Winter weather has properly established itself now, with cold winds and snow showers. Watercolour washes are taking a long time to dry, so I have changed to a more direct method of painting. This involves putting down colour at full strength first time, instead of building the painting in layers. Areas of similar tone are allowed to fuse softly at the edges. Of the two methods, 'Direct' and 'Controlled Wash', I think I prefer the speed and brushwork of painting directly. It's not ideal for soft, atmospheric effects, but it works well for subjects like this, where there are strong tonal contrasts and texture.
Another of the old ruined crofts that are spread throughout the landscape of Caithness. For a few local people they hold memories of family or lost communities, while for others they are a source of romantic imaginings.
Over the years I have built up a large collection of sketchbooks. Occasionally I look back through them, enjoying the flood of memories that come to me, as well as seeing how my sketching has developed. They are also a good source of fresh material for studio work, when my recent sketches don't inspire me.
Looking at some sketchbooks from 25 years ago, I found the sketch below, from the time that I spent on the Isle of Arran. I could still remember the colour scheme, so I decided to try a painting of it.
Pencil sketch made in Glen Catacol, Isle of Arran
'Glen Catacol, Arran' - watercolour - 25 x 36 cm
The crag on the left is called 'Creag na h'Iolaire', which means 'Crag of the Eagle', so I couldn't resist putting in an eagle soaring above the glen. It was useful for adding interest and balance anyhow.
After I finished the painting, I remembered that I had made a watercolour about the same time as the sketch. I managed to find an old pre-digital photo of it, which I photographed again to upload here, hence the poor quality. I was interested to see how my painting has developed in the 25 years between the two versions.
My favourite weather for painting is a mixture of sunshine and rain showers. I love the contrast between the sunlit yellows of the landscape and the dark blue-greys of the heavy clouds. The cloud shadows are useful for composing the tonal values of the painting, allowing a kind of spotlight to be shone on certain features.
These are two versions of the same subject, with the sunlight used to provide different focal points.
"Dwarwick Head, Clouds Building" - watercolour - 16 x 26 cm
"Dwarwick Head, Rain Clouds" - watercolour - 16 x 26 cm
"The Ice Quay at Scrabster" - watercolour - 13 x 18 cm
A while ago I posted a painting of a 19th Century ice-house. This is a small watercolour of the modern equivalent, at Scrabster. A refrigeration plant produces ice in industrial qualities, which is piped into fishing boats moored at the quay alongside.
Syre Church, a small church in Strathnaver. It was built in the late 19th Century by the Free Church, a group which broke away from the established church in protest against the control of rich landowners.
The building is of a type known as
“tin tabernacles”. These were pre-fabricated structures, made of
corrugated iron. They were quick and easy to construct and were often
used by non-conformists. They also make attractive subjects for artists!
This view is from my nearest
railway station at Scotscalder. It's unmanned, and if you want to
catch a train here, you have to hold out your hand to tell the driver
to stop. The journey south to Inverness takes three and a half hours,
and winds in and out around the mountains and estuaries.
I think the little building in the
view is probably a line-man's hut, like another one that I painted
"The Castle of Mey from Wester Haven" - watercolour - 13 x 18 cm
This is an unusual view of the Castle of Mey, from the harbour of Wester Haven, which has featured in a couple of my recent posts, here and here. The misty effect beyond the rocks was caused by smoke that was drifting across from a fire. I thought it was a useful device for breaking up the strong horizontal of the distant shoreline.
This mountain stands at the
entrance to Glencoe and at the head of Glen Etive. It looks out over the vast expanse
of Rannoch Moor and dominates the view for miles. It is a well-known landmark to anyone travelling
north on the road to Fort William. The name, Buachaille Etive Mòr, means "The Great Herdsman of Etive", and it has a sister peak called Buachaille Etive Beag, or "The Little Herdsman of Etive".
"Ice House at Wester Haven" - watercolour - 13 x 18 cm
Before the invention of refrigeration, using ice for food-preservation meant that it had to be stored in some way. Ice houses are a common feature of the harbours around the coast of Caithness. They are vaulted stone buildings, set partly into banks or hillsides, and with turf roofs for insulation. In the winter ice was collected from lochs and rivers and put into the buildings through a hole a the top. Then in the summer it was taken out through a door at the front and used to pack around crates of fish for transportation. My painting is of a good example at the harbour of Wester Haven, below the Castle of Mey.
I painted this on Bockingford Eggshell tinted paper. It has a subtle green tint and gives a cool undertone to the watercolour. I don't use tinted papers very often, but they can be useful sometimes. This particular paper is produced in Cream, Grey, Eggshell, Blue and Oatmeal.
When I looked out of the window the other day, I saw this plume of smoke rising from the hill across the loch. It looked dramatic and I thought it would make an interesting subject, so I decided to paint it there and then. I wasn't sure how long the effect would last, so I decided not to do any drawing; I just wet a block of paper all over and floated in various colours. As the paper dried, I gradually defined some of the forms until I had built up a soft-edged impression of the subject. Then I left it to dry and finished the harder-edged areas later.
I don't know whether this fire was accidental or deliberate. The moors are managed with controlled burning at this time of year, known locally as 'Muirburn'. The mature heather is burned off to leave tender new growth for the grouse to feed on. However we also get wildfires in dry periods, and it has been fairly dry until recently.
When I first saw this scene from a distance, at Achscrabster Quarry, it looked like some kind of unusual tree. It was only when I got closer that I could see that it was a chimney completely covered with foliage, and what I had thought was just a patch of woodland, was a range of old buildings which were also becoming overgrown. It always fascinates me how, over time, nature can completely obliterate the works of Man.
"A Line-man's Hut, Kinbrace" - watercolour - 16 x 26 cm
The Far North Line must be one of
the finest railway journeys in Great Britain, perhaps even in Europe.
Parts of it travel along a beautiful coastline, while other sections have mountainous scenery
and wooded valleys. Finally there is the Flow Country, with its big,
Because it isn't a fast, busy line,
it hasn't had to be upgraded very much, so it still has a feel of
former times. Many of the stations still have their 19th Century
architecture, and there are other old structures beside the track,
like the line-man’s hut in the painting above. It would have been
used by the man who was responsible for checking and maintaining that
section of the line.
This is a series of paintings I
made recently of the Pentland Firth; the stretch of sea that
separates the Orkney Islands from mainland Scotland. It is a
treacherous channel, full of strong currents and tidal races. The
islands are often shrouded in cloud, giving them an air of mystery.
Most of them are fairly low-lying, but the island of Hoy has some
mountains and dramatic sea cliffs, and the famous rock stack known as
the Old Man of Hoy*.
"Sunset on a Winter Afternoon" - watercolour - 16 x 26 cm
Painting 'en plein air' can often
be a battle with the elements, but sometimes it can be pure pleasure.
Recently, on a rare winter day with warm sunshine and no wind, I set
up my easel outside my back door and painted this.
A few months ago I wrote about the
old cottage at Thulachan. I mentioned that it was in a remote
location and that not many people visited it any more. This painting
gives a better idea of just how isolated it is. I had climbed a
nearby hill and made a sketch of the view out over the Flow Country
landscape. This is the watercolour I made later from the sketch.
I have often passed by this old
cottage and thought that it would make a nice subject in a rustic
kind of way. There are lots of these old buildings in Caithness, and
as I was painting this I realised that they represent a specific
point in time. Within living memory some of them were still being
lived in and worked as small farmsteads, but in a generation or two
they will have disappeared; worn down by a combination of weather and
We tend to think of the times that
we live in as being the most important, but in fact they are transient,
and future generations will think of us as being just as much a part
of history as we do of our ancestors. I expect there is a moral to be
taken from that: Maybe that we should embrace change because it is
inevitable, and that resisting it holds us back. Equally, it could be
argued that we should preserve memories of the past as a reminder of
our development as people. Perhaps we need a balance of the two.
I painted the sky that way for
compositional reasons, but it occurs to me now that the change in the
weather echoes the theme of change generally, and gives an extra
dimension to the painting. My title for the piece comes from
“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and
to-morrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the
last syllable of recorded time; And all our yesterdays have
lighted fools The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief
candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, That struts
and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more. It
is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying
We are well into the new year now
and I haven't posted anything yet, so here something to start with. I
have some ideas for things I want to try this year, so the subject of
a sunrise seems appropriate.