In Conversation with Mary Donnelly

Sweet Song of Spring by Mary Donnelly

Cover image  ‘Sweet Song of Spring’ by Mary Donnelly

(This article will feature in the February edition of the Connemara Journal 2016)


Mary Donnelly has lived and worked as an artist in Connemara for most of her adult life. She has received many accolades throughout her career, among them the Oriel Gallery Award for a landscape of distinction at the Royal Hibernian Academy in 2004. She also received the prestigious Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant in 2013 and she has had solo shows in Dublin, Australia and New York. Her most recent show was in the Paul McKenna gallery in Omagh last autumn.

Originally from County Louth, Mary uprooted her painting studio from Dublin’s Temple bar in 1991 in search of a new landscape.  She found in Connemara ‘a place of extreme weather and sublime beauty,’ conditions that would combine to feed her artistic practice here for the next quarter of a century. Mary takes her inspiration from the contours of Connemara, often seeking out quieter places – a small copse or field, rather than the dramatic mountainous peaks you might usually associate with the West of Ireland. Mary describes her landscapes as ‘groundless’ and many appear to exist without a distinct skyline or depth of field in the traditional sense. More significant for Mary is the metaphor this provides for an exploration of the transcendent nature of landscape. She views the line of the horizon as a sacred place where Heaven and Earth come together. The surface of her paintings appear suffused with a silvery light, the half-light of winter, Mary’s favourite season of the year. It is under this delicate film, that the land and it’s timeless mysteries are revealed – the hidden furrows of another era or the gentle arch of an animal grazing, as animals have grazed here for centuries.


Dusk,Cow With Calf 13x18cm

‘Dusk, Cow with Calf’ by Mary Donnelly



In some paintings, the activity of man is evident in the form of a telegraph pole or the faint outline of a building, but it is always unobtrusive. Others paintings contain an object within the work – a wire strung across the canvas might indicate a fence. Mary explains that the external nature of the additional material may serve as a gateway or threshold for the viewer.


Frosted Darkness by Mary Donnelly

‘Frosted Darkness’ by Mary Donnelly



The poetry of Patrick Kavanagh was an early influence and Mary cites the poems ‘March’ and ‘Wet Evening in April’ especially.  The lines from ‘March’ continue to resonate with her most current work –


‘There’s a wind blowing

Cold through the corridors,

a ghost-wind..


( Patrick Kavanagh 1904 – 1967 )


Other artistic influences include the sepia water colours of Victor Hugo, the light filled landscapes of J.W.M. Turner and the work of contemporary American artist Lawrence Carroll.

Music fills Mary’s studio, helping her to focus. Currently she is listening to ‘Stabat Mater’ by Italian composer Agostino Steffani and the music of contemporary mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli. Mary quotes the words of William Blake who said that poetry, painting and music are ‘the three powers in man of conversing with paradise’

Most of the paintings are worked on for several months at a time, in some cases up to a year. Each begins with a drawing and layers are built up slowly and carved away to create the sense of a surface that has been revealed. Mary tells me that the best advice she has been given in relation to her art is to hold on to the adage to ‘never give up.’ I ask what advice she might give to aspiring artists and she replies; ‘to understand that being an artist is a privilege and to always remember that you are a seeker of truth.’


Mary’s work may be viewed in Clifden at the Lavelle Art Gallery or online at


Delphi Valley

It’s been too long since my last post as I’ve been caught up in the busyness of life and children. I’m returning with a short post  about a couple of new paintings I’ve just started. These are based on the Delphi valley, which must be one of  the most spectacular views here on the edges of Connemara and County Mayo. I’m working on a couple of canvases at the same time, alternating between the two. This one ( above ) is 10″ x 9.5″  – I’ve kept the palette quite cool so far with lots of blue and green. The second piece below is 10.5″ x 7.5″ and I’ve warmed this one up with some pink.


Delphi Valley with pink road, first stage.




I love this shade of pink – I think it’s everywhere at this time of year, not like this of course but you can see it in a haze over the grasses if you squint your eyes.

I’ll take more photos as these paintings progress and post about them again soon.

June Bog Cotton

Cover photo ‘Cotton and Turf in Connemara’ by Deborah Watkins


The landscape seems to transform itself every couple of weeks in Connemara. Perhaps the most striking feature at the moment is the bog cotton that has sprung up amidst the peat and laid out stacks of turf. This plant seems especially strong this year, perhaps due to the mild weather and also the ash enriched soil following the gorse fires last April. After the fires, these same fields were reduced to a black shadow of charred roots and dirt. I find it remarkable that the same earth can not only renew itself in the space of a year but reinvigorate into an oasis of life and colour.

Bog cotton is a species of sedge which begins to flower in April or May. Fertilisation follows in early summer when it’s small brown and green flowers develop hairy white seed heads that resemble cotton. It can be difficult for the observer to discern from the roadside and the effect is rather like a field of large daisies but on closer inspection, the fluffy cotton heads are unmistakable. Unlike Gossypium cotton from which fabric is derived, this species is unsuited to textile manufacturing. However the plant does have a history of various uses as a cotton substitute – in the production of paper and candlewicks in Germany and as wound dressings in Scotland during World War I.


Bog Cotton close up by Deborah Watkins

Many headed bog cotton by Deborah Watkins




Bog cotton comes in two forms in Ireland – single headed and many headed bog cotton. The two plants are similar in appearance but flourish differently. The many headed bog cotton grows in pools of water – air canals in it’s roots allow air to pass from the surface to the roots in a kind of ‘snorkling’ process. The leaves of this plant are wide with red tips. The single headed bog cotton does not have these air canals. It grows on the drier surface of the bog and it’s leaves are long and needle like to conserve water.


Single headed Bog Cotton

Single headed Bog Cotton by Deborah Watkins




Bog Cotton by Deborah Watkins

Cotton fields of Connemara by Deborah Watkins 



Like many of our indigenous plants in Connemara, the bog cotton is special to this place and this particular time of year. It is also a reminder of the regenerating nature of the earth in even the harshest of conditions.


Sound of the Sea


I started a couple of small seascapes last week and instead of working from photographs as I usually do, I painted these from memory with the idea of making images that reflect the darker aspects of the sea, the power and the wildness of it.

I used small canvas boards – ( 6″ x 5″ ) and a combination of acrylic paint and ink. I used a deep red colour on the lower half of the board to give the sea blues more depth and interest. Here’s how the first piece started.


First stage of sea painting





I allowed the paint to dry before continuing. When I looked at it again, it seemed very dull and in need of more paint and colour. I also wanted to inject some movement into the central part of the painting. I started by adding red to the mountains in the distance and I used large brushes to create a wave in the centre of the piece, adding just a little yellow to take the eye down into the depths of the water. The whole thing was worked quite quickly, the idea being to give it a sense of movement and energy. Here’s the finished piece again below.


Finished sea painting




I worked this second seascape at the same time – I find it satisfying to pursue one idea in a few slightly different directions so there similarities. I’ve called this one ‘Sound of the Sea.’


First stage of 'Sound of the Sea'





Once again, I felt it needed more colour and definition – I worked over the mountains and sky and I darkened the sea, using red highlights this time to draw the eye inwards.


Finished painting - 'Sound of the Sea"

Cut Bog

This painting is slightly more abstract than the previous two. The focus is a uniform well like shape in the foreground in which a pool of water reflects the blue sky. I have simplified a lot of the other shapes – the mountains and the patterns in the land and I’ve been bold with colour.

This is how the painting started – looking back, I think there is a good argument to say I should have stopped here and it’s not the first time I have thought this about my work.


Cut bog - first stage





Here’s the next stage. I’ve added some darker colour to create more contrast and I’ve started working on the grasses to the side of the pool using large brushes and lots of paint.


Cut bog , stage two





This is how it continues, more work on the grasses and I’ve brought back some of the blue in the pool.


Cut Bog - stage three





Here’s the finished piece. I’ve altered the line where the mountains recede from the land and I’ve sharpened up the grass shapes to the right of the pool.

Is this the better painting or should I have called it a day after the first sitting? I would welcome your response to this one.

In the meantime, I need to do some fast smaller works to loosen up my painting again.


Cut Bog, finished painting


I often find returning to a painting more difficult than starting out. When I begin something, I usually have a fairly clear idea about what I want to do and there is a sense of urgency in getting that down. When I return to a painting, it is different because now there is something there and while there is a desire to keep going, there is also a certain anxiety not to mess it up. The danger is to tread too cautiously and drain the life out of the piece with tentative brush strokes and lack of experiment. Since these two pieces were near completion when I left them last, this fate was less likely although perhaps that is ultimately for you the viewer to decide..

This is the first painting as I left it below. You can compare it with the finished version underneath. I’ve added more detail to the grasses in the middle ground using a combination of green and red inks and a bristle brush. I’ve also tidied up the mountains in the background and darkened the left foreground with more green ink. Finally, I mirrored the white grasses on the right of the brown furrow with a broad stroke of white and gold paint.


Bog painting as I left it




Finished bog painting




Here’s the second painting I worked on with it’s finished version beneath.


Golden Bog by Deborah Watkins




Finished Bog Painting



I’ve changed this one quite a bit so hopefully it hasn’t lost too much of the clarity that it had.

I decided to darken the mountain in the background to make it recede more and I’ve added lots of colour and texture to the grasses in the foreground. I wanted to bring some green back in to the piece and I also wanted to define the cut bog so I straightened some of the dark brown lines. Finally, I added a wash of ink to the sky to give it a little more depth. I’m calling it finished. What do you think?

Bog Cotton Painting II

I’ve just finished working on this one. I’ve been tinkering with it for several days and at times painting is like this for me. Other paintings I can finish in one or two sittings. It’s hard for me to say which method works better but generally I think that there is more energy in the work that is finished quickly. This is how this painting began (below).


Landscape sketch by Deborah Watkins




Here it is with more colour. These two stages were carried out during the same sitting.


Second stage of landscape painting by Deborah Watkins




I returned to the piece after a few days and added lots more detail. I’ve gone a little overboard with the blue ink here and it’s quite fluid so I have to wait until it dries before I continue.


Third stage of landscape painting




This is the next stage (below). I’ve attempted to ‘tighten’ it up but I think that it has become confused. I’m definitely trying too hard here and it’s not working!


Fourth stage of landscape painting




When I return to the painting, I try to de-clutter the image by redefining the strip of bog in the centre and I use more green in the foreground (below).


Finished Painting by Deborah Watkins




This is the painting as I have left it (below). I’ve softened some of the lines in the middle ground and I’ve used some red ink to add more contrast. I am happier with it now because I think that it has more of the atmosphere of the place. I’m reluctant to take it any further at this stage so I’ll leave it for a few days before I varnish it…what do you think?


Finished painting by Deborah Watkins

Bog Cotton Painting

I wanted to make a painting of the Summer bog and include some bog cotton as I saw in Oughterard recently. This is how it began (below).


Photo of painting at it's first stage




I used more paint to describe the grasses in the foreground and the bog surface as it recedes in to the distance. This was done while the first layer was still wet. I decided to wait until the paint dried before painting the wandering water channel (below).


Photo of bog painting at it's second stage




After a couple of days, I returned to the piece and used some blue and grey ink together to describe the water. I also added gold paint and green ink to enrich the colour to the right of the painting. Then I applied a touch of white to describe the bog cotton. I leave it at this point although I feel that it needs more work.


Last stage (?) of bog painting




When I return to the painting I see that it needs more contrast and more colour. I darken the area to the left foreground with a combination of red and purple inks and I add some pink and red to the middle ground. This is the painting as I have left it (below). I will leave it for a couple of days and then decide if it needs anything more..What do you think?


Finished painting of Bog by Deborah Watkins


Fields of Cotton

The last time I wrote about Bog Cotton it was May and there were just a few scattered strands. I stopped to take these photographs outside Oughterard last week because the cotton is in full bloom now. It may not be a field of cotton as sung by Credence Clearwater Revival (!) but this tiny Irish plant is a beautiful sight at this time of year.


Bog with cotton near Oughterard




These fields are carefully managed and the cotton thrives on the newly cut bog surface. My feet sink slightly into the spongy top layer as I take my picutres..


Photograph of Bog cotton near Oughterard




I love the contrast between the dark chestnut colours of the bog and the soft greens and pinks of the grasses. The bog cotton enhances the scene like sprinkles of tiny sugar shapes. There is something delicate about the appearance of the bog here in Summer that is almost magical.

In a few months, this will change again. The cotton will disappear and the colours of the heath will deepen and take on a fiery quality and a completely different mood.


Photograph of Oughterard Bog


Finished Paintings

I finished these two paintings over the weekend. The first one looked like this the last time I wrote about it.


Bog Painting by Deborah Watkins




I wasn’t satisfied with it the way it was so I worked at it some more and used a tiny brush to define the water channel. This recedes in to the background now which gives a stronger sense of distance but I’ve lost the rushing water in the foreground.  I think it’s a different piece altogether now (below), whether or not it is a better painting is another question!





This is the other piece as I left it (below).


Bog Painting by Deborah Watkins



I felt that I needed to do very little with this one – I just altered the line of the bog on the left slightly and added some more paint to the mountains in the background. This is the finished version (below).


Finished Landscape by Deborah Watkins