopper. I also love Rockwell Kent, a painter who also painted west Donegal.
Q: Do you work en plein air? From sketches? Photographs?
A: I tried painting en plein air in South Wales – I was crippled by feeling self-conscious and frustrated by my lack of control over the conditions. Plein air is also not conducive to my style of painting, and what I am trying to achieve in my work; in the magnification of simplicity, form, light and shadow. I am continually painting layers over a period of time. My creative process starts with taking the photo, editing and then using it for inspiration. I try to recreate the essence of a place I am painting rather than simply reproducing a scene. I am very much influenced by the photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson and how he used composition to create dynamic images.
Q: You now live in Derry and Donegal. How did that come about?
A: We wanted to have a combination or urban and rural so that we could experience both, so we live 7/8 months of the year in Derry and 4/5 months in Donegal. The Derry/Donegal combo is hard to beat. Derry also opens up another area of east Donegal, Inishowen, as it is only a few miles away from Derry city.
Q: Your work features on a Donal Ryan Spanish version of Strange Flowers [‘Cottage on Bunbeg Harbour’] and Claire Keegan’s Foster [‘The Traditional House. Gola’]. Congratulations. Has that made a difference?
A: It has been great to get recognition from two such brilliant writers. I feel greatly honoured. I knew that when I moved from South Wales to Ireland that I was likely to lose collectors (although I still paint the Gower Peninsula in South Wales and Tenby from time to time) and it would take time to build up an Irish following.
I am hoping these book covers will help with that, plus this feature.
Q: How did the dreaded Covid affect you and your work?
A: I broke my leg at the start of the pandemic and was awaiting an operation in Morriston Hospital, near Swansea as the country went into lockdown. So whilst most were confined to their houses I was confined to my bedroom for several months and had to do physiotherapy down the phone. I took months to recover and regain my mobility and make it up the steep stairs into my attic studio.
Artists live very solitary lives so lockdown wasn’t a massive change to my life, as such. I was frustrated that I couldn’t visit locations to take photos for new paintings so I spent months scouring through the photos I did have. I was surprised at how many photos I had discounted could be made into interesting pictures.
Covid has definitely affected our life here – I feel frustrated that we are living at arms’ length from everyone. It has meant that we have limited where we go and what we do. My husband is asthmatic, so we are very careful. We got vaccinated and boosted and always wear masks indoor but we were still very ill this summer. It knocked us both out for 6 weeks. I don’t want to catch it again because we don’t know what the long term effects will be.
Q: In terms of your palette what colours are essential?
A: It depend where I am painting and whether I am using oils or acrylics. The light in South Wales is more yellowy, in Donegal it is clearer and bluey-white. Our house in Derry is smaller than our Donegal house so I had to learn to paint with acrylics because of the fumes and having pets at close quarters.
Acrylics are very different to oils as you have to build them up in thin layers. They dry fast and are difficult to blend. Oils are more opaque but much slower to dry. I have to think about each medium in a different way and use different colours. With both oil and acrylics I prefer underlying warm colours (oranges, ochres, pinks and mauves) but I have to use different colours to get a similar same effect in each. With oils I would use Naples Yellow, Yellow ochre, Olive Green, Raw and Burnt Umber, Raw Sienna, Van Dyke Brown, Warm Grey, and Cool Grey, Mauve and for the sea and sky Ultramarine and Phthalo Blues.
With acrylics I would use Lemon Yellow, Ivory, Light Ochre, Sap Green, Cerulean Blue and Ultramarine blue, pink and purple, Payne’s grey for darker tones. I use more mixing white and fluid medium in acrylic. I have had to train myself to mix large quantities of “sky” colour and keep in a tub with acrylic. There’s this thing called “colour shift” which means the paint dries lighter. So it’s almost impossible to match wet acrylics to the dry colour you want to achieve. The irony is that I think that although I prefer painting in oils, I think my acrylic paintings might actually be better.
Q: The painting reproduced in the Sunday Independent on 15 January is ‘Down to the Pier, Gola’. Would you say something please about your links with, your relationship with, Donegal in general and Gola in particular.
A: I love the Donegal islands – they are a glimpse of a vanishing Ireland. Gola and Inishbofin are wonderful locations, in particular, although the one I most visit and have painted most is Arranmore.
I went to Gola island because of the space as I thought it would suit my “rural minimal” style of painting which proved to be the case. They have very few vehicles and I really enjoy the peace. Isn’t that why we like the coast – with just the sound of the waves and the wind? How the houses were placed, in this vastness lent itself to composition. The islands, more than any other place I have been to, chime most with my style of painting. They have moved my style forward. Also I really like the fact that there are almost no telegraph poles to complicate compositions too.
The way the vernacular houses are arranged, sheltering from upland areas of the island, and close together suggests how people of the past worked together and with the landscape. I think I am attracted to the sense of community. People had to work together in order to survive. A sense of community, interconnectedness, of Irishness, lingers there. It is tangible.
Q: Also re ‘Down to the Pier, Gola’ how quickly does your eye know and choose the perspective and the composition of the piece? And would you say something please about how you went about making this work? Did you begin with a drawing? What colour did you put down first etc.
A: Composition is key. The cinematic-type compositions and dramatic use of light and shade. As I said before I am strongly influenced by the French photograph Henri Cartier Bresson and I often look for a road or fence posts to lead the eye into the painting.
Elements will also be left out or simplified to give the image more punch. Most of the Gola and Inishbofin paintings are painted in my own “rural minimal” style which is the rural manifestation of the “urban minimal” style I developed to paint the city with. This style of painting is influenced by those American realist painters who paint the quiet, the spacious and the still and revere a certain treatment of light and colour such as Edward Hopper as well as by Contemporary Minimalists such Jessica Brilli, (whom I traded paintings with last year). The rules of composition are strong light and shade, use of diagonals and simplified forms. I wanted to explore the interplay of the geometry of shadows and structures – the tension between the 3D buildings and the 2D shadows. I wasn’t sure if this style would work in the countryside until I went to Gola and found it was perfect for evoking the silence and the stillness of these beautiful islands.
“Down to the Pier, Gola” is an oil painting. I sketched the outline of the road and buildings in thin red ochre paint. I painted the white house first. It takes a several layers of paint to create that intensity of the whitewash. I usually use thin layers of paint, but my final layer of white will be thicker. White oil paint takes the longest time to dry, which is why I often start with white. I then added the blue sky and the pink road and distant buildings. I like to work quickly when I paint in oils. I will rub away the paint if I am not happy with a colour. I have learnt to be quite ruthless with rubbing back and starting from the canvas. This way the final piece is lighter and has more coherence. I am wary of over-working the paint.
I use a different approach to painting with acrylics. It is much slower as I usually paint a grayscale (or in earth tones) underpainting to check I have my tonal values right and then I add colour. There is a lot of adjusting of colours and correction that goes on. I will often work on two paintings at a time so that I can add sky, sea and use the same colours and let them dry so I can consider the colours and how they are coming together. Acrylic paintings can take up to a couple of weeks, on and off, to complete.
Q: What do you look for in a painting? And do you have a favourite painting by another artist that means a great deal to you?
A: Often I am drawn to the light – a shaft of sunlight on a window sill or a strong shadow by a house. Often times it will be a particular colour – such as the blue of clear seas of Donegal or the pale fluffy clouds.
Robert Bevan’s “Maples at Cuckfield, Sussex” (painted in 1914) is very special to me as it was a complete surprise when I came across it at Cardiff Museum in 2012. A good painting makes me to go home and paint. I used to feel that way about the Van Gogh’s and Monet.
I just loved the muted colours with the light orange and purples and the semi abstract trees. Bevan had spent time in Paris at Pont Aven in Brittany. He met Cezanne and Renoir was friends with Gauguin. I went back the follow year to see it again and was disappointed to find it wasn’t on display. The museum was kind enough, however, to let me and my husband go down to storage to see it close up.
Q: You have sold many many paintings. Are you sorry to see them go? Has there ever been one that you just did not want to part with?
A: I have had to toughen up a lot about parting with paintings. My sister’s advice was “paint so many you are sick of the sight of them”. It did work but some paintings really are tough to let go of. I really regret selling a painting of a horse “Blaze” and another of a elderly lady carrying her shopping in Swansea town centre, called “Soldiering On”. I have learnt my lesson and I have a handful of paintings that I won’t ever put up for sale – one is of a Gower pony, another is of a cat that used to hang out at the local general store in Swansea.
Q: If you would like me to include your website, instagram, upcoming exhibition etc please give them here.
A: I haven’t exhibited in recent years in galleries by choice and I sell the majority of my work via my website although I have a private art gallery behind my cottage in Donegal which is usually open, by appointment, May – October.
@emma_cownie_artist on instagram
Website – http://www.emmafcownie.com