Failures are always a challenge. When I used to be a Secondary school teacher, I always learned more about teaching when I faced a difficult class than a nice docile one. They made me go away and think about what I was doing and how I could do it better. Painting is no different.
I have been thinking about the composition of larger paintings. When I used to think about painting a scene I used to think in terms of “that’s a small painting, it won’t “stretch” to a larger canvas”, or “That’s a mountain, definately, therefore, it’s subject suitable for a large canvas”. I am parodying myself somewhat but generally, I have this feeling that small birds belong on small canvases and big landscapes belong on larger ones.
My thinking was challenged by a commission I did in the summer where a client asked for a very large version (120 x 90cm) of a relatively small painting (41 x 33 cm). So I scaled up and despite my anxiety, it worked. This was important as my confidence had been dented by a previous large landscape painting that hadn’t work out for me.
It got me thinking about composition. I understood the basics and had looked of compositional grids in Artbooks as a teenager and thought I’d internalized them. I realized that I had got sloppy. I’ll explain.
I am not going to do an information dump about theories of composition here (I have added links to some good blogs on the subject below) but the “rule of thirds” is one that springs to mind here. The idea that you should look for naturally occurring in divisions of thirds in a scene and try and locate points of interest at the intersection of the “Golden section”.
Rule of Thirds
The Golden Section
I had been influenced by ideas of composition from photography and the work of artist-turned photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson,in particular.
I liked his use of diagonals in particular, and this has influenced my paintings of urban scenes.
When I came to Donegal I was so blown away by the vast overarching skies and majestic landscapes. I got very excited by everything I saw. I tried to capture everything. The houses, the mountains, the sea, and the sky. Most of the time it worked.
Swirling Clouds Round Errigal
From Ferry Coll
From Cruit Island
Wild Wind Across Dunfanaghy
Shored up near Muckish
Further Up Shore
You can probably look through these paintings and tick off the composition approaches I instinctively used; the diagonal, the pyramid, the rule of thirds and so on. They all worked.
Then, it really pains me to admit it. I lost it. I got carried away and overreached myself and painted this big beast.
What was I thinking? There is far too much sky in this painting. Worse than that, it was a large canvas. There are things I like about the painting, the light on the island in the bottom half of the painting, but the sky was just too vast. It pained me that I had such a large reminder of my errors of judgment. I don’t mind screwing up every now and then but I hate waste and that was an expensive canvas. It’s no coincidence that I am planning a blog post on reusing stretcher bars to stretch my own canvases.
My confidence was dented. It put me off large paintings for quite some time. It wasn’t until I did the commission I mentioned earlier, that I got thinking about what had gone wrong. I realized that I had to rigorously apply the same rule of composition to large canvases as I instinctively did to my small ones. So I tried an experiment, I took a successful composition of a medium size painting and did a much larger version of it. This composition was based on a compound curve.
It wasn’t a copy of the smaller painting. It wasn’t meant to be, although it was meant to encapsulate the same feel of the smaller work, with some adjustments. I have included some more detail, changed the tree, and added a shadow and a ditch in the bottom third of the painting. I think it worked.
I have since done another small oil sketch of another composition before I scale it up. It’s another diagonal composition. Although, the larger version will not be “portrait” format but my usual “landscape” orientation.
I will add the larger version later in the week. So you will have to wait to see if that composition works as well as this smaller one. Watch this space!
Autumn brings incredible colours to the west coast of Ireland. As the grass and bracken die off, they turn a fantastic shade of orange and pink. The pink granite rocks that litter the landscape accentuate the warm colours. They have provided me with much inspiration for my landscape paintings of Donegal, Ireland.
This series of paintings has been inspired by the Old Railway Walk which starts near Burtonport, near Dungloe in Donegal. There are no railways in Donegal anymore. There used to be. The line to Burtonport was built in 1903 as a joint venture by the British government and the Londonderry & Loch Swilly RailwayCompany to attempt to alleviate poverty in north West Donegal.
The trains used to carry fish from the port at Burtonport in Donegal to Derry, in the neighboring county. It also carried many seasonal workers to and from Derry and Scotland. After 1922 the line crossed from one country into another; from the Irish Free State into Northern Ireland.
In the 1940s, however, the Irish government decided to close down the railways in Donegal. I have never really found a clear explanation for why this happened but I am going to assume that the cost of running the line was an important factor. There were also concerns about the safety of the line.
In January 1925 disaster had occurred on the at theOwencarrow Viaductwhen winds of up to 120mph blew carriages of the train off the viaduct causing it to partially collapse. Four poor souls lost their lives.
After the Second World War, the Irish government presumably decided it would cost too much to continue the maintenance of the line and it was closed in 1947. The Burtonport-Gweedore section closed in 1940. There is a great graphic on the Donegal Daily hereillustrating the shrinkage and disappearance of the railways. Donegal became a very remote part of Ireland, with no railways and no (still) motorways. Communication with the area improved in 1986, however, whenDonegal airportstarted operations.
It seems that for half a century nothing much happened on the old railway line. In 2009, however, there was a heavy snowfall, and some of the old railway line was cleared to access water mains that needed repairing. The remaining section was later cleared and gradually developed as a walkway with the support of the local community. A massive effort has gone into creating this beautiful and peaceful walk.
Here are some of my paintings inspired by my husband Seamas’s photographs of the railway walk.
There are many features of the old railway remaining which you can view along the way such as stations, gatehouses, accommodation crossings, lots of pillars, cuttings, embankments, a bridge and rusty gates. There are also lots of shelters for walkers to hide from passing showers to use.
Photo credit: James (Seamas) Henry Johnston
Youtube video- Siúlóid an tSean Bhóthar Iarainn—The Old Railway Walk by Ralph Schulz.
Find out more about the Railway Walk by clicking on the links below:-
I have been back in Wales for three days now and the big difference from Donegal is the temperature and light. It is much warmer in Wales. Last week I was wearing a jumper – here I am in a T-shirt. In Wales, last night it was very dark by 10 pm. In Donegal, however, the light seemed unending. I struggled to sleep, despite being very tired, because although the sunset was after 10pm, it didn’t seem to get properly dark until after well after 11pm. Then it started to get light pretty soon after 4am!
I would sometimes wake in the early hours and look at the dark as a novelty. That’s something I’ve never done in Wales. Yet, I got used to this abundance of light. I made me feel active. With no television to slump in front of, I would find myself doing things after tea, such as the evening I found myself sanding a table at 9pm. I got used to life without news on the radio, although I did listen to some podcasts I had downloaded before I left Wales.
The day we visited Arranmore Island was a sunny Saturday. No jumper, just a shirt. There are two ferry companies that operate from Burtonport Harbour, the Red, and the Blue. They run all year round. In the summer months, they put on extra sailings. We plan to catch the 12.30 ferry, which is the Red Ferry. That’s the favourite colour of Seamas, my husband’s, beloved football team, Liverpool, so he’s happy. The ferry is very busy. It’s delayed by 10 minutes as the last car fills the boat to capacity. There are lots of teenagers and families on board. We stand by the rails as all the seats are taken.
The journey to Arranmore is always a treat. The ferry is speedy. It takes not much more than 15 minutes to complete the three-mile journey. I love looking at the islands (and their houses) that lie alongside the route.
Rutland Island is one of the largest of these and lies to the west. There are some very beautiful modern houses on Rutland, alongside ruins which date from the 18th century. These were part of the planned settlement built by William Burton Conyngham. He also owned Arranmore Island. In my painting “From Ferry Coll” (below) you can see the remains of the fish landing and processing complex on the left side of the painting. There was also once a post office, houses, and a school-house here.
On the eastern side, lies the islands of Edernish, Inishchoo, and Eighter. Here there are old cottages tucked in amongst the rocks. There is sparkling sunshine, but once we leave the shelter of the islands, the sea becomes quite choppy.
When we arrive at Arranmore harbour there are lots of friends and families waiting for the ferry. There is a lot of waving and photos taking whilst we wait for the cars to drive off the ferry. Then the people can get off the ferry. There are lots of hugs, laughter, and chatter as the passengers finally get off the ferry. It’s a delightful scene.
Arranmore is well worth visiting. It is the second-largest Irish island (the largest is Achill, in County Mayo, if you want to know). It is seven square miles in size and it is dominated by an imposing hill called Cnoc an Iolair (“Hill of the Eagle”, 750 feet) which can be seen from most of the coast of Gweedore ad the Rosses. It has both sandy beaches along the south coast (three of them) and imposing sea cliffs (120 meters) along the west and north side of the island. Many of the islanders are native Irish speakers.
Many islanders used to support themselves through fishing, wild salmon in particular, but in 2006 the EU banned salmon fishing. This has caused a great deal of hardship and anger. It has also meant that many of the young people have been forced to move away in search of work, so the population of the island is dwindling and aging. You can watch a beautiful short film, “A Foot of Turf” about island life here.
Fortunately, the island has recently undergone huge technological advancement and has become the recipient of Ireland’s very first offshore digital hub. In celebration they wrote an open letter to American and Australia, hoping to entice new businesses to the island. Sadly, the story went viral and got distorted in the process. British tabloids, in particular, decided to reframe the story as the island being desperate for immigrants, “begging US citizens to move there” and decided to be offended that they “forgot” to invite British people, writing headlines like: “Anyone but the English”. This caused a great deal of distress on the island as this wasn’t what was intended at all. The letter was meant to appeal to American businesses to help boost the economy by giving islanders jobs – and visit the island.
So we are visiting the island. First, we made our way eastwards, towards the lifeboat station. We then backtracked and walk up the road past The Glen Hotel, which was the island’s first hotel in 1928. It was once the home of John Stoupe Charley, a Protestant from Antrim, who bought the island in 1855.
It was a long hilly road with a beautiful view across to the mainland. There were many old cottages and outbuildings here. The road was generally quiet but we were periodically passed by several cars. I like to take note of where cars are from, in Ireland registration plates in include letters to denote the county of registration. There were many with “DL” Donegal plates, but also plenty with “D” Dublin and Northern Ireland plates. Although I’d seen plenty of German and Dutch vehicles driving along the Wild Atlantic Way (past our house) there were none on this stretch of Arranmore road.
It’s considered good manners in Donegal (and elsewhere, of course) for the driver and pedestrian to acknowledge each other when the car has to slow to pass and the pedestrian has to clamber into the grassy verge. In Donegal, the driver will lift the index finger of his right hand. The pedestrian will similarly lift his or her finger but not necessarily raising the hand to do so. Smiles will be exchanged too. Nothing to exuberant, but friendly. It’s rare that this doesn’t happen, sadly it does on occasion and then it is followed by a short discussion between Seamas and myself about the drivers of particular makes of cars and/or people from NI/Dublin/hirecars.
We get so far and decide to retrace our tracks and walk in a big loop along the west side of the island, which provides us with sweeping views across to Burtonport and Dungloe. If you look carefully in the photo below you will be able to see the old courthouse to the right. This was built at Fal an Ghabhann (Fallagowan) around 1855.
Eventually, the road wound downhill. We could hear the sound of singing on the wind. A choir singing? We eventually came to a large white Community Hall, the doors were open and inside were lots of young people singing in Irish. These were some of the hundreds of teenagers who come to the island as part of a summer scheme to learn and improve on their Irish language skills.
As if to reinforce this, a tall teenage boy passes us and greets us in Irish. Seamas manages a greeting but then tells me that the lad had used a different form of words to the one he’d learned over 30 years ago. It seems that the Irish language is very similar to the Welsh, in that it has many regional variations in terms of accent, pronunciation, and words used.
We finally made it back to the harbour and had two delicious cheese paninis in the sandwich shop.
The journey back to Burtonport harbour on the Red ferry was very enjoyable, with the passengers still in a buoyant holiday mood, waving at the passengers on the Blue ferry as we passed. A holiday maker’s car alarm kept going off. His embarrassment levels pretty much matched that of his children’s amusement.
I kept a lookout for dolphins or seals but saw none. Only sea birds. An American told me that he’s seen Minke Whales in Clew Bay recently. We had seen dolphin on the way back from Tory island. He had a theory that there was a bumper crop of fish 8 miles out at sea, which was where the wildlife were. Usually, the waters around Burtonport would have plenty of seals and dolphins. That’s something to look forward to seeing another time.
For more on Arranmore and other Donegal islands in general doub;e click on the link
I am very delighted to say that we returned from Donegal to the news that you can now buy my work as framed prints at John Lewis! If you are not familiar with John Lewis, they are a British “high end” department store, who also run the Waitrose supermarkets. They have stores in the Republic of Ireland and Australia.
These two images are available from John Lewis stores throughout the UK “Drifting Clouds” and “Great Tor From Tor Bay”.
I am delighted to have sold “Koei 1509”, a painting of a South African cow, to a collector in Oxfordshire, England. The painting was based on a photograph by talented photographer Herman von Bon, who generously allowed me to use his image. Herman photographs the South African landscape along with its people and animals. I particular like his wildlife photography.
I like cows. I love all animals. I come from a family of animal lovers. I get pleasure from just looking at animals. I really enjoy painting them but I find it hard to part with my animal paintings.
Cows are the reason why I stopped eating meat a long time ago. When I was a post-graduate student at Cardiff University in the 1990s I spent a day cycling along the the flat marsh road that lies between Cardiff and Newport. It’s about 10 miles. On my way back, I stopped at a gate for a rest. I group of curious youngsters, Fresians, came up to gate to investigate me. They were cautious but seemed to egg each other on to come closer and stick out their noses to me. They amused me. I thought they were funny and sweet.
I stood for quite a while looking at them. Listening to them breathe. Cows have intelligent eyes. Big brown eyes. They weren’t essentially any different from the many animals my family had kept as pets over the years; cats, dogs and rabbits. Suddenly the thought came to me “I eat you and your friends”. I felt awful. Very guilty.
It felt very unnecessary. I don’t need to eat meat. So I decided to stop. I’d been thinking about for for some time. People sometimes ask why I am a vegetarian and I could mention things such as the cruelty of factory farming, the environmental cost but I have never felt comfortable eating sentient creatures. I always felt a hypocrite for eating Sunday roast, no matter how tasty it was.
Many of my university friends were veggies but I didn’t like many vegetables (potatoes and peas was about it for many years) and I wasn’t sure what I would eat. To be honest, I was lazy. I had to learn to cook vegetarian meals. I started with a lot of pesto and pasta. A friend of mine recommended a Rose Elliot cook book and I painstakingly read the recipes (there were no photos in the book) and I eventually learnt a few recipes off by heart. It was a bit of a slog but I felt much better for it, physically and mentally.
Although I don’t think that I paint cows all that often, they have added up over the years. I love Hereford cattle in particular. I was born in that English county and I love the russet red of their coats. You don’t see that many of them on Gower.
I seems to have painted Frisians the most – probably because I like the contrast of their black and white coats.
I never paint “generic” cows. These are all real cows. All individuals. I found Gower Cow on the slopes of Cefn Bryn at the Penmaen end. She was chewing the cud with a small group of friends.
The cow at Pwll Du was also with a group of friends, small herd I suppose, who came out of the undergrowth and started grazing on the grass by the stream at Pwll Du.
Writing this post got me thinking about the History of the cow in Art. There’s a lot to it so I have decided to save that for my next post.
I was feeling very nervous about this walk as I would have to change buses in the middle of nowhere. I very nearly chickened and got in my car after a fellow blogger commented that I “should not bother with rural buses but drive. However, it was a long walk, just over six miles, and I did not want to break it up into two or three circular walks. I wanted to walk the length of the north Gower coast in one go, if I could. So I got up and packed sandwiches, lots of biscuits, a banana in its strange yellow banana “gimp” case and two bottles of water. I had decided that thirst was the worst torment on my last two solo trips and I was going to be better prepared this time.
I had caught the same bus to Port Eynon (the number 119 to Rhossili, if you interested) and had changed at Scurlage but this time I had to change at a location called Llanridian Turn. I have studied the map and I think I know where it is. I don’t remember passing it from the previous bus journey and it doesn’t really seem to be “on the way” to Rhossili. So I check with the bus driver as I buy my ticket.
The bus arrives at Llanridian Turn and it pulls in behind another bus, a number 116, but its not the one I want. So I ask the driver about the 115 to Llanmadoc and he says that he’s driving it and walk towards a small bus that has just arrived and he swaps buses with the new driver. He’s a friendly chap, with a sparkly diamante earring in one of his ears. So we set off. I am the only passenger.
I end up standing at the front of the bus (holding on to the special rail) chatting to the driver for most of the journey. “You couldn’t ask for better weather” he says. He’s right. It’s a sparkling bright spring morning. It’s cold though. Only 7 degrees Centigrade (that’s 44 in Fahrenheit). He fishes out a timetable for me from his rucksack. It’s a timetable that covers all Gower buses. I have not seen this before, it certainly wasn’t to be found in the bus station anyway. “Where do you want to get off?” I have never had a bus driver ask where I want to stop before. This must be one the joys of rural bus services. I eventually get off by Llanmadoc Post Office. I wave at the bus driver as he drives away as if we are old friends.
I find a path, not an official coastal one, but it is sign posted for Whiteford Burrows, which seems the right direction, so I take it. It’s more of a farmers’ track than a path. I walk down a long muddy track, pass cattle, sheep and an old tractor and eventually reach the same point as we did on our detour from Cwm Ivy (to avoid the breached sea wall). I find it more by luck than any thing. It is very muddy.
This is Landimore Marsh. It’s a saltmarsh, an area of coastal grassland that is regularly flooded by seawater. Springs, small rivers called “pills”, flow out into the estuary, in meandering lines that make maze-patterns in the marsh. The main pills crisscrossing the area are Burry Pill and Great Pill.
For hundreds of years, the people who lived along its edge have used the marshlands for grazing their animals. They still do today. The lambs that are raised on the salt marshes are reputed to have a distinctive and special flavour, but I cannot speak from experience as I am a vegetarian. Although the cows and ponies know to move off the marsh with the advancing tides, especially the spring tide that can move with great speed, the sheep for some reason don’t. The local farmers have to bring them in. Although sheep can swim, as all animals can, for a short period of time, if they get cut off by the tide they will drown.
The walk along the marsh path is very muddy indeed. I have visions of me sliding and twisting my ankle or falling flat on my face, but I manage to survive without incident. I take the low tide route, but I spent much of my times sliding around wondering if the high tide route would have been less muddy.
To my right is North Hill Tor, or Nortle Tor, on which are the remains of a partial fortifications, probably dating back to the Iron Age period (c. 800 BC – AD 43). According the the famous Swansea-born historian, Wynford Vaughan Thomas, Nortle Tor was quarried in previous centuries. During the Napoleonic Wars, one of its extensive caves provided useful hiding place for local young men when the press gang was spotted coming across the estuary from Llanelli.
There is a wonderful presence about the marsh. It stretches away as flat as a proverbial pancake. No sea, or River Loughor in sight. The marsh is indented by patterns of muddy pools, creeks and channels. It is very peaceful and I get drawn into the atmosphere of the marsh. The grass has a curious white-ish tinge to it which I assume is from the salt. I see a lot of sheep’s footprints but no sheep, although I can see a few ponies far away on the marsh. It turns out that the sheep are in the farmers’ fields with their lambs.
The path eventually passes a couple of houses and leaves the marsh. I see my first fellow walkers of the day. I only see one other couple on the path today. I see, however, vast numbers of sheep and lambs, marsh ponies, robins, sparrows, a red kite and a large Great White Egret flying over the marsh.
The path reaches Bovehill, where it turns further inland and passes the remains of another fortification, Bovehill Castle, a fortified mansion with walls a metre thick. It was once the seat of the 14th century crusader knight, Sir Hugh Jonys and later Sir Rhys ap Thomas, a support of Henry Tudor (the father of Henry VIII of six wives fame).
Ivy Cottage Landimore
The “coastal” path then turns off the road onto Bovehill Farm. I can’t see the sea and now I can’t really see the marsh, either. I don’t see the marsh again for a long time, perhaps for about as much as an hour as the path trails inland. In fact, it turns out its about 2 and a half miles to Llanridian. The path instead, runs through the farmland, parallel to the marsh.
This get a bit confusing. I often enter a field and have little idea of where the path goes. So I set off at a 60 degree angle only to adjust my course when I eventually spot the stile in the opposite corner of the field.
There have not been enough walkers recently to make tracks for me to follow across the fields.
I see swallows (the first I have seen this year) over the fields by Landimore. Weobley Castle, another fortified manor house, is a dark presence looming on the cliff above me. From the time of the Norman conquest of Gower to the 15th century, Weobley belonged to the de la Bere family.
Just below Weobley Castle there is a road that leads out into the marsh.
Where does it go? It doesn’t seem to go anywhere, as such.
At the end of the track, there is a odd wooden structure out in the estuary. I can see it with my naked eye but my camera is struggling to get a good picture. I think its made of wood. I can’t tell. You can see it from miles around.
According to historian Wynford Vaughan Thomas, the American army used the marshes as a firing range during the Second World “War. It turns out that it was the US army that built the causeway out into the marshes. The strange building, is not wooden but made of concrete and brick. It was a look-out built by the Americans. I have to search online for close up photographs.
Photo credit: mylifeoutside.co.uk
There is a very dark tale about the Burry Estuary during the Second World War that Wynford was probably not aware of, as it was kept secret until 1999. There had been rumours about the secret testing of chemical and biological weapons in the estuary during World War II for many years. This story is to do with the British government and experiments in biological warfare, not the American Army. The wartime government had asked Porton Down, its chemical warfare research installation, to conduct trials of an anthrax bomb. Anthrax, is a lethal bacteria, which was seen as having “enormous potential” for biological warfare. I would like to point out that biological warfare was, and still is, banned under a 1925 Geneva protocol. This is why countries will make a big fuss about its use on civilians in Syria or even Salisbury, England.
In 1941 there had been a series of tests of anthrax bombs on the uninhabited Gruinard Island, off the west coast of Scotland. These tests had produced contradictory results, primarily due to the soft, boggy ground at Gruinard, so it was decided at short notice to carry out a single replacement test on the firm sand of the Burry Inlet.
On a Wednesday afternoon, in late October 1942, the scientists carried out an experiment over the north Gower salt marshes, dropping an anthrax bomb from a Blenheim aircraft. Two lines of 30 sheep were placed downwind of the aiming mark, spread at 10 yard intervals. When the bomb fell it made a crater of about three feet in width and two feet deep. Three days after the trial, two of the sheep died of anthrax septicaemia, and three others were ill for a day or so before recovering entirely. Apparently, the scientists proclaimed the test result ‘very satisfactory’, especially as this was the first time such a bomb had been dropped from a plane flying at operational level.
According to the report, the site was ‘effectively decontaminated’ by the incoming tide a few hours after the test took place. The carcases of the dead sheep were ‘buried deeply at the seaward edge of the marshland area’. The remaining sheep were observed for seven days after the test, the survivors then being slaughtered and buried.
This all seems a bit of a casual clean up and in marked contrast to the situation at Gruinard island, which had served as the previous test site for anthrax. In that case the entire island was set ablaze and subsequently closed to public access for nearly 50 years. Even today people and animals alike avoid the island, despite efforts to decontaminate the island in the 1980s. All I can assume is that larger quantities of anthrax was used in Scotland.
Update: There’s no need to worry about the dangers of anthrax as it was confirmed in 1987 that “investigations …[after the] trial revealed no evidence of any residual contamination”.
When the path finally reaches Llanrhidian, it seems like quite a shock after all the open space of the marsh and the fields. I think about walking up to the main road where I could catch a bus home but instead I press on .
My next post will be my final stage of the coastal path, from Llanrhidian along the coastal road to the village of Crofty.
When I get hold of an idea I can get quite obsessive about it. Lately, it’s been early morning light. I think it sprang from a post I wrote about transposing some of the techniques I used for my “Urban Minimal” project to what I only half-jokingly called “Rural Minimal”. I think that my rural Gower houses did fulfil the spirit of “Rural Minimal” but it got me think about shadows. Now, shadows were my first love. They still are. It’s hard to find any painting of mine without blue/mauve/purple/brown shadows. I go through tubes of Lukas 1862 Mauve at a steady rate. Many of my Gower woodland paintings used early morning winter light.
And why do I love shadows so much? It’s because they act as a foil to the light. The orange next to the dark mauve positively leaps off the canvas. Perhaps, its a cheap way of thrilling the viewer? I am always very impressed by artists who capture a gloomy or overcast landscape. Plein Air painters prefer overcast conditions because they are more constant and American artist, Jeremy Sams, demonstrates this really well in his painting. He says “The good thing about painting on an overcast day is that you don’t have to chase shadows. The light remains very constant and my acrylic paints stay wet for a good long while.”
However, I love shadows. They make a composition interesting and dynamic. So, anyway, the post about Rural Minimal got me thinking about shadows in rural settings. I realised that because I have been focusing on my Gower Walks and working to bus timetables that I was mostly walking in the late morning and finishing up in the early afternoon. I was becoming increasing frustrated that my lovely walks weren’t inspiring the sort of paintings I like to make. The light wasn’t right. Midday light, especially in the summer, has a tendency to bleach out the details. This is what shadows “do”, they show us the details of the landscape.
I have always been a morning person. Each morning is like a fresh start to me. What ever happened yesterday, last night is gone.To be honest, I think that have always done my best work by 11 am. When I was writing my PhD thesis, many years ago, I’d do my best writing between at 8 and 11 am. To be honest, most of the work I did after 11 am was fact checking (this was in the days before the interest when you had to look things up in books) and faffing, but I’d dutifully stay at my desk til 5 pm.
So I decided that I need to seek out early morning light on Gower. This long spell of hot weather meant that morning skies were often (but not always) clear. That meant getting up early. I have been dragging myself out of bed just after sunrise. It’s summer and the sun rises just after 5 am in here Wales. It is painful getting up that early but once I have had a cup of coffee I can face the outside world, just about.
The first time I drove down to Three Cliffs Bay, 6 miles away, I was so tired that I actually forgot my camera! I felt so stupid but I got back in my car and drove back home to fetch the darn thing, delaying my “start” by 30 minutes.
Compare the light and shadows to yesterday morning (when I remembered my camera) and actually got there for about 6.30am.
It’s different. Not necessarily better, just different. Do you know what, it doesn’t matter. I like both conditions. The changing tides always also variety and interest. Summer Morning light has a beautiful rich quality to it and I like seeing how it changes, the shadows shorten, darken, light break over the cliffs, as the morning progresses. I have sat down on the cliff tops and watch the light change.
I like seeing nature first thing. I like seeing the dew. In this very dry summer it’s a godsend. The grass on rolling fairways of Pennard golf course has turned the colour of straw except for the patches where the dew collects in the morning. There it’s a fresh green. Walking down towards the sea, along the sandy path by the golf course, I often see the white tails of wild rabbits dashing into the undergrowth. Their numbers in the UK have fallen in recent decades but thankfully, there seem to be plenty on Gower.
Free-range cows roam the cliffs of Pennard and South Gate as well as the valley next to Three Cliffs Bay. They are usually busily eating the grass they can find down in the marshy valley or in the shadows of the thorny gorse bushes, or even in the Golf Club car park before the golfers arrive!
Cows chewing the cud (mid morning) and cows at work, eating grass (early morning).
I delight in the long shadows and the reflections at low tide. How the reflected light is more golden than the light on the rocky cliffs.
At high tide the colours all change again.
I have got up early and visited Rhossili, Penmaen and Three Cliffs Bay six times in the past fortnight. This includes the morning I thought the light cloud would clear but instead it thickened. A passing Jack Russell was photographed, as well as the rabbit above. So, I sat down and sketched.
I will keep going until this weather goes off, while may well be very soon. I will be working from this research for quite a while after it has clouded over again.
A while back, last June in fact, I read an excellent blog post by American artist Luann Udell entitled “How Long Did It Take You To Make That?” in which she discusses all time-consuming processes and skill that go into creating her pieces. It occurred to me that while the actual time it takes to paint my work may take anything from one to three days, depending on the size of the canvas, the actual thinking, planning, gestation, waiting for the weather and preparation takes a lot longer. I should also include in that waiting for the seasons to change. Just yesterday I was remarking to my husband that the heather was starting to flower and so another visit to Rhossili Downs would be in order soon. Nothing stays the same in nature, or in life! My job is to observe and attempt to capture some of those fleeting changes.
The Gower boasts two gems that most visitors never see. I have lived in Swansea for 19 years and this was the first time that I saw them. These are Three Chimneys, a sea arch that used to be two arches, and a massive rock pool known as Blue Pool. These two marvels are not easy to find. They are tucked to the north of Broughton Bay. They are located on Blue Pool Bay, in the northern-eastern corner of the peninsula. You cannot drive to this bay but have to walk.
I ended up doing the walk twice in one week. The first time, it was sunny when we set off from Swansea. We had sun hats too. The car park next to Broughton Caravan Park, where we start the walk, was free. This is a rare thing on Gower. We are forever pawing through our change to find enough pound coins for the ticket machines. They never seem to take £5 notes or credit cards. This car park sits next to a large static caravan park. Many of the people who own caravans here live close by in Swansea. It has a friendly family feel to it, it has palm trees and little gardens.
Almost as soon as we got out the car it clouded over. We walked through the large static caravans and along a path covered in wooden slats, which was wonderfully easy to walk along.
As the path snaked around the hill and entered dunes the clouds came lower. The further along the path we progress the mistier it got.
Eventually, we see can Three Chimneys from the top of the dunes. It was clearly two arches, once upon a time, but one has collapsed.
We walk on until we reach Burry Holms, another of Gower’s three tidal islands (the others are Mumbles and Worms Head). Just over nine thousand years ago, it was not an island but a hill nine miles from the sea. There is a lot of archaeology here, including a Mesolithic site, a Bronze Age burial mound, an Iron Age fort with a deep defensive ditch and bank, and the remains of a monastic settlement founded in the 11th century and abandoned during the 17th century. There are also a number of post-Medieval quarries and limekilns are along the cliff edges.
No one knows why it is called Burry Holms. There is a port across the Loughor estuary called Burry Port, but Burry Port in Welsh is Porth Tywyn which means White House Port (I think). I’m not sure what the Burry means in this case, but Anglo-Saxon a “burh” usually means a fortified town. Many of them date back to 9th century when raids and invasions by Vikings prompted Alfred the Great to develop a network of burhs and roads to use against them. I know that the island’s name of “Holm” comes from the Old Norse meaning “island in an estuary” (think of Flat Holm and Steep Holm further out in the Bristol Channel). This also reflects the Norse domination of the waterways in this area, which lasted up until the 11th century. After all Worms Head (Wurm – meaning dragon) is also a Norse name.
The ruins of the 14th-century chapel dedicated to Saint Cenydd can also be seen at the eastern end of the island. St Cenydd, sometimes Anglicized as Saint Kenneth, was a Christian hermit who founded a church at Llangennith, to the south of Burry Holms. The story of St Cenydd’s early life is wonderfully fantastical and not to be taken at face value. Cenydd was supposedly a Breton Prince, born of from an incestuous relationship, at Loughor (this is a modern day suburb of Swansea).
Baby Cenydd was born with some sort of disability, and on account of this he was put in a willow basket/cradle and launched into the River Loughor, like a Celtic Moses. This willow basket eventually washed up on Worms Head and the local seagulls and angels looked after the baby and somehow managed to bring him up as a Christian. Interestingly, St David, Wales’s patron saint, cured Cenydd of his disability in later life. Was St Cenydd at all grateful? Not a bit of it. He wasn’t happy about this at all and actually prayed for his disability to be restored!
So we sat looking out at Burry Holms eating biscuits. We watched a seagull swoop and circle the cliffs again and again. He did this at least ten times. I was trying to decide if he’s was scaring off some jackdaws or was jealous of a courting couple.
Another pair of gulls sit cosily together on a ledge. Then, suddenly the male mounted the female and a quick bit of mating takes place. The male then abruptly flies off. “To the pub!” my husband drily observes.
On the way back I try and find the rock pool, Blue Pool. We seem to have missed it on our way to Burry Holms. I clamber down a hill and finally spot it nestling in the rocks below.
I can see people in wetsuits leaping into the famed rock pool. I am very jealous. Local legend says it is bottomless. The swimmers seem to be very confident they won’t hit the bottom as they leap into it.
Two women climb to the top of the highest lip of the pool and leap into the water. It looks great fun. I read later that it is very deep. Anything from four to eight metres deep, depending on tidal and weather conditions. As much as I enjoyed watching the fun and games I was a little frustrated.
I’ll show you why. This is what I was hoping for compared with what we saw.
So I went back to get another look at Blue Pool and in sunshine this time. I returned early one morning later in the week alone. I set off at 8.15 am hoping to catch the low tide because I have the idea that you can walk around the headlands and walk to Blue Pool Bay. This time, it is cloudy in Swansea but brightens up as I reach Llangennith which is just down the road from Broughton Bay.
So I walk onto the beach full of confidence that I will be able to walk to Blue Pool Bay along the shore. I couldn’t.
I don’t know if it wasn’t a particularly low tide, I have discovered since that not all low tide are the same. Some are lower than others. Just as some high tides are higher than others. So I had to retrace my steps and I clambered up the rocks as a short cut to the coastal path. I eventually made my way along to Blue Pool Bay – I found a different path that led down the dunes and some very steep rocks.
I kept my rucksack with me, so that if I fell, I’d have my phone with me, or at the very least water and biscuits! I did have the over-dramatic thought that if I fell, no one would find me for hours/days. I chickened out of climbing all the way down to the sandy beach as the tide has just turned. I knew the tide came all the way in, leaving no beach at all. I wasn’t sure how quickly the water would come in.
I climbed back up to the coastal path OK. I then carried on to Burry Holmes and the vast three-mile expanse of Rhossili Bay.
I walked along the beach towards Worms Head. I ate my banana and put the skin back into my bag. I had seen enough rubbish on the foreshore to depress me. I watched the little wadding birds, sanderlings, I think running along the surf on their delicate long legs.
I retrace my step along the path through the dunes and I enjoy the silence which was broken only by the song of a skylark, one of my favourite sounds. I pass the caravan site and carry on along the sweep of Broughton Bay.
I saw the white tails of rabbit disappering into the undergrowth in a fields filled with sheep and their lambs. I then come across another caravan park. This one is called Whiteford Bay Caravan Park. It seems an unfriendly place. There are lots of warning signs and no trees. Broughton Bay Caravan Park seems much more relaxed, with its palm trees and little gardens and free car park.
I pass a group of senior hikers, including a chap who must be in his 80s. There’s a role model, I think. The path climbs up a sandy path up to Hills Tor.
I sat down on a sandy ledge to admire the expansive view towards Whiteford Point and try and make out the rusty iron Victorian lighthouse. I can just about see it. You can’t see it in the photos. It is very breezy up here.
I ate two chocolate biscuits. They are delicious but I have drunk most of my water with only a couple of mouthfuls left. So because I know I have so little water left, I start obsessing about water on my walk back to the car. I cross a little stream that runs from Moorlake into Broughton Bay and consider trying to take a mouthful of it. It is quite marshy here behind the burrows. The sea is out of sight. I decide that in future I will carry two bottles of water with me.
There are Two boys are playing on the tops of the dunes. They are school-aged- why aren’t they in school, I think to myself. Once a teacher, eh? I say nothing and pass on.
By the time I reach Broughton farm it has clouded over. My calfs are now aching from so much walking on sand. They carry on aching later on in bed. I’m not surprised when I work out that I walked 6 and a half miles, and a lot of that was on sand.
Next walk is Whiteford Point for a close up view of that iron lighthouse.
Who hasn’t attempted to create a photographic panorama? Back in the 1990s when cameras contained stuff called film, I remember often standing looking at some amazing view, and then slowly pivoting from left to right (and then right to left in case I’d missed something) taking a series of overlapping photographs. The hope was that I would recreate a some stunning vista; such as the Grand Canyon, the London skyline, or even the lovely Alhambra. After a long wait, the photos would come back from the developers and I’d dutifully stick them together. The results were usually underwhelming. Rather wonky. If, you tried really hard you could sum up the awe of the view that had inspired you, sort of. I don’t think the sticky tape added to the overall impact, either. I give you in evidence the example below which I found lurking in one of our crowded cupboards:-
Oh dear. Obviously I wasn’t the only one who was disappointed by their efforts to capture their holiday vistas in this way as companies like Kodac developed special disposable panoramic cameras so you did not have to tape your photos together. I will never know if they were any good because I never had one.
So, forgive me if I have pretty much spurned panoramic compositions until now. In fact, I have had a long phase where I chose portrait orientation for my landscape compositions whether rural or urban. I really liked the sense of piles of houses on houses, or field upon fields. It works well in hilly Swansea and mountainous Wales.
It’s not like I never tried narrow canvases. I did use a couple of small narrow canvases to paint Mumbles, the village at the end of Swansea Bay. The paintings turned out well but I didn’t really enjoy the experience. I didn’t really ask myself why not until now. I think it was partly because I was in a portrait orientation “groove” and partly it was because the canvases were too small, they felt mean and didn’t really convey the essence of Mumbles.
It was a client who got me using panoramic canvases again. He wanted a landscape painting of May Hill in Gloucestershire. We originally discussed using a 80x60cm canvas but then he decided he wanted a narrower canvas; 80×40 cm. This was inspired. This immediately improved the composition because instead of the landscape getting lost against too much sky, it actually balanced the composition. It gave the land in the painting more immediacy and intimacy.
Now, you might say that this is not particularly “panoramic” but it got me thinking. Narrower canvases would suit coastal paintings because too much sky often has the effect of “shrinking” the land/coast in a composition. I’ll give you a photographic example:-
So using a long narrow canvas works really well with compositions for certain scenes, such as the one of Worms Head I have shown above.
All good so far, but what about the frustrations? There are the logistical issues surrounding using longer canvases. It may sound daft, but they are long. I find it hard to store them in my small attic studio. They poke out. When it comes to painting, I found that painting of the far left or right of the canvas quite a challenge. You see, I don’t usually bother with using the clamp at the top of my easel when I am painting as I often like to rotate my paintings and paint a canvas “upside down” or even “sideways up/down”. Oh, no. I have to clamp my painting in place or else it flips away from me when I press on it to paint any part either side of the central part. Rotating the canvas becomes a hassle too. My arms are not quite long enough to adjust the clamp without standing up.
This may all sound very lazy but once I start painting I get into a groove or “flow” and can barely be bothered to move from my central position other than put my brush on my palette and then onto the canvas. This is why I usually end up drinking lukewarm tea even though it’s in a thermos-style travel mug. It’s very rare that I get up to change the station on my radio. This is how I end up listen to sports programs (even football matches) although I am definitely not a sports fan.
The satisfaction of a well-balanced composition and having less sky to paint is worth it.
Then comes the issue of how to show it on my website and social media. There is no problem uploading the image to artfinder.com – it comes up as a complete image on my page.
However, when I uploaded it to my website the thumbnail cropped the image (see below left).
So, I have to go on canva.com and create a new version of the image. I paste the image on a white background so the image will viewed whole. Thus:-
Finally, Instagram. I have the same issue with Instagram as I do with my own website in that it only shows part of the image so I decide to chop the picture into two halves and upload them separately. Only I do it the wrong way around at first and end up with a back to front image. I make a note (I draw a little diagram in fact) the right side has to uploaded first and the left second.
It looks better on my smart phone. But you see the problem, as new images are uploaded it is pushed along the feed and gets split up between the lines of images. I also don’t know if people looking say the left side of the painting will understand that it’s part of a pair. They’ll just think it a painting of a beach and won’t realise that there’s a long mountainous headland to go with it. *sigh*
Never mind, I think that the best way to show off the panoramic paintings is on this blog!
Here’s my most recent and ambitious long landscape painting. If you click on the title you can see a bigger version.
I am shattered. My legs are so stiff, I can hardly walk up and down stairs. I have been this way for days. My problem is that I can do activities, running, yoga, walking but often “pay for it”afterward. I don’t really understand how much this is to do with life post-PTSD, if at all because you never fully recover from PTSD, but you learn to manage with what you have. Maybe it’s middle age. Maybe I do too much or just can’t tell when I am doing too much. I am pig-headed. When I see a sunny forecast I am looking at maps and bus timetables and planning my next walk.
OK. A word about bus timetables. The ones for Gower are very confusing. The ones for the Swansea (including Limeslade, Caswell and Pennard Cliffs) are great. I understood them. The buses ran frequently. Once you get past Pennard Cliffs and change bus companies, however, the timetable becomes impenetrable. I have spent hours looking at the little rows of numbers and columns of place names trying work out how they connect or don’t. I have woken up in the night worrying how I am going to complete this coastal walk.
It seems that I can get to several of the places I want to go in the morning OK; Oxwich, Rhossili, Llangennith (if I can get to the bus stop at 7.40am). It’s the coming back that’s a much dodgier affair. There seems to be one bus in the late afternoon. Maybe. If I have downloaded the correct timetable from the internet as there often seem to be several versions and I am not sure when one is the one the bus drivers will be using (see my earlier blog for my rant about lack of tourist or bus information.in Swansea). Part of the problem is that I am trying to get to places outside the main tourist season June-August when there are slightly more buses running. Maybe this wouldn’t matter if I knew that I could walk 20 miles in a day, or 11 miles, but so far I have only done 3 or 4 miles and found them pretty tiring.
So this is a long-winded way of saying that I have broken my rules. Just to remind you. They are:-
1. Travel in a clockwise direction around the Gower coast
2. Travel by public transport and by foot.
3. Walk on sunny days.
So Rule No. 2. I’ll fess up. For some parts of the coastal walk, I got in my car and drove to the places that I was struggling to figure out the public transport links for. That was until Ceri from woman walking blog recommended traveline.com to me.
Rule 1. Clockwise direction? Not always. This particular walk was done in two parts. The first from Tor Bay in a westerly direction (with both human and canine company) on a breezy, sunny day but the second part was done from Oxwich (alone) in an easterly and thus anti-clockwise direction (and looped back to my car). It wasn’t very sunny. So I broke all the rules on that day. It didn’t feel good but nevermind. I’m just doing it badly. It’s a coping strategy. I came across it recently. The thinking goes, if you are paralyzed by anxiety and a fear of failure: “Just Do It, Badly.”Once the summer bus timetable is action, perhaps I’ll be a perfectionist and do it “properly”. We’ll see.
I’ll pick up from last week’s blog about Three Cliffs Bay. The climb up from western side of Three Cliffs Bay itself is pretty tiring as its very sandy but the view at the top is worth every bit of the struggle.
At the top is an Iron Age fort. The Iron Age was a very long time ago – about 2,500 years. It has a fantastic view of Three Cliffs Bay (the ramparts are covered in primroses).
Following the coastal path around the very windy edge of the cliffs, you eventually reach around the top of Great Tor and Tor Bay below.
At low tide Tor Bay can be reached by walking along the beach from Three Cliffs Bay in the east and also from Oxwich Bay in the west, but at high tide the sea cuts off the little bay. It then can only be reached by a path down from the cliffs. This path is very sandy at the bottom end making it considerably easier to walk down than up it! This is a detour and not part of the coastal path walk!
It was a windy day and the clouds and their shadows were racing across the sands. It was really delightful watching the light and colours change on the cliffs tops and beach. We saw only three people and one day on this mid-week walk.
My two canine companions Biddy and Mitzy had a great time, especially when they found something really stinky to roll in, on top of Little Tor. There were streaks of “it” in their coats. Like brown dog-highlights. Urgh! It smelt really bad even out in the fresh air, despite a dip in the sea. It was even worse in close quarters in the car home. Needless to we drove with the windows open and they were bathed as soon as they got through the front door with lots of lovely dog shampoo.
On the path above Tor Bay is a curious stone building with two archways going nowhere. A useful shelter if you are caught out in the rain or in a hail storm was we were a few months back. It’s actually a lime kiln. Gower is dotted with these buildings in which which limestone was burnt or calcined to produce quicklime.
The path then undulates along the headland until it reaches little five bar wooden gate with a wonderful view of Nicholston Burrows (dunes) and Oxwich Bay on the other side.
The path continues until you are given the choice of carrying on down through the woods on the right on down to the sandy beach on the left. I took the long sandy path through the dunes down to the beach, the smell of the sea calling me all the way. If the tide is out you can then loop left round to Tor Bay or right and walk along Oxwich Bay.
Oxwich Bay is a wide expanse of water and sand. It’has a sandy beach which is about 2 1/2 miles long, flanked by sand dunes, patterned by a maze of tracks. Beyond the dunes lie lakes, woodlands, salt and freshwater marshes. Apparently, it’s rare to have so many different habitats in such a relatively small area in the UK. They are all part of the Oxwich nature reserve.
The beach and the dunes are bisected by Nicholaston Pill, a small river that flows out from the marshland and reeds. I’d forgotten that there’s a little wooden bridge over the river, tucked away in the dunes.
There was a middle-aged couple sitting on the sand dunes with their dog. I stopped and we had a long chat, in which we discussed in quick succession; the weather, buses, Cardiff, Swansea’s one-way traffic system, the council, the Slip Bridge and buses again.
Eventually, after a very long walk on soft sand, past much flotsam, I reach the end of the beach. There lies the village of Oxwich. In summer this is a very busy beach. This is the second largest beach on the Gower peninsula after Llangennith. There is a large car park, a flat beach, a cafe, and toilets so it’s rather popular with visitors, apparently, an incredible a quarter of million of them each year!
There are several caravan parks within walking distance too. When we first came to Gower we used to come here and I once attempted to surf here. It didn’t go well as I paddled too far out and got scared.
Set just a step back from the beach is the Oxwich Bay Hotel. It is an imposing building, its steeply pitched tiled roof reminding me of French architecture for some reason.
The tiny village Oxwich lies on a road leading inland from the sea. That because this was not a fishing village. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the woodland areas of Oxwich were quarried for limestone and exported, using Oxwich bay as a small port. So the cottages of Oxwich were once the homes of the local quarrymen. At the start of the Napoleonic Wars, in which Britain declared war on France, the Royal Navy was forcibly “recruiting”, or press-ganging, men from communities situated along the British coast. This included the Gower coastline. Late one Thursday evening in October 1803, the HM Press Gang called at Oxwich and took 5 sailors, one of whom was a ship’s boy, who had happened to come ashore from a merchant vessel.
Once upon a time, all the houses in Oxwich would have been thatched. Now few are except the cottage that has gained fame for being the place the Methodist Minister, John Wesley once stayed in 1764. It was known as the “Nook”. The well-traveled Wesley was impressed by the people of Oxwich as he noted in his diary that “all the people talk English, and are in general, the most plain, loving people in Wales’. There is no pub in Oxwich and it has been suggested that the influence of John Wesley may have had a bearing here!
So I broke the rules (including the staying on the official coastal path one) but I have made it past my “block”. I have had to pay the price as must have walked for about 5 miles on the sand. Hence the very stiff calves. Maybe, next time I will take the woodland walk! I did it badly today but I did it.
Next time I will walk Oxwich Head and experience mild peril.