I had never been to Ireland, until a couple of years ago, when I went to stay with a friend in his caravan, perched on the side of Atlantic Drive in County Donegal. The views from his plot were absolutely stunning and the panorama that stretched out before us went from the hill of Garniamor in the north east to Melmore Sound in the west, with the mountains of Inishowen in the distance.

We went early in the year and the weather was very wet and very windy. This was typical ‘soft’ Irish weather with mist and cloud hanging like a veil over everything. Then from out of nowhere the greyness was broken up by a blinding flash of brilliant light, which forged its way through the clouds to illuminate the landscape. The clouds also became infused with a myriad different hues, which again blended together to produce a magnificent light show. Then in an instant it had changed!

This was just the start of my Irish experience. Since then I have witnessed this brilliant light and intense coloration in other areas, noticeably the west coast, around Connemara, and it still doesn’t fail to impress. Not only do the skies change every minute but also the scenery in this remote area of Ireland is diverse. There are mountains, rivers, loughs, peat bogs, wide open spaces and the ever-present coastline which all add up to a painter’s paradise.

So I have the scenery and the inspiration, all I have to do now is paint it! Nature is great at producing these wonderful three-dimensional kaleidoscopes of colour and light, but as artists we have only a small flat sheet of paper on which to capture it.

Recording the scene

The use of sketches as a means of gathering and recording information is vital if you wish to produce a successful picture of any worth. Sketching is an important part of the painting process but is often, in my experience, relegated to the sidelines as more of a chore by many students. I carry a sketchbook and pencil wherever I go, just in case…!

My sketches can be anything from a quick ten-minute jotting which records the bare essentials to a complete detailed drawing, just for the joy of doing it. My sketchbooks are hardbound in both landscape and portrait formats and I will often work a sketch right across the spine to record a panoramic view.  

I use a variety of soft pencils from 2B upwards and solid graphite sticks 6B and 9B which can produce a wide range of tones and broad areas and also lovely rich darks.

Using photographs

When travelling it is not always possible to stop and sketch, so this is where the photograph comes into its own. I do not decry the use of photographs as reference material but the limitations of the photographic process can fall short of the mark when recording certain landscapes. When a scene inspires it usually means that there are areas of high contrast – strong light, dark shadows. With photos the lights go a stark white and the darks go black, so that light, bright early evening sky, with that moody lie of distant hills with all its subtle nuances of colour, will be reduced to a thin band of grey beneath a bleached-out area of white. Also the lens flattens and compresses the scene, so that distant subjects which look so impressive to the naked eye are barely discernible on a photo. Additionally, skies tend toward a washed-out appearance.

A quick thumbnail sketch and some colour notes of those distant features and cloud formations will help counteract the camera’s shortcomings. I have had photos printed, and asked myself why on earth I took them!  If the scene is really worth recording don’t leave it to chance – sketch it!

The painting process

Before painting I always do a preparatory sketch which not only helps work out any compositional problems beforehand but also whether the scene still inspires me. Many of my sketches are stuck on the wall of my studio where I can glance at them from time to time while working on other projects. Sometimes I will work solely from my sketch and produce a painting without any colour references whatsoever. Just the dynamics of the scene are enough to get me painting.

Watercolour paper comes in many makes, weights and textures. I tend towards a 140lb (300gsm) Not or Rough paper and always stretch it onto a stout board. When painting very wet a piece of watercolour paper stretched tight as a drum is a lovely support to paint onto. There is nothing more annoying than having the paper wrap and buckle when applying a flat wash.

From the Bog Road, Falcarragh, pencil sketch, (22.9 x 53.3cm)

From the Bog Road, Falcarragh, watercolour, (22.9 x 53.3cm)

It was late in the day when we passed the scene that inspired From the Bog Road – Falcarragh, above, which was infused with a strong yellow light. This light seemed to permeate the whole picture so I put down a strong overall yellow wash which helped to unify the painting. The details were then built up in a series of glazes, giving strength and colour saturation without becoming heavy and lifeless.

With From Sky Road – Connemara, below, it was the light, transient quality of the sky merging with the sea without any discernible horizon line that attracted me. I masked out just a few highlights on the sea and the islands then wet the paper before flooding it with blues and magenta, spraying here and there to capture that misty quality.

From Sky Road, Connemara, watercolour, (22.9 x 53.3cm)

Mixed media

Heavy Seas, Rosguill Peninsular, mixed media, (22.9 x 53.3cm)

Heavy Seas, Rosguill Peninsula, above, this was an incredibly bright day and the seas were crashing onto the rocks around Dooey on the Atlantic Drive. The strong blues and greens of the water were offset by the browns and ochres of the rocks with Horn Head away in the distance.

I wanted to capture the pounding seas on the rocks and the heavy swells of the waters around them.  I decided to use mixed media for this subject to maximise the drama of the crashing seas with all its colour and movement.

Large wet-in-wet washes of pure watercolour were allowed to mix together on the paper. Blues, greens, orange, yellow and magenta all floated around to produce a very fluid base onto which I could put my pastels. When all was dry, I built up the details using large side strokes of the pastel, blending here and there with my hand or a rag. In other places I left the pastel just as it was applied. This way I could build up a certain tension in the painting, which complements the softer passages of the watercolour washes.

The fluid transparency of watercolour together with the strong vibrant opaque qualities of pastel is a very exciting combination. And by mixing media in this way I am able to paint according to my mood and grab the scene in front of me without restricting my creative process. Every scene has a certain quality it is handy to have a choice of media at your disposal.

Afternoon Light, Lough Nafooey, mixed media, (34.3 x 53.3cm)

Afternoon Light – Lough Nafooey, above, was a quieter scene altogether but there was a marked contrast between the light on the water and the middle distance hills against the dark of the foreground and the distant mountains. Some of the initial watercolour washes have been left to show through in the finished painting.

Muckish and Sheephaven Bay, mixed media, (25.4 x 33cm)

No trip to County Donegal would be complete without a painting of the unmistakable outline of Muckish, the hogsback mountain that is always present on the skyline. The moods of the mountain are always changing from dark and brooding to light and airy depending on the weather and the time of year. The small painting of Muckish caught the dark silhouette of the mountain gradually disappearing behind an opalescent shaft of light which shimmered across Sheephaven Bay.

Painting is never boring but can be incredibly frustrating when you can’t quite capture that initial spark that made the scene special, but extremely exhilarating when you can. So as long as there are still wild and wonderful places like Connemara and north west Donegal I shall continue to get out my brushes in an attempt to capture them.