Searching for a visual language


Four days of wet weather produced a different challenge. Instead of overcoming the frustration of the time it took to walk to each location and therefore the size of the work I was able to make, I was faced with the new problem of how to keep the work dry. More importantly, how to get it dry in the first place. My preference has always been to work wet on wet, whether with watercolour, ink or pigment and so I begin by soaking a piece of paper. By the time I have applied coats of water-soluble medium to the surface it is saturated and usually takes ages to dry. As an aside, this means that I need a robust surface to work on and am therefore using 320gm Arches NOT watercolour paper at the moment. The decision is a balance between affordability and strength and I am constantly amazed at the punishment you can give a sheet of Arches and it still doesn’t tear or rub into holes. Spend too much on a sheet of paper and it puts an unseen break on the flow of my creativity.

So here I am with a saturated surface in the unpredictability of heavy snow, hail or rain showers and the challenge becomes how to get the work home. You can imagine, with my impatient nature and a wonky thermostat (which means I am always cold) I soon run out of patience in a climate approaching 98% humidity and so decide to stuff the work into a bag and stomp home. But out of circumstance, happy accidents can happen and on reaching shelter, the image was completely lost but something else appeared.

As I have described elsewhere, Eigg has encouraged me to engage with Geology, at least superficially and given the way that stone was once molten, erosion demolished mountains and lava flows became ridges, I have looked for a visual equivalent with which to describe the process. Molten graphite offers a possibility and so my deconstructed drawings became an opportunity.



Home again.

Six entries are quite enough for three weeks! You have witnessed my creative struggle, which precipitated some difficult moments about family and friends. Whilst here, I have heard that my oldest, dearest friend has a life threatening condition and those of you who know me, know too that my nights are frequently punctured by nightmares about those closer to home. The one thing I have learnt over a life of challenges, is that if you hold tight, the storm will subside.

After twenty four hours of wet weather, I wanted to do a last day of painting and so between bouts of cleaning and packing (I managed to lock myself out of the large boot, which was a big reason for taking the pickup in the first place) and so packing became the art of the possible and drawing boards, large flat boxes of paper, food and far too many woolly jerseys became like shuffling a pack of cards. In between shuffling cards, I mean boxes, I managed to pull together all the thinking I had done and go down to the shore and produce some new work.


On getting home to Ard Daraich, I put everything away with the intention of gaining some distance from it all. Not before I showed it to Norrie and asking him to record it. In a few weeks I will get it out again and look with fresh eyes. It may become clearer if there is progress and if I am any nearer the Pressburger adage “I know where I’m Going.”


Throughout my time away there was one person to whom I owe a huge debt of gratitude. Day in, day out, sometimes more than once a day, Norrie has always been there on the end of the phone, remaining supportive. He is a great believer in the ups and downs of the creative process and the places it takes you.

The connectivity at Machair Cottage is very variable and often my conversations took place whilst sitting in a sandpit, on a little ridge just past an upturned bath and next to a large patch of flowering camomile. In walking across to my rural wifi hotspot I might disturb a hare or two who did one of two things and I was never sure which it would be. I didn’t know that hares liked pretending to be stones. If caught unawares, they hunker down, drawing in their legs and ears until they look round and brown just like a stone and sit and sit, hoping that if they remain still enough, they might become invisible. The other, more predictable reaction was to run away at great speed and then you would notice they had unsettled hares all over the place and there was a mad dash from every direction. If the lapwing were on the ground they would flap away with a variety of calls or a flock of starling would take off in unison. In the mornings, skeins of geese would fly overhead and with the sand dunes rolling down to the shore, I could see and feel that I was on the edge of the world, our world of Western Europe where it meets the great ocean of the North Atlantic.



You could see that too by the amount of plastic rubbish washed up on almost every beach. On my last day I took this photo; three shoes that someone had arranged on a rock, next to an otherwise perfect white beach, washed across the Atlantic. I like to think as sandals, they came from the Caribbean, but look at the plastic breaking down and along with all the nets, fishing gear and other rubbish, it was shocking to think of it floating across an ocean and slowly working its way into the food chain.


The Struggle.

The trouble with electing to come away from home to focus exclusively on making work is that you are putting yourself under pressure to produce. It is wonderfully uplifting when all goes well but there is light and dark in every part of life and when an authentic voice is hard to find, you are left in a wilderness. I know this is true of a second novel and have come across a prize especially designed to assist those engaged in that struggle. The experience of going on a creative retreat is that it puts everything on the plate. At home there is so much distraction, the weeding, the leaf sweeping, the henhouse that needs cleaning and oh so much more, that the pendulum swings the other way. Away from it all, you are faced with every creative uncertainty and insecurity you are able to dream up. But I am experienced enough to know that this too is part of the process. Somehow, however, you invent the notion of an audience for whom you are performing and thus you create your own pressure, especially by electing to record the experience as it unfolds, which I am doing here.

Those of you who know me, know too that one of my closest held principles is a determination to uphold the truth, even at the price of discomfort. Of course it then begs the question, whose truth do you seek? The answer has to be that you can only pursue your own truth and it is only you who really knows if you digress. I can almost count on one hand the number of times I have knowingly told a lie and I have instilled this quality into one of my sons who has tried other more socially acceptable forms of being, only to know of himself that he is transparent in his mistruths! Of course if you get good enough at lying, you also lie to yourself but that is the route to self-delusion and eventual mental illness and not one I wish to examine. The world of managing your own PR, to release only the glossy and upbeat is not truthful. Life is not real if only equipped to acknowledge the light. Where have the shadows gone? Oh, but now that is described as Negative. Not negative, just balanced. I include this personal paragraph here in order to create a context to describe my experience of the creative struggle. As a postscript I would also add that a disadvantage of this trait is that you get the reputation of directness which some people find discomforting. But it is not possible to create authentic self-expression if you do not pursue the truth; that is why so much art invites the observer to move into more uncomfortable territory and probably why so much landscape painting results merely in the picturesque.

This island of Tiree has confused me and perhaps I need to stay longer to find a language that speaks of it. I was brought up in East Anglia and disliked the landscape there throughout my childhood. In those days, the sixties, there were still elm trees of cathedral like proportions and the fashion for sweeping away all rural character that was not in production, had not quite wreaked the havoc it has now. In preparing to come here to the isle of Tiree, I read somewhere that it is described as the East Anglia of the Highlands. I must say that sentiment filled me with anxiety. It is true that it is pretty flat and that the skies seem very large. The impression of the landscape is horizontal. However, the similarity to the landlocked part of south Cambridgeshire that I grew up in, ends there.
Much of the interior of this island has given way to deserted fields of rush. There are the remains of abandoned peat cuttings and except for the outcrops of low knobbly rock breaking through the surface, everything at the western end as I am, except for three low hills and the buildings, are in the horizontal plane. In drawing, that is where I started and began by thinking of the stripped landscape of light and dark, water and land. On the coast this translates into sea and sky. So, I have been playing with where to place the horizon. The horizon is the meeting of one form with another, where one element meets another. That has led to the next concern. How to find a path to a form expression that lies between the representational and the expressive. It is too easy and seems irrelevant to set out to draw this landscape in a figurative manner. Perhaps the horizon is best described merely as a line? The meeting, or is it the dividing, of two elements?

In order to find a route into this language I have been playing!

I have supported strips of paper and trickled paint down their length. Laid flat and by turning them ninety degrees they suggest the horizontal elements of sky, land and water.
I have tricked glue and drawn with sand.
I have taken paper and paint out onto a beach in a storm and thrown everything at it only for it to get sand encrusted and then washed off in a shower. Weather Painting, the suggested title!
I have gone out at dusk and traced the horizon so only the outlines are clear.
I have sat on a beach with watercolour and bottles of water, wetting sheet after sheet of paper to create the richness of tone and hue.
I have eaten porridge every morning, gone for long walks and drunk a lot of coffee
And still I don’t know where I am going…
The antidote to the film we often watch, Carl Pressburgers “I Know Where I am Going” set on an island off the west coast of Mull!


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I have now been on the isle of Tiree for a week.

It has taken this long to find a place, outside, where I feel comfortable and able to paint. With the rhythm of the surf as a pulse to work to, somewhere to leave the car within easy reach if I need to replenish my materials and most importantly, few people about, I set out my equipment and worked for several hours undisturbed.
Unlike my first excursion into the immediate locality, this place appears to be managed by a farmer more in sympathy with the environmental concerns of the western seaboard. There is a map with natural history notes and an endorsement from several national environmental initiatives including SNH and RSPB, no doubt contributing financially to this low impact husbandry. There are few or no fences, cattle roaming in a herd through the dunes and information explaining the land management to enlist your sympathy.
As the light fell, I packed up and went for a walk. Rounding a rocky promontory I discovered an enormous white beach echoing with the eerie call of the Curlew punctuated by the occasional Oystercatcher. I paid little attention until I got too close to a flock of birds on the beach; I assumed they were starlings (if you had asked me) until they flew off. I was amazed to realise that I was watching a flock of curlews, seventy or a hundred, which wheeled away over my head and into the dunes.
At home, as I go to bed, I open the bedroom window next to my side of the bed. I do this to let in the sounds of the shore close to our house and more noticeable after the last ferry crossing. It is always with a thrill that I recognise the voice of the occasional solitary curlew. I assumed they were solitary birds but it appears that I was wrong. On our more inland waterway they must be rare, no doubt in decline and probably on the red list (I must look them up) Tiree may be one of the protected places where they can still thrive without the inevitable intervention that our modern world likes to describe as Progress. Progress to where? is my usual thought; Oblivion seems likely! Extinction of many, many species, a certainty.
Since I arrived on Tiree it has been hard to find a subject and find my groove. Lucky I started a daily practice at home during July and August and so this is the obvious place to start. Although I had been packing for weeks, grabbing the odd moment, I find myself here with very few brushes and those I brought are rather short of bristles! Recently, someone looked at my brushes and said they were well used. I was rather taken aback thinking she meant worn out and when I thought about it, I guess I haven’t bought many for at least twenty years, so yes, I suppose those I have are rather bristle free! Never mind, a feather, a piece of kelp stalk or some plastic detritus from the beach will suffice. However, it is rather irritating to think of two pots full of lovely brushes in my studio at home.


But the SUBJECT is a different matter. It would be churlish to say that when I planned this visit I hadn’t given serious consideration to fine weather. We have had the wettest summer, almost in living memory, in Lochaber. Now, just as people had given up in dismal despair, we have had the most wonderful September. And so here I am with a suitcase of jerseys and waterproofs expecting torrential rain and wind only to be challenged with positively Greek colours, Blue blue sea and a sky to match. Jolomo is not my favourite artist despite his popularity in Scotland and his consequent commercial success (apparently a sign of good painting to some) and I am not going to succumb to painting glistening white croft cottages with indian red tin roofs and turquoise sea. But it is not the pallet I was expecting and how many blue pictures of the seaside does the world need?




None the less, a daily practice has emerged. Equipped with some strips of heavy watercolour paper and having met Jonathan Shearer, a vastly reduced pallet in my first watercolour tin which I have had since my teens, I go out every day and make several wet on wet drawings. Colours of Tiree they are becoming. And eventually I will have over 100 and so 100 Colours of Tiree might be their name.


As I have described before, I was pulled by the sea when on Iona and worked on the beach looking out at the surf. So back to the beach I have gone here too but on Tiree there are about 25 beaches to choose from and with a car they are all within easy reach. I started by exploring those closest to me here and have gradually expanded my reach until today I revisited somewhere we were shown when we came here in February. It couldn’t have looked more different, with almost iridescent green waves with just the right amount of spray being blown back as they broke, reminding me of the depiction of waves as white horses that may be the territory of children’s book illustration. There were two or three surfers there but the beach is huge and anyway I was on a mission to go and explore a ruined chapel further round the rocky coast. In February Norrie and I didn’t make it that far as we were so hypnotised by the rocks and every detail, we got distracted by taking photos and even a little film. Our friends went on and mentioned the chapel on their return so I decided I would go and explore. As I approached, a lone Raven, standing on a rock made his presence known and standing his ground continued to caw until he got a reply. Whenever I see a Raven I think it is my father keeping an eye on me. You can tell with my name that I am rather keen on birds although I know little about them. Ravens pair for life (I am an exception to this habit) and when they established where each other were, they slowly flew off, in no hurry but not wanting my intrusion to come too close.




Today I woke to a dull, drizzly day and so decided to catch up on some admin, photograph the work made so far and spend some time painting as the sun came out. I am scaling up my strips and moving from watercolour to pigment.

There is no internet at Machair Cottage and although I have a smart phone the connection is not reliable enough to send anything more than a short message. Instead, I have been using a wifi hotspot at the rural centre. Today, when I arrived, I was rather surprised to discover the car park full and half a field outside, covered in heavy-duty agricultural vehicles, many with trailers. There were small fields full of sheep and so I soon realised there must be a serious local event, the Mart. Buyers come from the mainland five times a year to bid for cattle and sheep and the final section is reserved for breeding ewes that don’t leave the island so the ferry can work to its timetable without leaving any new acquisitions behind. As I set up my workstation, there was a strong smell of cow dung and lots of rugged men and some women in waterproofs. Every chair had mud on it and so I gave up looking for a clean place to sit and settled down to the background of rapid fire bidding and bacon rolls. The bidding for cattle was so rapid that it got to over a thousand pounds in a few seconds. I didn’t stay long enough to hear the sheep prices which I believe are down on last year. With a new vegan shadow minister of agriculture at Westminster, I wondered what she would make of this economy? There is no doubt that the livestock look well fed and totally free range, so if we are to eat less meat, what would replace livestock for the people of Tiree? It seems extremely unlikely that they will go back to grain. Silage is all I have seen by way of a crop. But I think the new responsibility about land use and animal welfare will not choose Tiree as a place to start. Perhaps that could be factory farming, with chickens as a beginning?

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A tea party, the finished work.

For my last day on Iona, John Maclean suggested that he gave a tea party with scones and hot chocolate for those who were interested to come and see what I had done throughout the month. It was a good way for him to promote the residencies and introduce me to some of the islanders.

It also gave me the chance to look at the body of work together and in an informal way to present it to an audience.

Here are some photos of the finished work.