Tuesday 27 June 2023

Woodland Focus

Since my trip to Arnisdale, I've managed to get quite a bit of time in the studio and I've been trying to develop some pieces from the sketches (in preparation for my exhibition next year.)   I started with a couple of landscape scenes based on sketches in the previous blog....like this one.

Loch Hourn and the Small Isles

But I've been thinking more about the woodlands, the remnants of the rainforest. I must confess that over the years I've not thought much about woodlands – I've always been more of a hill person – and let's face it, native woodlands were not such a big thing in my youth. I feel as if I'm only now beginning to discover them, helped by going to meetings run by the Woodland Trust.

I made a start to working on a large painting of the woodland on the coastal path along the north side of Loch Hourn, the Herring Path, based on part of one of the sketches in the previous blog. I was thinking with this one that I didn't want to be too detailed - a slightly misty approach might work better.

Loch Hourn Woodlands 1

It's acrylic on paper - not finished yet, of course. I also tried a couple of smaller ones of the same woodland. I was focusing on how it felt sitting within the woodland, immersed in it. Not painting trees, but thinking about the patterns and textures of the woodland floor; positive and negative spaces. The calmness of trees. The fragility of these surviving trees. So much to think about – such a challenge!

Loch Hourn Woodlands 2

Loch Hourn Woodlands 3

After this, I ran out of steam a bit, and decided to go and find some oakwoods near home. I realised that a woodland would be a perfect sketching location in the relentless sunshine and heat we had earlier this month. Where to go? I decided to try the Balmacara estate and on my way back from Kyle one day, I parked in the layby where the path leads up to Loch Scalpaigh. I took the path into the oakwood there. What a place! I hadn't been there before and I was quite enchanted by it. Here are a couple of photos.


Of course, it felt a bit daunting to sketch there....how to capture the feel of such a place in a sketch? The dark majestic trees, strange positive and negative shapes, strong shadows, filtered light. And there were some surprising colours.

Oakwood Sketch

As the good weather continued, I returned to the oakwood a couple of times for more sketching and thinking.  Again, what was on my mind was how I felt so enveloped by the woodland and the beauty of the space.  Because of the robustness of the trees, it did feel quite different from the fragility of the Loch Hourn woodlands.Well, here's something that I've painted so far.....

Oakwood Summer

I have a few more unfinished woodland paintngs.  My question now is should I continue on the woodland theme, perhaps even finish a few paintings, or shall I have a change and tackle another aspect of the Biosphere?

Wednesday 10 May 2023

A Week By Loch Hourn


I just had a week of walking and sketching at Arnisdale, on the shores of Loch Hourn. It wasn't many miles for me to travel, but it felt like a real change.  And we took the ferry at Kylerhea - the shortest route for us.  I decided to go there because it's within the Wester Ross Unesco Biosphere, and I'm trying to focus on the Biosphere as the main subject for my next body of work.  The most southerly point is actually in the middle of Knoydart.

View from Arnisdale to Knoydart

Arnisdale seems to me to be a special place. It lies at the foot of a very steep hill, crushed up against the sea, and looks out over Loch Hourn to Knoydart, one of the most remote areas of Scotland. The hill that overshadows it is the iconic Beinn Sgritheall, a rather isolated munro mountain...and a rather steep climb.


Glowering Beinn Sgritheall

I wimped out of climbing Beinn Sgritheall, but I did get up as far as some lovely lochans.  Here's one of the views I sketched of the hill viewed across the lochans.


Beinn Sgritheall (blue)

This one gives a better idea.  It's a lovely approach from the west, and not nearly so steep....!

Beinn Sgritheall 2

We stayed in a traditional cottage on the shore - great for weather-watching - we experienced a range of weathers, luckily mostly benign.   Strangely the outlook was similar to our view at home!  Just a bit more dramatic.

Looking west along Loch Hourn

Loch Hourn is a commanding presence.  Many of my sketches are of the Loch.  I did these two when we walked the Herring Path - a fascinating walk, if somewhat awkward in places.  The path is beautifully constructed in several places and is holding up despite a bit of erosion.  And you feel as if you're walking into the past as well as walking closer to Knoydart - almost within touching distance.

Loch Hourn's Little Isles

From the End of the Herring Path

Glen Arnisdale has another long-distance path which apparently was occasionally used in the past for motor-cycle racing (it's barely navigable by bike now).  We walked to the lochans in the glen on a very mature footpath (very steep in places).  I found it rather brooding - this sketch is a bit too bright!

Glen Arnisdale Lochan.

The woodlands were also rather fine.  The trees were mostly oak and birch - beautiful places to sit and sketch.  I think it's a remnant of our Temperate Rain Forest.  And the trees cling to the shore at the bottom of the steep hills.  It was a lovely time of year to go, with the trees just coming into leaf.

Woodland Paths

Woodland By The Shore

You can't go to this area without visiting Sandaig - where Gavin Maxwell once lived.  It is a beautiful spot and we caught it on a lovely day.  The white sand and the rocks reminded me of Iona.  

From above it looks so beautiful too....a most unusual place.

View of Sandaig, with Skye in the Distance

This part of the Biosphere has a pronounced coastal influence - it's everywhere you go.  I hadn't expected to feel such a sense of history – the Herring Path and Glen Arnisdale path feel so old and well-trodden.  Someone kindly lent us a book "Arnisdale and Loch Hourn" which records a past way of life in the area in an engagingly anecdotal way, with lots of old photographs.  Peter English collected the old stories and local lore and compiled the archive.  And the Ceilidh House at Corran has an interesting set of historical interpretation boards.


Loch Hourn From The Slopes of Beinn Sgreathill

What I have taken away from the week is how Arnisdale and environs have such a feel of rugged remoteness and fragility.  Knoydart casts a shadow of enchantment - it's so massive, hardly anyone lives there and it feels unreachable.  And, for an artist, Arnisdale bay has great light and interesting clouds as the weather systems move in and move away.  I think I'll have to return.

Tuesday 31 January 2023

Working Hard In January

Full of New Year resolutions, I've tried to do a sketch every day this month, and I've tried to get into the studio too.  I've been at home for the whole of January, so no excuses! Despite spending so much uninterrupted time working, I'm not sure if the results are as good as I would like.  As we know, time spent in the studio does not always produce great results, but I'd like to think my time has not been wasted.

 I thought I would use this blog to reflect on some work done in the studio and let you judge for yourself.

Keeping my focus on the Biosphere, I decided I wanted to do something with this particular sketch.

It's a a somewhat wasted landscape at Achnashellach where the trees in a plantation woodland have largely been removed, leaving only a few remnant trees here and there.  This is quite a common story of small landscapes in this area.  I also liked the light on the far hill.

I had made this start to quite a large painting (acrylic on paper) way back in August.  

It looks kind of OK at this scale, but I wasn't happy with it in reality....too literal, perhaps.  So I tried to improve upon it, trying to simplify it a little.  But you can see that it's lost a bit of drama.

I didn't like it now and put it away for a few months.   Then I was along at Achnasheen in December and did another sketch of roughly the same scene, deciding that the trees needed to be taller.  When I came back to the studio I pulled it out of the drawer and had another go. Actually, I had a look at the trees by Cezanne and by Peploe to inspire and encourage me to take a bold plunge! 

Of course, I still wasn't happy - too much bracken and the blue of the far hill didn't work.

I thought this one was getting there....worth continuing....

Then I decided that the far hill needed more drama!

And finally, I've added the pale green hill back in, brightened up the grasses at the front and inserted a bit of shadow.

So this is it - finished...or not.  I've decided that I've done enough for the moment - I think it's better than it was, and I feel that it has a cohesive whole.  Anyway I'll put this away in a drawer.  Then I might take it out for a look in a month or so to decide whether or not to frame.

It's been a hard month!

Monday 9 January 2023

Starting On A High

Happy New Year! I was glad to get through to the end of 2022, and happy to welcome in a new year with hopes for the future despite the obvious ongoing global concerns. Once again, I aim to do more regular blogging this year, so we'll see how that goes.  (My record is not great!)

I'm starting the New Year on a high because I have two pictures on show in the RSA building at the moment. The curators of the current SSA exhibition (130 years) selected a painting and a print of mine - they are modest pictures but I'm delighted to be part of the amazing show. Today I thought I'd tell you the stories behind the paintings.

“Iona Rocks” is an oil painting. It's based on a sketch I did on the north beach, Iona when Peter and I visited in September 2021. It was a magical day. We left Tobermory at 6 and drove down to get the first ferry over to Iona, and headed straight for the north beach. The sun was just burning off the morning haze when we reached the beach and I did several sketches. Inevitably I was thinking about Peploe, Caddell and the other Scottish Colourists as we walked. When I came upon this particular group of rocks, there was something that appealed to me and I sat down and did a more detailed coloured sketch in pastels.


This was the sketch that I returned to in the studio to create this painting.  I did feel quite transported away back to Iona  and the world of the Colourists while I was painting it.  It turned out a bit moodier than the sketch, but the colour is much richer.  I was quite pleased with it at the time.  Iona is such a magical place - I did a few paintings from those sketches.


“The Black Pool” is a picture based on a landscape closer to home. It is a photopolymer print, based on several sketches I've done on a number of trips to Silverbridge and the Black Water, just north of Garve (between Inverness and Ullapool). I was alerted to this unassumingly beautiful place by the artist Jonathan Shearer who extolled its virtues as a place to go and sketch and paint en plein air. I was not disappointed! I've now been there several times, attempting to capture something of the character and atmosphere of the river and riverbanks. 

I have a number of sketches and I had a go at painting this particular scene. I did an earlier blog about this which you may remember.

Then, when I was looking around for drawings to use for making new plates, I decided to draw it in ink and use this same sketch to make a photopolymer plate.  When I printed it out, here's how it looks.

It's interesting to compare the pieces and I feel very fortunate to be exhibiting with the SSA.

I want to keep the momentum going.  I'm now sorting out my thoughts for a year of hard work...a few exhibitions on the horizon. So I hope to blog again soon.

Wednesday 6 April 2022

Where Does the Time Go?

February was a quiet month which meant I could be busy in the studio. March was very busy, mostly away from home. So I'm only just catching up with my blog now.

In January, I explained that I was doing drawings to prepare for print-making.  In February, I managed to turn my drawings into photo-polymer plates, and in the course of the month I printed off some of the two editions.  As always, before you start printing out the edition, you have to think about colour.  With 'Riverbank' I thought about adding a bit of brightness, but in the end I went for a subtle colour gradation - two different colours of black: blue-black by the river and brown-black for the trees.  It's so subtle that you can hardly notice it in this photograph.

 And here's the other print: I inked the plate with a touch of lemon ink to give the impression of light.  Haven't got a title yet....

Still on the Biosphere theme, I continued my preoccupation with woodland lochans and returned to my favourite spot near Achnashellach for more sketching. 

I liked the composition of this and worked on a few paintings in different media.... but not sure if any of these are finished yet.  But here's a small acrylic which I consider to be finished!

Woodland Lochan - Acrylic/mixed media

This was quite interesting because I painted this on top of an old painting and in the course revealed lots of interesting colours and effects which I decided to retain in the final version.

However, not all my work has been biosphere-related. It was so gloomy in February that I raided my sketchbooks for some brighter scenes. I came up with ideas about Iona and Staffa.  I'm now trying to paint in canvas more often, and this time I got the oils out.

North Beach, Iona - oil on canvas

This was based on an early morning sketch done when we first reached the north beach.

And here's one I did of Staffa, based on my sketch from the top of the hill.

Staffa Cliffs - oil on canvas

I did enjoy painting these scenes in February – it transported me back to some lovely bright days and happy memories of summer....

At the end of March, I had a great trip to Loch Coruisk in Skye.... but that's for another blog!


Sunday 23 January 2022

Watery Thinking

Last month I wrote that I thought I would start to explore a Biosphere-related theme. I'm happy to report that I've managed to develop this a little further.  I haven't been confining my work exclusively to biosphere-related ideas, but I'm trying to stick with it.  

I haven't been back to Garve, to my favourite black river, but I've looked back at my sketches and thought about progressing with the work.  And I've done further sketching in woodland.  However,  I first thought I'd try something out in oils....

Black River - Small Oil WIP

This is a very small oil pic, a study, really.  I'm not sure about this composition and if I was going to do a larger pic I think I'd need to go back and do a series of sketches.  There are some things I like about this, so I think I'll park it and resolve to return to Silverbridge.  

As a trip to Edinburgh is looming, I decided to focus on a different sketch of the river and redraw this on film in preparation for making a new photopolymer plate at Edinburgh Printmakers. The one I thought might make a good print is this one looking across the river.  Here's the final drawing I made on film. I think (hope!) it's got potential....

Black River With Trees

On Monday this week, I returned to my favourite woodland lochan at Achnashellach for more sketching. Of course, this year's mild weather means that there's no snow and ice, so no frozen lochan - I find the lochan's watery surface much more difficult to handle than an icy surface. The interplay between viewing the reflection on the top surface and seeing into the murky depths – it's hard to capture that.  I suppose that's what intrigued Monet about his waterlilies and ponds. Anyway, in this week's sketches I struggled to capture such visual effects, as you can see....



Sketch 1

Sketch 2
 Sketching was difficult enough, but what about turning these sketches into finished work? Well, all I can say is that I've made a start with this acrylic study - but there's a long way to go. 








Because I'm heading into Printmakers next week, I was thinking about other Biosphere-related images that I could use as the basis for making a new plate. This took me back to earlier sketches I had done of the river at Achnashellach.

Sketch 3

Sketch 4





I did several re-drawings from these and other sketches.....here are a couple of them.

And here's the final drawing on film, ready for making the new plate.

Dark Tree By The River

So this month there's a lot of work in progress and a few unresolved questions.  Will I be able to turn these new finished drawings into new plates? Will they print out well? Can I master the challenge of painting the lochan to show the dreamy interaction between reflected and refracted light? I suppose that's my challenge for next month...


Thursday 30 December 2021

Starting A New Chapter


2021 has been a busy year and I've never found the time to do any blogging. I've missed it! I think blogging helps me to reflect and improve on the work I'm producing. I shall resolve to try and create more regular blog posts over the next year, using this as my springboard.

I'm developing ideas for a new body of work. I live in a beautiful part of Scotland which was recently designated a UNESCO Biosphere. I'm thinking about doing a series of paintings and prints that are focused on the Biosphere, maybe trying to explore a particular angle or angles. For instance, I was thinking about 'extremities' or 'extremes', or maybe something weather-related with a theme title like 'elemental'.

The Wester Ross Biosphere covers an enormous area with a great variety of landscapes and so another thought is to do several different groups of paintings in an attempt to describe the diversity of the landscapes here. With this in mind, as a start, I've embarked on a series of riverscapes.

Sketching By The River

Sketch 1 in pastel
I went for a walk and a sketch at Silverbridge, outside Garve. Garve happens to lie at the eastern extremity of the Biosphere (and so it also fits with the 'extremities' idea - another reason for sketching there). I had heard about this river – the Black Water - and I found it to be a beautiful, atmospheric place. I took lots of photos too.  It was cold and damp.  I haven't done much sketching by rivers, and so it was a bit of a challenge.

Sketch 2 - pencil drawing of the Wade Bridge

Sketch 3 in charcoal
As I sat sketching, I was reminded of the paintings of Tom Thomson (one of the Canadian Group of Seven). I felt that the combination of the fast-flowing river, the pines on the riverbanks, and the sculpted rocks was redolent of the Canadian landscape (or to be more precise, the Algonquin landscape, I think). This was in my head as I sketched, and it came back to me in the studio when I was developing the sketches.

Developing ideas 1
Developing ideas 2







The river was in such spate, fast-flowing with foaming waterfalls, yellowish peaty water, and rich dark depths. I had done several sketches on both banks of the river and I re-drew these, also referring to photographs. The mixed woodland (pines and birches) provided a dark backdrop, and as it was a gloomy day, I couldn't see the hills beyond the trees.  



Paintings so far.

Painting 1 (so far)

I decided to focus on three images.  I liked the contrast between the rich black pools and the foaming water, and I loved the amazing rocks. 


Painting 2 (so far)

These paintings are all acrylic on paper. I may go on and do an oil painting based on one or two of them, but for the moment I am resting them – setting them aside before deciding if they are finished or not. I've also been seeking out appropriate river poem quotes. I tried MacCaig first, and found this from his poem “Falls of Measach” - “Waterfalls marking the stages to some rich plunge into the dark”. This did seem to fit with the foaming rapids cascading into darkly rich pools. 


Painting 3 (so far)

 I also found these lines by Mary Oliver from her poem “At The River Clarion”-

“I listened to the voices of the river talking.
Whenever the water struck a stone it had something to say,
and the water itself, and even the mosses trailing under the water.
And slowly, very slowly, it became clear to me what they were saying.”

It strikes me that this might be a good way of describing the mystery of sketching.  What do you think?