I have decided that perfect is the enemy of good, and I need to give up on the idea that I should write lengthy blogs posts, as I end up writing nothing! So here goes,
One of the many great things about being back in West Donegal is that I can paint much larger paintings as my art studio is much bigger here than in Derry. So I now have two on the go!
These are both painted in acrylic paint. I find it easier to make adjustment in the value/tones in acrylic before I move onto a layer of oil as a final layer. Acrylic can act as a foundation layer for oil, but not the other way around. I had forgotten how physically tiring painting a large painting is. My arms are tired!
I have been experimenting with different supports and media. The Jessica Brilli painting on wood got me curious about how it would be different from painting on canvas.
I could find very little information about the experience of painting on wood panels (but lots of information on how to prepare them). So I realised that I had to use trial and error to find out. I ordered some gessoed wood panels from Cork Art Supplies who delivered them very promptly.
My first effort was this painting. I painted a light ground of red ochre in oil before I laid down the painting. I found that achieving fine detail was much easier than on canvas. However, the colours didn’t behave the way I expected them too. My sky started off too dark. I found it was easy to wipe off the oil paint and repaint it a lighter shade. I found that white areas also needed a further layer once they had dried to give them the solidity I required. The painting took much longer than I am used to to dry.
I have painted in acrylics on canvas before and struggled with the speed with with the paint dries on the palette. I used to find the the paint had gone hard in the 20 minutes since I started painting. It drove me mad. However, after extensive reserach I worked out how to make a wet palette so that I could slow down the drying time of paint on the palette. I decided to use the quick-drying acrylic paint as an underpainting.
The acrylic painting was more of a sketch than a proper painting. The process forced me to simplify my images further and the final layer of oil paint gave the image a greater depth and richness of colour.
Some of the acrylic sketches really challenged me as the paint did not move and work in the way I was used to with oils. The greens and yellows were too transparent and looked messy. It was impossible to lighten colours, like the leading edge of the fence post, once they had gotten too dark.
The final layer of oil paint, however, enabled me to make my colours much more opaque and to to add much more detail in places, especially on the wire fence.
My final painting was a studies in mauves, blues and greys. I had added an additional layer of light grey gesso as a ground before I started painting.
I enjoyed experimenting and I ended up painting several painting at the same time, as I waited for paint to dry between layers. The whole process forced me to confront my short-comings as a painter of acrylics. I did not enjoy that. It made me feel uncomfortable and brought out my “imposter” anxieties. I need to do much more work in this area to develop my skills.
It was also rather time-consuming and probably not a great project to undertake in the winter months, in Donegal, when good light is in very short supply. I am not sure that I would spend so much time on the underpaintings in future, as I liked my first painting the best. Although I would where there are large areas of white. I did enjoy painting on the wood panel and I will continue to experiment with them.
Last Thursday morning Bingo, one of my two cats, collapsed in the front garden under a hedge and we had to take him on the long drive to the vets to end his suffering. It broke my heart. I had had him for over a decade and loved him dearly. Hattie, his cat companion of the last 6 years, misses him too and she has been outside looking for him. That’s even sader. We are keeping her indoors for now.
So my concentration hasn’t been great. I have struggled to write anything, although I had almost finished another blog. Every time, I looked at images, trying decide what painting to start next, I am crippled by indecision. So I have been painting instead a series of small studies. Playing with composition, and simplifying images. The idea is to reduce detail to the minimum.
I then moved on to slightly larger canvases. The photographs of the paintings don’t quite capture their colour. Unfortunately, they have a blueish cast to them.
Inishbofin #3 30x24cm
I will continue with these and hopefully I will find it within me to paint some much larger versions. In the meantime, we have a large rescue cat we have named Tadhg (pronunced “Tag”) from Burtonport Animal Rescue, in the office. He is named after a famous Irish rugby player, called Tadhg Furlong, on account of his robust physique.
Unfortunately, Hattie hissed at him when she first saw him, so we are introducing them very, very slowly. Swapping scents and feeding them on opposite sides of the same door etc. Tadhg was a stray and hasn’t had much experience of the indoor life, so he’s getting used to things like doors (they move when you rub up against them, you know) and mirrors (there’s a big black and white cat in window thing in the bedroom next door he’s worried about). He also loves carpets and heating. When he wants a break he sits under the chair in the corner of the room. I hope we can successfully integrate Tadhg into our animal family!
Finally, I managed to scale the steep steps to my attic studio! One step at a time. Holding on the handrails.
Ah, what pleasure it was to be back in the attic. It has a view out the back of the house. It is a great pleasure to look at the wooded parks and hills of West Swansea instead of the unrelenting concrete streets and terrace houses out the front of the house. I have a number of commissions to fulfill but I wanted to “warm up” with some small paintings first as I have been working with watercolours for the past two months. Here’s a selection:-
Table Mountain (Crug Hywel)
My first reaction to oil paint was how slow it all is in comparison with watercolours. With watercolours, most of the effort goes into planning and preparation and then the execution of the painting itself is quick. Putting oil paint on the canvas was more laborious that watercolours. I also had to rummage around for looking for the right sort of paintbrushes, a few times. I could not quite lay my hands on what I needed. But, ah! The paint did what I thought it was going to do. What joy! If I changed my mind about a composition or decided that something did not work I could wipe it off the canvas. It did not reproach me for making a mistake by showing it to the world for ever! Nice!
Anyway, I sat down and started a series of new Donegal paintings. Here they are.
The Two Tin-Roofed Sheds, Arranmore, Ireland
The Old Stone Shed Arranmore Ireland
These paintings are from the past few weeks. I have also worked on two commissions. It has been slow work at times as I often need a lunchtime nap to keep my energy levels up. I do my rehab exercises several times a day which can be very tiring. On a positive note, I finally got to speak to a physiotherapist, Josh, who has been very helpful. He has posted exercises to me and giving me guidance on how much to do. I can walk upstairs reasonably well, but downstairs one step at a time. When I get tired my ankle gets sore and I limp. I try and avoid that if I can.
What did I learn from watercolours? That I can and should edit and play around with compositions more. I simplified my images as much as I could. I changed the skies or left out an inconvenient house. I found this freeing and I brought an element of this to my oil paintings. For some reason, I have felt to need to be truthful to the real-life locations I painted. I realise now that I don’t have to. I can happily leave out a telegraph pole or a lamp post if it confuses the composition.
Watercolour painting of robin
What do I miss about watercolours? The tidiness. Clean clothes and hands. The lack of chaos. The speed. The brushes that don’t wear out by the time you have finished a large painting. The lightness. They convey the lightness of birds better than oil colours. Also the convenience, I could pack away all my paper, paints, and brushes in one big bag. I am looking forward to using them outside when I can walk much longer distances!
This will be a short post as I am nursing a painful left elbow on an ice pack. I developed bursitis on Friday, I am not sure why as I didn’t hit my elbow on anything but too many sun salutations in yoga is my number one suspect.
We have had a lot of really bad weather lately. We seem to be cantering our way through the alphabet of storms: Atiyah, Brendan, Ciara, Dennis, Ellen, Francis etc. This means I have rarely left the house, except to buy food, walk the dogs in our local park or to go to a yoga class, although yoga will be out of bounds until my elbow recovers now.
So, whilst Storm Ciara was blasting her way overhead, a couple of weeks ago, I decided to set up a number of still life compositions to work from. I had painted a number of largish canvases (80x60cm) and felt in wanted to paint something smaller for variety’s sake, and also something that I could complete in a short (gloomy) day.
My past forays into Still Life paintingexplored paleness/whiteness, and they were largely inspired by the work of Morandi. These were medium-sized paintings. I liked the calmness of the plain backgrounds.
Still life – cup and teapot
Still Life Painting
In this short series of paintings, I was more interested in colour. I was particularly inspired by a patterned cloth that my husband, Seamas, had found in a charity shop many years ago. I liked the warmth of the colours.
This was my first painting. I liked the way the colours of the flowers chimed with the fruit on the plate.
I think my second painting was better probably helped by better light on the day that I painted it.
Then I decided to focus on the fruit. A tiny slice of it!
Then finally a more traditional composition with a cup and red cloth. I have noticed before how I am drawn to painting reds in winter.
The bright colours in these paintings cheered me up. Having completed this short series I felt ready to return to large canvases and more muted tones.
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!
I love looking at maps and finding out the names of places. This is particularly true of the islands that litter the coast of West Donegal near the Rosses. I am always asking my husband, what island is that? He’s usually pretty good at knowing the names (I check on a paper map later). In the summer I spotted a house on a tiny slip of an island to the south of Arranmore. Can you see it in this photograph below?
View from Arranmore
Closer. See it now?
I thought it was just one lone house (was that another house at the other end of the island, maybe?). What glorious solitude! What must it be like to stay on that island all with the spray of the sea so close looking at big Arranmore? This is my painting of the island. I was curious about the feint outlines of ruined houses I could see either side of the restored summer house. I wondered about them and their families.
This is Iniskeeragh. Ireland (like Wales) is rich in descriptive place names. They usually describe are named after features of the landscape, such as hills, rocks, valleys, lakes, islands, and harbours. In Irish, its name is “Inis Caorach” which means “Sheep or Ewe Island”. So either sheep were kept on the island (it seems pretty small for that) or its a shape reminded people of a ewe, which might be more likely?
After some research (online and in books) back home I discovered that the island had at least 12 familiesliving there permanently, it also had a schoolhouse. I find this incredible for such a small, lowing lying island. It’s 650m x 300m (2132ft x 984ft) in size. I tried to work that out in football pitches. It’s the equivalent to 40 football pitches, so maybe its not as tiny as I think. It is very low. It’s no higher than 11 feet above sea level. Yet you can read their names in the 1901 census here.The family names of the farming families are familiar Donegal ones: Gallagher, Boyle, Sweeney, Rodgers, O’Donnell and a sole Bonner, Grace (35) who was listed in the census as a knitter, she was one of only 2 knitters on the island.
These Donegal islands may seem remote to modern eyes, but they played their part in the culture and history of modern Ireland. Gola Island, Gweedore, may well have served as the model for Robert Louis Stevenson’sTreasure Island. Two men from Gola, Patrick McGinley and Charles Duggan, were aboard the Asgard, the yacht that brought arms into Howth in north county Dublin in 1914, in preparation for the Easter Rising of 1916. Tiny Inishkeeargh also had its connection with the wider world. Writer and political activist Peadar O’Donnell(1893-1986) was a for a time teacher’s assistant at the school on the island and he set his second novel, The Islanders, here. Peadar went on to become one of Ireland’s foremost radicals of the 20th-century.
Life was tough on the island. Roise Rua described her work on the island kelp-making as “tedious and exhausting”. The tenants had to pay rent of £50: £26 for the use of the land and £24 for the use of the seashore – making kelp, picking winkles or shellfish, dulse and the like.” Sadly, like many other Donegal island communities, such as Owey and Gola, the people of Inishkeeragh was forced to relocate to the mainland in the 1950s.
Sea levels played a big part as at least twice in the twentieth century an exceptionally high tide coinciding with a bad gale forced the islands to take refuge in the two houses that had lofts. They apparently spent hours “in terror, fearing the overloaded floors would collapse.” A storm in 1953 washed away the pier and the government of the day would not pay for it to be repaired. This meant that subsequent storms swept through the houses and within 5 years all the families were forced to leave the island.
There was a reunion of Inishkeeragh families and their descendants in 2015 on the island. Internationally renowned Country singer, Daniel O’Donnell, was part of the celebrations (his mother was born on nearby, Owey Island).
You can see the photos of the day on their facebook page here. You can visit the island with Arranmore Charters, be sure to book beforehand.
Addition sources for Inishkeeragh (Inis Caorachin) came from:
I am winding down the social media for a while because we are leaving the UK to spend some time in our house in Burtonport, Donegal, Ireland. The internet will be available on a very limited basis so I won’t be able to post on here until mid-April. I will be checking my emails but I won’t be posting much, if anything, on Facebook, Twitter & Instagram.
I have mixed feeling about the enforced “break” from social media. On the one hand, I hate the way how it sucks up all your spare time and energy and how FOMO (fear of missing out) has you checking updates. There’s always the fear that if you stop “spinning all the plates” that people will forget about you! However, I am certainly looking forward to reading books, listening to the radio (there’s no TV either) and sketching and painting for fun (not oils but watercolour sketches).
I am very excited/nervous about the whole thing because I am driving there and it’s a long, long way.
Please be aware that any artwork purchased after 25th March will only be shipped after 12th April.
This blog is made up of 5 photos/images that represent the stages that go into the process of creation of a woodland painting. The first photo is the most joyous. Wandering around the woods (read more about this very special place here), taking photos and marveling at the light. On this day the light was perfect. I was delighted by the way it illuminated the leaves, the moss, and the grass. I was also excited by the fact the woods and stream were flooded with light in a way I had not quite seen before. The time of year and the time of day all affect conditions. No two days are the same. Enjoying the sunshine was the easy part.
Work in Progress #1
Now for the hard work. My woodland paintings are different from my other paintings. I paint them in a different way. They are more of a semi-abstract construction and less organic than my paintings of clouds, coasts or people. I can’t exactly explain how I ended up doing this, I think it was when I was in my fauvist/refractionistphase. It sort of like constructing a giant puzzle and my head usually aches afterward! So I sketch out the basic position of the trees, stream and the main shadows.
Painting is a lot of problem-solving. I have to decide which order to paint different sections of the canvas. Some parts I want to dry and then go back and add detail. So I start by flipping the canvas “upside down” and painting in the light blues and mauves of the sky. I also need to convince myself that this painting will work so I paint in the tree trunks to “anchor” the painting. I look at the painting in a small mirror – this is a way of allowing me to see it in reverse, and trick my brain into seeing it like other people do (rather than what’s in my head). That’s day one of painting.
Work in Progress #2
On my second and third day of painting, I spend a lot of time thinking about colour and how to mix the right shades. Getting the different greens right is vital, from the fresh yellow greens to the very dark hues. The hazy trees in the middle distance are difficult to gauge as mixing green with purple makes a dreadful sludge on my palette and nothing like the colour I want. I am anxious about the dark green on the opposite river bank on the left hand of the painting. I worry about getting it right. I have to be able to represent the damp dark greens effectively, without drawing too much attention to them. I mark in the darkest part of the bank and leave them for the next day. It is slow work.
On the final day of painting, I pick up speed and tackle the far river bank. I attack the most interesting part by painting in the light on the leaves and the purple shadows at the top of the bank. The purple shadow then blends into the green and by the time I have finished with the bank I am pleased with it. The part of the painting that frightened me the most makes me the happiest. Ironically, no will notice probably it. That’s how exactly it should be.
“Path by the Stream”
The final stage of the painting is solving the showed foliage in the lower centre of the painting. This I simply into blocks of colour. I want to focus of the painting to be the hazy light at the top part of the painting and I don’t want to draw the eye to the foreground at the bottom of the canvas. In my mind, I struggle with this process. There is alot of indecision. The literal part of my head wants to paint it “as it is” but my artist’s head is trying to reduce the colours into blocks. To help in this process, I move my reference photo onto a chair so my myopic vision can no longer see the details. I push on and eventually, the canvas is covered.
I then will leave the room to make a cup of tea and return with the express purpose of “surprising” the painting. This way I can see it with fresh eyes from the other side of my studio and decide if I am happy with it. I am.
I am delighted to report that I sold “Path By the Stream” to one of my most valued collectors, who has bought many of my works, in beautiful Kent, England.
I have started my next woodland painting, if you want to follow its progress like & follow me on Facebook.
I have recently been spending time with my parents in the Cotswolds in Gloucestershire. On a bright sunny Sunday morning I explored some of the winding tracks of a near by village called Chalford and Chalford Hill. Where is that? In the South West-ish of the English Midlands ( see map below). The Parish of […]
I was absolutely delighted to spot Claire Keegan’s “Foster” (and my painting on the cover) at the BBC’s screen of this year’s British Academy Film Awards, known as the BAFTAs. The Irish language film “The Quiet Girl” was nominated for Best Screenplay (Adapted) catagory. The film’s director Colm Bairead wrote the screenplay, adapted Claire Keegan’s beautiful novella. The moving film was also nominated for the Best Film Not in the English Language.
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 […]
New Work & Recent Sales
Washing Line, Arranmore _Emma Cownie
Inishcoo (To The Fore of Arranmore) – Emma Cownie
Kinnagoe Bay (Inishowen, Dongal)
Over Glenlough Bay, Donegal-Emma Cownie
Still, On Gola (Donegal)
An Port, Donegal_Emma Cownie
House on Ishcoo, Donegal-Emma Cownie
On Rutland Island, Donegal -Emma Cownie
Spring on THree Cliffs Bay, Gower_Emma Cownie
Sun on the Reeds (Glentornan, Donegal)-Emma Cownie
View from the Pier (Portnoo)-Emma Cownie
From Port to Glenlough (Donegal)
Fishing Boat at Port Donegal-Emma Cownie
Portnoo Pier, Donegal_Emma Cownie
Down to Rossbeg Pier, Donegal
Errigal reflection (Donegal) _Emma Cownie
Errigal from Cruit Island. Donegal _ Emma Cownie
Over to Fanad Lighhouse (Donegal) _Emma Cownie
Errigal painting – A Commission 2022
From Arranmore (Donegal)- Emma Cownie
Abanoned (Glentornan, Donegal) -Emma Cownie
Ferry Home (Arranmore, Donegal) by Emma Cownie
Summer Morning on Pobbles Bay
On the Way to Kinnagoe Bay (Drumaweer, Greencastle)
Down to Doagh Strand (Donegal)-Emma Cownie
Lambing Season at Fanad Head
Fanad Lighthouse (Donegal)
Down to the Rusty Nail
Carrickabraghy Castle, Inishowen
Upper Dreen_Emma Cownie
Portmór Beach, Malin Head, Donegal
Down to the Rusty Nail, Inishowen
The Walls of Derry
Painting of Derry City
Derry Walls by Emma Cownie
Shipquay Gate by Emma Cownie
Over to Owey Island (Keadue) Donegal
Lighting the way to Arranmore
Old Stone Cottage in front of Errigal (Donegal
Boat at the Pier, Gola
House on Inishbofin, with distant Seven Sisters (in studio)