There is a definite shift in the seasons. In summer here, the light seemed to stretch on for eve; well past 11pm. Suddenly the days have started shortening fast. It is now dark before 9pm. It has rained solidly for the last two days. In typical Donegal fashion, the sun has come out and everything is bright and fresh.
Artimus (aka Artie) our Donegal rescue cat has just passed me to go outside in the catio to smell the breeze. He used to be a stray. It’s hard to believe as he’s so beautiful and such a softie. He now enjoys the warmth and comforts of indoor life (especially hiding under the towel rail) but he still enjoys the smells and sounds of rural life outside. We lost three pets in the last year (two cats and a dog) and I am not letting him outside when there’s a busy road at the bottom of the garden. I cant face the heartache, if I dont have to. So Séamas, built a catio. Or the cat veranda as I like to call it. Both of our cats, enjoy it but Artie, especially so but not when it’s cold. He’s been in and out of it four times in the last twenty minutes. I think he wishes it was warmer. He must have found life as a stray really tough!
Errigal from Cruit Island, Donegal:-This was one of a pair of large paintings I started before I got ill. It sat in it’s greyscale state for over a month and a half until I recovered enoungh stamina to complete it! Large painting require a lot of strength as you lift your arms/hands above your head, even if you are just moving the canvas. I was very glad to finish it.
I enjoyed painting the rolling landscape; splattered with rocks. I took great pleasure in adjusting the colours in oil paint and “tightening up” the details. The rash of rocks amongst the boglands is quite unique to this part of Donegal. Further south towards, Glencolmcille, there are far fewer bolders and rocks. There the bogland blankets the landscape uninterupted. There are far fewer houses there too. This area of Donegal, the Rosses, however, is dotted with houses old and new. I like that the old houses nestle in the nooks and crannies of the landscape; keeping out of the prevailing westerly winds and showers.
Finally, I managed to scale the steep steps to my attic studio! One step at a time. Holding on the handrails.
Ah, what pleasure it was to be back in the attic. It has a view out the back of the house. It is a great pleasure to look at the wooded parks and hills of West Swansea instead of the unrelenting concrete streets and terrace houses out the front of the house. I have a number of commissions to fulfill but I wanted to “warm up” with some small paintings first as I have been working with watercolours for the past two months. Here’s a selection:-
My first reaction to oil paint was how slow it all is in comparison with watercolours. With watercolours, most of the effort goes into planning and preparation and then the execution of the painting itself is quick. Putting oil paint on the canvas was more laborious that watercolours. I also had to rummage around for looking for the right sort of paintbrushes, a few times. I could not quite lay my hands on what I needed. But, ah! The paint did what I thought it was going to do. What joy! If I changed my mind about a composition or decided that something did not work I could wipe it off the canvas. It did not reproach me for making a mistake by showing it to the world for ever! Nice!
Anyway, I sat down and started a series of new Donegal paintings. Here they are.
The Two Tin-Roofed Sheds, Arranmore, Ireland
The Old Stone Shed Arranmore Ireland
These paintings are from the past few weeks. I have also worked on two commissions. It has been slow work at times as I often need a lunchtime nap to keep my energy levels up. I do my rehab exercises several times a day which can be very tiring. On a positive note, I finally got to speak to a physiotherapist, Josh, who has been very helpful. He has posted exercises to me and giving me guidance on how much to do. I can walk upstairs reasonably well, but downstairs one step at a time. When I get tired my ankle gets sore and I limp. I try and avoid that if I can.
What did I learn from watercolours? That I can and should edit and play around with compositions more. I simplified my images as much as I could. I changed the skies or left out an inconvenient house. I found this freeing and I brought an element of this to my oil paintings. For some reason, I have felt to need to be truthful to the real-life locations I painted. I realise now that I don’t have to. I can happily leave out a telegraph pole or a lamp post if it confuses the composition.
Watercolour painting of robin
What do I miss about watercolours? The tidiness. Clean clothes and hands. The lack of chaos. The speed. The brushes that don’t wear out by the time you have finished a large painting. The lightness. They convey the lightness of birds better than oil colours. Also the convenience, I could pack away all my paper, paints, and brushes in one big bag. I am looking forward to using them outside when I can walk much longer distances!
Watercolours are not usually my thing but circumstances have changed that, for the time being. When I came out of the hospital after my operation to fix my broken left leg, I knew that I going to off my feet for at least 6 weeks. I also knew that it would probably take another 2 to 3 weeks to be fully mobile again. I had all sorts of vague ideas about oil painting again but when I got home I realised that they were hopelessly impractical. My house is full of steep and narrow stairs, so that meant I was going to pretty much confined to my bedroom.
My husband, Séamas, went to a lot of effort to set up the bedroom ready for me. He dismantled the round kitchen table and reassembled it in the bedroom. He also brought up an armchair and two dining chairs for me to sit on and rest my recovering leg on. The table is not very big so that means that the only sort of paint I can hope to use in this limited space are watercolours.
I have a love-hate relationship with watercolours. They are portable and come in cute little boxes but they are the least forgiving of all mediums. If you make a mistake it shows. I used to dabble in them many years ago but I always prefered to use acrylics, oil pastels and oil paints, because with all of those mediums you can scrape back or paint over mistakes. Not so with watercolours. They show you up are the second-rate artist you fear you are!
In my first efforts with the watercolours I used them in pretty much the same way I always had done.
Whilst I was reasonably happy with the foliage and grass in the picture, I thought the sky was too muddy.
I decided I needed some technical help. So I got Séamas to go up to the attic and dig out my tiny Collins Gem book on Watercolour Tips by Ian King. What a marvel this book is!
It has many excellent pointers on mixing watercolour paint, making washes, the translucent nature of some colours, as well as the importance of simplifying the composition.
So I took these points on board, in particular the importance of simplifying the image. I realised that less is more. It changed what I painted. I was much happier to edit my compositions in a way that I don’t usually in my oil paintings. So I decided to simplify my compositions as much as possible and paint a series of studies of the houses on Gola Island.
I was cautious, however, of unintentionally taking on another artist’s style of painting. I wanted the skills but not the style. I didn’t want to paint like these watercolourists, I wanted to paint my way, but in watercolours. I also wanted to keep the paint as “light” possible to keep the painting looking fresh and airy.
Gola Houses (watercolor)
It might sound odd, but I wasn’t familiar with the properties of the colours in my paint-box. Blue watercolour paints act differently to blue oil paints. I needed to experiment and learn how they were different.
In the end, to help me understand what each colour could do I painted each one on a piece of paper so I could look at it when deciding which color to use. This helped me enormously.
I also struggled with how to paint a “simple” wash for some time. One online artist recommended mixing up a lot of paint so that it was “like tea”. This did not do the trick for me. I was reassured by another artist that washes were actually pretty tricky and some colours were harder to use than others. I found this reassuring. I helped me keep perservering. There’s nothing like someone saying “Oh, but it’s easy” to make you want to give up when it’s not easy!
Eventually, after a conversation with my mother (who was a keen water colourist), I tried a different brush and also several pots of water. One to rinse my brush in, the others to dip my brush into before I put it in the watery paint mix. That seemed to work for me. I felt slightly more in control of the process and my skies were less lumpy.
I have a long way to go but I am lot happier with my paintings and I hope that I can use these skills to paint “en plein air” when my leg is better it is safe to go outside again, whenever that will be. Until then, I will keep practicing!
Post Office at Baile Ailean
I would like to thank Séan Ó Domnhaill for the use of his photographs of the red-roofed Post Office on the Outer Hebrides and the Isle of Lewis.
This is a follow on from my last post about composition and large landscape paintings. Included a small study of a view of Arranmore, Donegal. The study used a diagonal composition.
When it came to a much larger painting (60x80cm – approx 24″ x 32″) I decided on a slightly different composition. It wasn’t that I didn’t think the small painting worked, because it did, but because paintings in the “landscape” format are more popular with collectors than those in “portrait” format. It might have something to do with wall space, I am not sure. If you are not sure what “landscape” and “portrait” format is, it’s just about which round the painting is positioned. “Landscape” has the longest side along the bottom, “portrait” has the shortest side along the bottom.
Landscape format allowed me to include the sweep of the hill as it fell away from the viewpoint towards the sea. This composition used the rule of thirds, so the painting has a different energy to the study.
The position of the viewer is slightly different, it has moved to the left and so more of the house in the foreground can be seen. The larger painting also has a red tractor in the lane, which the study did not, which draws the eye down the lane: hence the title.
I particularly enjoyed painting the different textures of crops and grass in the field that were not visible in the study painting. The widened composition also included the large cross on the shore to the left. I did not realize it at first but the wall in the corner of the painting is a graveyard wall. This is the graveyard of St. Crone’s chapel. Saint Crone was a sixth-century Irish saint descended from King Niall Noígíallach (‘of the Nine Hostages’) and a contemporary of Saint Colmcille (St. Columba of Iona). Saint Crone was very active in the Rosses area. The parish of Dungloe on the mainland also takes its name from her; Templecrone.
So executing a study can be a useful tool in thinking about the composition of a larger work. It will show if a composition works or not but it can also suggest improvements and variations. Interestingly the study is a painting in its own right, it has a different, lighter feel to it. Small paintings often take just as much thought and effort as larger ones even if they are quicker to execute.
My PC just crashed. I am not sure if that’s a result of the effects of Storm Dennis (we had downpours all night long here) but I am going to stop here!
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!
I wonder whether the post to Arranmore Island, Donegal, goes astray a lot. There are two other islands with similar names off the coast of Ireland and Scotland. There are the Aran Islands off Galway Bay to the south as well as the Scottish Isle of Arran. Arranmore or Árainn Mhór, in Irish Gaelic.
It lies off the west coast of County Donegal, Ireland. It is the largest inhabited island off County Donegal, with a population of 514 in 2011, down from 528 in 2006, 543 in 2002, and over 600 in 1996. The island is part of the Donegal Gaeltacht, with most of the inhabitants speaking Ulster Irish.
There is a frequent ferry service from Burtonport and this old cottage was spotted nestling into the rocks of one of many islands, Inishcoo, en route to Arranmore. There is no ferry service to the many little islands scattered off the coast of West Donegal. People get to these remote islands in their own little boats. There are landing stages and steps down to sea cut into the rocks. Of course, you could always swim to Inishcoo. Amazingly, the local cows do.
I am very excited to have an article in today’s Irish Independent on Sunday about me and work by Niall McMonagle. Below is my expanded Q & A interview that was much edited to feature in Niall McMonagle’s What Lies Beneath feature . It’s interesting to see that the online version had a different […]
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 […]
I am delighted to have another of my painting adapted for a novel cover by an Irish writer. This time my painting “Cottage on Bunbeg Harbour” (2019) has been used for the Spanish translation of Donal Ryan’s “Strange Flowers” or rather “Flores Extrañas”. I have started reading the original and I am thoroughly enjoying it. […]
New Work & Recent Sales
Washing Line, Arranmore _Emma Cownie
Inishcoo (To The Fore of Arranmore) – Emma Cownie
Kinnagoe Bay (Inishowen, Dongal)
Over Glenlough Bay, Donegal-Emma Cownie
Still, On Gola (Donegal)
An Port, Donegal_Emma Cownie
House on Ishcoo, Donegal-Emma Cownie
On Rutland Island, Donegal -Emma Cownie
Spring on THree Cliffs Bay, Gower_Emma Cownie
Sun on the Reeds (Glentornan, Donegal)-Emma Cownie
View from the Pier (Portnoo)-Emma Cownie
From Port to Glenlough (Donegal)
Fishing Boat at Port Donegal-Emma Cownie
Portnoo Pier, Donegal_Emma Cownie
Down to Rossbeg Pier, Donegal
Errigal reflection (Donegal) _Emma Cownie
Errigal from Cruit Island. Donegal _ Emma Cownie
Over to Fanad Lighhouse (Donegal) _Emma Cownie
Errigal painting – A Commission 2022
From Arranmore (Donegal)- Emma Cownie
Abanoned (Glentornan, Donegal) -Emma Cownie
Ferry Home (Arranmore, Donegal) by Emma Cownie
Summer Morning on Pobbles Bay
On the Way to Kinnagoe Bay (Drumaweer, Greencastle)
Down to Doagh Strand (Donegal)-Emma Cownie
Lambing Season at Fanad Head
Fanad Lighthouse (Donegal)
Down to the Rusty Nail
Carrickabraghy Castle, Inishowen
Upper Dreen_Emma Cownie
Portmór Beach, Malin Head, Donegal
Down to the Rusty Nail, Inishowen
The Walls of Derry
Painting of Derry City
Derry Walls by Emma Cownie
Shipquay Gate by Emma Cownie
Over to Owey Island (Keadue) Donegal
Lighting the way to Arranmore
Old Stone Cottage in front of Errigal (Donegal
Boat at the Pier, Gola
House on Inishbofin, with distant Seven Sisters (in studio)