Here’s my spring newsletter which you will see is heavy on the visual and very light on the text!
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I was recently commissioned by a collector to paint a version of a painting by Paul Henry. This was quite a daunting request. At the moment, my top three favorite (dead) painters of the Donegal landscape are Paul Henry, and William Hubert Craig and Letitia Marion Hamilton.
Born in Belfast, Paul Henry studied art in Belfast and then Paris. He lived in London briefly, and then moved to Achill Island on the West coast of Ireland in 1910, with his artist wife, Grace. They lived here until 1919 when they moved to Dublin. His paintings depict the West of Ireland landscape in a beautifully spare post-impressionist style.
Paul Henry’s paintings portray the rugged mountains, wind-swept trees, dark boglands and towering clouds of the west coast of Ireland. His images of Ireland are genuinely “iconic”. This is because in 1925 he was commissioned by the London Midland and Scottish Railway Company to design a travel poster.
This poster for Connemara was distributed throughout the world (mostly in North America) to encourage tourists to explore the west of Ireland. The Irish Times commented in that year: “If thousands of people in Great Britain and America have been led this summer to think over the claims of Ireland as holiday ground it is largely through the lure of Mr Paul Henry’s glowing landscape of a Connemara scene.”
Many people bought reproductions of the poster and more posters followed.
Many of Paul Henry’s landscape paintings are in public galleries and museums but they also turn up at auction on a regular basis and almost always do “very well”.
The small painting that was auctioned this July, was the one I was commissioned to interpret. This was “Claddagh Village” painted in 1928. I do not know what the painting sold for, but the estimate was for a whopping €40,000 – €60,000
I had to think quite a bit about this painting and Paul Henry before I started work on my own version. I have never done versions of other artists’ works, although I have seen artists sketching famous paintings in art galleries. I am the sort of artist who peers very closely at the surface of a painting in a gallery, to try and get a sense of how a painting was made.
I suppose I approached this task in a similar manner. I peered carefully at the impasto brushwork in the photograph of the painting. I looked at how he had laid the colours down. Although the paint was thick in places, in others it was applied thinly and the colour of the canvas/grounding showed through the paint. There was something about Paul Henry’s paintings that bothered me. I could not quite put my finger on it. How can I put it, they were all very blue, even when they had red in them. Indeed, “Claddagh Village” had curious splashes of red on the right-hand side of the painting, and I wasn’t sure what they were meant to represent. Was the hedge on fire? Surely not.
Part of the answer it turns out that Paul Henry was mildly colour bind. So when he used red it was probably squeezed neat from the tube. Greens, warm, cool, or otherwise, are often absent from his paintings. This caused me to pause. Should I copy Paul Henry’s colour scheme or use my own palette of colours? I decided I needed to know more. So I research the subject matter a bit more.
Claddagh was a fishing village in County Galway. It’s thatched cottages were pulled down in the 1930s, but old photographs of the original houses still survive.
These photos gave me a good sense of the chunky shape of these very old houses but not their colours. So I looked for modern photos of Galway thatched cottages for the colour. I finally, found some images of puffy clouds over Connemara and put together a reference sheet for colours and shapes. I decided although I would use Paul Henry’s composition I would not copy his colours, as such, use the reference images in the way I usually paint pictures.
Once I had settled these questions in my mind, I put them to mind and painted. My canvas was about the same size (24x30cm) as the one he used (23x30cm). My choice of blue for the sky was very different from the beautiful (almost) duck egg blue Paul Henry used. My cloud was a summer cloud.
My shadows had more blue and mauve in them, that Henry’s which had a lot of grey/brown in them. Interestingly, had I been painting a watercolour version I probably would have copied his choice of colour for the shadows.
I dithered over the russet-coloured bush. I wondered if it had been green in real life or if the painting was done in autumn. In the end, I left it russet. I don’t think I conveyed the thickness of the thatch as well as Henry did. My thatch looks too new.
Right at the end as I painted the grey stone wall, I realised with an oddly blinding clarity that the smudges of red could only be a rain shower! How stupid was I to think that the bush was on fire? The whole painting was about a pair of small rain clouds producing a tiny gust of rain, whereas my version was about a hot sunny day.
Paul Henry’s painting is an infinitely superior painting to mine as it has movement too; in the rain shower, how he has painted the road, the depth of the shadow/reflection on the gable ends of the houses. He handles the paint so confidently. It tells a story, about a sudden shower, whereas mine is about space and empty street. I always thought that Paul Henry was the master of simplifying a scene, I just had not appreciated how effective his use of impasto paint was. I found that very appealing.
Now I understand why artists will make copies of the great masters, because you cannot truly understand how a painting is made until you try and put together your own version. Looking at the surface of a painting will only get you so far in understanding it. I was not attempting to copy “Claddagh Village”, although that would have been interesting, but reimagine it. As many husband joked, it’s Claddagh village, just on a better day.
A while back I came across a quote on the internet that has stuck in my mind:- “If I knew the world was to end tomorrow, I would still plant an apple tree today.” I was quite struck by this sentiment, especially in the light of current events.
I could not remember who said it. So I did some research. I was intrigued by what I discovered online. I found a number of statements:-
- It was originally said by Martin Luther, a 16th century German monk
- It was originally said by Martin Luther King Jnr, the 20th century African-American Civil Rights Campaigner.
- It wasn’t said by 1) or 2)!
This puts me in mind of one of my favourite internet memes by that teller-of-truth Abe Lincoln…
The apple seed quote apparently originates in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, in the Protestant Confessing Church, which used it to inspire hope and perseverance during its opposition to the Nazi dictatorship.
To be honest, it doesn’t matter who said or when (although there’s a lesson about taking things at face value there) because I like the sentiment. No matter how dreadful things seem, they will pass. Eventually.
Here is my apple seed for this week.
This is only a short post because my cold from hell isn’t shifting and I have been ordered to rest by Séamas, which as you see, I am failing to do!
I like red and orange. Especially in winter. I have noticed that I like to paint red and orange things in wintertime. I previous years it has been red coats on the harbor beach at Tenby, or grandparents buying ice-creams in Brynmill Park. This year it’s the autumnal orange foliage of Donegal.
I painted this small painting over a number of days, over Christmas. I would usually paint a picture like this in one day but the light kept going and I wasn’t very energetic so I decided not to rush it and wait until the next day. I think my patience was well-rewarded.
I have painted this house before, in a much larger painting. It’s interesting how the more distant view produces a cooler more airy painting.
The Opening night of an “Open” exhibition is an affair full of nervous energy! This is because 90% of people in the room are artists who are all relieved/happy to have their work included in the exhbition in the first place and secondly have come to see where their painting/s have ended up? Are they in a corner? Can they be seen?
Open Exhibition is where the organisers invite or “call” for artists to submit their work (for a small fee). The best works are then selected to be included in the exhibition. There are massive national exhibitions (like the BP Portrait Prize) that are so massive that they have a preliminary round where digital photos are first sent for consideration. The Glynn Vivian, does it the old fashioned way by requiring artists to bring their paintings to gallery for submission. You can submit up to two works each. As, it’s only open to artists living in the Swansea area, it’s not too onerous to drop in the paintings.
All artists fear rejection. We are sensitive souls. So to have to face the prospect of being rejected (one or two paintings) isn’t pleasant. Inclusion isn’t automatic, even if your work has been included before (I was in 2017), especially as the people doing the choosing (or “curating”) change every year. This year’s curators were Richard Billingham and Durre
Shahwar. Richard is a photographer and filmer maker who was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2001. Shahwar is a writer, editor, and creative facilitator. Thankfully they chose both of the works I submitted.
I had deliberately decided to arrive an hour into the Opening party as I remember it being very crowded to last time I came in 2017. It was still very crowded at 3pm and the numbers only really thinned out after 4pm. There were 245 pieces in the exhibition. The two rooms in the gallery were filled to the brim with paintings (and artists). were overwhelmingly 2D art. Paintings, sketches and prints, but there were films and sculptures too.
Of course, the first thing I did was try and find my paintings. They were in the second room. I was initially surprised to see that they were not together but had been arranged separately as part of themed groups of colours. I thought that the arrangement worked well. It’s a funny feeling seeing your paintings in amongst lots of other paintings. It’s like a familiar face amongst a crowd of strangers.
There’s no way I can get a photo of both paintings, I thought. Actually, for a long time, I could not get a photo of each painting as the gallery was so crowded.
For some reason, people stood in front of my second painting, Autumn in the Rosses for the longest time. Different groups of people too. So I had to wait quite a while to get a photo of it and even then I had a person’s shadow on it!
It wasn’t just me trying to get a photo of my work. These artists were very excited about being in the exhibition. Their joy was a delight to see.
There was so much to look at in the exhibition. There was such a variety of work too. Here are just a few that caught my eye. The most affecting work were the two bird sculptures by Mike Hill. One was made of fishing tackle detritus and the other was in the shape of a cormorant smothered in tar. In fact, the tar-bird was so affecting that I had to fight back the tears. There were quite a few works that touched up the climate emergency and waste but these two, in my opinion, were the most powerful ones.
I particularly liked the animal/nature themed wall.
I also really liked Myles Lawrence Mansfield ” Rejections/Acceptance Machine”. I liked it even more when it was explained to me that it moved when you turned to handle! I always like things that do something. Thinking about it now, it may well have been a comment on the life of an artist!
I had to pleasure of meeting fellow artist Wendy Sheridan in real life (after many online interactions via social media). She very kindly took my photo!
I would highly recommend visiting the Glynn Vivian to see all the works in the Open Exhibition. It’s on until 23rd February (closed on Mondays) and is free!
Find about more about the Open Exhibition here
I love looking at maps and finding out the names of places. This is particularly true of the islands that litter the coast of West Donegal near the Rosses. I am always asking my husband, what island is that? He’s usually pretty good at knowing the names (I check on a paper map later). In the summer I spotted a house on a tiny slip of an island to the south of Arranmore. Can you see it in this photograph below?
View from Arranmore
Closer. See it now?
I thought it was just one lone house (was that another house at the other end of the island, maybe?). What glorious solitude! What must it be like to stay on that island all with the spray of the sea so close looking at big Arranmore? This is my painting of the island. I was curious about the feint outlines of ruined houses I could see either side of the restored summer house. I wondered about them and their families.
This is Iniskeeragh. Ireland (like Wales) is rich in descriptive place names. They usually describe are named after features of the landscape, such as hills, rocks, valleys, lakes, islands, and harbours. In Irish, its name is “Inis Caorach” which means “Sheep or Ewe Island”. So either sheep were kept on the island (it seems pretty small for that) or its a shape reminded people of a ewe, which might be more likely?
After some research (online and in books) back home I discovered that the island had at least 12 families living there permanently, it also had a schoolhouse. I find this incredible for such a small, lowing lying island. It’s 650m x 300m (2132ft x 984ft) in size. I tried to work that out in football pitches. It’s the equivalent to 40 football pitches, so maybe its not as tiny as I think. It is very low. It’s no higher than 11 feet above sea level. Yet you can read their names in the 1901 census here. The family names of the farming families are familiar Donegal ones: Gallagher, Boyle, Sweeney, Rodgers, O’Donnell and a sole Bonner, Grace (35) who was listed in the census as a knitter, she was one of only 2 knitters on the island.
These Donegal islands may seem remote to modern eyes, but they played their part in the culture and history of modern Ireland. Gola Island, Gweedore, may well have served as the model for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Two men from Gola, Patrick McGinley and Charles Duggan, were aboard the Asgard, the yacht that brought arms into Howth in north county Dublin in 1914, in preparation for the Easter Rising of 1916. Tiny Inishkeeargh also had its connection with the wider world. Writer and political activist Peadar O’Donnell (1893-1986) was a for a time teacher’s assistant at the school on the island and he set his second novel, The Islanders, here. Peadar went on to become one of Ireland’s foremost radicals of the 20th-century.
Life was tough on the island. Roise Rua described her work on the island kelp-making as “tedious and exhausting”. The tenants had to pay rent of £50: £26 for the use of the land and £24 for the use of the seashore – making kelp, picking winkles or shellfish, dulse and the like.” Sadly, like many other Donegal island communities, such as Owey and Gola, the people of Inishkeeragh was forced to relocate to the mainland in the 1950s.
Sea levels played a big part as at least twice in the twentieth century an exceptionally high tide coinciding with a bad gale forced the islands to take refuge in the two houses that had lofts. They apparently spent hours “in terror, fearing the overloaded floors would collapse.” A storm in 1953 washed away the pier and the government of the day would not pay for it to be repaired. This meant that subsequent storms swept through the houses and within 5 years all the families were forced to leave the island.
There was a reunion of Inishkeeragh families and their descendants in 2015 on the island. Internationally renowned Country singer, Daniel O’Donnell, was part of the celebrations (his mother was born on nearby, Owey Island).
Addition sources for Inishkeeragh (Inis Caorachin) came from:
Atlas of County Donegal, Jim Mac Laughlin and Sean Beattie (2013)
Donegal Islands, Ros Harvey and Wallace Clark (2003)
Roger Curry’s Donegal photos can be found at https://pbase.com/rogercurry/image/51657229
This is a footnote to Sunday’s post about A Donegal year.
I had been trying to finish it but the weather and the light were so bad here in Wales over the weekend, I had to leave it until Monday. I struggle to see greens in poor light and as the grass at the bottom of the painting was so important to the success of the image, I decided to wait until I could see it.
It’s is such a joy to look at the bright blue skies of Donegal and the wonderful clear light.
See it here
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.