Sunday, December 18, 2011

Reflections of Strathy Point

Reflections of Strathy Point
Watercolour
25 x 50 cm

This is the larger commissioned painting that I mentioned recently. It's another view of Strathy Point Lighthouse, but on a calmer day when the sun was shining. On days like that it's nice to wander around the headland among all the rocky outcrops, with wonderful views along the coast in both directions.

The lighthouse has been automated now so there are no longer any lighthouse-keepers living there. The cottages have been sold to private owners. It must be an interesting place to live and maybe a bit frightening sometimes, especially in a storm with 100 mph winds like the one we had recently.


Happy Christmas to all my readers

Friday, December 9, 2011

A Scottish Longhouse

The Corr
Watercolour
25 x 35 cm

I came across this old building a while ago. It has a thatched roof and looks very old. A local farmer told me that, until fairly recently, it was live‌d in by two elderly sisters. I have since discovered that it is a very rare example of a surviving longhouse, a type of dwelling once common in Scotland. They were simple buildings with only one or two rooms and an animal byre. The walls were very thick and they were set into the ground to protect them from the wind and the cold.

This one, known as The Corr, is being offered for sale, but at a price of £200,000 I don't know who is going to be interested. I think it will cost a lot to renovate it and there will be a lot of planning restrictions. It really needs a national conservation organisation to take it over.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Stroma

Stroma
Watercolour
25 x 35 cm

Stroma is an island just off the north coast of Caithness. At one time it had a small self-contained community, but no-one lives there any more. The abandoned houses can be seen clearly from the mainland, giving the island a ghostly atmosphere. The only inhabitants now are the sheep, which are taken over by boat to graze on the grassy pastures.

This painting was a recent commission. It was for someone who had visited the island and was left with a lasting impression of it.


Monday, November 28, 2011

Strathy Point

Strathy Point
Watercolour
25 x 35 cm


Strathy Point lies on a rocky promontory and gives good views of the northern seaboard of Caithness and Sutherland. On a clear day it's possible to see all the way from Dunnet Head, in the east, to Cape Wrath, in the west. This is also a good place for spotting the whales which are often seen off the coast (I never seem to be there at the right time!).

This painting is one of several of mine which will be exhibited at Caithness Horizons throughout December.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Autumn Moorland

Peatlands at Stemster
Watercolour
25 x 36 cm


Sunny autumn days are so wonderful for painting moorland landscapes. The clear light brings out the colours so much better than the bleaching sunshine of summer. Also, with the sun low in the sky, the features of the landscape throw longer shadows, which create a greater range of tonal values. Unlike the summer, there are no biting insects as well!

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Big View for a Big Painting

The Cuillins from Elgol
Watercolour
36 x 51 cm


I have a commission to do which is going to be a half-sheet painting (14 x 20 inches). I haven't painted at this size recently, so I thought I should get some practice. I searched through my sketchbooks for a suitably dramatic subject and chose this famous view of the mountains of Skye. It's a view that's been painted by many artists of the past and it still attracts painters today. It's one of those timeless places where nothing seems to change very much.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Hen Harrier

Hen Harrier
Watercolour
18 x 26 cm

Hen Harriers have suffered a lot from persecution in Britain. Their diet of small moorland birds, hasn't endeared them to gamekeepers concerned with maintaining large populations of grouse. We are lucky here in Caithness that this is one of the areas where they still breed, probably helped by the large RSPB Reserve at Forsinard Flows, and another at Broubster Leans. They are a magnificent sight, skimming over the moors looking for prey. The females are a dull brown colour, but the males are pale grey and can look almost white in bright sunlight. This was painted from a sketch I made earlier in the summer.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Castle Sinclair

Castle Sinclair
Watercolour
18 x 26 cm

There can't be many castles in Scotland with a more spectacular setting than Castle Sinclair Girnigoe. It seems almost to be part of the cliff that it's perched on. The strange name comes from the fact that it used to be thought that there were two castles. In fact it was just one with a moat and a separate gatehouse. Originally it was known as Girnigoe, but the name was changed in the Seventeenth Century to Castle Sinclair.


Sunday, October 9, 2011

Painting Rainbows

Rainbow in the Strath
Watercolour
25 x 36 cm


Rainbows must be one of the hardest things to paint in watercolour, although it ought to be the ideal medium for them. The problem is that it's tempting to try to include all the colours and paint a full arc. The result, more often than not, looks like something from a Walt Disney creation.

The colours in a rainbow have an intangible quality, which needs to be painted with a soft and light touch. Here I dampened the area to be painted and used a wet-in-wet technique. I didn't attempt to paint all the colours I could see, but just used a few of the brighter colours on my palette to hint at them. I also faded out both ends into the background to suggest the fleeting nature of a rainbow.

I was painting this from a sketch and there was one thing that I forgot: If you look carefully, you will see that the sky is always slightly darker outside the curve of a rainbow than it is on the inside. It's only a small point though and I'm probably being too critical. In any case the painting has been sold, so I won't be tempted to fiddle with it!



Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Painting from a Photograph

Caroline, at To Regions Solitary, had a photograph that one of her students had lent to her. We were discussing how to paint from it and she suggested seeing what I could do. I don't usually like to use a photograph that I haven't taken. So much of my painting is about my own response to the landscape. However I like a challenge sometimes. As this was a bit of a technical exercise, I thought it might be interesting to explain my working methods.




 This was the photograph I had to start with and, as it stands, it wouldn't have made a good painting. The composition is very cramped and unbalanced, and all the colours have an unnatural pinkish hue. I tried to imagine how I might have looked at the view if I had been standing in front of it. Then I made a sketch based on the photograph. This was now a much better basis for a painting.






Materials used

Paper:

1/4 sheet of Saunders Waterford Extra White, 140lb (300gsm) Rough.

Brushes:



Colours (Winsor and Newton Artists' Watercolours):

Manganese Blue (hue)
French Ultramarine Blue
Permanent Rose
Raw Umber
Burnt Sienna



Stage 1

I began by drawing a few lines to indicate the main forms, but not putting in any detail. Too much detail in a drawing can lead to a tight painting which lacks any expression.


 Stage 2


I brushed clean water over the whole sky and down over the mountain on the right. Then, using the large wash brush, I painted in the clouds at the top with a mixture of Permanent Rose and French Ultramarine. I continued with a wash of Manganese Blue, brushing it into the clouds and down to the top edge of the mountain. This would leave a hard edge where the sun was reflecting off the snow. In places I carried the wash down over the mountain, where I wanted a softer edge. I also painted the water of the loch at this stage. I added a little Permanent Rose to the wash and painted it over most of the mountain, leaving unpainted paper for the snow, and added French Ultramarine for the darker area at the bottom.

The sky area was still damp and I went back and painted in some shadows on the clouds with a stronger, and drier, mix of French Ultramarine and Permanent Rose.

I covered the foreground with a wash of Raw Umber, leaving a slight gap at the top so that it wouldn't run into the blue of the loch. Burnt Sienna, added to the wet wash in places, gave a bit of variety. I was careful not to paint over the trunks of the trees, which I wanted to leave as white paper. This had all been done as one continuous operation and I now let all these washes dry completely.


Stage 3

Next, I changed to the size 12 brush and started to give a bit more form to the mountain. Where the warm light was catching the snow, I brushed in touches of pale Permanent Rose. Then I mixed French Ultramarine with a little Burnt Sienna and painted all the shadow areas. I added a little water and some Permanent Rose and carried this over the rest of the upper slopes, softening the edges with a damp brush. I made a dry mixture of the same colours and dry-brushed some texture onto the lowers slopes. Next, I used Burnt Sienna, with a little Permanent Rose and French Ultramarine, to paint the lower hill and the band of trees in the middle-distance. I added touches of stronger colour in places to indicate areas of shadow and distant woodland.

While these washes were drying, I painted some darker areas in the foreground, with various mixtures of Raw Umber, French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna.


Stage 4

I now started working on the trees. I didn't like the space to the left of the main group, so I added a smaller tree in the gap. This also helped to make them seem less isolated. Using the side of the size 12 brush, I painted the smaller branches and twigs just as areas of colour. This was Burnt Sienna with a touch of Permanent Rose. I added French Ultramarine for the shaded areas. The dark undergrowth around the base of the trees was Burnt Sienna and French Ultramarine. I also added some indication of foreground detail with touches of Raw Umber or Burnt Sienna.


Sgurr à Mhuilinn
Watercolour
26 x 36 cm

The painting was almost finished now apart from some final touches. Using the size 8 brush, I painted in a few branches and some detail on the trunks of the trees. This was with a dark mixture of French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna. I felt that a bit of stronger colour was needed, so I put in some Permanent Rose on the trees and in a few places in the foreground. Nothing more needed to be done. There was just enough to give an impression of sunlight on a winter landscape, without any fussiness or overworking.

Although the painting is based on a photograph, it is more about my collective experience of mountain landscapes in winter. Without that knowledge I don't think I could have produced more than a dull copy of the original image.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Moorland Fire

Moorland Fire
Watercolour
25 x 36 cm

There is a definite feeling of approaching autumn now, with some cooler days and more unsettled weather. It hardly seems any time at all since the spring, when there was a long spell of dry weather and the moors were tinder-dry. There were a number of serious fires at the time and several nature reserves were badly damaged. I think they were mostly caused by accident or carelessness this time, but unfortunately there are people who seem to get satisfaction from starting fires deliberately.

The fire in this painting is of a different kind. Every year between, autumn and spring, shooting estates burn off small patches of moorland to leave a patchwork of heather. This encourages the breeding of grouse, with the old growth providing cover and the new shoots providing food. The operation has to be done very carefully, because fires can easily get out of control, and once the underlying peat starts to burn it can burn for days and is very difficult to put out.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Loch an Ruathair

Loch an Ruathair
Watercolour
18 x 25 cm

This is another view in the Forsinard area. The loch is on the edge of the Flows at the head of Strath Kildonan.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Forsinard Flows

Forsinard Flows
Watercolour
18 x 26 cm

One of the best places to find out about the Flow Country is the RSPB's 'Forsinard Flows' nature reserve. This extensive area of peat bog is the nearest we get to true wilderness here in Britain. Large parts of it have been planted with commercial forestry in the past, but the RSPB are working to clear the trees and return the bog to something like its natural state.


Click HERE to see a 40 minute film about The Flow Country and its wildlife.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A Passing Shower

I was interested in the soft, sinuous lines in this shower cloud, which made it look as though the whole thing was being sucked down into the ground. It was difficult to get the shape of the lines, working wet-into-wet, but I think the overall impression is right.


A Passing Shower
Watercolour
18 x 26 cm


There is an accidental effect in this painting which, once you have seen it, you won't be able to get out of your mind: The white cloud in the centre of the painting looks like a head in profile, The effect is of a figure moving across the sky from right to left, giving the 'Passing Shower' a whole new interpretation.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Haymaking

Haymaking at Loch Calder
Watercolour
18 x 25 cm

It's that time of year again, when there is a sudden flurry of activity to get the hay in while the weather is good. I was talking to a farmer the other day and there seems to be a lot of skill and judgement involved in hay-making. Apparently, the grass has to lie in the field for a few days after it has been cut, in order to dry out. If it's left too long though it goes off. There is no problem when the weather is fine and settled, but when some days are wet the whole process becomes a gamble: Whether to bale up the hay today, even though it's still a bit damp, or wait until tomorrow and hope that it doesn't rain. Even a bit of fog overnight can spoil things, so in our changeable climate it must be very difficult.


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

After the Shearing

After the Shearing
Acrylic
20 x 36 cm

My second outing with the pochade box. This time I dipped my sleeve in some Titanium White! Lesson Two - 'Roll up your sleeves! The box worked well again though.

It was a grey day and I was struggling to find an interesting subject. Then I saw these sheep. They had been shorn recently and, unusually, they actually looked white with their clean wool - brilliant white, in fact, in the cool light.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Trying Out a Pochade Box



I had an old box for storing photographic transparencies that wasn't being used any more. It was just the right size to make a good pochade box, so I thought I would see what I could do with it. I fitted out the lid to hold two 8 x 10 inch panels, with the base holding the paints and brushes and a palette holding everything in place.

For its first trial I took it out to the same location as the previous post. This time it was raining, so it was an ideal opportunity to see how I would get on painting with the pochade inside my vehicle. It worked very well in the cramped conditions and was very easy to use.

When I had finished I just closed the lid and went home. Later, when I opened the box again, I found a blob of Pthalo Green right in the middle of the painting! I think the wood that I used for the palette was too flexible, so it had got pushed up into the lid. I was using acrylics, so normally it would have been easy to wash the green off. Unfortunately, I was trying out Atelier Interactive acrylics, which can be reactivated when they are touch-dry. Wiping the painting removed some of the paint underneath, so I had to repaint that area.

I think I have solved the palette problem by using a thicker piece of wood. At the moment I am using greaseproof paper taped to the wood for easy cleaning. I have also modified the lid so that I can carry a wet painting face-down, so the surface should be protected. Hopefully that will prevent any future disasters.


The Moorland Road
Acrylic
20 x 26 cm

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Lark Ascending

The Lark Ascending
Watercolour
26 x 36 cm

There can't be many things more peaceful than painting on the moors, in warm sunshine, with a skylark singing in the sky.

Thanks to Ralph Vaughan Williams for the title, and Bruce Sherman for the inspiration.

"The Lark Ascending" by Ralph Vaughan Williams

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Simmer Dim

Simmer Dim
Watercolour
26 x 36 cm

At this time of year in these northern latitudes it never gets very dark at night. The sun sets late in the evening and then the afterglow remains throughout the night, until it gradually turns into the sunrise. In Shetland they call this time the 'Simmer Dim'.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

On the Ramparts

On Stob Coire an t-Sneachda
Watercolour
25 x 36 cm

This is another view of the edge of the Cairngorms plateau. On this northern side there is a series of deep corries, like the ramparts of a castle surmounted by rocky battlements. The sun barely reaches into these deep places and snow often lies here throughout the summer. Coire an t-Sneachda means 'Corrie of the snow'.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Hills Which Turned Blue

Crags on Cairn Lochan
Watercolour
26 x 36 cm

The old name for The Cairngorms range of mountains is 'Am Monadh Ruadh', or The Red Hills. The name probably refers to the pink colour of the granite, which makes them glow red in the setting sun. However, in modern times the whole range has come to be known by the name of one of its mountains, Cairn Gorm.

This has led to an amusing paradox: Cairn Gorm means 'Blue Hill', so The Red Hills have now become The Blue Hills! Also, signs in the National Park are in Gaelic and English, so the mountains are red or blue, depending upon which language is used.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Duncansby Head

Below the Stacks at Duncansby Head
Watercolour
26 x 36 cm

There is a popular sporting challenge, which involves walking or cycling the length of the British mainland. The usual starting point is the rugged coast of Land's End, in Cornwall, in the far south-west. The finishing point is John o' Groats, but it really ought to be Duncansby Head, the most north-easterly point in mainland Britain. However, I believe that Lands End now has a theme park, which must distract from the experience for those who are looking for a sense of natural drama. Fortunately, Duncansby Head is unspoilt, so long may it remain 'Land's End to John o' Groats'!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Geology at Dunnet Head

Along the Cliffs at Dunnet Head
Watercolour
26 x 36 cm

Another painting of the dramatic cliffs at Dunnet Head, a suitable setting for the most northerly point on the British mainland. The rocks here are sandstones, but there is a surprising variety of colours, from pale greys to red-browns. It was these colours that attracted me to this view.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Sunshine at Sandside Head

Sunshine at Sandside Head
Watercolour
18 x 26 cm

This was a day of bright sunshine at Sandside Head, when the light was almost dazzling. The cliffs here are topped by an ecologically important area of maritime grassland. There are large numbers of Scottish Primroses, which are only found in the North of Scotland and Orkney. At this time of year the cliffs are alive with breeding seabirds, especially guillemots. It's a wonderful place to sit and relax and get away from cares and worries for a while.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Caves, Geos and Stacks

Sea-cave at Strathy
Watercolour
26 x 18 cm

Sea-caves are common along the coasts of Caithness and Sutherland. They are the first stage in a dramatic form of coastal erosion. With a straight line of cliffs, the cave gradually gets deeper and eventually the roof falls in. This leaves a deep chasm, which is called a geo in this area. When the cave is on a promontory, the sea eventually breaks through at the back to leave an arch. This then gets eroded until it collapses, leaving a sea stack. All of these features can be seen around the coastline here.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Hoy from Stromness

Hoy from Stromness
Watercolour
25 x 36 cm

The final part of our short journey to Orkney takes us into the approaches to Stromness. These sheltered waters are quiet now, but during both World Wars they must have been very busy. Scapa Flow was an important naval base and there would have been constant movement of ships out to the Atlantic and back. The old concrete bunkers and gun-emplacements can still be seen lining the shore.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Kame of Hoy

Kame of Hoy
Watercolour
16 x 26 cm

Continuing on our journey to Orkney, we pass around the Kame of Hoy. Here the rampart of sheer cliffs comes to an end and soon the first farms appear, with fields leading down to the coast. We are now entering the Hoy Sound, one of the narrow waterways leading to the sheltered anchorage of Scapa Flow. 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

St. John's Head, Hoy

St. John's Head, Hoy
Watercolour
16 x 26 cm

The ferry crossing from Scrabster to Stromness in the Orkney Isles must be one of the finest in the UK. There is the usual excitement of a journey over the sea to an island, but this one also has the bonus of the spectacular cliffs of Hoy. When the tide and sea conditions are right, the ship sails quite close to the coast, giving a good view. The most well-known feature is the sea-stack of The Old Man of Hoy, but surprisingly it is completely overshadowed by the 351m cliffs of St. John's Head, which are the highest in Britain.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Scaraben in Winter

Scaraben in Winter
Watercolour
25 x 36 cm

Unlike the rest of the county, the southern part of Caithness has a few hills and they all have distinctive shapes. Morven is like a great upturned pudding bowl; Maiden Pap, as the name suggests, is conical in shape; Scaraben when seen from the north, as in this painting, has a serpentine ridge like a sleeping dinosaur. I painted this earlier in the year, when there was still snow on the hills and the moors were frozen.

Heading for the Hills

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Castle of Mey

The Castle of Mey
Watercolour
25 x 36 cm


The Castle of Mey is one of the main visitor attractions in Caithness, and closely associated with the late Queen Mother. She bought it in a run-down state shortly after the death of her husband King George VI. Over the years she supervised renovation works and the construction of a garden, which is one of the popular features of the castle. The property is now managed by The Castle of Mey Trust, but HRH Prince Charles maintains the Royal connection by visiting for a few days each year.

For me, the attraction is not the tourist trail, but the solid presence and sense of history of the castle in this bleak northern landscape.


Sunday, March 6, 2011

The End of the Road

The End of the Road
Watercolour
16 x 26 cm


This is another abandoned farm, although it isn't a ruin and the barns and fields still seem to be used. It lies at the head of Dunbeath Strath (a "strath" being the name for a valley in this area). A rough stone track leads up to it, from the village on the coast, and goes on to a few fishing huts. There are a few ruins and small fields along the way, but the landscape becomes increasingly wilder. Beyond the farm there is just a vast area of moorland and bogs, with a few small lochs. The transition seems quite sudden: on one side there are walls and buildings with sheep grazing, while on the other there is wilderness.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Peat Workings

Peat Workings
Watercolour
25 x 35 cm

Peat bogs are common throughout Northern Scotland. They are are formed when the ground is wet and plants, especially mosses, don't decay fully. Instead they form layers of dark fibrous material, at a rate of about 1mm per year, to a depth of as much as 4m. In geological terms peat is the first stage in the formation of coal.

Since ancient times, people have dug up and burned peat to heat their houses and this small-scale use has generally been sustainable. However, in some parts of Britain and Ireland large scale operations, extracting peat for use in gardening products, have resulted in extensive damage to sensitive environments. Large areas have been stripped bare and the peat will take thousands of years to build up again. Fortunately, although there has been some commercial digging in Caithness in the past, it has been for fuel and the area involved is small.

When small areas are cut there is little damage and there can even be benefits for wildlife. The holes that are left fill up with water and form pools, forming a habitat for amphibians, and aquatic plants and insects.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Old Man of Hoy

The Old Man of Hoy
Watercolour
16 x 26 cm

I painted this watercolour in a bold manner, which suited the rugged subject matter. I started with the dark areas on the rock stack and let these run into the cliffs behind, which I painted in one wash. Then I continued with the hillside, also completed while it was still wet. While these areas were drying, I painted the background coastline and the sea in the foreground. I completed the rock stack with a wash of pale colour and put a bit of dark detail onto the cliffs. Finally, I painted the sky and a bit of detail in the water.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Snow

Tracks in the Snow
Watercolour
16 x 26 cm


 Winter at Keiss
Watercolour
16 x 26 cm


It's only a week or so since the snow all disappeared, but already it seems a long while ago.

I wonder what it is that is so attractive about snowy landscapes. I think it might be that detail is simplified and contrast is enhanced - the same things that I like in a painting really.


Monday, January 10, 2011

Winter Sunset

Winter Sunset, Morven
Watercolour
16 x 26 cm

The cold, dry weather is making the air much clearer at the moment. The result is some wonderful sunsets and beautiful night skies filled with stars.