Sunday, December 22, 2013

Season's Greetings

"Morven on a Winter Afternoon" - watercolour - 13 x 18 cm

Wishing you a Happy Christmas if you celebrate it, otherwise I hope you have a Good New Year.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

River Island at Wick

"River Island at Wick" - watercolour - 16 x 26 cm

I always find this island in the river at Wick interesting. Its banks have been reinforced with stone for some reason: maybe to act as a breakwater to protect the town downstream. The flagstone walls make it look like a fortress in the river. When the water is high and reaching right up to the foot of the stones, it can even take on the appearance of an old ironclad battleship sailing down the river.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A Little Old Man

"Sunlight on the Old Man" - watercolour - 13 x 18 cm

Another very small painting and probably the last one this small that I'll do for a while. The small size doesn't make them any easier to paint. If anything, the difficulty seems to increase as the size decreases. I feel the need for more space for freer brushstrokes.

The subject of the painting is the famous rock stack, known as The Old Man of Hoy, in the Orkney Isles.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Flow Country Arts

I will be showing work at the Flow Country Arts exhibition in The Norseman Hotel, Wick on 14th, 15th and 16th November. I thought I would try some very small paintings this time. Maybe they will be more affordable, and might be a nice size and price for Christmas presents!

 "Herring Boats" - watercolour - 13 x 18 cm

 "A Breaking Wave" - watercolour - 13 x 18 cm

"Sunset on Reiss Sands" - watercolour - 13 x 18 cm

"Sunlight and Grey Sky" - watercolour - 13 x 18 cm

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Tour of Dunbeath Strath

One of my favourite places in Caithness is Dunbeath Strath. It has such a variety of landscapes, from the broadleaved woodland of the lower section to the treeless moorland higher up. This view is from that open country, looking down on the deep gorge below.

 "A Moorland Gorge, Dunbeath" - watercolour - 24 x 36 cm

The river has been dammed here to create a pool for fishing.

 "Refelctions, Dunbeath Strath" - acrylic - 20 x 25 cm

Further down the gorge becomes deeper and narrower at a point called 'Prisoner's Leap'. There is a legend that a man was told that he would be set free if he could jump over the gap, on the assumption that he would fall to his death. Incredibly, he is said to have succeeded and thus gained his freedom.

"Prisoner's Leap, Dunbeath Strath" - watercolour - 35 x 25 cm

The lower part of the strath is more gentle in character, from the old coaching inn at Milton to the point where the river runs into the sea at the village of Dunbeath.

 "The Old Milton Inn, Dunbeath Strath" - watercolour - 24 x 36 cm

Monday, October 14, 2013

Remote and Lonely

"Thulachan, Strathmore" - watercolour - 16 x 26 cm

Thulachan is another of the many old dwellings scattered throughout the Flow Country. Originally it would have been a croft-house, and later it was used as a shooting lodge. Probably few people visit it now except for occasional fishermen and walkers seeking shelter.

This is one of the paintings in my exhibition, "The Highlands and Beyond", at Northlands Creative Glass, Lybster, 21st October - 8th November.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Sunlight on Ben Loyal

"Sunlight on Ben Loyal" - watercolour - 16 x 26 cm

I drove over to Tongue, in Sutherland, today to deliver paintings to an exhibition at the Ben Loyal Hotel. I always enjoy that journey, especially the bit where you emerge from trees above the village to see this view of Ben Loyal. It seems such a shapely mountain and its position, at the head of the Kyle of Tongue, makes it seem much bigger than it really is.

Art Exhibition at the Ben Loyal Hotel, Tongue
18th October to 15th November 2013

Monday, September 30, 2013

In the Spirit of Turner

"Fishing Boats in a Squall" - watercolour - 16 x 26 cm

Another painting inspired by the sort of subject that interested Turner, although he would have made a much better job of it of course. I painted this entirely from imagination.

This is another exhibit in the Wave North Exhibition at Caithness Horizons.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

A Rough Crossing

"A Rough Crossing" - watercolour - 16 x 26 cm

This is the ferry that runs between Scrabster, in Caithness, and Stromness, in Orkney. I didn't tie myself to a ship's mast in a storm as JMW Turner is reputed to have done, but it felt a bit like it. I was at the sea-front in Thurso and the wind was so strong that I was having trouble staying on my feet. At one point I was being blown along and could only stop myself by clinging to a lamppost. I thought the ship and the stormy conditions made a dramatic subject, but all I could do in circumstances was take a blurry photograph. It was enough though, with my memory, to make this painting in more comfortable conditions.

This painting will be on show, with several others, at the Wave North Exhibition at Caithness Horizons in Thurso throughout October.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Homemade Watercolour Blocks

Here is a tip for people who like the idea of using watercolour blocks, but don't like the price of the ones that you can buy: it's not difficult to make your own.

You will need 10 to 15 sheets of watercolour paper cut to a little larger than the size you want the finished block to be; a similar-sized piece of mountboard or stiff card (it should be acid-free if possible); two more similar-sized pieces of thick card of any type; PVA adhesive; a sharp craft knife and a heavy cutting guide.

Make the watercolour paper into a stack with the piece of mountboard at the bottom, and mark out on the top sheet the exact size of the block.

Cut down through all of the sheets and the card to leave a clean edge. This needs to be done carefully as it's easy to let the angle of the knife drift and end up with a bevelled edge. It won't affect the function of the block, but it doesn't look so good. The best way is to use a light pressure and gradually cut through. From this point try not to disturb any of the sheets in the block, so that you keep a perfect edge.

Next, cut two pieces of card slightly smaller than your block. These will go on either side of your block while you are glueing it. One is to raise the block off the work surface, the other is so that you can weigh it down evenly on the top.

Assemble all of the components on your work surface, so that you have a piece of card, followed by the block of paper, then the other piece of card, and weigh the whole of it down with a heavy weight or several heavy books (I have used a piece of MDF as well, just to make sure that the weight is distributed evenly).

On one side of the block, mark two vertical lines about 4 to 5 cm apart. These will be a reminder to leave a gap without adhesive, so that it will be easier to remove sheets after they have been painted on. Then apply adhesive to all four sides of the block, spreading it out evenly with a smooth stick or knife. It doesn't need to be very thick, but make sure to cover all of the edges of the paper sheets and the bottom piece of card. Leave it overnight and the next day you will have a block of watercolour paper ready to use.

The final thing, for convenience, is to attach a sheet of paper of your choice to the back top edge of the block, so that it can fold over and protect the front when not in use. When you have finished a painting, insert a clean knife into the unglued portion of the edge and slide it around the block to detach the sheet.

The nice thing about home-made blocks is that you can make them any size and shape that you like, so that if you've always fancied a long, landscape format block, or a square one, that's no problem.

If you haven't used blocks before, you may be disappointed to find that the paper still cockles sometimes. This happens even with manufactured blocks and is quite normal. The paper will go flat again when it dries. It is a mistake to think that paper in blocks behaves in the same way as paper that is stretched on a board in the studio.

One final point: if the edges come apart with wear (I have had this happen even on good quality Arches blocks), just weigh down the block again and apply more adhesive.

If you have any questions, please leave a comment, or send an email, and I will do my best to answer them.  I would also be interested to hear any suggestions for improving the process.

If you are making blocks on a regular basis, René's idea (see comment below) is probably easier. Cut two pieces of MDF, plywood or very stiff card slightly smaller than your block, and then use clamps to sandwich the block between them.

Sue Johnson has an interesting idea for making sketchbooks here, and a nice example of a printed cover for a block.


Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Dounreay Dome

"The Dounreay Dome" - watercolour - 13 x 18 cm

I don't think a final decision has been reached yet about whether to preserve the Dounreay Dome. The nuclear reactor is being decommissioned, but the process will take another thirty years or so. The last I heard was that the dome is contaminated and will cost too much to clean up. Also, other parts of the site are contaminated as well and it is unlikely the public will be allowed access for three hundred years. I don't see why that means that the dome has to be demolished though. To me. its value is not in what may or may not be seen inside it by visitors, but in its place in the landscape. It is such an iconic symbol of the first operational nuclear power station in the UK, and as much a part of Caithness as the other natural and man-made features of the county. The main cost of preserving the dome seems to be the need to repaint it every ten years. Hopefully the money can be found for that and the decision can be put off for a while.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

More Cotton Grass

"Sunlight and Cotton Grass" - watercolour - 18 x 26 cm

More cotton grass; at the southern end of Loch Calder. It's a popular place with fishermen, but it also has an interesting mix of marshland and heather moorland. Brawlbin Farm sits on the edge of it all.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Cotton Grass

"Morven and Cotton Grass" - watercolour - 19 x 29 cm

It was noticeable this year that there was a lot of cotton grass on the moors. There was more than I have seen in recent years, so presumably it had something to do with the late spring. Whatever the reason, some areas were a sea of white fluffy tufts, looking almost like a return to the snow of winter. Most of it is disappearing now though, to be replaced with the purple flowers of the heather.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Sea Caves

"Sea Cave at Holborn Head" - watercolour - 24 x 36 cm

I think most people probably find caves interesting: a primordial fascination with the feeling of a portal to an unseen world. If this applies to a cave on land, it must be even more the case for the kind of sea cave which can only be reached by boat. There is no way of knowing, from dry land, what lies beyond the entrance: how far it extends or whether it leads to a vast cavern. We can watch the waves wash in and disappear into the depths, maybe listen to the crashing sounds from within, and then see the resulting surf wash out again. Sea birds also, come and go from their roosts high up in the cave, inhabiting a world we can never be part of; a world we can only try to imagine.
Perhaps the greatest attraction of caves is the way that they allow our imaginations to play.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Prisoners of Progress

The Remoteness of the Modern World" - watercolour - 24 x 36 cm

I think this is my favourite of the many ruined cottages scattered throughout the Flow Country. It has a wonderful position on top of a hill, with views that stretch for many miles. It also had a colourful red tin roof, but a lot of it has been stripped away by the wind now. Once the roof has gone, and the weather can get in, these ruins soon start to fall down.
The title of the painting comes from my thoughts as I looked at the ruin: I thought about how no-one would ever live there again. There is no electricity or running water and the nearest tarmac road is several miles away, so it would be considered very remote now. However, not so long ago there was a real community in this area, and I don't think they would have felt so isolated. This was their world and the place where they lived out their lives. They would have been largely self-sufficient, but I expect they got some of their supplies from passing pedlars. It would probably have taken all day to get to the nearest shop and get back home again. One of their descendants told me that the school teacher would come and stay for a few days and then move on to the next household. The local church minister would travel around in a similar way, although apparently they would often hide when they saw him coming!
We see these places as remote today, but perhaps we build our own prisons.

Thursday, July 25, 2013


"Soft Light on Morven" - watercolour - 16 x 26 cm

This is one of the paintings that I am exhibiting at the Society of Caithness Artists Exhibition. It's another view of Morven, a mountain which I think is becoming my equivalent of Cezanne's Montagne Sainte-Victoire! It's there in my view every day and often makes a tempting subject.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Annual Exhibitions

"The Thurso at Strathmore Lodge" - watercolour - 24 x 36 cm

This is one of the paintings I will be exhibiting at the Society of Caithness Artists Exhibition, in Thurso, from 23rd July to 3rd August.
I will also have paintings in the East Sutherland Art Society Exhibition, in Golspie, from 23rd July to 2nd August.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Sunshine and Storm Clouds

"Sunshine and Storm Clouds" - watercolour - 16 x 26 cm 
Often the simplest subjects can make the most dramatic paintings. One day I noticed these trees, with their bright Spring foliage, against a background of dark storm clouds. The nearly complimentary colours of deep blue and warm yellow added to the drama.  I used only French Ultramarine, Burnt Sienna and Raw Sienna for the whole painting.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Sunlight on Dalnaha

"Sunlight on Dalnaha" - watercolour - 16 x 26 cm

Another view of the cottage at Dalnaha. This gives more of an idea of how secluded it is. It's also an example of how useful clouds can be; throwing shadows on the landscape, and providing tonal contrast in a subject which could otherwise appear flat and uninteresting.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Dalnaha, Strathmore

"Dalnaha, Strathmore" - watercolour - 16 x 26 cm

Beyond Loch More, in upper Strathmore, there are few buildings still in an inhabitable state. There are some old shooting lodges, and a small community around Altnabreac railway station, but most of the old buildings are ruins now. The cottage at Dalnaha is one of the survivors. It's not lived in permanently, but it's furnished and presumably used as a holiday cottage. With no other properties within several miles it would be a very peaceful place to stay.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Approaching Smean

"Approaching Smean" - watercolour - 24 x 36 cm

Smean is one of the hills in the rugged country in the south of Caithness. There are no paths to its summit, but it has impressive granite tors and extensive views over the Flow Country, which make it well worth the effort to reach it.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Berriedale Water

"Bridge on Berriedale Water" - watercolour - 24 x 36 cm

I always enjoy going down to the south of the county, because the landscape is so different. Where I live is an area of farmland bordering the boggy moorland of the Flow Country. It is also fairly flat. However, the south of Caithness is fringed by mountains and deep glens, and seems to have more in common with Sutherland.

Berriedale Water cuts its way through the hills for seven miles on a winding course, providing many dramatic views. At one point it runs through a narrow gorge and a bridge has been built across the gap. Its an interesting experience to cross the swaying structure, high above the rocks in the river bed below!

I had intended to do another tutorial, but I forgot to take the photographs during the painting. This was the first stage of wet-into-wet washes.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Bone Caves

Further south from Smoo Cave, which I wrote about recently, there is another limestone cave system near Inchnadamph. The Bone Caves are a group of four caves, which were probably formed at the end of the last Ice Age by melting ice. Excavations have revealed the bones of various animals, including Lynx; Brown Bear; Arctic Fox; Reindeer; and even a Polar Bear. Human skeletons were also found, dating from earlier than 2,000 BC.

Materials used:
Bockingford Rough paper, 300 gsm
Rembrandt Artists' Watercolours -
Raw Sienna
Raw Umber
Burnt Sienna
French Ultramarine
Pthalo Green

Stage 1
I made a brief drawing with a 2B pencil to give me some guidelines to work to. Then I dampened the paper all over and applied weak washes, letting them run together without worrying too much about keeping to the pencil lines.

The colours used were French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna for the grey; Burnt Sienna with a little French Ultramarine for the brown; and Raw Umber and Pthalo Green for the greens.

I made the mistake of adding more paint when the paper had dried too much, resulting in some run-backs in a few places. I wasn't worried about it though, because I knew I could use them to my advantage later.

Stage 2
When the first washes had dried, I used darker versions of mostly the same mixtures to define the forms more. I softened the edges in places with a damp brush. I also added a couple of figures at this stage.

Final Stage
I finished by painting the cave entrances, and a few darker areas to further define form and texture.

"The Bone Caves at Inchnadamph" - watercolour - 16 x 26 cm

Friday, May 24, 2013

Latheron Art Show

"A Moorland Farmhouse" - watercolour - 18 x 26 cm

I will be exhibiting at the Latheron Art Show on the 25th, 26th and 27th May.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Tax Collector and the Tower House

"Freswick House" - watercolour - 24 x 36 cm

Freswick House is one of the notable old buildings of Caithness. It was built on the site of a Viking stronghold. Originally called Freswick Castle, it was added to and improved over the years and later became Freswick Tower or Freswick House.

There is an amusing story about a dispute over Window Tax. This tax was introduced in the Eighteenth Century, and was based on the number of windows in a property. Owners often got around it by blocking up some of the windows, and these can still be seen in old houses today. William Sinclair was the owner of Freswick House at the time, and apparently he was in constant dispute with the Window Tax collector. He may have had some justification, because on different occasions the official count of the number of windows seems to have varied between 28; 31; 47 and 34! Maybe he kept blocking up and unblocking windows, but whatever the reason, he seems to have avoided paying the tax in his lifetime. 


Friday, May 10, 2013

Smoo Cave

"Smoo Cave" - watercolour - 18 x 26 cm

Smoo Cave, at Durness in the far North-west of Sutherland, is one the the main tourist attractions of the area. The cave was formed by the action of water dissolving the limestone rocks, leaving a series of chambers and underground waterfalls. Visitors can take a boat trip into the depths of the cavern.

Humans have been drawn to the cave from the earliest times: A midden in the entrance has been excavated and shows evidence of occupation from the Mesolithic Period through to the Iron Age. Other deposits indicate use of the cave in the Norse period. I'm sure it has continued to provide a shelter or hide-out at later times and has probably been used as a store more recently.

As well as the main cave, there are several smaller caves which may at one time have been part of one large cave system. There may still be other caves and passages, as yet undiscovered underground.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Exhibition at Caithness Horizons

These are a few of the paintings that I am exhibiting at Caithness Horizons, Thurso, throughout May.

 "Maiden Pap" - watercolour - 25 x 36 cm

 "A Lonely Fishing Hut" - watercolour - 18 x 26 cm

"Beat No.7 on the Thurso" - watercolour - 25 x 36 cm

Monday, April 22, 2013

Secrets of Loch More

"Lochmore Cottage" - watercolour - 18 x 26 cm

Next to the dam at Loch More is a cottage which I presume was built to house the water bailiff responsible for controlling the flow of water into the river. Nobody lives in the cottage now but it is still used by fishermen. While looking into the history of Lochmore Cottage I have discovered that it is thought by some people to have a connection with a couple of mysteries of World War II.

In 1942 Rudolf Hess, Hitler's deputy, flew alone in an unarmed plane from Germany to Scotland. He was apparently hoping to land at Dungavel House, the home of the Duke of Hamilton who had supported appeasement with the Nazis before the war. Hess was unable to find somewhere to land and had to parachute out, after which he was captured. The reason for the flight has never been completely explained, but there are theories that he was intending to negotiate peace terms with the government, or even that he was intending to meet Nazi sympathisers in the British elite; members of the so-called “Peace Group”. Most historians think that he was probably just deluded, and thought that he could single-handedly arrange a peace treaty which would free the German military to concentrate on fighting the USSR.

The second mystery involves the Duke of Kent, the brother of the King. In August 1942 he set off from Invergordon on a flight to Iceland, supposedly on a morale-boosting visit to the British forces stationed there. The flying-boat was supposed to stay over the sea and follow a route along the coast, but thirty minutes into the flight it crashed into a hillside in the south of Caithness. There was only one survivor, the tail-gunner, who was apparently thrown clear. The cause of the crash has never been conclusively proven, and as a result all sorts of conspiracy theories have grown up around it.

One theory involves the connection with Loch More. It suggests that the Duke of Kent wasn't heading for Iceland on that day but was planning to land on the loch. It is claimed that Hess was being held at Lochmore Cottage. The plan was to pick him up and fly on to Sweden where he would conduct peace talks with the Nazis. Apparently the late Lord Thurso claimed in 1993, that he was aware as a teenager during the war that Hess was being held at Braemore Lodge, on a neighbouring estate. His mother had also told him that Hess had been at Lochmore Cottage. The theory holds that after taking off from the loch the heavily laden plane was unable to gain enough height and crashed into a hillside. However if this were the case it would have been approaching the crash site from the opposite direction to the one indicated by photographs of the wreckage. I also find it hard to believe that a fully laden Sunderland flying-boat could have taken off from the loch which is not much more than a mile long. A major problem with the theory though is that if Hess was killed in the crash, who was tried for war crimes at Nuremberg and subsequently held at Spandau Prison? Some people claim that he was an imposter, but if so, none of the acquaintances who visited him, including his wife and son, suspected anything.

The official explanation of the crash blames the pilot for making an unauthorised course change, but it doesn't give any reason for such an action. It may be a case of an innocent man being made into a scapegoat. The Hess connection is probably just fanciful, but it would be nice to think that lonely Loch More could have played a part in top-secret wartime events.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Loch More

"View Over Loch More" - watercolour - 19 x 29 cm

In the west of Caithness a long road follows the course of the Thurso out over the moors. The road ends at Loch More, where the water entering the river is controlled by a dam and weir. Occupying a shallow basin, the loch is surrounded by open moors and forest, with a view of distant mountains. The overall impression is of big skies and open spaces.

One curious aspect is that the exposed location allows the wind to create quite large waves on the water sometimes. These have worn the shores away, forming miniature cliffs in the peat in some places, while in others broad swathes of sand have been washed up. I believe that in former years, when people were happy with simpler pleasures, families used to travel out to the loch in the summer to spend the day on the beach. Now it's more popular with fishermen and people looking for a quite place to walk.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

After the Thaw

"After the Thaw" - watercolour - 18 x 26 cm

It's been a long winter this year. There seem to have been hints of Spring for a while now, but it's stayed cold and occasional snow showers have covered everything in a blanket of white. The sun is getting warmer now though and any lying snow doesn't last long. We put the clocks forward one hour for British Summer Time this weekend and, as if on cue, we are having a spell of beautifully sunny days. Maybe Spring has finally arrived and will gain a foothold at last.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Brims Castle

Brims Castle, a few miles West of Thurso, is in a ruinous state now. It's rather overshadowed by the large, modern farm buildings next to it. Originally, I think, it would have consisted of a strong tower with a courtyard around it. The beach below would have formed a natural harbour. Later it seems to have had a large house added on to form a more comfortable dwelling. 

I used the controlled-wash method again for this painting and just three colours: French Ultramarine; Burnt Sienna; Raw Sienna.

Stage One
Starting on damp paper, I applied Raw Sienna to the bottom of the sky and then mixes of Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna over the rest. While it was still wet, I dropped in stronger mixes in some areas to establish some of the colour and tone.

Stage One

Stage Two
I let the whole painting dry and then I started to build up the mid-tones, still keeping everything fairly loose. I think, with hind-sight, I probably could have put more of these in at the first stage.

 Stage Two

Stage Three
I put in some stronger touches to sharpen up the painting.

Stage Three

Stage Four
I finished off with a few darks in the foreground to give some depth. I also felt that a background was needed. There is in fact a hill behind the castle, but I couldn't see it from my position down on the beach. I decided to use a bit of licence and put it in.

 "Brims Castle" - watercolour - 18 x 26 cm