Author Archives: surfsensei

Golden Fields of Arcadia

Oil painting - landscape, bright golden harvest fields, rolled bales, top edge shows distant water and white refinery buildings , impressionistic style.
Oil on canvas board approx 12×16″

I have been looking at these splendid harvest fields for a while, over the last few years I’ve been in this area. This part of the Forth valley has a lot of large arable fields, any old hedges that may have been there are long gone and they are ploughed, planted and sprayed right up to the edges, little or no “headlands” of uncultivated ground left for wildflowers to grow in and provide a modicum of refuge and food for insects. The main crops seem to be various grains – wheat, oats, possibly some barley – and rapeseed or similar oil-seed plants. The fields appear to be intensively cultivated, though hay is grown and gathered into these impressive and slightly surreal-looking cylinders that have been a feature of UK farming for many years now. They ripen into vibrant, vast areas of rich golds of varying hues and textures, depending on the forms of the various crops, with darker lines that emphasise the form of the land, tracks of huge tractors and baling machines, then the harvesting machinery.

In my walks and cycle rides around here, I’ve also been struck by the ambiguous beauty of the Grangemouth refineries (Ineos, I think, is the company that operates them). They are responsible for both providing the necessary fuel, fertilizers and other agrochemicals for our present agriculture, significant local employment and for a lot of hazards and pollution of the local and wider environment. Flares are regularly to be seen, occasionally huge rolling flames and sooty fumes, following, I’m told, emergency pressure relief procedures. I understand that the company is fined on a fairly regular basis for these releases of gas, though I’ve seen and heard no sign of meaningful remedial action. As with many things, the situation has many facets.

Large-scale engineering, ships and industrial buildings have always fascinated me; there is an element of the frustrated engineer in me for sure, I was never able to get to grips with the mathematics. Far from finding them “ugly” in the conventional sense, I often see the moments of beauty and subtlety in them, especially in certain light and weather conditions. A long time ago, in what feels like another lifetime, I remember glimpsing the huge cement works at Chelson Meadows in Plymouth, Devon, on an early morning drive. It appeared as a vast castle, in blocks of pale grey and pink, in the morning misty sunlight. I made several drawings of it, to the puzzlement of several people who asked me “why are you drawing that eyesore?” That works is long-demolished, the ground landscaped, I believe, and perhaps my drawing is now a historical document of sorts, but this is a digression.

On a cycle ride along a path into the woods near Skinflats, I stumbled across an art installation called “Inscriptions in Arcadia”, by Audrey Grant, very nearly and inadvertently stealing part of one of the works … until I saw the sign! The theme of the installation intrigued me and resonated with some of the thoughts that had arisen, back in 2019, when I had looked out over ripening summer fields towards Grangemouth:

“Yellow Gold – ….enriches & touches our desire & emotions, feeds our egos… enables our electronics, lifts our aesthetics.

“Black Gold – in our myopic ignorance we burn this, mostly, the stored solar energy of ancient Earth feeds our industry, ..engines, ..our restless desire for movement & the illusion of a limited, short term freedom, while we poison our air & water & are still blind to its true value as a raw material.

“Green Gold – growing silently in the summer sun, welcoming the rain that we bemoan, refreshing our atmosphere, filtering our dust and detritus, feeding our restless, dissatisfied bodies and minds…”

Sketchbook 31 – 14 July 2019

This painting has emerged from these notes and subsequent observations, pulled together with the idea of an Arcadia, an imagined idyllic land but that is still touched, if not tainted, by destructive and harmful processes. I had not been aware, until a comment on my previous post, of the more classical associations:

Et in Arcadia Ego
Even in a pastoral idyll, there is death.

https://www.historytoday.com/archive/foundations/et-arcadia-ego

…which adds an interesting layer, I think.

This is not a specific view but a combination of local elements from several sketches, photos and observations. When approaching the painting, I wanted to focus on my initial visual experience of the vivid yellows and golds and of the softer reflections and uncertain forms from across the estuary, aware of darker and more contradictory processes behind it all. As with all these paintings, I feel I’m learning and discovering at each step; I’ve certainly enjoyed painting it.

Thank you for reading this far! What’s next? I’m not yet sure, I have unrelated videos to attend to …. however, I hope to start another soon.

Gallery page update

I’ve just added the new works to the Oil Paintings page, link at the top of this page.

Now for a short stroll in the fresh air, moody overcast hanging like a dark ceiling over the Ochil hills to the north while the wind snatches bright leaves off the branches; the birds haven’t given up singing though, which is encouraging.

Time to think of the next painting…

New work – the full picture(s)

Oil painting - landscape, bright golden harvest fields, rolled bales, top edge shows distant water and white refinery buildings , impressionistic style.
Golden Fields of Arcadia.
Oil on canvas board approx 30x40cm

The last few days of last week gave me the opportunity to be productive on the art front, two new paintings in oils completed. A few minor adjustments in the last couple of days and I’m happy to sign them off now.

Pumpkin Soup – still life.
Oil on canvas. 19x25cm

I’ll add these to the Oil Paintings gallery page over the weekend. These photos seem to give a pretty good colour match, though in the end a lot depends on your own screen.

I may have a little more to say on the “Golden Fields of Arcadia”, why I chose that name and so on, but not this evening… it’s too late and the internet is going slow here…

Have a good weekend!

Between the Showers

Following on from yesterday’s post, “Catching a falling leaf…”, I set to work, today, to paint a more finished version of the ideas arising from the photos and sketch I referred to, this time in oils on board (Windsor & Newton water-mixable oils).

“Between the Showers” – oil on board, 36 x 24.5cm approx

I painted it in about 4 hours, to judge by the radio programs I heard during the process – I was not keeping a close eye on the time! This is pretty quick by my standards, especially in oils in the “studio” (interpret that term loosely! I long for such a luxury!). Now I must let it rest and the paint cure and attend to the things I was telling myself were more important, this time with a clearer mind and a feeling of achievement. I’m pleased with the result, which feels like a step in the right direction for me; working with consideration and some preparation but not over-thinking it, taking a looser approach, allowing more expression and impressions to emerge.

And so to the washing of brushes, dishes and self as I prepare for another busy week ahead. With best wishes to you and thanks for reading this.

Catching a falling leaf..

I’m busy with a couple of competing things, today, or that’s what my distracted mind is saying just now (“then just STOP! Re-focus!” says my inner mentor). A friend posted a series of photographs, earlier, that sparked an inspiration to paint, based upon two or three of them. Her son, strolling on the beach, distant squalls making a looming sky, curtains of heavy rain and sharp lines of bright light from waves and lens flare.

I’ve grabbed some acrylic paint and brushes and the remaining blank pages of a sketchbook and made a fast study of the fluttering and shifting images in my memory, like catching a falling leaf under waving wind-blown trees, crushing the pristine form of the airborne leaf in my efforts to grasp it.

I must clean the palette of rapidly dried paint, brushes too, attend to whatever else seems so important, then return to this later.. perhaps in oils. For now, I have something; the effort to mix and apply paint has helped give a muscle-memory to the vision. What will result? It’s uncertain but I have a starting point, a seed to plant.

………..

Postscript:

Twenty years ago today, I was also painting: walls and ceilings of a friend’s house in which I was to live for several years, a happy home. I was called through to the living room to see the breaking news from New York, in time to witness the live broadcast of the second plane strike the second tower. It was shocking .. and clear then that it was not an accident. I had a feeling, then, of some seismic processes stirring.

I send out wishes for healing and rest from pain for all those who suffered then and since.

Best wishes to you all.

Softly, Autumn comes

It’s a day of soft grey overcast and rain, the air still warm and the crops glowing golden with fringes of white-yellow and warmer oranges and greens to give the fields a dynamic colour, contrasting with the lush greens of the still-productive foliage around.

I tried some early blackberries (brambles) today, sweet and tasty, not yet moisture bloated. The spiders who normally guard them had retreated to their silken indoors to avoid the pummelling of raindrops that must be, to them, like medicine balls would be for us (remember them from the old gymnasium equipment, anybody?).

A few weeks ago, I bought a new sketchbook from my old regular art supplies shop in Aberystwyth, Wales, during a holiday visit to family and friends. This one has nice heavy watercolour paper that takes a wash well and invites play with media.

Friday afternoon (yesterday) was the conclusion of a busy but productive week, the schools are back in Scotland now, which left me feeling more energised than usual with a stimulating but slightly uneasy buzz of creative mental activity that at the time felt inspired but that I know from experience does not always translate into useful nor quality productivity. I spent a while in a cafe in central Stirling, watching the end of afternoon activity from a pleasant window seat, trying to capture some of the postures and groupings of people nearby, without staring directly at them, allowing my streaming thoughts to run like over-excited children until they tired and curled up in a quiet heap, somewhere in my mind… no tears, luckily, but a relaxed and reasonably focused state with just a babbling brook of thoughts as a background to my main focus.

A family group, the young boy full of energy and impatience, pushing himself up into a stretch in his chair. Two older adults, central, still. Three young women, pulling up their feet from the pavement and blending conversation, coffee and texting, as if curling inwards to make a small, intimate space of themselves. After my main sketch, I added analytical thumbnails, exploring what I was actually seeing or experiencing… notes for future reference, perhaps.

Inside, what appeared to be older parents and two young men, a contrast of body language and activity was what struck me, the conversation sounded relaxed in tone, but this young man was deeply intent on his phone and whatever remote world it took him to, his (I guess) father looking on. I wondered what the communication between them was like… there was something suggesting intensity and drama about the young man’s postures.

Back home, I added watercolour washes, returning briefly to the sketching frame of mind. Then, enough, time for a shower, food, relaxation.

Outside, the gentle hiss of rain falling and tempting the snails to risk their lives crossing paths and roads. Inside, time to stop and sleep.. Goodnight and I wish you a peaceful sleep.

Easter exercise

We’ve been fortunate, here in central Scotland, to have beautifully clear, cold weather over this Easter break. I’ve been busy with my other projects for most of the time as this is a good opportunity to focus on home-based work, given the continuing travel limits, but have had a couple of glorious days out in nearby hills and on the bike.

I was determined to make at least one proper attempt to do some plein-air work, whether drawing or painting and a cycle trip to the historic and beautiful village of Culross brought that opportunity.

Culross Abbey – pencil, ink & watercolour

I found a pleasant spot by the old church and Abbey ruins, sitting in the sun for a change! The solid wooden door and its shadows caught my eye and I set up my tripod and box and set to it, a dry sketch first then watercolours, taking time to look for a while first. I’m pleased with the result, not just for what’s on paper but for the process I went through, which was really the point of it. I plan to get the oils out again soon but this was a useful re-awakening; Easter always has this feeling of a second New Year for me.

Spring life is emerging again, in many ways.

Spring cycle

For the last few months my creative energy has been directed into video editing as I begin to set up a YouTube channel and produce material for an online course for beginners in navigation and map-reading. I have ideas for another, arts-focused, channel but that is for later.

This has, inevitably, reduced the time and energy left for sketching and painting but, for now, that’s ok.

Still, it was good, yesterday morning, to ride out into the fresh, bright air and make a small sketch of the ruined Kennetpans distillery, near Kincardine on the River Forth. Pigment ink pen (Uni pin) and Inktense pencils, plus a water brush – now among my favourite field sketching tools and media.

I will be glad of the Easter break, when I do plan to squeeze fresh oil paint onto the palette and rediscover the joyful, and committing, feeling of spreading the first marks on a new board or canvas. Perhaps I’ll leave a camera running…

Among other things, I’m capturing some Outdoor Moments. Here’s a sample: https://youtu.be/V1VGhYHCN5c

Meanwhile, I wish you a good week in these uncertain, tentatively hopeful, times.

Bracken & Birches

It’s been a productive day, better weather than yesterday and a chance to get outside in my local area and practice more plein air painting, sketching in oils (water mixable) on a small board.

My focus at present is on getting accustomed to the ergonomics of my portable painting setup and on loosening up my painting in a more energetic and playful spirit , letting go of the restrictive urge to try to produce perfection that has so often tightened up my paintings and driven me to over-work them.

I’m quite pleased with today’s effort. I overcame my Sunday inertia to get out and paint, dealt with a passing rain shower, as well as cold hands and an uncomfortable seat. I set myself an hour and kept to that limit.

This little stand of Birches and Bracken caught my eye in the warm afternoon sunlight and chilly south westerly breeze. I’ve always been drawn to the way the whitish bark contrasts against the darkness of other trees, the warm leaf colours defying both the shortening days and the efforts of the wind to dislodge them, holding on against the approaching winter.

Plein-in-the-Rain (and a bit on kit).

I had planned to do some more plein-air oil sketching during yesterday’s walk, west of Bannockburn, in an area that looked promising for a lot of points of interest and a day with a fine weather forecast. My body decided that it needed sleep more than an early start, after a very busy week, so by the time I got moving and organised, I knew it would be uncertain whether I had enough time to explore a new route, stop to paint for nearly an hour and still get back to the car before dark. (Want to see what equipment I bring? Click here.)

In the end I managed a quick ink sketch in my little book but the paints and mini-pochade box, plus small tripod, remained in my rucksack as training weights! It was a glorious walk, during which I took practice video clips and lots of photos; here’s one of the highlights, a view north-west over the low-lying clouds through which I’d spent the last two hours walking:

This is a place to which I shall return, both on my own account and I hope with students on a training expedition for their Bronze or Silver Duke of Edinburgh Awards, as we’re operating under new guidelines and criteria now.

By the time I reached the car again, it was dark and I realised that I had made a correct decision to press on, exploring unfamiliar and often indistinct paths through varied forest and woodland; a surprisingly wild feel to this area given the proximity of a small city and busy motorway. I resolved to make the effort to paint, the following day.

Today’s outing was very local, a foray into the woods about a kilometer from home, keeping it short and simple in order to be free of any excuses for prevarication. The weather had turned wet, very much a “dreich” day, not really conducive to outdoor painting or drawing, more a day for wellies, a brisk walk with a wet and happy dog, hot strong coffee, cake and a good book indoors. I’ve lost my wellies, have no dog, nor cake, so postponed the coffee and book and hauled my rucksack and gear on, fetched a big umbrella and trudged off into the squelchy woods.

Despite the grey overcast, the remaining autumnal colours glowed still and I found an inviting spot by the weed-covered pond near the Dunmore Pineapple, a folly built in that shape in the 1700s, apparently as a gift to the wife of the estate owner at that time.

I am still getting used to the handling and arrangements of my outdoor painting equipment, a little more challenging under an umbrella, but managed a small, fairly loose sketch. I was more focused on practicing the logistics of it all than on concern over the quality or accuracy of my painting, other than that I wanted to work pretty freely and concentrate on the main colours and contrasts that caught my attention. I painted for a bit less than an hour, surprised to be visited and dined upon by a few persistent midges and using the resulting itching as a practice in relaxing and focusing my mind on seeing and painting.

I was hoping that the oils would tolerate occasional raindrops better than acrylic, though I hadn’t fully considered the fact that these are water-mixable…. ha ha..! A couple of stray drops of rain added some natural spontaneous “environmental interventions”, just to keep me alert!

This sketch was on canvas board but, in part to save on costs but also to help me feel more able to play and explore without feeling I’m “wasting” good materials, I have a stock of thin salvaged mdf/hardboard which I’m priming with gesso. That will become my preferred oil “sketchpad”. I’m still deciding whether I want to use mainly my home-made squeegee “brushes”, mentioned in an earlier post, or proper ones. Today I used both, slightly too generous “wet on wet” but enough to tempt me back to bristles, at least for more detailed or accurate work in due course.

After about 50 minutes of actual painting, the rain was falling steadily and I was feeling satisfied that I’d done enough and achieved my main objective, I packed it all away under the umbrella and walked home, The coffee, and the biscuits, were lovely!



Equipment list:

If you are wondering what equipment I took out with me, here’s a photo. The stuff to the left of the maps, compass, whistle and torches (I strongly recommend carrying a whistle and a light of some kind on any trip like this, even in summer) is all for painting, drawing and recording, that on the right is for my comfort and safety – this is for going into relatively wild places after all.

The list is as follows: L-R

Paint box with: cloth, paints, palette knife, water bottle, 2 spring clamps, brushes (cut short to about 7″/17cm) , squeegee brushes, spare canvas/board, plastic bag.

Mini pochade box with 1/4″ camera screw mount, canvas 7×5″, palette (thin sheet of metal – ex offset litho plate)

Cloth and water jar with lid.

Folding fisherman’s seat and piece of camping mat.

Small camera tripod with quick release plate (1/4″ screw)

Sketchbook (A6), pigment ink pen, water-brush, selection of Derwent Inktense water-soluble pencils

Camera (Osmo Action), stick, tripod, spare batteries

Maps, compass, whistle, bike lights (good battery life, small ones are cheap and very good emergency lights). Mobile phone – also used to record.

Sanitiser, scarf/mask, cream, spare glasses, flask of hot drink, snacks. In summer, add midge repellent and a head-net (on the West Coast and especially Skye, a midge jacket… seriously! https://bit.ly/3kb83qT )

Warm hat, gloves, spare warm jacket, waterproof jacket and trousers, all on an emergency survival bag.

Climbing sling – useful for tying things to other things, a short length of light rope would be useful instead and cheaper.

Rucksack.

First Aid kit (not shown). Swiss army knife. Walking boots.

Optional extras, depending on conditions, would be a telescopic walking pole and a large umbrella (not in a windy situation!!).