Tag Archives: pochade box

Visiting the Spriggans

a brick column on the edge of a Cornish cliff

mysterious column perched on the cliff edge

In Cornwall where the landscape seems filled with the energies of invisible beings there are some strange sights to be seen, especially on the cliffs. Recent man made structures, tin mines and the like, have been weathered by nature into something resembling an outdoor sculpture park for modern art. Older man made structures such as burial mounds, also tumbled about by the elements, sometimes stand quite close by, as if all of these constructions are part of one great puzzle. It creates a dramatic, slightly alien and menacing scene, as if a civilisation abandoned its weird cities on the Cornish coast. Only the Cornish nature spirits, the Spriggans, are left to skip about amongst the ruins and scare the imaginative and unwary.

mining ruins near Botallack, joiner photograph

joiner photograph of the strange cliff landscape near Botallack

Many years ago I had an encounter with the Spriggans when staying in an old farmhouse in Cornwall near the sea. A group of us had booked the house but myself and a friend were the first to arrive that winter’s evening. We entered the house, had a quick look round and then, while in the kitchen, heard a sturdy knock on the door. Expecting others from the group had arrived we rushed to let them in, only to open the door into nothing but stillness and dark. We suspected our friends were playing a trick on us so sneaked around the outside of the house hoping to find them in hiding. No-one was about and there was no sign of any car apart from the one we arrived in. Much later, the first of our friends did arrive. We heard the car clearly that time. In the visitors’ book several entries attested to the ‘welcome’ of the Spriggans on first entering the house.

painter's backpack, Cornwall trip

carrying painting gear across the Cornish landscape

This time we were visiting Cornwall to scour the cliff paths for painting opportunities. I had brought my pochade box and a total of nine canvases in the smaller 6×8 inch size. The end of an eventful 2016 had left me a bit thrown off my painting stride so I was hoping to get back into painting out of doors, which should help to loosen up my slightly rusty skills.

A rocky beach at the end of the valley led to the coast path and cliffs in both directions. Turning south I could walk up onto a narrow ledge path that teetered high over the sea with dark mining tunnels leading deep into the rock. The feeling of foreboding was lifted by flowers growing all over the cliff tops, comical red-footed screeching birds known as choughs and many helpful benches carved out of the rocks, perfect for sitting and staring at the waves crashing below. In the distance two ship-wrecking islands, the Brisons, came and went in the mist, shredding the sea into spray as it cannoned into them.

The Brisons, plein air, oil on canvas, 6x8 inches

sitting on the coast path high above the waves, looking at the Brisons in the distance, oil sketch on canvas, 6×8 inches

Taking the cliff path in the other direction led up past many mine shafts and an ancient barrow to Cape Cornwall where the waves seemed to be taller than anywhere else. I scrambled down from the cliff edge onto a rock and set up my pochade box, managing two quick sketches before the last light disappeared. I had to hurry back to the house but made it well before dusk settled in. Disappointingly, there were no spirits dancing around the barrow as I passed.

Cape Cornwall plein air sketch in oils on canvas, 6x8 inches

oil study of Cape Cornwall painted from a clifftop perch on small 6×8 inch canvas

oil study of Cape Cornwall waves, small 6x8 inches canvas

plein air study of waves at Cape Cornwall, oil on canvas, 6×8 inches

The trip was shrouded in mist a lot of the time so I attempted to paint it. This wasn’t very easy but I thought it was probably good practice for sharpening up my skills.

oil on canvas sketch of a view from the Cornish coast path near Cape Cornwall

view from the coast path painted in misty conditions, small 6×8 inch canvas, oils

At the end of the holiday the mist became rain but I had become a bit crazed by then and ended up out on a cliff edge trying to shelter behind a rock (horizontal wind and rain gives you more sheltering options) and painted a pile of stones nearby that looked, under the influence of impending hypothermia, a bit like a giant and slightly ominous king sitting looking out to sea.

peculiar rock formation, Cornish cliffs on a rainy windswept day, oil study on canvas, 6x8 inches

painting on the cliffs in the wind and rain, a brooding and strange rock formation looms over the waves below, oil on canvas, 6×8 inches

Back at the house it was dark but there were still jugs waiting to be painted, arranging themselves nicely on the windowsill.

three jugs, Cornish room at night, oil study on 6x8 inch canvas

old Cornish jugs by the window at night, oil on canvas, 6×8 inches

Now we’re home again I miss being out on the cliffs.

plein air sketch from Cornish cliffs, oil on canvas, 6x8 inches

view painted from the cliffs near the Count House, Botallack, oil on small 6×8 inch canvas

But the sea and the peculiar landscape above it will wait for another visit.

chimneys on the cliffs, Cornwall

remains of a strange civilisation or tin mine chimneys on the cliffs

sculptural mining ruins in Cornwall

strange modern sculptures on the cliffs or mining remains?

mining ruins on a Cornish cliff

nature makes modern art from ruined mines

Cornwall, columns on a cliff top

cliff sentinels guard the view

setting sun over the sea with distant Brisons, Cornwall

sunset over the Brisons, Cornwall

Life on another planet: glowing red hills and waves of grass

golden evening light in Crosdale

the rare golden light that spills onto the hills just before dusk

This evening was the first one of the year that has been warm enough for me to sit on the hill and paint without hypothermia setting in. Even so, I’ve been trying to go and paint up there in recent weeks, putting up with the numb and freezing limbs that inevitably result. There is something so tempting about the last hour or so of golden sun that lights up the hills with a bright red glow. A recent conversation with a fellow painter from far away led to the revelation that my landscapes remind her almost of another planet. She doesn’t know this area though, and the fact that it sometimes resembles Mars, particularly when the red glow begins to brighten.

Having become an expert at hiding from the public while painting (I am unable to talk and paint and am envious of those who can – it seems a bit like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time …) it may be difficult to spot the plein air painter’s kit, let alone the painter, in the immensity of the fells.

view of fells with plein air kit

where is the plein air painter?

plein air painter's pochade box on the hill

sneaking up on the pochade box for a closer look

On the evening when these photos were taken I had been reading a book about David Bomberg and, from looking at the illustrations for the umpteenth time, had realised that there was a similarity of process between his charcoal drawings and his paintings. I decide to paint as if I was drawing just to see what would happen and this picture was the result.

plein air painting

the painting in progress

I’ve added the next photo because Andi asked me why there are strange bleached-looking wave forms in the foregrounds of some of my paintings. I think you can see them in the photograph – they are particularly noticeable in front of the painting kit. These are the waves of pale, wind-blasted and sculpted, bleached reedy grass that translate into the more abstract forms in some of my landscapes, like the one below. Who knows, maybe no-one else can see them but me??

plein air painting in the hills, waves of grass in foreground

waves of wind-sculpted sun-bleached grass in the foreground

evening light on Crosedale

evening colours fall on Crosedale, oil on canvas plein air sketch, 6×8 inches

Out on the hill, as the painting comes to its conclusion, there is always enough light left to enjoy being alone in the stillness, with just birds (and sometimes curious sheep) for company. Then the day starts to disappear, mist drifts in from the sea and it starts to get cold. It’s time to move.

mist rolling over the hills at dusk

as light fades the mist rolls in