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Showing posts from 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

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.


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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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…

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


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


Colours (Winsor and Newton Artists' Watercol…

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 p…

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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 Atelie…

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

Simmer Dim

Simmer Dim
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'.

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'.

The Hills Which Turned Blue

Crags on Cairn Lochan
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.

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'!

Geology at Dunnet Head

Along the Cliffs at Dunnet Head
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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 wi…


Tracks in the Snow
16 x 26 cm

 Winter at Keiss
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.

Winter Sunset

Winter Sunset, Morven
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.