Category Archives: Isle of Skye

The Time of the Virus

It was a science fiction novel become real. We had nowhere to live and were forced to flee just when danger was rising and the official voices were telling us to stay put. It seems strange to say this now but it was terrifying. Most of my paintings got left behind. I didn’t even have any paints when I arrived, at last, at my mother’s house having endured frightening journeys and a two-week decontamination stay in a freezing and damp house on a mountain plateau.

My mother’s house is at the edge of things, looking out at remote islands from a remote island. Even so, the virus was here. We were spending too much money as well – money that was supposed to be held for us to buy our own house. I had to buy paint though. For the first time in my life I bought the best stuff available but could only afford four tubes. I also ordered ten pieces of hardboard and some gesso, plus two knives. This became my lockdown painting kit. I have never painted with knives before, other than to do the odd final touch to a plein air painting when I’d used up all my brushes and was in a hurry. It turns out that painting with knives is very interesting and that top quality paint has better, stronger tubes and goes a lot further than the cheaper stuff. It might be hard to go back, to the old ways and the old places.

The lockdown knife paintings.

oil painting of Skye sea scene
My first attempt at plein air painting with two palette knives and four tubes of oil paint, sitting on a rock as usual, looking out to sea. Evening at Loch Pooltiel, 8×10

Knives make different marks on the painting surface and they don’t hold on to paint like brushes do. I seem to be able to make a greater variety of strokes with them and the paint is applied much more thickly. Because of the thick paint the pictures are taking forever to dry. The expensive paint smells different from the colours I usually use. There is a strong scent of linseed oil and another solvent that is sharper and more chemical in nature. A tiny blob on the palette holds much more pigment than I’m used to and I’ve had to cut back on the amount of paint I measure out initially to avoid waste. This holds true even though I’m applying paint more generously than before.

Skye sea scene in oils, evening light, 8x10 wooden panel
The second go at knife painting on the rocks … lovely evening light and calmer weather than before. Loch Pooltiel again and an 8×10 board

For ages I’ve been attracted to paintings with plenty of paint on them but it was something I couldn’t seem to achieve in my own work. It seems to be the knives that make the difference as they don’t meanly grab on to the colour but spread it all freely across the surface. They are also a lot quicker to clean, needing only a wipe with a cloth. I was intrigued to find that paint colours don’t always blend fully after being mixed with a knife and sometimes appear as a jumbled hue on the surface, which gives an extra way of working, an additional type of mark to increase the range of expressions.

painting of sunset seascape in oils, 8x10
a third sunset over the sea and another plein air oil using the palette knives on 8×10 wooden board

Even though they came out of all the things that have gone wrong during this virus time, these painting discoveries have been a joy. And it’s almost time to order more of the boards, which, in the absence of my usual plein air kit, I have to balance precariously on my knee down by the sea. The seals often come to see what I’m doing and the sea plays all kinds of sounds to me as I sit on the furthest rock sticking out into the waves. High tide is the best time to paint, with waves slapping at the rock just below my feet.

oil painting of the sea, painted from a Skye beach
Loch Pooltiel on a stormy evening. A quick plein air sketch interrupted by rain. Painted in oils on 8×10 inch primed wooden panel

Once the waves were a bit too lively and, carried away by the wind, they leaped on to the place where my feet and paints were resting, forcing me to scramble higher up. Maybe the sea just wanted to have a look at what I was doing. It backed off after that. I think we have an agreement now although, as one who was born near the sea, I know you always have to treat it with respect. There is also the lure of the deep to attend to as, the longer you commune with the waves, the stronger the impulse to throw yourself into the water becomes. At least, if the worst happens, I can swim, although the purple-circled jellyfish are waiting below. Maybe the seals will save me. One of them, a particularly curious and pointy snouted being, reminds me of Tilly, my lovely dog now lost. Once you give your heart to the wild you are never the same again.

knife painting, plein air, 8x10, Loch Pooltiel, Skye
Loch Pooltiel on a windy evening, painted out on the rocks in oils on 8×10 board
plein air seascape in oils, Skye coast, 8x10
A pale silvery evening which was challenging to paint. 8″x10″ panel in oils.
Skye sea painting, oil on wooden panel
It was so windy out on the rocks that the palette was going flying so I had to find a rocky niche down on one of the small beaches where it was a bit more sheltered. It was interesting watching the waves splash in. Another 8×10 inch painting, oil on board
Isle of Skye sea, oil plein air painting, 8x10 wooden panel
There were quite a few people about on this evening – too many distractions I think. Loch Pooltiel with some evening colours, 8×10, oils

The sea, the sea and the dehumidifier

plein air oil sketch, Howgill fells

small oil sketch painted crouching in the bracken looking north across the Howgill fells, 6×8 inches on canvas.

Summer became a bit abstract … at least while painting in the hills. Maybe the real hills lost their appeal or I couldn’t hear them calling any more. After Cornwall the sea has been in my ears and a September visit to Skye with unexpectedly lovely weather meant that afternoons and, even better, evenings could be spent perched on the rocks wrestling with slippery oil paints while the silvery light took on pale colours. The first pictures were sketchy but the paintings changed as the days went on, leaving me a bit exasperated that I had to stop at the end of a week spent getting going. The sea project will be continued though.

plein air sketch of Loch Pooltiel

plein air sketch in oils carried out while sitting on the shore of Loch Pooltiel, Skye. Oil on canvas, 6×8 inches.

plein air sketch in oils, Loch Pooltiel, Skye

another go at painting Loch Pooltiel from the shore, 6×8 inches, oil on canvas.

Back at home our flat seemed to have developed its own affinity for water as the walls became damper and the atmosphere more dank. In October it was too cold to move around and the backs of some of my canvases were suspiciously mottled. Perhaps the sea business was going too far? It felt like it had invaded the fabric of my living space. Some kind of balance was required. I bought a small robot machine, a dehumidifier, and set it humming away to itself in the heart of the flat. It seemed to draw the sea into itself and I emptied waves of crashing water down the sink every evening. The Cornwall and Skye paintings looked brighter on their respective walls and the air felt warmer and more pleasant.

oil painting looking across Loch Pooltiel as the sun started to set

the first colours of the sunset reflected in Loch Pooltiel on a pale silver evening, 6×8 inches in oils on canvas.

small plein air painting in oils of a sunny day at Loch Pooltiel

Loch Pooltiel painted in the warmth of a sunny day, sitting on the rocks, oil on 6×8 inch canvas.

sunset and swelling waves at Loch Pooltiel, small plein air oil sketch on canvas

swelling waves at sunset. Oil on canvas, 6×8 inches, painted from the rocks at Loch Pooltiel.

second plein air painting of sunset at Loch Pooltiel

a second attempt to capture Loch Pooltiel’s waves at sunset, oil on canvas, 6×8 inches.

painting of Loch Pooltiel seascape, in oils on small canvas

Loch Pooltiel painted from the rocks before sunset, oil on 6×8 inch canvas.

So where is the sea? In Cornwall, in Skye, in my mind or inside a whirring water collector? Maybe all of these places. It certainly hasn’t gone away and the sketches feel as if they are leading somewhere. A large canvas is taking shape on the easel but it feels, at the moment, as if it’s treading water.

Loch Pooltiel, silvery evening light, quick plein air oil sketch

a final, hurried attempt to sketch the scene in the silvery evening light of Loch Pooltiel. Oil on canvas, 6×8 inches.