Thursday 31 May 2012

A donation to Art in Healthcare, & two new paintings of the Aberdeenshire coast (including... birds!)

Four or five years ago I became aware of Art in Healthcare, a charity that sources original artworks for the wards and corridors of hospitals and medical centres. I've been lucky to not often have call to be in hospital, but I still know that art on walls makes a huge difference to the feel of such places. Drawings and paintings and photos brighten and bring interest. They prompt and allow the mind to wander for a few moments from the anxiety of health. This is a charity I'm delighted to support...
Two or three years ago it crossed my mind that I might donate something to the AiH collection.
About a year ago a member of the Board suggested I might like to do the same.
Six months ago I contacted them with the offer of two donated paintings.
Three days ago I finally got round to delivering them! 
Here they are:

coastal defences, Aberdeen, 50x50cm, acrylic on canvas

I painted these two pieces a number of years ago as part of a series looking at the coastline between Aberdeen and Peterhead. My mum was born and brought up in Peterhead and Jennifer (my girlfriend) studied at Aberdeen Uni, so I know the area well. It's a fantastic stretch of coast, really varied in terms of scenery and a huge amount of birdlife.

Directly north of Aberdeen are long swathes of white beach - old wartime bunkers and lookout-posts emerge at odd angles from the sand.

The estuary at Newburgh is spring nest site for sandwich and arctic terns, plus a few common and little. Thousands of eider ducks feed, court, and raise young here and at one point earlier this year the grey & common seals numbered at least five hundred;

Beyond Cruden Bay the ruins of Slains Castle stand on the cliffs - supposed inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula. Fall from some of the windows or towers and you'd plummet directly down to waves far below;

Incredible cliffs at the Bullers of Buchan include a most amazing collapsed sea cave - a sea-filled bowl with vertical rock sides and waves pouring in and out through a small archway.

coastal defence, Aberdeen, 50x50cm, acrylic on canvas

Recently I've been revisiting the Slains to Bullers area while staying with Michelle and Steve, our wonderful and ever-accommodating friends in nearby Pitmedden. I've walked and sketched and taken time to properly watch the birds. So much more is learnt by sitting still and looking than by a passing glance here and there.

There are fulmars, kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills, cormorants, shags, puffins, most of the gulls, assorted ducks and more. On my last trip in March I had amazing sightings of a short-eared owl as it quartered back and fore across the scrubland. At one point it flew directly towards me from a distant fence post, hovered momentarily not terribly far above me before giving a shriek and flying back the way it had come. Probably trying to assess whether I was a threat and whether I needed to be warned off. I'm not sure whether I passed its test or not. Another day a pair of peregrine falcons perched below on the cliffs as they preened themselves diligently. Gorgeous birds!

I've just finished working on two paintings from these trips and I'm really pleased with the results. I find increasing satisfaction in trying to combine painterly techniques -palette knife and splashing & flowing paint- with areas of more detail in foreground grasses and birds.

I wanted to bring out the colours of north-east cliffs - striking shades of red granite that are sometimes a pastel pink, sometimes a vivid scarlet, sometimes rich and deep like congealing blood. Lots of lichens and mosses adorn the rocks, gorse-yellow and white-washed green standing against the varied reds.

You can see the results below, or in the flesh ('on the easel'??) if you're in Glasgow, at the Roger Billcliffe Gallery from 15th June - 31st July 2012.

Slains Castle, 50x50cm, acrylic on card/board

Bullers of Buchan, 50x50cm, acrylic on card/board

Monday 14 May 2012

Loch Ossian, a U-shaped valley & overhead an eagle

Our last full day at Loch Ossian youth hostel we did another walk that would be suitable for a day trip by train. The whole route was on substantial gravelled tracks and took six or seven hours which included plenty of stopping time.

First coffee-break of the day. The first of many...

We started by walking from hostel along the south shore of Loch Ossian. At one point we saw a black-throated diver close in to the shore. It was half hidden by trees but binoculars removed the branchy distraction and revealed stunning markings - streaks and spots of pure white against pure black. The next morning I saw it (or another?) fly along the loch from west to east. It was already quite high above the water when it began an upwards clockwise curve. As it circled higher and higher each lap took it directly over my head. Eventually it became no more than a white-black cross shimmering against the summer-blue sky.

sketchbook notes, black-throated diver

At the far east end of the loch is a shooting lodge, an interesting private building with tall triangle windows that blend well with surrounding conifers. The rear is less sympathetic, more sinister. A sculpture in the grounds looked very much like one of Antony Gormley's solitary standing men. 

Immediately beyond the lodge we turned north and walked three kilometres up the length of a wide U-shaped valley. A perfect example from a school geography textbook - flat bottom, steep sides, meandering river. Think of the massive power of that glacier gouging out the valley so many thousands of years ago.

valley of the River Ossian

Approaching the end of the valley we heard then saw two peregrine falcons fly from cliffs above us. They came together in the sky in courtship or mid-air food exchange (Peregrines are known for this. See an amazing video of it here on the BBC website). Immediately afterwards four ravens with thick rough necks were there down in the valley. Wise and wily they looked beside a ruined cottage, conversing ominiously in cronking voices. 

We walked down towards the ruin and crossed the River Ossian by a bridge with missing slats. There was a dipper on the rocks - the first seen on our trip. A wheatear flitted away to alight on a rock and then high, high above us a golden eagle appeared over a curve-topped hillside. A row of deer stood silhouetted on the rise and above them came the eagle. It flew a straight line east to west, gliding effortlessly, wingtips fingering. A smallish white patch towards the end of each underwing showed it to be a juvenile. What a huge creature. I realise now that every distant bird I've ever thought may have been an eagle (but was probably just a buzzard) was definitely just a buzzard!

deer above the River Ossian

a ruin at the head of the valley of the River Ossian
lunchtime sketching spot

Our turnaround point was the ruin where the ravens had been. Down by the river were bleached tree stumps and roots, preserved remains of the ancient Caledonian forest emerging slowly from the peat where some will have lain buried for thousands of years. 

We decided lunch would be here although I couldn't bear to be in such an amazing place and not get something of it captured on paper. Drawing can be like an addiction - sometimes it's a necessity rather than an option. I did two quick watercolours here and ate my food as we walked back. Peanut-butter, thickly sliced beetroot, & rosemary - my favourite sandwich but not many people seem to agree.

lunchtime sketch - 5 minute watercolour in sketchbook, 14.5x41cm

lunchtime sketch, ruin by the River Ossian, watercolour in sketchbook, 14.5x41cm

Arriving back at Loch Ossian we walked the north shore through fairytale moss forests. An uprooted pine gaped like a dragon rising from its underground slumber. Its tree-root mouth was open wide to receive and devour any unwary walkers. At least the now-drenching drizzle would douse its fire. 

Loch Ossian moss-dragon

Down on the edge of the loch a dipper perched on a boulder, chittering and chattering loudly as if the story it told was the most important thing in all the world.

dipper on Loch Ossian