I spent last week on my beloved west coast. Last year, I did not take enough holiday; this year I am determined to do better. We were lucky with the weather, as often happens at this time of year. It is too cold for the midges and it was dry, bright and sunny with the occasional April shower. Cold, too - there were wild hail-storms in the night at the end of the week and a few in the daytime too.
Time was spent outside, as far as possible. Walking the beaches, scouring the high tide line for driftwood and shells; looking out to sea at the distant Cuillins of Skye and then back at the near things - the textures of the ancient rocks and lichens, seaweed patterns, fishing nets lying on the harbour. I absorbed the images like a sponge; my camera is a very useful tool. My well was refilled.
All the time I was there, my focus kept shifting. From a big seascape, with a tiny boat on the horizon, to the shapes of the cracks in the tops of the huge wooden posts which hold up the harbour. From gulls wheeling above us in the bitter breeze, to the shadow shapes formed by a rope lying across a beached dinghy.
It's all there.
Happy New Year. I hope that 2016 brings you peace, health and happiness. I was fortunate to spend both Christmas and New Year on the west coast of Scotland with my nearest and dearest this festive season. The weather was mixed, as is to be expected at this time of year. The days seem to take turns; a day of solid rain and howling winds would be followed by mild, balmy air breezing in from the south. We know from long years of experience to head out as soon as it is fair. Fair mainly means not raining. So, we had some good walks on the glorious beaches; Big Sand, Gairloch Beach and Red Point on Boxing Day. The latter was a very windy day and we were sand-blasted as soon as we reached the beach. I love to stand and watch the waves crashing on the shore. The way they roll and break, the foamy whiteness moving along the crest as they approach. It was too cold to stand for long, however. Only long enough to take a few photographs.
We retreated to the south end of the bay and found shelter below the turf line where the sheep had formed hollows to lie in. We perched on the rounded sandstone rocks and drank tea, ate goose sandwiches (we had the good fortune to eat goose on Christmas day) and slabs of Christmas cake with marzipan and sweet, sweet icing. It was a good day. I hope to have more like it in the coming year.
"So, is there anything to do round here, then?" I was asked by someone I met on the beach the other day. They had never been to the area before.
My answer at the time was a bit glib -
"Well, there are no shops or cinemas, if that's what you mean."
I meant clothes shops, department stores and multiplex cinemas, of course. There are grocery stores, a very good butcher and a rather well-stocked book shop. Since then I have been thinking.
It's all a matter of what you want to do. This is your kind of place if -
- a stroll on the beach, gathering cockle and limpet shells, empty sea urchins and the occasional starfish appeals to you
- you can stand and watch the waves crashing on the shore, without being impatient to move on
- you see the rapidly changing weather as a source of fascination and varying light conditions
- carrying a camera is a way of life
- carrying a sketch book and pencil and maybe a small box of watercolours is a way of life
- you like mucking about in boats and fishing, both fresh and salt water
- you enjoy any kind of walking - hill-walking, mountain climbing or a brisk march along a sandy beach
- you play golf
- you like horse riding
- you don't get phased by single track roads and know the appropriate polite gestures to use when driving on them.
I don't think I'm finished with this theme. To be continued.
One of the many things I love about the west coast is the light. More specifically, the way the light changes. One minute you can be walking along the beach with blue skies all around and the next, the sky is slate grey and so is the sea. And more often than not, there are wet spots on the stones and pebbles on the beach, or pock marks in the sand, if there is a significant amount of precipitation. There may be a gleaming patch of sunlight on the sea, in the distance. Not so much a patch, perhaps, as a sliver, a sliver of silver. And then there are the beams of light which come down through the clouds, a reminder that the sun is in fact still up there, waiting to put in another appearance. This rapidly changing light is great for photography, but much trickier for painting in situ (or plein air, as they say). It's a good incentive to work quickly so as to capture the moment. Soon it will be warm enough again to do some outdoor sketching and painting again - I'm looking forward to it.
Last weekend I discovered that it's not easy to take photographs with gloves on. The air was chilly, as one would expect at the start of February in the Scottish Highlands. The pale turquoise soft wool gloves I received as a Christmas present nearly worked, though I struggled to take the lens cap on and off. Still, some photographs were taken; more "source material", as I have come to call it, for my boat paintings. And also some photos which I think work well just as they are - like the ones above. They are bits of a boat which has been lying on top of the harbour in Gairloch in Wester Ross for quite a while now. It's a great subject - I've taken pictures of it before. I love the peeling paint, where layers have come off to show what lies underneath; the corroded metal, like verdigris - perhaps it is.
Before Christmas, at a little fair where I was showing some of my recent work, an American lady asked me why I was painting boats. I hadn't really thought about this; I like them, the shape of the them, the colours. But it is more than that. I only started to discover the answer when I told them that I used to sail. And now I have thought about it some more and these memories have come to me.
I used to sail a lot when I was young. I sailed at school, in the sailing club; in a dinghy, on Linlithgow Loch, on summer evenings. And then we sailed as a family, a wee blue wooden dinghy to start with, then a slightly bigger boat, a cruiser with an inboard engine and bunk beds, a gas stove for making toast and tea and heating soup. We sailed on the Firth of Forth during term time and then on the west coast of Scotland during the summer holidays The boats were towed north and then south. Long days were spent trekking the trailer down the shore, waiting for the tide to come in, floating the boat off and then mooring her safely in the bay. I was never so keen on sailing in the cruiser. There wasn't the immediacy, the closeness to the water, that one felt in a dinghy. The sound of the water lapping at the bow, the feel of the rudder in my hand, the tautness of the sheets, held against the wind. Watching the luff of the sail for any flapping, indicating that you were sailing too close to the wind. Or the homemade woolen telltales tied to the stays, showing exactly where the wind was coming from. All these memories, there in the back of my head; there whenever I paint another boat. There is more about this in there - more for another day.
I find it almost impossible to walk along a sandy beach without stopping and stooping to collect items which then get taken home in my pockets (or, if there are lots of items, in a handy poo-bag, which I always have about my person). Depending on which beach I am walking on, these items vary. My most recent foray was on Aberdeen beach. My companion was collecting sea glass, so I settled for something else instead. I focused on white or cream-coloured pebbles and small pieces of wood, smoothened by their journey across the sea and up the beach. As they are tumbled up the shore, these pieces of box, or boat, crate or fence, door or simply branch, are pounded by the waves, and by the sand and the pebbles within those waves. I love the feel of them. When they are dry (the ones in the photographs above are still damp), they will often be salt-bleached and white.
And then, when they are tumbled out on the table, on a big sheet of white paper, there seems to be a requirement to arrange them. By size, shape, colour? Any and all of these. Until a pleasing pattern is formed. Which is when I take a photograph.
Happy New Year. I hope that 2014 brings peace, health and happiness to you, wherever you may be.
I am constantly drawn to the sea. Whether it is stormy, calm or something in between it is constant and reassuring in a way that is hard to explain. Instead of trying to do so myself, here is a verse of "Sea Fever" by John Masefield. Which sums it up rather well, I think.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.