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.
I used to like painting landscapes and cityscapes with clear blue skies. I waited for the bright sunny days of early summer to walk around, taking photos and looking for inspiration. Thus, my series of urban minimal paintingsof Swansea, made the town look a bit like a Mediterranean location!
What a joke. It rains a lot in Wales. It has rained incessantly for the past two days. Since my extended visits to Donegal, however, I have become increasing inspired by cloudscapes and the silvery light along the Atlantic coast. With my “new eyes” I have started waiting cloudy days in Wales to go out looking for inspiration. Not overcast days, but days with patches of blue sky and sunshine.
I drove down to Pennard, with the idea that I wanted to paint Pennard Pill, the river that follows into the sea at Three Cliffs Bay. The BBC forecast claimed that it would be sunshine and clouds all morning. When I looked at the Mumbles and Caswell Bay webcam, one showed sun and the other was overcast. I set off, anyway. I would go for a walk, regardless. On my way there the sun came and went. As I drove past Mumbles head, I could see it swathed in a light misty cloud. I wondered whether there would be anything to see when I got to Pennard.
Thankfully, the sun was shinning at Pennard as I made down the path that runs alongside the golf club. The tide was coming in and I could just see Great Tor in the distance, through the peaks of dunes. When got close enough for a clear view the sun promptly went in! I looked up at the sky and looked for blue patches. There were quite a few. So I carried on towards Pennard Castle, which is situated on the top the of the high dunes, further inland. I hoped the sun would reappear by the time I got to Pennard Castle. I tried to work out which way the clouds were traveling. Usually, they move from Oxwich Bay towards Three Cliffs. Today they were going the other way. The sun came out a few times on my walk. Just as I was climbing up the sandy path the castle I came out and lit everything up like a technicolor Hollywood film!
The sun promptly went in again. I stood in the ruins of the castle and waited. I thought about the fairies who had supposedly destroyed the castle with a sandstorm when the lord of the castle had refused to invite them to his wedding party. Eventually, the sun broke through and lit part of the valley below.
I watched the light move across the valley and the colours burst into life.
I then decided to walk back towards the sea and see if I could photograph the three peaks that give the bay its name. The clouds rolled in.
I would have gone home at this point, as there was a cold wind and it was almost lunchtime but I could see bright light off in the distance. It was on the far side of the Bristol channel. I could see a ship on the horizon lit by this light.
How wide was this stretch of water? Miles. How long would it take for that shaft of sunlight to make its way over to the Gower coast? A while. So I waited. I am not very good at standing still so I walked around a bit, watching the dog walkers and small family groups vanish from the landscape.
The clumps of large mushrooms spotted about the grassy parts of the dunes, made me think of the fairies again.
I climbed dunes, trying to decide good locations for photos for when that shaft of sunshine arrived. It was definitely coming my way. A new set of walkers was arriving on the beach. They were all optimists too!
Hunger was starting to make itself known. I slouched down against a dune. Patience. Patience. What was the point of giving up now when I had waited so long? Impatience comes from wanting to be somewhere else. I needed to be here now. I thought of a line I heard Van Morrison sing at his 2015 Live 70th Birthday Concert at Cypress Avenue, Belfast “It has always been now” (52 mins into the clip). He’s a genius. He captures the joy of being truly present in the moment. Just as I was saying that to myself when the sun arrived and the technicolor lights were on!
That doesn’t quite capture it. Here let me show you. My view of the world.
That’s more like it.
Now I could go home and eat lunch. Paint and listen to Van Morrison.
Here’sanother footnote to last week’s post about the inspiration provided by markets. It’s the last, I promise.
Sometimes, I feel the need to take a break from one sort of subject matter to paint another. I’ve painted quite a few landscapes lately and so I relished painting what I call “people portraits”, or paintings with people in them. Unfortunately, these sorts of paintings they don’t sell so easily as landscape paintings, I don’t know why. So painting people paintings is a bit of an indulgence. Saying that sometimes I need to change what I am painting to keep my style fresh. Too much of the same subject and my painting goes off a bit.
It was the bottles that called to me. So many of them in the sunshine. I was attracted to the light and colours in this composition. Painting all those bottles was wonderful, slow, self-indulgent joy. It took quite a while and I swear that everything bottle is slightly wonky but it still works as a painting because its about light and colour, not perfect bottles.
The stallholder looks slightly embarrassed to be sneezing, surrounded by a colourful forest of bottles. I liked the stallholder’s green top too as it nicely complemented the colours of the bottles. There’s also a green jacket on a chair back, to the left of her, repeating this theme. I simplified the composition, removing certain element that distracted from the bottles and shadows on the purple table cloths.
I have a great deal of sympathy for the stallholder in the picture as I have developed hay fever this year. I may have had it before. I assumed that hay fever meant you sneezed and had runny eyes when you went near the grass. How little did I know! I had sneezing, itchy eyes, itchy throat and felt altogether rotten and very fatigued. It made me very ill. I thought I had a virus or a horrible cold. Eventually, my mother suggested it could be hay fever. I bought some over-the-counter antihistamines. Miracle Cure!
So now, I consciously head for the coast to avoid the tree pollen, grass or whatever is out there that I am allergic to.
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 warn you now that this is a blog post about paint; about one shade of blue in particular. It might even involve watching paint dry. Which, unless you are an artist, probably isn’t very exciting.
Paints represent a sort of non-verbal language for me. I actually find it hard to put into words how I feel about paints. I have a “feeling” in my stomach and I want to wave my hands about a bit to express those feelings, but it all seems very inadequate. I don’t know if other artists are like this. I see colours in life and think of the paints I might use to represent them on the canvas. There is a particular warm shade of brown that I am yet to satisfactorily find in a paint. For a long time, I struggled with particular shades of green, until I found that mixing turquoise produced the right level “zing” in my summer greens. In Donegal the greens need yellow ochre to make them ring true.
I am particularly obsessive about a particular colour that until yesterday, I was even sure how it was pronounced. This is phthalo blue. I doubt you have ever heard of it. It’s not like Ultramarine blue, made from lapis lazuli stone, which was was famously so expensive it was solely reserved for painting the Virgin Mary’s cloak.
Now, I am absolutely no good at saying words I haven’t heard someone else say out loud. That “ph” at the beginning really confused me and I used to call it “p-th-al-ff-oo” blue, deliberately tripping over the syllables because I’d never heard it said out loud. Until yesterday, when I realised I could look it up! So it did.
What! It’s pronounced “thalo”!! Why don’t they just call it Thalo Blue? I noticed in the comments below the video that someone else said ” I say it as pfthpfthpfthpfthpfthpfthpfthalo blue”. I don’t recommend, however, that you listen to the Russian pronunciation of “пхтхало блю” on google translate because it’s sort of like my original managling of the word!
You are probably thinking, who cares? Well, I care because I am passionate about Phthalo blue. No, that’s not true I am obsessive about it. It is very useful colour in my messy box of paints. I particularly like the version made by French paint manufacturers Lefranc & Bourgeois.
It’s not cheap but it a very useful colour. Its very strong. It’s very dark and I love it for creating really dark blues, blues that mixed with Van Dyke Browns and make wonderful dark clouds. I don’t like to use black for dark shades as it has a tendency to “kill” a colour. I have found that its essential for both the massive white Cumulonimbus clouds and the really filthy rain clouds of Donegal. It’s actually a synthetic pigment from the group of phthalocyanine dyes. When it’s mixed with Titanium white it makes a delightful light blue that’s also very useful for skies.
Oil paints are in essence pigments carried in oil (once upon a time vegetable oil was used) usually linseed today. The pigments were originally derived from mineral salts, a few from organic materials such as roots. Many of the historical pigments were dangerous, such as the wonderful greens called Paris Green (copper acetoarsenite) and Orpiment (arsenic sulfide), which were highly toxic. Happily, these pigments are no longer used. Later, man-made or synthetic, pigments increased the range of colors available, phthalo or phthalocyanine blue is one of these modern colours.
Chemists first developed this blue pigment in the late 1920s and it was sold under the trade name “Monastral“ in 1935. This list of alternative names is bewildering. Here are some of them; monastral blue, phthalo blue, helio blue, thalo blue, Winsor blue, phthalocyanine blue, C.I. Pigment Blue 15:2, Copper phthalocyanine blue, Copper tetrabenzoporphyrazine, Cu-Phthaloblue, PB-15, PB-36, C.I. 74160. I want to add to this long list of names Hoggar blue. Surprisingly, this colour is also used in Lidl’s Dentalux Total Care Plus toothpaste!
Now, I am sometimes faced with the situation that I have used up all the paint in a tube (and I really do get all the paint out of the tubes) but I can’t read the name or number of the paint to reorder the right one. I might be able to work out the manufacturer but its name or number. Here’s an example of what I mean.
Lefranc & Bourgeois are the oldest artists’ quality colourmen in France. They share the same parent company as Winsor & Newton. This is why, it difficult to get their paints in the UK most stockists carry Winsor & Newton paints instead. A while back they decided to have a rebrand and they changed their labels and the names on the labels. This caused me great confusion because neither of the two suppliers where I usually ordered this great colour listed “phthalo blue” anymore. I’ll show what I mean. Here’s the Lefranc & Bourgeois page from the Great Art website.
So I ordered a Phthalo blue made by another paint maker, Lucas 1862. It was OK but not half as good as the L&B version. It didn’t feel the same, and it didn’t mix with other colours in quite the way I wanted.
Looking back now, I can see that Hoggar Blue and Phtalocyanine Blue are actually the same colour, phthalo blue. The colour I thought they had stopped making. This meant I spent weeks eeking the last drop of paint out of the what I thought was my last tube, thinking that this colour was no longer to be had in the UK. Then I realised that I had another tube in a drawer so I got it out and studied the label carefully.
I realised that the names for this paint in other languages used Hoggar a lot (the Hoggar mountains are in Algiers, once a French colony); Blu Hoggar /Azul Hoggair /Hoggarblau so I went back and looked at the Great Art online catalogue and worked out that my phthalo blue was actually now listed as Hoggar Blue. So I ordered this Hoggar Blue and it was the same colour as Phthalo Blue. I was so happy! It meant that a part of my vocabulary was restored to me and I wasn’t going to run out of words!
So, you can see that I wasn’t exaggerating when I said I was obsessive about colour. Who else but an artist has a celebration over a particular shade of blue? The moral of the story is that all paint is not created equal and it’s always worth being obsessive about colour.
Oh yes, if you want to watch the video about paint drying, be my guest. I have watched and actually found it interesting (OK I actually skipped the drying bit to see the different colours)!
Bunbeg. The word has a pleasing sound to it. It’s short, easy to say and has a nice rhythm to it. Most place names in the British Isles are simply descriptions of locations, or who used to own it. That is not always obvious to modern English speakers because the descriptions originated in Anglo-Saxon, Welsh, Gaelic (Scots) or Gaeilge (Irish). Therefore, when speakers of the Celtic languages use a place name they have a ready made description of the place. It’s the same with Bunbeg. Bunbeg is the anglicised version of “An Bun Beag” which means the “the small river mouth”. I know very little Gaeilge but once you start picking up words you see them everywhere. Beg meaning small – there’s Derrybeg (Doirí Beaga) just round the corner which means small oak.
Bunbeg is located in an area of Donegal known as Gweedore (Gaoth Dobhair), known as a bastion of Irish music, language and culture and home to legendary bands such as Clannad and Altan. If you are as old as me you may well remember Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” which was a hit in the UK way back in 1989 and seemed to be played everywhere. Enya was originally a member of Clannad.
Gweedore is the largest Irish-speaking parish in Ireland with a population of just over 4 thousand people. I enjoyed listening to two fisherman having a good gossip in Irish at Bunbeg harbor round the corner from here. I no idea what they were saying but the conversation went at a good pace. I enjoyed just the sound of the language and comparing it to the sound of Welsh which I am familiar with.
Anyway, back to Bunbeg. The vast tidal sands that stretches across the indent in the coastline is known as Magheraclogher beach. When I say, vast I mean vast. It is one of the best known beaches in Gweedore, largely in part because of the distinctive shipwreck that’s been there since the 1970s.
It is known locally as ‘Bad Eddie’ or Eddies Boat. It has regularly appeared in Music Videos as well as providing the backdrop for countless wedding photographs and instagram posts. That mountain in the distance is Errigal, which also features in countless music videos, photos and paintings.
“Eddie” with Bunbeg and Errigal in the background
Usually photographers shoot him at low tide. Here’s the photo they use on Wikipedia.
I decided to paint a different view of Bunbeg, without “Eddie”, because I liked the reflections of the clouds in the shallows, I thought it made for a more dramatic composition. I thought the rain clouds also gave a better sense of the mercurial nature of weather of Donegal. It was also windy when we were here although, I would say that wind is a pretty much a constant feature of the “Wild Atlantic Way”.
This beach is popular with dog walkers and tourists as it is easily accessible, with a car park. Yet, I say “popular” the other people we saw were dots off in the distance.
For information on the history of Gweedore area click here
I sounds mad, but I didn’t have a map when I was driving around Donegal. I sort of hoped I could buy one in a petrol station but I never did. The Hire Car people lent us a Sat Nav but I could not be bothered to plug it in and it stayed in the boot the whole week.
I am very lackadaisical when it comes to planning holidays, I think all my energy goes into the logistics of getting there. Anyway, I assumed that my husband would tell which places were worth visiting. Afterall, he had spent hours “flying” up and down the roads of Donegal on StreetView. I sort of knew where I wanted to go; Bunbeg, Bloodyforeland, Falcaragh, Dunfanaghy, Derryveagh, Kincasslagh and Dungloe and the distances between them were not very great.
On the only properly sunny afternoon we had in Donegal, I took a left off the road from Dungloe to Kincasslagh. The sign said “Cruit Island Golf Club”. I reasoned that golf clubs are usually located in beautiful places, near the coast. So I followed a single track road and over a small concrete bridge on to Cruit Island. If you look at the map above, you can see that Cruit Island is long, three miles long, in fact.
Cruit Island at Low Tide
After a pleasant drive along a single track road, and passing what can only be called mansions at the north end of the island, we reached the golf club. Now in the UK golf clubs can be funny about other people coming onto their property, but there was nowhere to turn the car so I kept driving. Eventually we reached the golf club car park which looks out across wild waves to an island. This was no calm inland lough. This was the Wild Atlantic. The wind was fierce and the waves crashed and boomed.
It was mesmerising. The island was just across the turquoise water. It was dotted with houses, some clearly derelict, others in good order. I didn’t know it at the time but this was Owey island.
It turns out that Owey island is uninhabited for much of the year, having no permanent residents, but people do live there in the summer months. It was last inhabited on a full-time basis in the mid 1970s. The last residents were three old boys who were moved to the mainland of Donegal, or as the islanders call it, Ireland. All the houses were built on the south side of the island, facing Cruit Island Golf Club. The north of the island is too rocky and too exposed to the north Atlantic Ocean gales.
My eye was drawn to one building in particular. Standing on the brow of a hill, its missing roof caught my attention. It had also had a walled yard behind it. I was too far away to be able to tell whether this was a derelict old building or an incomplete new one. There are many incomplete “new” buildings littering the Irish landscape.
This turned out to be the old school. The walled yard was the play ground. It was a tiny school with just one teacher who would have to teach all ages of the small number of island children. It was a school for the younger children, and when they were old enough the children would then be sent to the mainland for their secondary school education.
Apparently, the school children had to bring a sod of turf to school each morning. The turf was fuel for the fire and the idea was that they provided the heating for the school room in the cold months. It has been pointed out that as the teacher’s table and chair were at the front of the room, they would usually sit right in front of the fire. When I used to be a teacher, I used to teach in a “temporary” demountable classroom (it had been there for 40 years) and in winter, I would often stand next to the gas fire, myself. So I liked that idea!
The Rosses (in Gaelic, Na Rosa) is a region in the west of County Donegal, Ireland. The name comes from “Ros”, the Irish word for headland. It is a curiously rocky place. Not rocky, in the sense that national parks in the American west, like Utah and Arizona, are made of 100% rock, but rather the bedrock is covered with a thin layer of earth, with slabs of rocks and boulders poking through. It’s a barren but beautiful landscape, studded with a myriad of lakes and inlets of the sea.
It may feel like the edge of the known world but this area has been inhabited “since time immemorial” according to Wikipedia. Coastal places like the Rosses, in Donegal, looked out onto a massive highway – the sea. Missionary Celtic saints were busy in this area in the 6th century AD. These saints relished a challenge and liked to travelled up and down the Celtic waterways to spread Christianity to nearby Scotland. In the 1990s it was fashionable to argue that these Irish monks had in fact, “saved civilisation” by copying the books being destroyed elsewhere by Germanic invaders, eventually bringing them back to the places from which the books had come. Part of this movement included women like St. Crona or St. Crone (Cróine) , a female religious of royal blood. She found a monastery in Termon near Dungloe. She was a cousin of the the better known St. Columba (St. Columcille in Irish) one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland, who founded the monastic settlement at Iona.
Much later (about a thousand years or so) in the 16th century, a number of ships from the Spanish Armada sank off or landed off its coast. Some 24 to 26 Spanish Armada ships are believed to have foundered off the Irish coast in 1588 while returning from a failed invasion of England by King Philip II. This is not just local myth as the wrecks of two Spanish ships were discovered by archaeologists in shallow water near Burtonport, Donegal, in 2008/9.
What happened to the survivors of these wreck is unclear. We know that as many as 9,000 Spanish soldiers and sailors lost their lives off the Atlantic coast of Ireland, either through drowning or were killed by English troops or Irish chieftains after they were washed ashore. However, not all died. Some Irish who were sympathetic to the Spaniards sheltered them and some kept them on as soldiers. Local legend, credits black-haired locals as being descents of these men, but they are possibly the descents of much earlier people who came from the Iberian peninsula after the end of the last ice age.
I found this area both beautiful fascinating. Donegal manages to combine a sense of isolation with company, should you want it. This area is littered with houses, old and modern. Many homes are built on the rocks, or have massive rocks in their gardens. People have had to work around the boulders and outcrops.The prevalence of pines dotted across the landscape gives the area a Scots or Canadian feel to it; Caledonian in fact.
Although in many senses there is plenty of space, houses seem to huddle together in clusters, isolated but within sight of others. A lot of them (the newer ones, anyway) face out towards the Atlantic Ocean. It seems that in many cases old cramped cottages have been replaced by larger modern buildings. Many tiny cottages, or abandoned derelict buildings are overshadowed by bigger ones. The smaller cottages ended up as holiday homes for visitors. Most of the houses are painted white, but with some older stone cottages and out-houses are left “au naturel”.
On one of the few sunny afternoons we had, we raced round taking photographs of the houses on the rocks. Each bend in the narrow road revealed different vistas. It was hard to decide which one I liked the best. Not only did these houses look out to the sea, behind them were hills and mountains. My painting “Round the Rosses” captures a typical cluster of old and new homes perched on the top of rocky landscape. The light from the afternoon sun glints in the windows of the large house, that faces out to the ocean. The older, smaller buildings look to the east; away from the force of rain and storms and towards the rising sun.
This is the first woodland painting I have done for quite a while. This is a section of pine woods called Canisland Woods, near Ilston and Parkmill, Gower. The slender light refers to the beam of morning sunshine light breaking over the lip of the valley. The pine needles on the ground are soft and deaden any sound. It is a very peaceful section of woodlands.
As an artist, I am always looking how to simplify shapes/colours so that there is an semi-abstract element to them but never losing touch with realism. This is particularly true of my woodland paintings. Although I am working from photographs, I am not copying them but rather deconstructing (in my mind) and then slow reconstructing them (on the canvas). They are like a giant jigsaw puzzle.
It’s painful and I find the mid stage of these paintings a bit distressing until I have faith that it will come together and make a pleasing painting. Some paintings are easy and there is little struggle. Sometimes, the struggle will last a couple of days. I have to ignore the voice in my head that says, “it’s rubbish” and “you are wasting your time”. Thankfully, the negative voice is usually proved wrong.
With all of my paintings, I like to pursue a theme over several paintings so that I get into a “groove”. I feel that I am now in the groove with “Slender Light”.
See “Slender Light” and other available landscape paintings here
Following on from my last post about the inspiration behind my latest cow paintings, here’s my painting of “Sitting Bull”. He sat, chewing the cud, at the heart of a small herd of cattle on the top of Pennard cliffs. He looked very relaxed. I was struck by his muscularity, his massive neck, especially in comparison with the cows around him. I was intrigued by the series of lines circling his neck, which seemed mark the grooves of his flesh. I saw a cow with similar colouring in another group who had the same lines, albeit fainter ones. I tried to work out what his breed was but haven’t settled on any conclusively. He may be a Blue Grey or a Belgium Blue, I’m not sure.
It sounds silly but, I had been watching him sleep for some time before I realised that I looking at sitting bull. I wondered how the famous Native American, called Sitting Bull , had come by his name. Was he a massive muscular man? All I could remember (from Hollywood films) was that he had fought and defeated General Custer (called “Yellow Hair” by the Native Americans in the films, I think) at the Battle of Little Big Horn. I later found out that Sitting Bull was the chief of the Lakota Sioux in South Dakota. He was named “Jumping Badger” at birth, this clearly did not suit his personality. His father called him “Slow” because he was always very careful and slow to take action. He was later given the name “Buffalo Bull Who Sits Down”, or “Sitting Bull”, after displaying bravery in raiding party. He was a very dynamic and dignified leader who spent four years in exile in Canada, toured with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show but was later killed in an act of police brutality.