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.
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.
I have written before about how my husband, Seamas, is a bit obsessed by Donegal’s highest peak, Errigal, and how loves to tell me that you can see Errigal from different places such as the beach, the airport, the house, the top of the garden and so on. His father helped run a boxing club named after the Donegal peak too. Actually, after spending the week getting sucked down the rabbit hole that is “family history” research, I have decided this love of Errigal is in his genes.
If you have ever attempted to trace your family tree you will know how absorbing and frustrating it can be. There are many dead ends, but there are also many highs. Tracing families in Ireland can be difficult as a lot of 19th-century census records were destroyed, however, the 1901 and 1911 censuses are online (http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/) and free to search.
Furthermore an excellent site www.irishgenealoy.ie gives you access to images of birth, marriage, death records. I think I found this a more startling insight into Irish History than all my years teaching 18th & 19th century British at High School. The course title was something like “The History of Wales and England 1785-1914”. In fact, we covered relatively little about the History of Wales (except for the Chartists), but a lot about the History of Ireland. I learned that you cannot begin to understand the History of England without knowing about the history of Ireland.
We tracked Seamas’s great-grandmother’s family, the Colls, to an area of Donegal known as Gweedore. They lived in a townland called Meenderrygamph (Min Doire Dhamh in Irish) which is on the edge of a mountain not far from the Clady River, and the modern-day Gweedore Court Hotel. They would have been able to look up and see Errigal as they worked their land. This was very marginal land and life was very tough indeed. The Coll’s land in Meenderrygamph was on the edge of peatlands. The grazing was rough. Their family had worked it for generations and but it was not theirs. It was rented.
This was typical of 19th-century Ireland. The ordinary Irish people, who were mostly Catholics, did not own the land they farmed. It was rented from Protestant landlords, who made it virtually impossible for Catholics to own land. Few, if any Catholics in Gweedore, had the right to vote. Up until the 19th century, the population of the area remained low and the lack of roads in the area meant that landlords, agents, and the police generally did not interfere in tenants’ lives. It is evident that this wasn’t from lack of trying. Around 1834 local people had beaten up “two revenue police parties” who had been collecting tithes for the (Protestant) church. The police gave up and left Gweedore.
Without interference from Landlords, the people were able to graze the whole area, and the land was divided up by a system known as “rundale.” This was an ancient form of land division that, despite its faults, allowed everyone access to the best land, water and common grazing – it’s not dissimilar to the open-field system of farming used in Medieval England. This was a sustainable system of farming that worked well on marginal land that was very difficult to farm.
That all changed, however, when Lord George Hill (1801 -1879) bought up large areas of land in Gweedore in 1838 and started “modernising” things. Some of these changes may look like encouraging developments to modern eyes. The first road into Gweedore was constructed in 1834 when the Board of Works constructed a road from Dunlewey to the Gweedore River and Lord George Hill further improved the roads on his estate, he built a Hotel for visitors to the area. Lord Hill also built the port of Bunbeg in the late 1830s to encourage fishing. He also built a grain store on the quay, opened a shop and a bakery and encouraged women to knit socks for sale. Lord Hill, however, made sure that no one else opened up in opposition to him. Margaret Sweeney was evicted for trying to set up a bakery without permission.
Lord Hill’s land reforms were certainly not welcomed by the people in Gweedore. Lord Hill outlawed the building of any further new houses, any subdivision of land, or the sale of land. He had the area surveyed during 1841-1843, and then began to allot new consolidated larger holdings to each tenant. Under these circumstances, providing land for sons was impossible and the only option for them was emigration.
There were partial crop failures in 1831, 1837, 1854 and 1856, and complete crop failure in the years of “the great famine” (1846-48). Surprisingly, there was not a great loss of population in the Gweedore area compared with other parts of Ireland. This was probably partially due to the efforts of the landlord, and also to the availability of edible seaweed. Lord George Hill tried to help his tenants; he wrote begging letters to the Society of Friends (the Quakers), the Irish Peasantry Improvement Society of London and the Baptist Society. He sold grain below cost and sooner than directed, contrary to government policy, although he was recompensed generously by the government for grinding Indian Corn.
Lord George Hill believed the famine was a judgment by God on the people for their morals and farming practices! He actually said “The Irish people have profited much by the Famine, the lesson was severe; but so were they rooted in old prejudices and old ways, that no teacher could have induced them to make the changes which this Visitation of Divine Providence has brought about, both in their habits of life and in their mode of agriculture.” He saw the famine as justification for phase two of his reforms. Sheep.
The Scottish Blackface, like several other breeds of sheep, was brought to Ireland by Lord Hill (and other landlords) as a way to make up for lost revenue during the famine. This made life very hard for the farmers of Meenderrygamph. The farmers were deprived of their mountain grazing. If their animals wandered onto unfenced land (that had previously been common land) their animals were impounded and the farmers were saddled with massive fines of £2 or more. Things were so bad that John and Daniel Coll had had to apply for poor relief.
Not everyone took this lying down, of course. In December 1856, around forty Irish tenant farmers raided the house of a Scottish shepherd and ordered him to leave the country. More raids followed. Hundreds of sheep were killed (or went missing). Hundred were found dead on the land near Meenderrygamph. This was known as the Gweedore Sheep War.
We know that a Thomas Coll had been arrested for the perpetration of “outrages” and was in jail in 1858 but we don’t know if he was one of the Colls from Meenderrygamph. By the following summer, numerous arrests had been made, new taxes put in place (to pay for the police), and the police presence expanded. By summer 1858 the Gweedore Sheep War was effectively over. The Irish farmers had lost, the sheep remained.
The Colls in Meenderrygamph were much reduced in number. In the 1850s there were 6 families bearing the surname farming the land there. By the end of the century, there were only three Coll families, two of whom were sons of Daniel Coll, possibly the late Denis Coll had been his son too, we don’t know. Where had the others gone? Many Gweedore families started to emigrate to America and Australia in the 1860s, perhaps this is where they went too.
The Land War of 1879 to 1882 saw the issue of rents take a deadly turn. Lord George Hill had died in 1879 and his son, Captain Arthur Hill, took over the Gweedore estate. This coincided with the rise of discontent over “landlordism” in Ireland and through a judicial review some rents were reduced on the Gweedore property and 10,000 acres of mountain grazing was given back to the tenants by the Land Commission which sat at Bunbeg. However, Father McFadden, the chairman of the National Land League, an organisation founded in 1882 to oppose “landlordism,” this was not enough and he organised a boycott on the payment of rent. In return, Captain Hill began to evict tenants.
Father McFadden, known as the “fighting priest of Gweedore” was put in prison 6 months in 1888 for organizing a boycott and the non-payment of rents. Things got worse in February 1889 when, having finished mass at Derrybeg, Detective Inspector Martin turned up to arrest him again for encouraging resistance to local evictions. The locals quickly acted to defend the priest but in the melee, Inspector Martin ended up dead on the steps of the Priest’s house, some claimed that he’d hit his head on a curb, others that he’s been beaten to death. It was a shocking death. The priest and 40 of his parishioners were charged with murder. Incredibly, the murder charge was dropped and Father McFadden pled guilty to obstruction of justice. The parishioners were charged with manslaughter and given long sentences. McFadden’s was banned from involvement in any further political activities by his bishop and he was transferred to another Donegal parish.
A generation later, life was still very hard for people in Gweedore. It was, over this period, one of the poorest parts of Ireland. Many left, some temporarily for work in Scotland or permanently in America and Australia. Seamas’s great-grandmother Rose Coll had to leave home as a teenager to find work possibly as a servant in a farm near St Johnston. She spoke Irish and English but could not read or write. Looking through records of the area, this seemed to be unusual for people of her generation. Most young people could read by the end of the 19th century. She could not, nor could her two brothers. Healthcare was also a luxury they could not afford. When Rose’s father had died a decade or so earlier in 1888, the registrar’s record noted that he had suffered from some sort of “debility” for two years. The precise cause of the illness was unknown as the family had not been able to afford a medical attendant in all that time. Possibly when her father died, Rose and her brothers were kept home to help with the farm.
So, family history ends up raising more questions than answers but it really makes you appreciate how much we take for granted in life today, the ability to read and write and reliable access to food, healthcare and to a good pair of shoes. To illustrate, I’ll leave you with some incredible photos of Gweedore in the 1870s and 1880s taken by Derry photographer James Glass.
If anyone reading this knows of the Coll family from Meenderrygamph and can help us fill in some details my husband and I would greatly appreciate it?
I have been ill this week so this is a short post.
In last week’s post, Seamas, my husband and I were standing on rocks looking out towards Gola island in Donegal. This week we are looking back inland to Dunmore Strand, and beyond to Mount Errigal.
As soon as I saw this scene I knew I wanted to paint it. I loved the dark shadow under the protruding lip of the undulating dunes. It gave the impression that the grasses were merely a thick blanket laid across the top of the sand.
Scattered along the beach and in the water, were granite rocks. These were so large that they were more like massive boulders. They were a beautiful pinkish colour close up. The sand was also very slightly pinkish but closer to the shoreline it was almost white. Lines of seaweed marked the rising and falling tide.
The tiny white houses gave a sense of sense scale of the dunes. They reminded me a little of boats on the surface of a heaving sea; humans eeking out an existence on the edge of nature. The ocean itself was calm and benign. It was as clear as glass at the shoreline and further out was a beautiful turquoise. It is not always this smooth creature, in autumn, I have seen it roaring and thrashing the shoreline like a wild beast.
Mount Errigal dominates this part of West Donegal, known as Gweedore. The mountain looks close but it’s an optical illusion, it’s actually about 10 miles away to the east. The top of Mount Errigal was swathed in clouds. The mountain always seems to have clouds around its shoulders, or totally smothering it. I had to wait for about 3/4 of an hour for the mists to part for a clear view of the peak. The clouds near to me were dirtier rain-filled clouds that were building and threatening to release their burden on the land somewhere nearby.
Another wonderful thing about this beautiful beach is that on this chilly April afternoon is that there was not another soul there. The only people we saw were the postman in his van on the way down the long lane to the beach.
My next post will peer “through a glass darkly” at Seamas’s Donegal family history (it is very dark in places) and the History of Gweedore along with the controversial issue of modernizing landlords.
My husband, Seamas, loves islands. He’s not alone, many people dream of living on or even owning their own private island. I just love looking at them and painting them. Which is handy, as the coastline of West Donegal is completely smothered with them. Looking out from the coast of Donegal, one of the longest in the country at more than 800 miles, is a bit like looking at the night sky and trying to name as many of the brightest stars as you can. Seamas seems to know most of their names without having to look at a map.
Around the coastline of the island of Ireland, there are 365 small islands, and a good number of those lie off the coast of Donegal. Wikipedia has individual pages for 20 of them, but there are many more than that. I can’t find an exact number. Many islands near the coast are little more than rocks big enough for some seaweed to cling to the edges of, visible only at low tide. Maybe these are just baby islands, islets. How big does a piece of land surrounded by water have to be to be an island, I wonder? If it’s big enough for some grass and a cow it must definitely be an island. There are quite a lot of those near Burtonport. The cows are well known for swimming between the island in search of better grass. I kid you not, it’s common off the coast of Inishcoo – click here for more evidence. I think the association between cows and island grazing is an ancient one as several islands take their names from cows, such as inishbofin (Inis Bó Finne) means island of the white cow and Calf island near Aran Island.
There are also about 100 sea stacks. Are these thin, vertical towers of rocks jutting out of the sea proper islands, I wonder? Slighter bigger and desolate are The Stags, or Stag Rocks, also known as The Three Sons of O’Gorra (Na Trí Mic Ó gCorra) which lie someway to the north of Owey island. Legend says that they were three pagan swimmers who were turned to stone by St. Colmcille the 6th Century missionary, also known as Columba.
Then there are islands that have (or used to have) people living on them. Arranmore is pretty big (8 square miles) and is home to a sizeable community of about 500 people full-time residents. Some islands are easy to get to, such as Cruit, which has road bridge to the mainland, and Arranmore and Tory which have a daily ferry. There are others that have only summer ferry such as Gola and Owey Islands.
There are a lot of islands with no ferry but can be reached relatively easily by boat or kayak such as Inishsirrer, Inishmeane, Edernish, Rutland, Eighter, Inishillintry, Inishinny, and Bo, Go and Allagh, Inishmeane, Inishdooey, Insihbeg, Inishfree Lower but are close-ish to the mainland, and others that are pretty remote, even to people with their own boats such as Umfin, Tororragaun and Raithlin O’Birne and then finally there are the very remote ones are Stags Rocks mentioned above and Roan Inish. Some like Arranmore and Tory are inhabited all year round, others like Owey and Gola are mostly home to people during the summer months.
I love the descriptive names of the islands thus Cruit (An Chruit) means harp-shaped, Owey (Uaigh) means cave as there’s one under the island, Island Roy (Oileán Ruaidh) means Red Island, Inisheeney (Inis éanaigh), bird island and Tory Island, (Toraigh) means High Tower and when you see photos of the island you understand why that is a good description of the island.
I have driven across the little bridge to long Cruit Island and I have boldly reversed my car onto the ferry to Arranmore and back again. I have spent a fair bit of time standing on the shore looking across the water at islands, Owey is a good example of this.
My latest subject for this mainland-based island-gazing is Gola. Its name sounds vaguely sporting, forever muddled in my mind with football and trainers probably because I used to have a pair of Gola gazelle trainers back in the 1990s. The island has nothing to do with trainers or goals. The name Gola, or Gabhla in Irish, means “forked”. If you look at a map of the island the name makes sense. The fork is the split in the west face of the island.
We set off on a sparkling afternoon in early April. The sun is out but it’s cold, with a chilly wind. I’d wear my big wooly hat in the car but the bobble on top is too big and it hits the headlining. So I drive without it on. In order to get to a good look at Gola, we drove past Donegal’s tiny airport at Carrickfinn, along a long single track road. There’s a lovely view of Mount Errigal off in the distance.
The track then rises and winds its way past a series of isolated houses, both and old and modern. The road is a bit threadbare in places, in good condition in others.
We follow the road until we reach a fine modern house overlooking what I’d call a beach, but this sort of long stretch of curving sand is known as a strand in Ireland. I think this is Dunmore Strand (An Tra Bhan). We climb out the car (I leave my window open in my excitement), with hat and gloves on and various cameras slung around our necks and stuffed in jacket pockets. The tide is out so that I don’t realize that the long stretch of dunes reaching to the north of me, is actually part of a tidal island, Inishinny.
The blond sand is strewn with majestic pink granite boulders and rocks. The clear sea is a most beautiful violet and turquoise. I have never seen anything quite like it. We spent a lot of time staring at the water, trying to fix its colour in our memories. The seaweed resting in between cracks in the rocks is a fantastic livid green.
Beyond the dunes is in the distance to the east is Gweedore and the village of Bunbeg and Magheraclogher beach. The terrain is peppered with lots of little white houses, most of them modern. In the opposite direction to the east is a very different landscape.
We have to walk along the sheltered beach and climb across a series of massive rocks to get a better look at the island. The island of Gola seems tantalizingly close, it’s only about half a mile. We can see the ruins of many houses, but also many painted white and with good roofs.
Seamas was very excited to see the island, as there is a possibility that his Donegal Coll forebears may have lived on the island. However, although we know his paternal grandmother originally from the Gaeltacht (Irish speaking area) somewhere in Gweedore, we cannot track her down in the records. There are lots of possibilities but no certainties.
Gola, is a small, very rocky and rather exposed-looking island. Mind you, I was looking at it from across the water, and it is consistently described as “beautiful” by visitors. The silvery quality of the light on the white-washed building nearest the shore certainly caught my eye. I tried to convey the quality of the light in my first painting of the island.
We then clamber across another set of massive pink granite rocks to the headland nearest the island. It is more exposed here. You can get a better look at the houses. I am fascinated by the ribbon of little white-washed houses that look out towards the mainland. They look they were positioned with the prevailing wind (blocked by the hill to the west of them) and company in mind. There is a larger modern house set back from the old cottages.
I wonder whether that belongs to one of the few full-time residents that live on the island. My second painting of Gola, I think give you a sense of just how rocky the island is. The hills and fields are peppered with boulders, rocks and stone walls. The coastline along the south side of the island is a rampart of geometric rocks. No wonder the little harbour is tucked in on the sheltered eastern side of the island.
The island is pretty small. It covers about one square mile (500 acres). Although it seems quite flat in comparison with Aranmore, it is “mildly hilly” on its west side, rising to 238 feet at Cnoc an Choillín and 212 feet at An Mhaol Mhór. These hills provided vital shelter for the houses that stretch along the east side. (Images taken from Google Streetview).
On the other side of the island is as statuesque sea-arch.
Gola was once inhabited by a surprisingly large community of over 200 souls. I looked across at this barren-looking land and wondered how on earth they could grow enough food to survive. Mind you, the land is not as bleak as the tiny fields of west Galway, full of stones. Yet survive they did, thrive even. Vegetables could be grown on the land fertilised with seaweed and turf could be cut from the bog to heat the homes. Many of islanders were fishermen and they would also travel to Scotland for seasonal to work each summer to supplement what they could grow on their small farms. Surprisingly, up until 1920s, the island population continued to grow, but it declined after 1930 and then became deserted in the late 1960s.
Yet, the island was never completely abandoned. Families would come and spend summer months here. Although most of the buildings on the island are derelict, many have been renovated by Gola families as holiday homes. The island now has mains electricity and water supply and a small number of people live on the island all year round.
Being an island the sea sustained island life but it also curtailed it. Bad weather could cut the island off from the mainland, especially in winter. The coast of Donegal frequently faces some very severe weather from the prevailing westerlies and the heaving Atlantic Ocean. Gola was immortalised in the sad lament “Baidin Fheilmidh” (Feilim’s little boat), a song about a Feilim’s bat which sets off for Gola and then Tory but was crushed against Tory island, sinking with poor Feilim in it. There are various versions of this song you can listen online including one by Sinead O’Connor but I think I like this paired back version best, which also has the lyrics in Irish & an English translation here.
There is a ferry service that runs from Bunbeg from June to September. Sabba, the ferryman, also runs facebook page under the name “Gola Ferry Service” and it it is a good idea to check before planning a visit.
We were too early in the year, sadly, to visit by boat. I am pretty sure that Seamas and I will be making a trip to Gola island in July when we are planning to be back in Donegal. We returned home to Burtonport for tea and biscuits to warm up in front of the fire.
I am just going to post the photo of this woodland painting, it seemed to take all week to paint. I kept rushing out to take photos of the woods in the glorious (but worryingly warm) February sunshine we had early in the week, so I sort of lost my usual rhythm with the painting. Still, I doubled down and worked hard and I am pleased with the final result.
The clouds of pinkish trees off in the distance are hundreds of hazelnut catkins, catching the light. What I love about this ancient woodland is that, although its managed, and trees are cut back, and paths kept clear, fallen trees are allowed to rot in place. I have painted at several fallen (and falling), trees in this composition. Three lie in the stream, the other reaches across the canvas in an arc.
I’ll let you into a secret. I have been known to hug a mossy tree. They are like nature’s sofas. they are soft and springy. They provide so much for the eco-system. Mosses, lichens, ivy, and fungi grow on their surface and the creviced bark provide homes for hundreds of insects. The dying trees send nutrients back into their roots, passing on to their neighbors (who are usually their offspring). In our urban lives, we are insulated and somewhat shut off from the ebb and flow of natural life. My visits to the woodland remind me that life and death are constantly happening and that release from one form of life provides life for others. Don’t believe all that hype about “survival of the fittest”, nature is more sophisticated than that. It is all about balance, no one species rules the woodland, thousands live, cooperate and thrive here.
Here’s a fascinating TED talk about how trees communicate.
I like to explore nooks and crannies and I usually use a map to help me. This way I can find interesting scenes to paint. I love looking at maps but I didn’t have one in Donegal. I thought I’d get one with the hire car but instead we were given a Stat Nav (Satellite Navigation). You can’t spend hours looking at the lay of the land on a Stat Nav. It spent the holiday in the boot of the car. I thought we’d get one in a filling station but in Ireland you don’t fill up your own car and wander into the garage shop to look at car related stuff and packets of sweet, you have a friendly young chap filing your car up for you! We sort of knew where we were going. My husband, Seamas, had spent hours “driving” down the roads and lanes of Donegal on Street View Google.
So, in the spirit of adventure I turned off the coast road, which runs from the airport to Dungloe, in search of the sea. The roads are narrow but fortunately we didn’t meet anyone coming the other way. After following an undulating single track road, it widened out and then seemingly vanished over a hill into the sea. I didn’t fancy doing a lot of reversing so I parked up to explore on foot. Over the other side of the rise was the beach. It was low tide. The track I’d been on ran down to beach and then started up again on a island on the other side of the beach.
This is Fall Island and it is only 300 metres long. There is only one lone house on the island. The house was shut up for the winter.
I was fascinated by the rocky landscape and the houses perched on the rocks. These rocks are made of granite. Granite is an igneous rock which it was once magma which crystallised as it cooled down. It’s a dense and useful rock. It can be cut, carved and shaped. It is also resistant to water and pollution.
The granite rocks along the coastline are massive. Monumental. Their edges smoothed by the sea and the wind.
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.
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.
Last summer I started my series of “Urban Minimal” paintings of the streets of Brynmill, Swansea. These paintings were my “Hollowed Community” project which were exhibited in the that year’s Madeinroath Festival. That’s not a typo, by the way. The festival organisers stipulate that you type it as one word Madeinroath, rather than three “made in roath”. Roath is a suburb of Cardiff, by the way. They also stipulate that the “in” in “Madeinroath”has to be in red too. It’s driving my spell checker crazy!
My “rules” for composition and painting this project were:-
2. No People
3. Bright light. There must be shadows – at diagonals if possible.
4. Simplified forms – there must be little detail in the final painting. I want to explore the interplay of the geometry of shadows and man-made structures – the tension between the 3D buildings and the 2D shadows. Simplified blocks of colour.
These rules worked well in an urban setting, especially with the sea light we have in Swansea.
Since then, I have been caught up in my Gower Coastal Walk.
By my calculations, I have three, maybe four more Gower walks to do in order to complete the length of coastline but other commitments are keeping me from finishing. Firstly, I have a pile of exam scripts to mark. I am rusty and I mark slowly these days. Secondly, a summer virus has made me feel under the weather.
I haven’t consciously applied the urban minimal rules in a non-urban setting. What’s the problem? The applying Rule #1. “no cars” and #2 “no people” rules is easy enough. As is #3 “Bright light”. Then there comes the difficulty. The second part of Rule #3 “There must be shadows – at diagonals if possible.” Walking late morning, mid-day day means that there are few long shadows and they are difficult to find on beaches too. Although, there have been a few.
Finally, Rule #4 “Simplified forms – there must be little detail in the final painting. I want to explore the interplay of the geometry of shadows and man-made structures – the tension between the 3D buildings and the 2D shadows. Simplified blocks of colour.” I never really followed this rule to the letter as I thought details, such as window sills, and reflected light on glass, breathed life in pictures. It was knowing where to add detail and where to simplify that was important.
Limited edition large mounted print (free postage)
Here, I have just been very cautious about going “too far” with this in a rural setting. But I have been edging that way, such as with my treatment of sand. Other aspects of my composition such as clouds and vegetation have not really been “minimal”, not in a conscious way anyway.
I think I need to challenge myself and make myself think about how I am tackling these subjects. I think my recent paintings of rural buildings (that’s cottages to you) has been much more successful.
You may well say are just rural buildings instead of urban buildings. Yes, but they are stepping stones. I am still thinking about how I apply these rules when there isn’t a building in the picture!
If you want to buy any of these painting clink on the link below each painting or look through my Buildings and Streetscapes gallery.