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.