Black Bog

Pike by Claire Finlay

 

This image of Roundstone bog inspired the painting above. It’s unremarkable as a photograph but I love the contrast in it, between the darkness of the boggy landscape and the gem like blues of the mountains and paleness of the sky.

 

Photograph of Roundstone bog by Deborah Watkins

 

 

 

This is how the painting started below.

 

First stage of Black bog painting by Deborah Watkins

 

 

 

I started at the top of the page and kept the colours clean when working on the sky and mountain shapes. Then I outlined the line of the land in a dark ink and I dragged some of the colour down using a brush to make a yellowish wash. This is the how the painting developed below.

 

Black  bog painting by Deobrah Watkins

 

 

 

I worked quickly using a combination of acrylic paint and ink together and brushes of different sizes. I like the way the paint settles when I work quickly like this, some effects are accidental but I have an idea about the overall feeling I want the piece to have. The middle and foreground dominates in this one because the marks are broad and gestural and this contrasts with the relatively careful way the sky and mountains have been painted. The richness of the colours that I have used in the landscape also make it stand out – browns, reds, golds, yellows and some dark blues. I like the way a large brush stroke gives the impression of strata, like layers of matter so the effect is being allowed to see under the earth as well as across it, to see the layers of material that have built up under ground over time.

I’ve decided to call this one finished as I’m happy with the results as they are. I’ll varnish it once the paint has dried and this will give it a protective coating as well as making the colours appear richer, as they were when they were just made and a bit like the way the colour of a beach pebble looks deeper when it is wet.

Blackberries

Blackberry picking is as much a part of Irish childhood as the 99 ice cream cone, watching Saturday morning cartoons and rice krispie buns. I think smeara dubha was one of the first Irish words we learnt at school and there was usually a story in the first term or an essay to be written on ‘Ag Piocadh Smeara Dubha’.

These photos were taken on a road near our home where my own girls go to collect the berries with the same excitement and pleasure that I experienced at their age. They trawl the roads and hedgerows and return with sticky purple-tinted hands, brambly clothes and plastic buckets filled to the brim. G likes to make berry smoothies with vanilla ice cream ( sieved to get the bits out ) and my favourite ( when the mood takes me ) is apple and berry sweet pastry tart served with piping hot custard. Yum.

Here’s some more pictures – this one below is a more typical bunch with it’s assortment of blacks, reds and greens and some empty stalks where the ripe ones have been nabbed.

 

Photograph of blackberries by Deborah Watkins

 

 

 

 

This next cluster is almost ready to bloom, each berry a strange parcel of swelling crimson lobes..

 

Red blackberries by Deborah Watkins

 

 

 

 

I like this next photo because it includes the berries that have just started to turn. Close up, the creeping mould looks more like sprinkled sugar than decay. Theres something lovely about it as an image of the cycle of nature, from earth to fruit and back to earth again in just a few weeks. A reminder to enjoy them while we can.

 

 

Photograph of rotting berries

 

 

 

 

 

Bogland – Seamus Heaney

I came across this photograph with Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Bogland’ on the Connemara Heritage and History site. It is such a beautiful image and it mirrors the words of this poem perfectly.

Seamus Heaney is of course our very own Nobel laureate and arguably one of the most celebrated and popular poets in the world today. This poem was written in 1969 and is regarded as a milestone in Heaney’s career because it was here he first realised ‘an image for the unconscious part of Ireland through a natural part of the landscape where history reposed and was revealed’ * I love this idea of the bog as a metaphor for our psyche, our subconscious and our innermost secrets. It also brings to mind a tree with it’s outer crust and hidden rings underneath, circling time and out of sight until the surface is broken.

Heaney alludes to the ancient bog bodies in much of his early poetry, particularly the viking bodies found in Denmark in the 1950’s.  One of these is Tollund man, a male body which has been carbon dated to 230 BC. This man received a violent death like many of the other bog bodies and Heaney has used this in his poems as a political analogy to the unravelling violence in Northern Ireland. Grauballe man was found two years after Tollund man, also in Denmark. Heaney wrote a poem in his honour which begins;

 

As if he had been poured

in tar, he lies

on a pillow of turf

 and seems to weep

the black river of himself.

 

taken from The Grauballe Man

 

Such beautiful, tragic and human imagery. It is thick with blackness, a darkness and a beauty that feels uniquely Irish.

The poem ‘Bogland’ has a different perspective. It starts with a comparison to the vast prairies of America. Later, there is an image of ourselves ‘striking inwards and downwards’ – self searching rather than the explorative, outward search of the early American pioneers. He concludes that ‘the wet centre is bottomless’. Here too an image of blackness, like space, a romantic void of disappearing sludge that is rooted in earth and has the preservative qualities of the womb but which falls away to some vast infinite place.

 

 

 

Bogland

 

We have no prairies

To slice a big sun at evening –

Everywhere the eye concedes to

Encroaching horizon,

 

Is wooed into the cyclops’ eye

Of a tarn. Our unfenced country

Is bog that keeps crusting

Between the sights of the sun.

 

They’ve taken the skeleton

Of the Great Irish Elk

Out of the peat, set it up

An astounding crate of air.

 

Better sunk under

More than a hundred years

Was recovered salty and white.

The ground itself is kind, black butter

 

Melting and opening underfoot,

Missing its last definition

By millions of years,

They’ll never dig coal here,

 

Only the waterlogged trunks

Of great firs, soft as pulp.

Our pioneers keep striking

Inwards and downwards,

 

Every layer they strip

Seems camped on before.

The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.

The wet centre is bottomless.

 

Seamus Heaney

 

 

* taken from Landscape or Mindscape? Seamus Heaney’s Bogs by Diane Meredith, The University of California, Davis.

Cover image taken from Connemara Heritage and History

Polar Places

I came across an artist on etsy.com recently whose work I really connected with. I think this was particularly so in light of my own recent work about an imagined frozen landscape. The artist is Karinna Gomez from Fairbanks, Alaska in the United States. She makes small series of prints – mezzotints, woodcuts and etchings, sometimes handcoloured with watercolours as with the print above. This piece is called Persimmons in the Snow. Persimmons are an orange red fruit that grow on the Ebony tree. These trees can tolerate and adapt to a wide range of climates including harsh Northern weather. I love the striking contrast between the white hills and snow covered valley and the dark central group of trees that are lit by by these red speckles, a kind of  earth bound constellation. I love too the vastness and silence that is suggested by the empty retreating hills and the dark sky beyond them. The only colour in the piece and the only sign of growth and life is this tiny little fruit. My second favourite piece (below) is like the first. This one is called Land of Weather .

 

Land of Weather by Karinna Gomez

 

 

 

 

The features of the previous piece are here, light versus dark and a grouping of dark fruit lit trees. There is more sky here though and an icy breeze seems to move across in a flurry of cloud. The central grove is bowl shaped and is cradled by the expansive landscape on all sides. They stand like a resilient group of survivors struggling against the elements.

The last piece I have included here is a mezzotint called Icelandic Water below. This is a slightly different printing technique which allows half tones of colour to be produced.

 

Icelandic Water by Karinna gomez

 

 

 

Darkness dominates this piece, punctuated only by white streaks and lights. The snow capped mountain in the background makes way for the night sky dotted with a few tiny stars. The title suggests that the large expanse in front might be water. It is broken up with bright uniform shapes that look like something man made or are they reflections or perhaps both? When I wrote to Karinna, she told me that she is drawn to the histories of polar exploration and aspects of Northern life such as self sufficiency, independence and solitude. Also the weather, land and geography of the North. Her work is an attempt to make imagery that expresses these primary interests.

If you like what you have seen here, check out Karinna’s work in her etsy shop. Her beautiful limited edition prints are very reasonably priced.

Sky and Sea

The main interest in this little seascape is the sky. It started out like this (below).

I used lots of red at the base of the painting in an attempt to give the final sea colour a richness and depth. I’ve applied the paint quite thickly on the top part of the piece. I waited until this layer was completely dry before I worked on it again.

 

First stage of Seascape

 

 

 

 

This is the next stage below.

I’ve given the cloud shapes more definition and divided them in to dark and light areas. I then used some charcoal to mark out the rocks in the foreground and lots of blue and white paint to describe the sea. I’m happy enough not to do too much more with it at this stage and I wait for this layer to dry.

 

Second stage of seascape by Deborah Watkins

 

 

 

 

This is how the finished seascape looks below.

I’ve used charcoal to heighten the contrast in the clouds and give the illusion of rain falling. I enjoy using charcoal with paint like this although they are not traditional partners – what do you think?

 

Finished seascape by Deborah Watkins

Inspiration – Blanket Bog

One of the most characteristic features of the landscape in Connemara is it’s blanket bogs. It is called a blanket bog because from a distance it appears to hug the ground like a blanket. It was formed in wet, upland areas where there was a lot of rainfall around 2500BC. This happened when farmers cleared the land of forest so it could be used for pasture. They chose the higher ground where the forests there were not so thick. However, when the trees were removed, the soil became waterlogged and more acidic due to the rain. By around 500BC, at the end of the Bronze age, the farmers were forced to clear the forests lower down as the land became unusable. Heather and thick grasses were able to grow in the upland areas but their debris did not decompose and so a layer of organic material or peat began to build up.
People began to cut the peat ( called turf when cut ) and use it for fuel in the 17th century. This activity continues to day and there is much debate about methods of harvesting and conservation of our bog lands for the future. However, small scale cultivation has been going on here in Connemara for centuries and has kept the population supplied with fuel for the long Winters. This must also be something worth protecting. As anyone who has ever visited this part of the world will know, there is nothing quite like the warm and seductive smell of a turf fire!
The appearance of the bog changes from season to season. In Autumn, the grasses and heathers turn from gold into a bright orange which creates the effect of a burning landscape. Spring brings new growth in the form of bright luminous green shoots. In between these seasons the bog appears on a spectrum that is sometimes awash with the pink and purple of heathers and sometimes black and dark like the moors of a Bronte novel.
I took these photos of the bog below, near Clifden. This one is on the road to Roundstone. The cut bog in the foreground has filled with water.

 

Photo of bog

 

 

This next photo was taken on the Clifden to Letterfrack road and shows the waterlogged ground with stacks of turf drying out in the back ground.

 

Photo 2 of bog

 

 

We celebrate the bog annually through music and art in a week long festival which takes place in the nearby village of Letterfrack. It is an excellently organised schedule of events based around our boglands. I have been fortunate enough to participate in the Bog week art exhibition for several years and for me it is always a welcome opportunity to return to this subject.
This next photo is of a painting I did last year for the exhibition. It is very small ( about 3″ x 4″ ) and it is done on a thick bamboo paper.

 

Painting of bog

 

 

I really enjoyed working with a dark range of colours here. In life the water on the bog surface reflects the the sky between the clouds, which is sometimes a startling blue. This is not conveyed very well in my photos above but I have used this effect here and in many other of my paintings. The blanket bog is so much a part of the beauty of this area and it is a subject that I will keep returning to in my work.