Plein-Air at the Yellow Breakwater

I woke up to pastel pinks and blues, a clear and calm (windstill) day that I let warm up for a couple of hours before heading out with my paints to have another plein-air attempt at the yellow breakwater at Camus Mor that’s been obsessing me lately.

Sunrise this time of year is around 09:00.

I set myself up on the same bit of wall as last time, but with the slash of yellow towards the right of the composition. I also had black on my palette, as I’d used this in studio paintings of this scene and was pleased with the result. There’s a risk with black of colours looking murky, but there’s also the interesting results when it’s mixed with yellow (it mixes to green).

Studio paintings. Oils on paper. A3 size.

When I started painting, my wood panel and palette were in the sunshine, and the sun was warm on my back. The tide was an hour or so off high, lapping in quietly.

Oils on wood panel, 12×9″

I decided to stop here for risk of overworking it, and set up with my second panel with the thought of doing a small section of rocks and washed-up kelp.

The temperature dropped when the sun went behind the hill, and my brush strokes speeded up, but I got the painting to a point I was happy to stop. Definitely my idea of a beautiful day.

Follow the Yellow Breakwater

I’ve sat on the yellow lichen-covered breakwater at Camus Mor many times, usually at the spot where the taller part can act as a backrest, to sketch and to stare out to sea, and occasionally enjoy an ice cream.

I’ve taken a lot of photos of it, yet never painted it, until now. Suddenly my head is full of the striking slash of yellow, of compositions that dance with large abstract shapes and bright colour, from the yellow being a small element to it dominating most of the painting. A few days ago I did three on-location studies using mixed media (watercolour and Inktense sticks on A3 paper):

I did a large mixed media painting (watercolour, acrylic, and pencil on A1 paper) in my studio, exploring the idea of a composition dominated by a large yellow shape against the slab of rock on the right and the broken boulders and sea beyond:

(Don’t adjust your eyes, this photo is a bit fuzzy)

On Sunday I did two plein-air paintings with oils, sitting higher up the wall than I would usually, in a spot where if I dropped anything down the left-hand side I would be able to retrieve it.

Oil paint on wood panel, 9×12″
Oil paint on wood panel, 9×12″

Here are the two paintings side by side, in the same light. I like both, but if I had to choose a favourite it’d be the one of the right, for the larger area of yellow and there being more on the left as the yellow slash leads your eye into the painting.

These are the colours I was using, on wood panel with a light blue ground (white primer mixed with Prussian blue). I don’t often put two yellows on my palette, I usually choose one, but I did for this as I knew that yellow would be a big part of the painting. They look quite similar in the photo, but the lemon yellow (on the right) is more transparent and cooler (bluer).

I didn’t put out black, relying instead on the Prussian blue and violet to give me a strong dark, which would then be more colourful when mixed with white or orange or yellow than a black. I didn’t use my beloved Payne’s grey acrylic ink as an underpainting, because it was too cold for it to dry anytime soon.

When I started, the sun was warming the spot, but by the time I’d finished the second painting it had dipped below the top of the hill. It’s not exactly high in the sky this time of year, which makes for fun shadows:

(I’m standing between two gate posts)

Thinking about why the yellow breakwater has suddenly become an obsession, it feels like several things joining together. One is a painting by a Fife-based artist Dominique Cameron called “Breakwater“, which could easily be pure abstract except the title suggested it’s somewhere specific. And indeed once you know about “St Monan’s breakwater”, you instantly recognize the zigzag. It’s a painting that’s stuck in my head from the moment I saw it, and I keep coming back to it. It also made me put the location on my to-visit list for a roadtrip I’ve got planned for May.

The second thing was discovering that another favourite contemporary artist Kurt Jackson, who’s based in Cornwall, had stayed in a cottage at Camus Mor in 2013, and painted scenes very familiar to me. Skip to timestamp 7:15 in his video for Skye, and then 9:46 for his painting with the yellow breakwater, or scroll down this page on Messums gallery to find the paintings (which were done in 2013 according to the dates on the individual paintings). It’s interesting being familiar with a location because it gives me a feeling for how much of an interpretation his paintings are. I did find myself counting the number of little white houses dotted around.

The third thing was a comment my Ma made about my needing to stop painting in black and white, to get back to brighter colour, and not turn into “one of those people who wear dark colours in winter”. Soon after this conversation I bought myself a bunch of roses, something I haven’t done this year as I’ve avoided going into the big supermarket. And this led to me painting daisies again, which of course involves yellow and orange. And then I was at Camus Mor and the yellow lichen glowed at me and compositions popped into my head, and now I can’t stop thinking about it.

One part of me wants to do a textured painting using black lava paste for the wall. Another wants to be very abstract and geometric. Another wonders whether about leaving out any suggestion of the sea and sky, or maybe only the sky. Another questions whether paintings with lots of yellow could possibly sell, but fortunately that little voice is being squashed by the others. Where will this lead? I don’t know, but I’ve got gesso on a 50x50cm panel drying…

Sitting at the sea side

Part Two: Plein-Air at the Yellow Breakwater

Painting at Duntulm

The rocky beach at Duntulm being so exposed it needs a relatively windstill day for it to count as “good painting weather” for this location. Last Sunday was such a day, with the sea flat and calm, small waves breaking on the shore.

The ground and rocks were very wet though, so I decided not to slide my way down the slope onto the shore because I’d have to somehow get back up again. Instead I set up on a relatively flat spot about halfway down to the beach, the sun reaching me before long, and set about painting a section of the rock slabs.

Oil paint on wood panel. 12×9″ (30x22cm)

It’s been a little while since I’ve been out with my oil paints, and I enjoyed painting this and am happy with the result, especially when I look at the brushwork up close.


For my second panel I decided to paint the row of bigger rocks in the foreground with the yellows on top. But I soon got distracted by my enjoyment of the ‘interesting greys’ on the top of the panel, the colour mixing and brushmarks with a rigger, and decided to see where this took me.

The in-house art critic said it looks more like something inspired by Monet’s haystacks than a sea shore, and I tend to agree. I think I’ll call it a plein-air colour study and leave it at that.

Oil paint on wood panel. 12×9″ (30x22cm)

Three Blustery Day Skye Sketches

With wind that’d blow much more than merely cobwebs away, I decided to do something I don’t usually and sat in my car to sketch. I somehow managed not to spill any Payne’s grey ink whilst drawing with the pipette, but did discover I’d left the bottle of white behind, so no splashy white foam bits would be happening.

Mixed media, A3 watercolour paper
Detail

This was the first painting I did, and the one I like most. I managed not to get too dark with the ink, and like the gentle colour from the coloured pencils showing through the watercolour. I was disappointed to discover I didn’t have the bottle of white acrylic ink with me, but did have a white pen, which I think works and it’s certainly easier to not overwork it than when using fluid ink.

Mixed media, A3 watercolour paper

This was the second, and I struggled for a bit as it was too dark in places with Payne’s grey ink that had dried too fast, and I didn’t have anything that would show on top of this except the white pen, but that I wanted for the sea edge. Breakthrough moment was when I realised there was no reason I could not use it for the lighter rock and the sea. It’s something I might do again deliberately.

Watercolour, A3 paper

This third one is watercolour only, no ink, and I regard it as an incomplete thought. I stopped because I got annoyed with the green and was scrubbing at it with a bit of paper towel, to the point of damaging the surface. I’ll work on it further on another day when the weather and my headspace are less blustery.

A Cottage Painting Day

A quaint cottage rented by a friend, a wild garden, sunshine, paper and paint. My idea of a perfect day. (Especially as I managed to silence the little voice muttering about my perspective drawing skills.)

Late afternoon light
Morning light
Mixed media on A3 paper
Early afternoon light
Mixed media on A3 paper
The bridge across the river to the cottage, at the base of a steep set of steps

My Plein-Air Painting at Skateraw

The end of my week in the Borders saw a perfect plein-air painting day, with sunshine warm enough to just about counter the breeze. My first painting was a slice of the rock slab that’s revealed at low tide. There’s a lot to choose from; I chose a sittable boulder with a view that had a bit of the green seaweed in it.

No, I’m not painting with extra long brushes, this was me pondering my painting with a bit of distance.
Oils on wood panel
Oil on wood panel, 9×12″

For my second painting, I felt compelled to paint the lighthouse, and Bass Rock peeping into view to the left of it.

Part of me wishes I’d stopped here, with the foreground left sketchy and loose.
This is my plein-air kit for not-too-far-from-the-car locations: pochade box, tripod, backpack. How far is too far depends on the terrain!
The happy artist heading home…
Wet painting panel carrier
The in-house art critic made me this nifty box for safely carrying still-wet plein-air painting panels.

Photos: At Skateraw

I’m in the Scottish Borders for a few days, and have been looking forward to seeing the rock slabs at Skateraw on a really low tide. My two painting friends weren’t entirely convinced by the joys of plein-air painting in a nippy wind off the North Sea, but I have been looking forward to this for weeks so was determined to get out my oil paints and tucked myself in behind a rock shelf.

This is as far as I got with my oil painting before I gave up because I was too cold, and walked over to the other side of the headland which was more sheltered from the wind. There’s an enticing layered bit with a tumble of rocks beneath.

And a bit further to the right the concrete rectangles of a nuclear power station. The brutal lines of this building have a beauty of a very different kind to me.

I have also done two ink sketches in my new Octopus sketchbook, which has fold-out pages, adding colour later in the warmth of indoors.

My Harbour Sketches

Following on from my blogs with photos of the little harbour in the Scottish Borders I was at last week (She Sees Seaside and Harbour Details), here are some photos of what happened when I got my paints out. Having multiple days of sunshine in November was a real treat.

The first day I walked about taking lots of photos, then ended up sitting at a picnic table watching birds you can’t see in the photo, including some swans. I got out my sketchbook telling myself that making just one quick sketch would be fine, to not worry about how ‘good’ it was as it’s impossible to do everything on single trip to a location.

Pencil first, then watercolour

The second day I got out my oil paints and had a go at a composition that’d been bouncing around my head all night. Yes, I could have done thumbnails and studies first, all that preparatory work that does help produce pleasing results, but my fingers were itching to paint this. So I jumped in at the point that was appealing to me, knowing that I might not do it justice but that it’s worth a try anyway.

The low winter sun of November means the hill behind me casts its shadow over the harbour from quite early in the morning. I was sitting on this convenient little wall running alongside a bit of road.

Below is the point at which I got cold and stopped painting. It has a few things I like about it, such as the sense of chain on the wall, the curved corner, and the green on the nearer harbour wall, and things I don’t. Mostly I am pleased I had a go at it, and I regard it as a “good learning painting” or study. The next morning I walked around a bit here having a closer look at elements of this composition, such as the width of the nearest wall (which is narrower at the top than the other walls, having a stepped top to it).

Oil paint on wood panel. 9×12 inches.

The next day I got out my favourite Payne’s grey acrylic ink and did some ink and watercolour paintings. The fishing shed with its row of colourful doors, the view through the harbour entrance to the old cottages, the stacks of creel nets. And, no, I never did get around to the boats themselves.

I stopped at this point because the shadow from the hillside caught up with me, and I moved to a new spot in the sunshine.
First attempt
Second attempt. The narrower format works better, I think.

The last day I spent using pencil only, making sketches with notes about things that had caught my eye. Information gathering for a studio painting.

When might I start creating some studio paintings based on these sketches? I don’t know. It may convert into something soon, it might sit and simmer, it might be never. I don’t have a plan for it, I was simply enjoying being in a very paintable location, with a friend who was also painting.

How Long Did It Take to Paint?

How long it takes to create a painting is a measure of time and nothing else. Sometimes things flow; other times it takes considerable effort to get a painting to a satisfactory point. More time spent on a painting doesn’t inherently make it a better painting.

There’s also the question of what’s being included in the calculation: is it only when you’ve a brush in your hand applying paint or does it include planning and pondering and development work such as sketching? Every painting carries with it the history of every painting that came before. And there’s that some people wield a brush at a faster pace than others.

If you’re in a situation where time is limited, such as life painting with a model or plein-air painting at sunset, you might adapt how you approach the painting to the time available.

Yet “how long did it take” remains intriguing, something to measure our own painting skills against others and our previous paintings. Perhaps because it’s a tangible thing amongst all the intangibles of art.

I don’t often keep deliberate track of the time I spend painting, but a few days ago I did because I surprised myself when I paused for the first time and realised it’d only been 20 minutes. It had felt like longer and I was intrigued by how far I’d gotten already; my previous paintings at this location had taken me far longer.

Starting time was 10:30. Oil paint on 9×12″ panel.
I try to step well back regularly when painting to see things with fresher eyes.
The main difference between the last two photos is the rock on the lower right; it took me longer to realise I needed to change this than to do it.

When I got to this point, I was conflicted because I felt I wanted to stop but as it’d only been an hour I worried it was it too soon to stop but then would I overwork it if I continued? I took me a bit of pondering to decide it was okay to stop. The question then becomes, do I include this time in how long it took me to paint this?

From Location to Studio Painting: “On Edge”

The connection between the sketching and painting I do on location (and the sitting just looking) and the painting I do in my studio isn’t always direct, but sometimes the dots that need to be joined are fairly evident, as with this studio painting finished a few days ago:

“On Edge”. 30x30cm, acrylic on wood panel.

Its path started last week when I painted at Duntulm (northwestern tip of the Trotternish Peninsula on Skye) at low tide on consecutive days, ending up with two watercolours and two studies in oil paint.

If you’ve looked up Duntulm on a map and seen the word “castle”, don’t get overly excited as there’s not much left.

The first day it was misty, clearing as the morning progressed. I started sitting on the grass, looking down over a stretch of rocky shore (there’s quite a drop where the grass ends in the photo below), painting with watercolour. The mist slowed the speed with which the watercolour dried, making wet-into-wet easy and an interesting change of pace with the paint.

I had my big set of pan watercolours, along with bottles of fluid watercolour and my beloved Payne’s grey acrylic ink (which I didn’t use for once). The red fabric is the corner of my raincoat which I was sitting on.

Then I moved along and down a bit, to a grassy bank, and got out my oil paints.

I stopped painting on this because I got tired, so it’s more of a loose study or sketch rather than a finished plein-air painting. Closer-up photo further below.
Sea, mist, winding road, sheep, and wild yellow irises

These two photos give a wider view of the location, and how the colours of the sea change with the light conditions of the two days.


Back in my studio, I put the watercolours and two oil paintings up on my easel as I painted at my table on a wood panel (with a layer of clear gesso on it).

Texture paste was applied with a palette knife, both Lava Black, which is a coarse-grained texture perfect for sandy shores, and Golden’s Light Modelling Paste which dries to an absorbent surface on which watery acrylic behaves a bit like watercolour.

The latter can also be scratched into with a sharp edge fairly easily when it’s relatively newly dried. If you look at the lowest band of rock in the next three work-in-progress photos, you’ll see how I abandoned having a band of rounded slabs of rock and scratched into it with the point of a palette knife so this section looks more like the others.

Painting-in-progress photo 1
Painting-in-progress photo 1
Painting-in-progress photo 3

Here’s the final painting, plus several detail photos:


Where next? I’ve already started another studio painting based on this location, again using texture paste and acrylic but this time on an unprimed wooden board. Without gesso on the board, thin acrylic sinks in and the woodgrain is revealed, as you can see below:

It having dried overnight, I’ve started adding some colour to the rocky shore. Trying not to lose the woodgrain on the right-hand “sea section” is inhibiting me as I’m painting, as are my favourite bits of my just-finished painting because I keep comparing the two. The “sea area” surface is very absorbent any any stray paint will soak in and dry almost instantly, so I’m second-guessing what I’m doing before I do it, rather than responding to what’s happening as I paint. It’s what I mentally label as “trying too hard”. The photo below is where I stopped struggling with it and left it to dry again; I will give it a break for a couple of days.