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Irish Independent Feature (Expanded Version) Part 1

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Irish Indepent Arts Article on Emma Cownie
Irish Indepent Arts Article on Emma Cownie – Premium Content


I am very excited to have an article in today’s Irish Independent on Sunday about me and work by Niall McMonagle. Below is my expanded Q & A  interview that was much edited to feature in  Niall McMonagle’s What Lies Beneath feature . It’s interesting to see that the online version had a different headline from the printed version (Below)

Irish Independent article 22/2/2023
Irish Independent article 22/2/2023


This expanded interview will be in two parts, published as two blogs,  today and next Sunday.

Q: Take me back to your earliest memory of your awakening interest and awareness of art. How old were you and where were you? I realise that you became a full-time artist much later but as a child did you draw and paint?

A: I enjoyed drawing and making things from an early age. One of my earliest art-related memories was drawing a picture of my mother in the kitchen at home with our cats and dog. I knew I wasn’t very good at faces so I decided to avoid this issue by adopting a bird’s view of the kitchen!

My picture of Mummy
My picture of Mummy (with pets)


Q: As a teenager you did embroidery, sewing and used oil pastels. Can you say something about that please. And when it came to pastels what was your subject matter?
I took up embroidery when I inherited some embroidered table clothes, threads, a hoop and some iron-on embroidery pattern books from my great aunts. I really was taken by the beautiful designs and the intensity of the colours of the threads. The dark winter, in the North of Ireland, has prompted me to take it up again as it’s something I can do under artificial light. I am like a child in a sweet shop, trying appliqué, embroidery and felting. I am still exploring.

Chain stitch embroidery
Chain stitch embroidery
Neeedle Felting
Neeedle felting

I enjoyed the physically of oil pastel sticks and the vibrancy of their colour. I used to paint interiors – my bed room a lot. I got real pleasure from observing the changes the bedroom lamp made to the form of the bed under the bedspread. It was the start of my obsession with light and shadow.

Q: You were you born in Hereford. What was your life there like – urban? rural? and was your family background artistic?

The River Lugg (SOLD)
The River Lugg, Emma Cownie (SOLD)

A: My childhood was characterized by moving, thanks to my father’s career in Insurance. I was born in Hereford and lived in the town and then in a village called Morton-on-Lugg. My earliest memories are of village life; the sound of cows, visiting the river and our neighbour’s pigs. We then moved hundreds of miles up north to Whitley Bay on the North East coast. After a few years we then moved back down south to Gloucester. I found this move the hardest of all as I had felt really settled in Whitley Bay. I have also lived in Cardiff, London and Swansea. So I am a “townie” with a love of the rural which is why I ended up a Derry city and rural West Donegal. I have never felt that I am “from” anywhere in particular.

My strongest connection is to my family and to art. My paternal grandmother’s family are from Cork City. My mother is Welsh and her family is from Cardiff. I have a lot of Celt in my genes, Scottish too, hence my name Cownie. I came from a family of four children and we are very all quite competitive, creative but also eccentric and geeky. My parents painted, my great aunts were talented painters and my sister went to the Royal College of Art so there is creativity in the family genes.

Q: You studied medieval history in Cardiff and London and taught for 20 years in a secondary school. During that time did you paint and did you ever consider becoming an artist.

A: I painted, on and off throughout those years. I thought about doing Art at college but I wanted to do something different from my sister who had studied fashion at college. She did an MA at the Royal College of Art and worked for Paul Costello, partially in Dungannon, Co Tyrone, for a few years, before she gave it all up for motherhood. After my History degree I flirted with the idea of being an artist and even got some funding but it wasn’t enough to live on so I got a job with the council.

Soon after I won a fellowship to do a PhD in History so I decided to pursue that. I really enjoyed academic research and my years at Cardiff University were some of my happiest. I also spent three years doing a Post Doctoral fellowship in Kings College, London where I continued to paint. Opportunities for Medievalists were limited so I trained as a secondary school teacher in Swansea. I enjoyed working with children enormously but I was always doing something else in the holidays – writing a novel, crocheting and, of course, painting.

Painting my James Henry Johnston
Painting by James Henry Johnston

It was only after my car accident in 2012 when I started to paint in any spare moments (not just the holidays) and I started to make progress. I had been inspired by seeing the works of a painter called Robert Bevan in the Welsh Museum to start painting again. My husband set up a website for me and put my work on a website called and to my surprise I started selling. He then formed the company Emma Cownie Art and we have been fairly successful selling art since then. He paints too, portraits mainly, under the name James Henry Johnston.

Q: I read that you’ve lived in many places in the UK. Have you painted those places. Is your work a diary of your movements?

A: Yes but in terms of landscapes I only painted the areas I have lived, or my parents have, after 2012 – so South Wales, the Cotswolds where my parents now live and Donegal and the North of Ireland, particularly Derry, Tyrone and Antrim . The light is different here to South Wales and requires a different colour palette. East Donegal, easily accessible for Derry, is also subtly different form west Donegal in light and colour.

Derry Panorama

Derry Panorama – Emma Cownie

Derry and rural Donegal. How did that come about?

Emma Cownie in Donegal
Outside the cottage in Burtonport

A: It was my husband, he was home sick and wanted to have a foot in Ireland. He was born and reared in Co. Derry. We bought a house in West Donegal in 2018, as he went to the Gaeltacht there as a teenager and had lovely memories of the area. His great grandmother came from there too. I just thought the landscape was stunning. Like nothing else I had seen. Brexit also pushed us into the decision to move over here permanently. My husband felt increasingly unwelcome there. We both hated they way politics lurched to the far right. It was very unsettling.

The people Derry won me over. It’s a lively and intense city. People are funny, interesting and kind. The women in particular are stylish, articulate and self–confident. I love the fact that women of all ages, from babies to grannies wear Doc Marten boots. The city takes the time to consider all communities – there’s an LBTQT+ rainbow crossing by the Peace Bridge.

The Walls of Derry painting by Emma Cownie
The Walls of Derry – Emma Cownie


Q: How aware were you of Irish history before you came to live here. Is Derry now a place beyond the Troubles? Is it often said that the Irish know so much more about England and the English than the they do about Ireland.

A: It would be impossible living with my husband for twenty five years, who grew up in Co. Derry during the Troubles, not to have learnt a fair bit about reality of growing up in the Troubles. I have also read a lot about it too. I taught some Medieval Irish History when I lectured at Cardiff University. I also taught A Level C19th British (and Irish) Political History for 16 years at Secondary school in Wales. You cannot understand the History of Britain without understanding it’s relationship with Ireland.  I have also been a dedicated listener to Irish Times “Inside Politics” podcast ever since the Brexit Referendum. There is always more to learn. I have enjoyed finding out about the places I paint. I often like to write a short blog about the places in my paintings, as well as on aspect of my process.

There is a lot of British politics reported here on the radio and TV news, often with more insightful commentary and in depth discussion than I would have heard in Britain. I love that the Irish love to discuss a topic thoroughly and without acrimony. I would say Irish people are more informed about this interconnected history. I find Irish people are very articulate in expressing their views which is to be admired.

I cannot really comment on whether “Derry is now a place beyond the Troubles” as I have not lived here that long. My husband, who knows it from his youth, tells me it is a city utterly transformed from when he lived here. Back then many parts of the city were a war zone or had access controlled by the British Army.
The Peace Bridge, linking two communities across the River Foyle, seems to have connected areas that were separate before. All I can say is that Derry is a very picturesque and lively city with the friendliest population I have ever met.

Derry doesn’t hide the past either and embraces aspects of its History through various museums and excellent guided tours. Lots of tourists come to Derry throughout the year. It is a great place to live. The close proximity to Donegal, the glorious Antrim coast and Sperrin mountains in Tyrone make it ideal for a landscape painter! Plus, as an intact walled city, Derry is unique in Ireland.

Ruinsof Red Bay Castle, Waterfoot, Antrim_Emma Cownie
Ruins of Red Bay Castle, Waterfoot, Antrim_Emma Cownie


Q: A terrible car accident on 29 February 2012 was life-changing for you. You suffered PTSD. Did that influence your becoming a full-time artist?

A: Absolutely. The accident itself was pretty minor – my car was a write-off but I expected to be back at work with a bit of whiplash the following week. The accident, however, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It uncorked layers of stress and anxiety that had built up over many years and it completely overwhelmed me. I also had many stresses in my life, including that of being a head of department in a busy secondary school.

I found it hard to get through the day and function as a normal person. Only by eventually getting therapeutic help and EMDR counseling was I able to work through my emotions regarding an earlier trauma in my life that underpinned it all. Once I started therapy I took up painting all the time. I found it soothing and therapeutic. I don’t think that people don’t talk enough about breakdowns and mental health issues. It’s a very lonely place to be. Unless people have experienced depression or breakdown themselves, people are frightened of it and don’t know what to say to you. Breakdowns are surprisingly common. People have the idea that breakdown happen because you are weak – the opposite is true. I had been strong and carried an intolerable burden of stress and responsibility for far too long. You don’t have to have been in a war zone to develop PTSD. Everyone has their breaking point, if they are pushed hard enough for long enough. My husband says breakdowns can act as “a breakthrough” – your unconscious is telling you that your way of life is intolerable and you have to change it.

Woodland Print
Winter Morning Light on Parkmill (SOLD)


Q: Your paintings are beautifully calm, peaceful. Does that reflect your own life now or do you still live with pain and trauma as a result of the accident?

A: My painting used to be more colourful than they are now and I think that was an unconscious effort to cheer myself up. I think was depressed without realizing it. I just soldiered on. I am much happier now I have left teaching and paint full time. I make a great effort to make my colours more natural and realistic. It’s quite a challenge to capture the awe and wonder I feel looking at Irish landscapes. I am always looking for clarity in my colours and composition. I keep my palette clean in order to achieve those simplified colours and shapes.


Donegal Painting Gola Island
Main Street Gola – Emma Cownie


I think the breakdown has left its mark on me. Feelings can get stuck. I can get a upset about a relatively minor incident if I don’t talk it through with my husband or a family member. But I think it made me a kinder more empathetic person. I have always been a sensitive person. I hate cruelty and suffering in people and animals. I also hate heights and I can find the beautiful Peace Bridge a bit challenging (at night especially). I broke my leg in 2020 and had three plates put in my leg so I have to a series of daily yoga exercises to ensure I don’t experience pain when walking.


Q: Though you paint people [‘Living it Up’] and animals your work is mainly of beautiful empty, light-filled landscapes. You mention Hopper. Paul Henry. [Your work also reminds me of Maureen Gallace.] What other art forms – literature, music for example – are important to you?

Living it up (Brynmill Park, Swansea)

Living it up (Brynmill Park, Swansea)- Emma Cownie


A: I love to read fiction and non-fiction. I am an avid reader, usually having several books on the go at any one time. I have recently read Donegal and Derry authors such as Peadar O’Donnell and Tony Doherty to get a sense of the past, in relation to the areas I now live.

To be continued…Read Part Two HERE 

watercolour painting of robin
Watercolour painting of a robin – Emma Cownie (SOLD)
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Irish Independent Feature (Expanded Version) Part 2

Irish Independent Newspaper Logo
Irish Independent article 22/2/2023
Irish Independent article 22/2/2023


This is the second part of my expanded  Q & A interview with Niall McMonagle of the Sunday Independent.

Read part one here 


This section is more about how I work, my style and influences.

Q: How do you choose your places to paint? And is there a particular time of year that you favour?

A: Light and colour draw me to a subject. I am looking for a strong composition and clean colours. Usually bright light and strong shadows, so any time of year except for summer. I paint large paintings in the long hours of summer instead. Composition is key to my work. I also like to express the quiet like various American realists like Edward Hopper. I also love Rockwell Kent, a painter who also painted west Donegal.

Q: Do you work en plein air? From sketches? Photographs?

A: I tried painting en plein air in South Wales – I was crippled by feeling self-conscious and frustrated by my lack of control over the conditions. Plein air is also not conducive to my style of painting, and what I am trying to achieve in my work; in the magnification of simplicity, form, light and shadow. I am continually painting layers over a period of time. My creative process starts with taking the photo, editing and then using it for inspiration. I try to recreate the essence of a place I am painting rather than simply reproducing a scene.  I am very much influenced by the photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson and how he used composition to create dynamic images.

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) Munster, County Kerry, Ireland, 1952
Henri Cartier-Bresson, County Kerry, Ireland, 1952


Q: You now live in Derry and Donegal. How did that come about?

A: We wanted to have a combination or urban and rural so that we could experience both, so we live 7/8 months of the year in Derry and 4/5 months in Donegal. The Derry/Donegal combo is hard to beat. Derry also opens up another area of east Donegal, Inishowen, as it is only a few miles away from Derry city.

Q: Your work features on a Donal Ryan Spanish version of Strange Flowers [‘Cottage on Bunbeg Harbour’] and Claire Keegan’s Foster [‘The Traditional House. Gola’]. Congratulations. Has that made a difference?

Donal Ryan's "Strange Flowers" (Flores extranses).
Donal Ryan’s “Strange Flowers” (Flores extranses).

A: It has been great to get recognition from two such brilliant writers. I feel greatly honoured. I knew that when I moved from South Wales to Ireland that I was likely to lose collectors (although I still paint the Gower Peninsula in South Wales and Tenby from time to time) and it would take time to build up an Irish following.
I am hoping these book covers will help with that, plus this feature.

Cover of Claire Keegan's "Foster"
Cover of Claire Keegan’s “Foster”


Q: How did the dreaded Covid affect you and your work?

A: I broke my leg at the start of the pandemic and was awaiting an operation in Morriston Hospital, near Swansea as the country went into lockdown. So whilst most were confined to their houses I was confined to my bedroom for several months and had to do physiotherapy down the phone. I took months to recover and regain my mobility and make it up the steep stairs into my attic studio.

Emma Cownie Artist
Painting in the studio with my leg up!


Artists live very solitary lives so lockdown wasn’t a massive change to my life, as such. I was frustrated that I couldn’t  visit locations to take photos for new paintings so I spent months scouring through the photos I did have. I was surprised at how many photos I had discounted could be made into interesting pictures.

Covid has definitely affected our life here – I feel frustrated that we are living at arms’ length from everyone. It has meant that we have limited where we go and what we do. My husband  is asthmatic, so we are very careful. We got vaccinated and boosted and always wear masks indoor but we were still very ill this summer. It knocked us both out for 6 weeks. I don’t want to catch it again because we don’t know what the long term effects will be.

Q: In terms of your palette what colours are essential?

A: It depend where I am painting and whether I am using oils or acrylics. The light in South Wales is more yellowy, in Donegal it is clearer and bluey-white. Our house in Derry is smaller than our Donegal house so I had to learn to paint with acrylics because of the fumes and having pets at close quarters.

Acrylics are very different to oils as you have to build them up in thin layers. They dry fast and are difficult to blend. Oils are more opaque but much slower to dry. I have to think about each medium in a different way and use different colours. With both oil and acrylics I prefer underlying warm colours (oranges, ochres, pinks and mauves) but I have to use different colours to get a similar same effect in each. With oils I would use Naples Yellow, Yellow ochre, Olive Green, Raw and Burnt Umber, Raw Sienna, Van Dyke Brown, Warm Grey, and Cool Grey, Mauve and for the sea and sky Ultramarine and Phthalo Blues.

With acrylics I would use Lemon Yellow, Ivory, Light Ochre, Sap Green, Cerulean Blue and Ultramarine blue, pink and purple, Payne’s grey for darker tones. I use more mixing white and fluid medium in acrylic. I have had to train myself to mix large quantities of “sky” colour and keep in a tub with acrylic. There’s this thing called “colour shift” which means the paint dries lighter. So it’s almost impossible to match wet acrylics to the dry colour you want to achieve. The irony is that I think that although I prefer painting in oils, I think my acrylic paintings might actually be better.

Q: The painting reproduced in the Sunday Independent on 15 January is ‘Down to the Pier, Gola’. Would you say something please about your links with, your relationship with, Donegal in general and Gola in particular.

Down to the Pier, Gola_Emma Cownie
Down to the Pier, Gola (Donegal, Ireland)


A: I love the Donegal islands – they are a glimpse of a vanishing Ireland. Gola and Inishbofin are wonderful locations, in particular, although the one I most visit and have painted most is Arranmore.

I went to Gola island because of the space as I thought it would suit my “rural minimal” style of painting which proved to be the case. They have very few vehicles and I really enjoy the peace. Isn’t that why we like the coast – with just the sound of the waves and the wind? How the houses were placed, in this vastness lent itself to composition. The islands, more than any other place I have been to, chime most with my style of painting. They have moved my style forward. Also I really like the fact that there are almost no telegraph poles to complicate compositions too.

The way the vernacular houses are arranged, sheltering from upland areas of the island, and close together suggests how people of the past worked together and with the landscape. I think I am attracted to the sense of community. People had to work together in order to survive. A sense of community, interconnectedness, of Irishness, lingers there. It is tangible.

Q: Also re ‘Down to the Pier, Gola’ how quickly does your eye know and choose the perspective and the composition of the piece? And would you say something please about how you went about making this work? Did you begin with a drawing? What colour did you put down first etc.

A:  Composition is key. The cinematic-type compositions and dramatic use of light and shade. As I said before I am strongly influenced by the French photograph Henri Cartier Bresson and I often look for a road or fence posts to lead the eye into the painting.

Rule of Thirds - Henri Cartier Bresson
Rule of Thirds – Henri Cartier Bresson


Elements will also be left out or simplified to give the image more punch. Most of the Gola and Inishbofin paintings are painted in my own “rural minimal” style which is the rural manifestation of the “urban minimal” style I developed to paint the city with. This style of painting is influenced by those American realist painters who paint the quiet, the spacious and the still and revere a certain treatment of light and colour such as Edward Hopper as well as by Contemporary Minimalists such Jessica Brilli, (whom I traded paintings with last  year). The rules of composition are strong light and shade, use of diagonals and simplified forms. I wanted to explore the interplay of the geometry of shadows and structures – the tension between the 3D buildings and the 2D shadows. I wasn’t sure if this style would work in the countryside until I went to Gola and found it was perfect for evoking the silence and the stillness of these beautiful islands.

Painting of houses on Gola, Ireland
Tigh Breslin, Gola – Emma Cownie (SOLD)


“Down to the Pier, Gola” is an oil painting. I sketched the outline of the road and buildings in thin red ochre paint. I painted the white house first. It takes a several layers of paint to create that intensity of the whitewash. I usually use thin layers of paint, but my final layer of white will be thicker. White oil paint takes the longest time to dry, which is why I often start with white. I then added the blue sky and the pink road and distant buildings. I like to work quickly when I paint in oils. I will rub away the paint if I am not happy with a colour. I have learnt to be quite ruthless with rubbing back and starting from the canvas. This way the final piece is lighter and has more coherence. I am wary of over-working the paint.

I use a different approach to painting with acrylics. It is much slower as I usually paint a grayscale (or in earth tones) underpainting to check I have my tonal values right and then I add colour. There is a lot of adjusting of colours and correction that goes on. I will often work on two paintings at a time so that I can add sky, sea and use the same colours and let them dry so I can consider the colours and how they are coming together. Acrylic paintings can take up to a couple of weeks, on and off, to complete.

Q: What do you look for in a painting? And do you have a favourite painting by another artist that means a great deal to you?

A: Often I am drawn to the light – a shaft of sunlight on a window sill or a strong shadow by a house. Often times it will be a particular colour – such as the blue of clear seas of Donegal or the pale fluffy clouds.

Robert Bevan Maples at Cuckfield, Sussex 1914 National Museum of Wales, Cardiff Photo © National Museum of Wales
Robert Bevan Maples at Cuckfield, Sussex 1914,  National Museum of Wales, Cardiff
Photo © National Museum of Wales


Robert Bevan’s “Maples at Cuckfield, Sussex” (painted in 1914) is very special to me as it was a complete surprise when I came across it at Cardiff Museum in 2012. A good painting makes me to go home and paint. I used to feel that way about the Van Gogh’s and Monet.

I just loved the muted colours with the light orange and purples and the semi abstract trees. Bevan had spent time in Paris at Pont Aven in Brittany. He met Cezanne and Renoir was friends with Gauguin. I went back the follow year to see it again and was disappointed to find it wasn’t on display. The museum was kind enough, however, to let me and my husband go down to storage to see it close up.

Q: You have sold many many paintings. Are you sorry to see them go? Has there ever been one that you just did not want to part with?

A: I have had to toughen up a lot about parting with paintings. My sister’s advice was “paint so many you are sick of the sight of them”. It did work but some paintings really are tough to let go of. I really regret selling a painting of a horse “Blaze” and another of a elderly lady carrying her shopping in Swansea town centre, called  “Soldiering On”. I have learnt my lesson and I have a handful of paintings that I won’t ever put up for sale – one is of a Gower pony, another is of a cat that used to hang out at the local general store in Swansea.

Painting of Swansea old lady On
Soldiering On, Emma Cownie


Q: If you would like me to include your website, instagram, upcoming exhibition etc please give them here.

A:  I haven’t exhibited in recent years in galleries by choice and I sell the majority of my work via my website although I have a private art gallery behind my cottage in Donegal which is usually open, by appointment, May – October.


@emma_cownie_artist on instagram

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