Category Archives: plein air

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

Sunsets are loved because they vanish

photo of sun setting into the sea as seen from the garden of a cottage in Cornwall
The sun setting into the sea, taken from the garden behind the cottage

For six nights the sun set into the sea, sometimes fiery enough to reflect into two suns. Oranges, yellows and pinks were lurid and impossible to paint, fading into crimson when there wasn’t much light left and it was too cold to stay outside. Still, it was difficult to go indoors, even to watch through the window. There was a strong urge to cling to a rock until it all went dark. By the end of the week I had cracked and attempted to paint it all. Attempted is a good word because the painted canvas may not reveal much to anyone who wasn’t there. After being there, there are enough reminders in the colours and shapes to take me back to the scene.

Every morning the sky and sea were the purest blue and the vegetation sparkled with warmth. It was as if each day started by being perfect and it was an enchanted time – maybe even outside normal time, and made so significant because we knew we had to go back.

Blue sky and sea, green grass as seen through a window, colour photo, Cornwall
Blue through the window

Everywhere there were mining ruins perched around the cliffs. Many looked like roadside chapels but I didn’t see anyone praying inside them. Opportunities to thank the nature gods and ask for more, scattered around but not being used.

photograph showing a ruined mine building on a Cornish cliff
A ruined mine building resembles a broken chapel

A dangerous path that clambered over a frightening rock, exposing humans to the sea below, led to the Loud Cliffs. On the Loud Cliffs it was possible to sit comfortably on springy grass and listen to the booming and bashing of water attacking the rocks. Every now and again a thunderous crash would reward waiting ears, vibrating the entire cliff mass and resounding across the water.

A photo of waves crashing into cliffs
Waves batter the Loud Cliffs
On the Loud Cliffs, plein air painting in oils, 6x8 inch canvas
On the Loud Cliffs, 6×8 inches, plein air, oil on canvas

Just before the very dangerous entrance to the Loud Cliffs was a secret fjord, which looked at its most mysterious in the hazy mist that swirled across the sun one afternoon.

A Cornish inlet, seascape photo
The ‘fjord’ in moody weather
Cornish Fjord, oil on canvas, plein air, 6x8 inches
Cornish Fjord, oil on canvas, 6×8 inches

Years ago we had visited a different part of this coast, a more gentle cliff edge with seats made out of stone for weary painters to rest their palettes on. We made our way there one hot afternoon and the Brisons cried out to be painted again, their siren song luring my brush over the waves. Fortunately there was no wreck this time.

Oil painting of The Brisons in Sun, 6x8 inches plein air sketch on canvas
The Brisons in Sun, 6×8 inches, oil on canvas

Further round, another stone bench surrounded by flowers led to a second painting.

Oil painting on canvas, View from the Chough Cliff, plein air, 6x8 inches
View from the Chough Cliff, oil on canvas, 6×8 inches

On another day a walk to Cape Cornwall challenged our ancient dog as she scrabbled across stones and streams, falling in and out of both but always happy.

photo of Kenidjack valley with Cape Cornwall in the distance
On a walk to Cape Cornwall
Cape Cornwall oil painting on canvas, small, 6x8 inches plein air
Cape Cornwall from Kenidjack, oil on canvas, 6×8 inches

Back at Botallack, in the evening some clouds arrived to silver the view. It was too breezy and cold to paint so I went back on a warmer, bluer evening.

Botallack View with Brisons in the distance, photograph, Cornwall
View of a silvery sea, Botallack, with Brisons near the horizon
plein air painting in oils on canvas from Botallack with Brisons in background
Botallack View, Brisons in the distance, 6×8 inches, oil on canvas

The coast around Botallack is eerie and strange because of the abandoned mine buildings. Built both high and low, many are dank and dark inside and their spirits seem to own the landscape.

Cornwall, view of mining ruins on the cliffs, looking down, photograph
Looking down …

The old chimneys appear to guard the cliffs while the metal constructions seem as if they might walk around when you’re not looking.

mining remains, chimneys and St Just church in the distance, Cornwall photo
A strange landscape

Walking by the newer mine the scene reminds me of old Doctor Who programmes from the 1970s, with that visual mixture of futuristic metal shapes and stone quarries.

Old mine at Botallack, colour photo, Cornwall
Industry and nature, metal and stone

The scene around the Arsenic Works is the spookiest of all. I imagine faceless figures emerging from the shadowy openings. We do not head this way when it’s going dark.

mining ruins on the cliffs at Botallack, Cornwall, photograph
City of the dead?
Cliffs at Botallack, chimneys and ruins with a dog in the foreground, photo
Chapels for the nature gods
oil painting, view towards Botallack from Kenidjack, small, 6x8 inches on canvas
Looking towards Botallack from Kenidjack, oil paint on canvas, 6×8 inches

At the end of each day the sun carries out its show. We are very grateful as we absorb the colours and store them for the winter months.

plein air oil painting, Yellow Sun, Cornwall, 6x8 inches
Yellow Sun, oil on canvas, 6×8 inches
Cornwall painting, Red Sun, oil on canvas, 6x8 inches
Red Sun, oil on canvas, 6×8 inches
evening sunset view from a cottage on the cliffs, Cornwall