In the last week I completed a second still life from some of the splendid seasonal squashes I bought recently. Having to fit my painting around work days, especially at this time of shortening day length, is sometimes frustrating, though necessary for the time being.
One of the challenges of a still life involving food, for me, is that I fully intend to eat it and don’t want to leave it too long “on stage”, however tempting or even necessary this may be from the point of view of the painting process. Once I had cut open the pumpkin, the pressure was on and I managed to complete the essentials within a couple of afternoons, in fading light.
I used virtually the entire pumpkin, this time, roasting then frying the seeds and thinly-pared skin with seasonings to make a chewy but tasty snack, turning half of the flesh into a delicious houmous and the rest into part of a tasty and sustaining soup, with parsnip and served with homemade bread.
The wine was nice too! (Beyerskloof Pinotage 2020).
The remaining squashes are still in a bowl, slowly becoming more interesting as the skins develop varied contrasting colour spots. I feel tempted to make some more, quick, studies of them, even in artificial light, which I can at least do in these dark evenings after work.
Meanwhile, I have ideas for two other, unrelated, paintings based on observed situations from long ago and very recently but they will take a bit longer to develop.
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:
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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)
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.
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!!).
Image and words, “locked down” in body but not in mind:
I imagine… Opening the doors again Stepping out into air And sunlight, The song of birds whose Voices are grown stronger From being allowed The space in which to sing.
I imagine… Carrying my boat to the water, Launching on the flood tide Riding sparkling waves and Surprising the seals who thought We’d gone away, to plunder And pollute another, distant, ocean.
I imagine… With you, and you and you.. Painting a new view, Of health, home and wealth For each of us, by right of simply Being here, the soil a human needs To grow and bear our natural fruit.
I imagine… Embracing you again and Walking, hand in hand, Through Autumn leaves, To join the gathering of folk And, together, round the fire Fuelled with old and rotten Furniture we’ve kept too long, Begin our steps towards, To borrow better words, The early days of a better nation.
It’s been a while since my last post and this is merely a quick update as I’m in a very busy period at present, with work and other activities that are very much about laying the foundations for steps forward, which is all the level of detail I’ll put here for now.
Artistically, it’s been a quiet few months, I’ve been out a lot with the local Canoe Club, enjoying trips and company while refining my skills and building my experience, attending training courses to upgrade my outdoor qualifications and making things, especially in wood. I am drafting a new set of pages on this site which will both show some of the previous artefacts that I’ve designed and made in the last few years and will show the recent projects, including a big one I’ve just taken the first steps in: making myself a sea-kayak – a wooden frame with a nylon cloth skin. I’ll blog the build as I am able to make each of the steps, over the next few months.
For now, my creativity is mostly channelled into three dimensions and objects that are both useful and, at least to me, aesthetically pleasing.
The trouble with Summer, for me, is that it is in many ways the hardest time for me to get down to any painting. Pleasant weather and long days, especially here in Scotland, make for good plein-air painting conditions, for sure, but also for walking, cycling, kayaking and canoeing, all of which are important activities for me, especially as I am in the process of updating my outdoor qualifications; steps for a shift in direction.
I’ve been working in small stages on a small landscape in oils, the second in what I intend will be a series of mostly Scottish landscapes. This weekend I’ve chosen more restful activities than usual of late and have finished this one.
The scene was among the literal and emotional high points of an overnight trip to the Loch Tay area to make an ascent and traverse of the Ben Lawers and neighbouring peaks. I had walked in along tracks to a fine bivvy spot beneath the eastern end of the ridge and made a dawn start on a clear, cool morning. It was a superb day, hazy but spacious and with a cold wind that kept me a comfortable temperature while carrying a pack up hill.
From Meall Garbh there is a steep descent to the bealach (saddle or pass) and a steeper, scrambling, ascent up An Stuc; a few moments of concentration needed to make moves with a full pack to interfere with my balance. This was the best direction from which to tackle this peak while carrying a load. It was helpful to see the first human being of the day, ahead of me and travelling light up what looks a near-impenetrable wall from the angle of the bealach.
It was a day for taking photographs, too chilly to sit comfortably for long to sketch in exposed viewpoints and, in any case, I was full of the urge to move and maintain a good speed over this wonderful set of hills; my mind and body were for moving.
I reached Ben Lawers summit around 1130, meeting the first people arriving at the top that morning and feeling good to have made full use of the daylight. After this, I slowed my pace, sat in sheltered spots and lingered in the bright light and feeling of space, hesitant to descend to the car park and “complete” my adventure. I had achieved a walk that I had wanted to do since my first ascent and visit to this part of Scotland a few years ago and was in no rush to drive home.
I’ve had to work mostly from the photos I took that day as a reference, a prompt for refreshing the experience of the place, rather than a subject to try to copy, although the forms and light are important elements for me. I am not ready to abstract this too much to allow a more expressive interpretation, though this formed a stage in preparatory thumbnails.
The picture is resting, now, I’m happy it’s finished. I have a list of others to choose from to begin soon. More as it happens… Have a good week.
I bought a few very small canvas boards, while my car was in a garage in Glasgow. I plan to work on a selection of sketchbook material on them. Sketches of people, singly or in groups, transient situations and relationships in composition and implied or inferred between the subjects.
Today is a good day for painting, it’s damp and chilly outside, sleet has given way to snow and now slow rain. I’m enjoying getting used to the feel of the oils too.
Is it too late to wish you a Happy New Year? Probably, especially as the harsh realities of national and international events loom large in our attentions, nevertheless, if this is the first visit you are making here since Hogmanay then I send you good wishes for health, happiness and genuine wealth of the kind that cannot be stolen..
I am becoming very busy with non-art matters, to do with work and starting the steps to making a change to an area of paid activity to which I wish to return in order to feel inspired rather than required. This is, naturally, slowing my art productivity but is essential to it; I have found over the years that I need to feel able to relax and have my basic needs met in order to experience the artistic urge. I do not resent this shift of focus, it is both necessary and in any case enjoyable in its own right, though my fingers twitch when I see art that I like.
My exploration of oil paints continues, at least with the more practically usable water-mixable oils. I like the medium. I have continued with the painting I began in my last post, back in December I think, and have, more or less, finished it. I’m happy with this one, at the moment anyway. I’ll let it settle for a bit before deciding whether it’s ready to sign and find a name for.
This photo’s not the best, the light wasn’t good and the lamp makes reflections off the brushstrokes, but you can get the gist of it. It comes from a moment of clearing clouds on a windy, dramatic day on Ben Vorlich, the western one on the edge of the Arrochar Alps, at the north end of Loch Lomond, back in the Autumn. I went up with a friend to whom I am grateful for revealing this superb mountain. The canvas is roughly 35 by 25cm, canvas on board, a nice surface to paint on.
I have other photos from that day to use as starting points for paintings, also from more recent, subsequent hill days, inspired by moments of light on dark, contrasts, shapes of sunlit land or water and cloud. And the snow and ice are returning, while the days begin to lengthen.