I always find this island in the
river at Wick interesting. Its banks have been reinforced with stone
for some reason: maybe to act as a breakwater to protect the town
downstream. The flagstone walls make it look like a fortress in the
river. When the water is high and reaching right up to the foot of
the stones, it can even take on the appearance of an old ironclad
battleship sailing down the river.
"Sunlight on the Old Man" - watercolour - 13 x 18 cm
Another very small painting and
probably the last one this small that I'll do for a while. The small
size doesn't make them any easier to paint. If anything, the
difficulty seems to increase as the size decreases. I feel the need
for more space for freer brushstrokes.
The subject of the painting is the famous rock stack, known as The Old Man of Hoy, in the Orkney Isles.
I will be showing work at the Flow Country Arts exhibition in The Norseman Hotel, Wick on 14th, 15th and 16th November. I thought I would try some very small paintings this time. Maybe they will be more affordable, and might be a nice size and price for Christmas presents!
"Herring Boats" - watercolour - 13 x 18 cm
"A Breaking Wave" - watercolour - 13 x 18 cm
"Sunset on Reiss Sands" - watercolour - 13 x 18 cm
"Sunlight and Grey Sky" - watercolour - 13 x 18 cm
One of my favourite places in
Caithness is Dunbeath Strath. It has such a variety of landscapes,
from the broadleaved woodland of the lower section to the treeless
moorland higher up. This view is from that open country, looking down
on the deep gorge below.
"A Moorland Gorge, Dunbeath" - watercolour - 24 x 36 cm
The river has been dammed here to
create a pool for fishing.
"Refelctions, Dunbeath Strath" - acrylic - 20 x 25 cm
Further down the gorge becomes
deeper and narrower at a point called 'Prisoner's Leap'. There is a
legend that a man was told that he would be set free if he could jump
over the gap, on the assumption that he would fall to his death.
Incredibly, he is said to have succeeded and thus gained his freedom.
"Prisoner's Leap, Dunbeath Strath" - watercolour - 35 x 25 cm
The lower part of the strath is
more gentle in character, from the old coaching inn at Milton to the
point where the river runs into the sea at the village of Dunbeath.
"The Old Milton Inn, Dunbeath Strath" - watercolour - 24 x 36 cm
"Thulachan, Strathmore" - watercolour - 16 x 26 cm
Thulachan is another of the many old dwellings scattered throughout the Flow Country. Originally it would have been a croft-house, and later it was used as a shooting lodge. Probably few people visit it now except for occasional fishermen and walkers seeking shelter.
This is one of the paintings in my exhibition, "The Highlands and Beyond", at Northlands Creative Glass, Lybster, 21st October - 8th November.
"Sunlight on Ben Loyal" - watercolour - 16 x 26 cm
I drove over to Tongue, in
Sutherland, today to deliver paintings to an exhibition at the Ben
Loyal Hotel. I always enjoy that journey, especially the bit where
you emerge from trees above the village to see this view of Ben
Loyal. It seems such a shapely mountain and its position, at the
head of the Kyle of Tongue, makes it seem much bigger than it really
This is the ferry that runs between
Scrabster, in Caithness, and Stromness, in Orkney. I didn't tie
myself to a ship's mast in a storm as JMW Turner is reputed to have
done, but it felt a bit like it. I was at the sea-front in Thurso and
the wind was so strong that I was having trouble staying on my feet.
At one point I was being blown along and could only stop myself by
clinging to a lamppost. I thought the ship and the stormy conditions
made a dramatic subject, but all I could do in circumstances was take
a blurry photograph. It was enough though, with my memory, to make
this painting in more comfortable conditions.
This painting will be on show, with several others, at the Wave North Exhibition at Caithness Horizons in Thurso throughout October.
Here is a tip for people who like
the idea of using watercolour blocks, but don't like the price of the
ones that you can buy: it's not difficult to make your own.
You will need 10 to 15 sheets of
watercolour paper cut to a little larger than the size you want the
finished block to be; a similar-sized piece of mountboard or
stiff card (it should be acid-free if possible); two more
similar-sized pieces of thick card of any type; PVA adhesive; a sharp
craft knife and a heavy cutting guide.
Make the watercolour paper into a
stack with the piece of mountboard at the bottom, and mark out on the
top sheet the exact size of the block.
Cut down through all of
the sheets and the card to leave a clean edge. This needs to be done
carefully as it's easy to let the angle of the knife drift and end up
with a bevelled edge. It won't affect the function of the block, but
it doesn't look so good. The best way is to use a light pressure and gradually cut through. From this point try not to disturb any of
the sheets in the block, so that you keep a perfect edge.
Next, cut two pieces of card
slightly smaller than your block. These will go on either side of
your block while you are glueing it. One is to raise the block off
the work surface, the other is so that you can weigh it down evenly
on the top.
Assemble all of the components on your work surface, so
that you have a piece of card, followed by the block of paper, then
the other piece of card, and weigh the whole of it down with a heavy
weight or several heavy books (I have used a piece of MDF as well,
just to make sure that the weight is distributed evenly).
On one side of the block, mark two
vertical lines about 4 to 5 cm apart. These will be a reminder to
leave a gap without adhesive, so that it will be easier to remove
sheets after they have been painted on. Then apply adhesive to all
four sides of the block, spreading it out evenly with a smooth stick
or knife. It doesn't need to be very thick, but make sure to cover
all of the edges of the paper sheets and the bottom piece of card.
Leave it overnight and the next day you will have a block of
watercolour paper ready to use.
The final thing, for convenience,
is to attach a sheet of paper of your choice to the back top edge of
the block, so that it can fold over and protect the front when not in
use. When you have finished a painting, insert a clean knife into the
unglued portion of the edge and slide it around the block to detach
The nice thing about home-made
blocks is that you can make them any size and shape that you like, so
that if you've always fancied a long, landscape format block, or a
square one, that's no problem.
If you haven't used blocks before,
you may be disappointed to find that the paper still cockles
sometimes. This happens even with manufactured blocks and is quite
normal. The paper will go flat again when it dries. It is a mistake
to think that paper in blocks behaves in the same way as paper that
is stretched on a board in the studio.
One final point: if the edges come apart with wear (I have had this happen even on good quality Arches blocks), just weigh down the block again and apply more adhesive.
If you have any questions, please leave a comment, or send an email, and I will do my best to answer them. I would also be interested to hear any suggestions for improving the process.
Update: If you are making blocks on a regular basis, René's idea (see comment below) is probably easier. Cut two pieces of MDF, plywood or very stiff card slightly smaller than your block, and then use clamps to sandwich the block between them. Sue Johnson has an interesting idea for making sketchbooks here, and a nice example of a printed cover for a block.
I don't think a final decision has been reached yet about whether to preserve the Dounreay Dome. The nuclear reactor is being decommissioned, but the process will take another thirty years or so. The last I heard was that the dome is contaminated and will cost too much to clean up. Also, other parts of the site are contaminated as well and it is unlikely the public will be allowed access for three hundred years. I don't see why that means that the dome has to be demolished though. To me. its value is not in what may or may not be seen inside it by visitors, but in its place in the landscape. It is such an iconic symbol of the first operational nuclear power station in the UK, and as much a part of Caithness as the other natural and man-made features of the county. The main cost of preserving the dome seems to be the need to repaint it every ten years. Hopefully the money can be found for that and the decision can be put off for a while.
"Sunlight and Cotton Grass" - watercolour - 18 x 26 cm
More cotton grass; at the southern end of Loch Calder. It's a popular place with fishermen, but it also has an interesting mix of marshland and heather moorland. Brawlbin Farm sits on the edge of it all.
"Morven and Cotton Grass" - watercolour - 19 x 29 cm
It was noticeable this year that
there was a lot of cotton grass on the moors. There was more than I
have seen in recent years, so presumably it had something to do with
the late spring. Whatever the reason, some areas were a sea of white
fluffy tufts, looking almost like a return to the snow of winter.
Most of it is disappearing now though, to be replaced with the purple
flowers of the heather.
"Sea Cave at Holborn Head" - watercolour - 24 x 36 cm
I think most people probably find
caves interesting: a primordial fascination with the feeling of a
portal to an unseen world. If this applies to a cave on land, it must
be even more the case for the kind of sea cave which can only be
reached by boat. There is no way of knowing, from dry land, what lies
beyond the entrance: how far it extends or whether it leads to a vast
cavern. We can watch the waves wash in and disappear into the depths,
maybe listen to the crashing sounds from within, and then see the
resulting surf wash out again. Sea birds also, come and go from their
roosts high up in the cave, inhabiting a world we can never be part
of; a world we can only try to imagine.
Perhaps the greatest attraction of
caves is the way that they allow our imaginations to play.
The Remoteness of the Modern World" - watercolour - 24 x 36 cm
I think this is my favourite of the
many ruined cottages scattered throughout the Flow Country. It has a
wonderful position on top of a hill, with views that stretch for many
miles. It also had a colourful red tin roof, but a lot of it has been
stripped away by the wind now. Once the roof has gone, and the
weather can get in, these ruins soon start to fall down.
The title of the painting comes
from my thoughts as I looked at the ruin: I thought about how no-one
would ever live there again. There is no electricity or running water
and the nearest tarmac road is several miles away, so it would be
considered very remote now. However, not so long ago there was a real
community in this area, and I don't think they would have felt so
isolated. This was their world and the place where they lived out
their lives. They would have been largely self-sufficient, but I
expect they got some of their supplies from passing pedlars. It
would probably have taken all day to get to the nearest shop and get
back home again. One of their descendants told me that the school
teacher would come and stay for a few days and then move on to the
next household. The local church minister would travel around in a
similar way, although apparently they would often hide when they saw
We see these places as remote
today, but perhaps we build our own prisons.
This is one of the paintings that I
am exhibiting at the Society of Caithness Artists Exhibition. It's
another view of Morven, a mountain which I think is becoming my
equivalent of Cezanne's Montagne Sainte-Victoire! It's there in my
view every day and often makes a tempting subject.
"Sunshine and Storm Clouds" - watercolour - 16 x 26 cm
Often the simplest subjects can
make the most dramatic paintings. One day I noticed these trees, with
their bright Spring foliage, against a background of dark storm
clouds. The nearly complimentary colours of deep blue and warm yellow
added to the drama. I used only French Ultramarine, Burnt Sienna and Raw Sienna for the whole painting.
Another view of the cottage at Dalnaha. This gives more of an idea of how secluded it is. It's also an example of how useful clouds can be; throwing shadows on the landscape, and providing tonal contrast in a subject which could otherwise appear flat and uninteresting.
Beyond Loch More, in upper
Strathmore, there are few buildings still in an inhabitable state.
There are some old shooting lodges, and a small community around
Altnabreac railway station, but most of the old buildings are ruins
now. The cottage at Dalnaha is one of the survivors. It's not lived
in permanently, but it's furnished and presumably used as a holiday
cottage. With no other properties within several miles it would be a
very peaceful place to stay.
Smean is one of the hills in the rugged country in the south of Caithness. There are no paths to its summit, but it has impressive granite tors and extensive views over the Flow Country, which make it well worth the effort to reach it.
"Bridge on Berriedale Water" - watercolour - 24 x 36 cm
I always enjoy going down to the south of the county, because the landscape is so different. Where I live is an area of farmland bordering the boggy moorland of the Flow Country. It is also fairly flat. However, the south of Caithness is fringed by mountains and deep glens, and seems to have more in common with Sutherland.
Berriedale Water cuts its way through the hills for seven miles on a winding course, providing many dramatic views. At one point it runs through a narrow gorge and a bridge has been built across the gap. Its an interesting experience to cross the swaying structure, high above the rocks in the river bed below!
I had intended to do another tutorial, but I forgot to take the photographs during the painting. This was the first stage of wet-into-wet washes.
Further south from Smoo Cave, which I wrote about recently, there is another limestone cave system near Inchnadamph. The Bone Caves are a group of four caves, which were probably formed at the end of the last Ice Age by melting ice. Excavations have revealed the bones of various animals, including Lynx; Brown Bear; Arctic Fox; Reindeer; and even a Polar Bear. Human skeletons were also found, dating from earlier than 2,000 BC.
Bockingford Rough paper, 300 gsm
Rembrandt Artists' Watercolours -
I made a brief drawing with a 2B pencil to give me some guidelines to work to. Then I dampened the paper all over and applied weak washes, letting them run together without worrying too much about keeping to the pencil lines.
The colours used were French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna for the grey; Burnt Sienna with a little French Ultramarine for the brown; and Raw Umber and Pthalo Green for the greens.
I made the mistake of adding more paint when the paper had dried too much, resulting in some run-backs in a few places. I wasn't worried about it though, because I knew I could use them to my advantage later.
When the first washes had dried, I used darker versions of mostly the same mixtures to define the forms more. I softened the edges in places with a damp brush. I also added a couple of figures at this stage.
I finished by painting the cave entrances, and a few darker areas to further define form and texture.
"The Bone Caves at Inchnadamph" - watercolour - 16 x 26 cm
Freswick House is one of the
notable old buildings of Caithness. It was built on the site of a
Viking stronghold. Originally called Freswick Castle, it was added to
and improved over the years and later became Freswick Tower or
There is an amusing story about a
dispute over Window Tax. This tax was introduced in the Eighteenth
Century, and was based on the number of windows in a property. Owners
often got around it by blocking up some of the windows, and these can
still be seen in old houses today. William Sinclair was the owner of
Freswick House at the time, and apparently he was in constant dispute
with the Window Tax collector. He may have had some justification,
because on different occasions the official count of the number of
windows seems to have varied between 28; 31; 47 and 34! Maybe he kept blocking up and unblocking windows, but whatever the reason, he seems to have avoided paying the tax in his lifetime.
Smoo Cave, at Durness in the far
North-west of Sutherland, is one the the main tourist attractions of
the area. The cave was formed by the action of water dissolving the
limestone rocks, leaving a series of chambers and underground
waterfalls. Visitors can take a boat trip into the depths of the
Humans have been drawn to the cave
from the earliest times: A midden in the entrance has been excavated
and shows evidence of occupation from the Mesolithic Period through
to the Iron Age. Other deposits indicate use of the cave in the Norse
period. I'm sure it has continued to provide a shelter or hide-out at
later times and has probably been used as a store more recently.
As well as the main cave, there are
several smaller caves which may at one time have been part of one
large cave system. There may still be other caves and passages, as
yet undiscovered underground.
Next to the dam at Loch More is a
cottage which I presume was built to house the water bailiff
responsible for controlling the flow of water into the river. Nobody
lives in the cottage now but it is still used by fishermen. While
looking into the history of Lochmore Cottage I have discovered that
it is thought by some people to have a connection with a couple of
mysteries of World War II.
In 1942 Rudolf Hess, Hitler's
deputy, flew alone in an unarmed plane from Germany to Scotland. He
was apparently hoping to land at Dungavel House, the home of the Duke
of Hamilton who had supported appeasement with the Nazis before the
war. Hess was unable to find somewhere to land and had to parachute
out, after which he was captured. The reason for the flight has never
been completely explained, but there are theories that he was
intending to negotiate peace terms with the government, or even that
he was intending to meet Nazi sympathisers in the British elite;
members of the so-called “Peace Group”. Most historians think
that he was probably just deluded, and thought that he could
single-handedly arrange a peace treaty which would free the German
military to concentrate on fighting the USSR.
The second mystery involves the
Duke of Kent, the brother of the King. In August 1942 he set off from
Invergordon on a flight to Iceland, supposedly on a morale-boosting
visit to the British forces stationed there. The flying-boat was
supposed to stay over the sea and follow a route along the coast, but
thirty minutes into the flight it crashed into a hillside in the
south of Caithness. There was only one survivor, the tail-gunner, who
was apparently thrown clear. The cause of the crash has never been
conclusively proven, and as a result all sorts of conspiracy theories
have grown up around it.
One theory involves the connection
with Loch More. It suggests that the Duke of Kent wasn't heading for
Iceland on that day but was planning to land on the loch. It is
claimed that Hess was being held at Lochmore Cottage. The plan was to
pick him up and fly on to Sweden where he would conduct peace talks
with the Nazis. Apparently the late Lord Thurso claimed in 1993, that
he was aware as a teenager during the war that Hess was being held at
Braemore Lodge, on a neighbouring estate. His mother had also told
him that Hess had been at Lochmore Cottage. The theory holds that
after taking off from the loch the heavily laden plane was unable to
gain enough height and crashed into a hillside. However if this were
the case it would have been approaching the crash site from the
opposite direction to the one indicated by photographs of the
wreckage. I also find it hard to believe that a fully laden
Sunderland flying-boat could have taken off from the loch which is
not much more than a mile long. A major problem with the theory
though is that if Hess was killed in the crash, who was tried for war
crimes at Nuremberg and subsequently held at Spandau Prison? Some
people claim that he was an imposter, but if so, none of the
acquaintances who visited him, including his wife and son, suspected
The official explanation of the
crash blames the pilot for making an unauthorised course change, but
it doesn't give any reason for such an action. It may be a case of an
innocent man being made into a scapegoat. The Hess connection is
probably just fanciful, but it would be nice to think that lonely
Loch More could have played a part in top-secret wartime events.
In the west of Caithness a long
road follows the course of the Thurso out over the moors. The road
ends at Loch More, where the water entering the river is controlled
by a dam and weir. Occupying a shallow basin, the loch is surrounded
by open moors and forest, with a view of distant mountains. The
overall impression is of big skies and open spaces.
One curious aspect is that the
exposed location allows the wind to create quite large waves on the
water sometimes. These have worn the shores away, forming miniature
cliffs in the peat in some places, while in others broad swathes of
sand have been washed up. I believe that in former years, when people
were happy with simpler pleasures, families used to travel out to the
loch in the summer to spend the day on the beach. Now it's more
popular with fishermen and people looking for a quite place to walk.
It's been a long winter this year.
There seem to have been hints of Spring for a while now, but it's
stayed cold and occasional snow showers have covered everything in a
blanket of white. The sun is getting warmer now though and any lying
snow doesn't last long. We put the clocks forward one hour for
British Summer Time this weekend and, as if on cue, we are having a
spell of beautifully sunny days. Maybe Spring has finally arrived and
will gain a foothold at last.
Castle, a few miles West of Thurso, is in a ruinous state now. It's
rather overshadowed by the large, modern farm buildings next to it.
Originally, I think, it would have consisted of a strong tower with a
courtyard around it. The beach below would have formed a natural
harbour. Later it seems to have had a large house added on to form a
more comfortable dwelling.
used the controlled-wash method again for this painting and just
three colours: French Ultramarine; Burnt Sienna; Raw Sienna.
on damp paper, I applied Raw Sienna to the bottom of the sky and then
mixes of Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna over the rest. While it was
still wet, I dropped in stronger mixes in some areas to establish
some of the colour and tone.
let the whole painting dry and then I started to build up the
mid-tones, still keeping everything fairly loose. I think, with
hind-sight, I probably could have put more of these in at the first
put in some stronger touches to sharpen up the painting.
I finished off with a few darks in
the foreground to give some depth. I also felt that a background was
needed. There is in fact a hill behind the castle, but I couldn't see
it from my position down on the beach. I decided to use a bit of
licence and put it in.