Most years at this time I make a trip to the Highlands.
It had been a year since I had last crossed The Firth and left Orkney. My annual summer trip to Bridge House Art in Ullapool had been a casualty of Covid, so this time I returned to one of my favourite places in Wester Ross.
The scale and drama of the Assynt and Coigach mountains are a profound contrast to the Orkney landscape I am used to for most of the year. The huge personalities of the mountains demand attention, cloaked in vast sweeps of rusty velvet. The vivid colours of autumn trees and the silhouettes of larch, spruce and pine are refreshing respite from the grip of the relentless Orcadian horizon.
This year it felt more valuable than ever to experience and appreciate these differences.
I think soaking up a sense of place, walking and looking, sitting and watching, can sometimes be as valuable as drawing and responding to make a sketchbook record. I brought most of the colours and shapes home in my head, and returned with fresh eyes for the familiar.
A casualty of lockdown and Covid regulations was my solo show planned for September 2020 at The Exhibition Room at The Old Library in Kirkwall. Instead I will be showing a small selection of 6 paintings called ‘Orkney Summer’ in Archive Coffee the café/bar at The Old Library in a pop-up show, and online, over a couple of weeks.
In the first few weeks of lockdown it became clear that many planned ‘in person’ art courses were not going to happen but with great relief I learned that Bridge House Art in Ullapool were setting up daily, then weekly, tasks for their Summer School students with a weekly coffee break on zoom. The tutors also created online versions of their week long summer courses to sign up to with contributions from invited artists. Over the last few years, like many others, my annual visit or two to BHA have become a touchstone for my painting year so the contact and community that grew out of the tasks and discussions was sustaining!
Images from a few of the wide variety of tasks the Bridge House Art team created...
As art teachers adapted to a virtual environment the abundance of online art courses grew – an opportunity to take advantage of online access to courses which otherwise have been too far away to consider, like Emily Ball’s ‘Floribunda’ and Karen Stamper’s ‘Sketchbooks’. I also continued to enjoy Paintbox Art School’s rich choice of online offerings and Lewis Noble’s growing library of video tutorials.
In May I sent a few small pieces of art to The Whitehouse Gallery in Kircudbright. Unfortunately most of the group show ‘Connections’ coincided with lockdown but being included in the show with artists I admire was very rewarding. Showing at The Whitehouse is somewhat of a family tradition, my mother Liz Mackay having exhibited there over the years.
In November 2019 I contributed a few pieces of work to the annual Christmas Exhibition at the Old Library in Kirkwall. It was lovely to see a small collection of my paintings hanging together, alongside the artwork of well-established and admired local artists and makers.
In November 2019 I went to Lund Studios in Yorkshire for a workshop run by Lewis Noble. Over three days he shared his approach to sketching outdoors and the process he uses to develop work from these sketches back in the studio. I was interested in ‘losing’ the horizon for a while as it is such a dominating feature of the landscape here in Orkney, and developing my sketchbook practice in an expressive way that could use as a jumping off point for larger work.
Every summer for the last few years I have gone to Bridge House Art in Ullapool for a week or two of summer school courses to develop my practice. These visits have become foundational to my work and the feedback from the tutors will often strongly influence how I approach work for the following year. These are images of some work in development begun at Bridge House Art School in Ullapool in August 2019. Mixed media on paper various sizes.
In Spring 2019 I took the plunge and signed up for Nicholas Wilton’s Art2 Life Creative Visionary Programme. The course was intense, packed with challenging tasks and ways of thinking. Like Nicholas himself, and the team of tutors, it was generous and supportive. The participants from around the world in different time zones became a community using a shared language to describe their developing work. At the time the experience was affirmative – revealing why intuitive decisions I had made while work was in progress felt successful, or not. More than a year later I recognise what an advantage it is to have done it, particularly when reviewing my painting myself or getting feedback from tutors on other courses. Meeting other artists who have done CVP means you have a shared language to explain your response to your own and others’ work. To keep this going beyond the course I joined the Academy where the learning continues…
I highly recommend trying out the free Art2 life course which runs once a year prior to CVP to see if it is for you…
While the Orkney print studio remained homeless and dormant I took a few short courses at Orkney College with Diana Leslie and Charles Shearer. Diana introduced groups to the slightly intimidating procedures and skills involved in various methods of print making. I really enjoyed making collographs with Diana exploring the flat isolated images of Inuit birds and animals.
Eventually in 2016 Soulisquoy got its new home in Stromness where I have enjoyed more short courses, talks, and the company of other folk, through dark winter evenings. It makes a nice change from solitary studio work. The methodical and incremental processes involved in making a print can be a therapeutic break from painting.
Before the days of having a studio and when I only had limited time for developing an art practice, I worked through two years of distance learning with Paintbox School of Art. Having a structure and deadlines to follow was good discipline and Jemma Derbyshire’s feedback was invaluable.
Paintbox School of Art is based at Cockenzie House near Edinburgh where different tutors deliver a selection of courses through the year. I highly recommend having a browse around their website to see what is on offer.