(LC) Support, Composition and 3 words

First decisions need to be made.

For me, the first decision was an unexpected one. I sketched a rough horizontal view of my subject, a landscape taken from Cairn H on Carnbane West. The landscape was meant to flow diagonally from the dark, open Cairn H tomb on the lower left, to the grey and misty peak of Carnbane East and Cairn T in the distance to the upper right. A cloudy sun would lighten a predominantly dark, morning sky, with the undersides of the clouds giving me some texture and helping to grey the distant landscapes with a bit of mistiness. A feeling that the tomb was open, and you were moving upward. Death as a part of the living landscape.

Cairn H, Carnbane West

Cairn H, Carnbane West

Lots of horizontal with a gradual uplifting of diagonal lines to the right and some faint indications of trees and roads to keep you from wandering off the page.

And I really didn’t like it.

It reminded me of another scene, a more interesting scene, from a reference photo for a tomb atop a hill on Howth, near Dublin. I didn’t want it to remind me of Howth, I wanted it to be absolutely clear where I was.

So, at the rough, layout sketch stage, I was already starting over. What made Carnbane West so powerful for me?

There we go. Time to develop the three words for this piece that will keep me focused. First, my walk up the hills to Carnbane West was wreathed with mists and silence. The ‘famine rows’ cut horizontally into the sides of the hills to plant potatoes in the 1800s, tripped me up over and over again. My boots would catch them every time. I shall choose the word ‘bleak’ to cover the grey, February morning. Damp and raw. A word to work with the greying of distant peaks and the emphasis on monochrome, with only a hint of warmth.

Death seemed to rest here. The bones of a small creature were gradually disappearing into the ground, pale against dead grass. Usually the dampness would bring out a freshness of color in the air, but not today. Sometimes Irish weather will bring out a silvery, misty light of sun on fine rain, but not today. ‘Heavy’ might carry all the silent, ancient baggage I require. Heavy clouds, dark holes in the ground, damp and earthy smells.

As I reached the crest of the hill, an odd thing happened. I had been suffering from a case of Dublin’s infamous coal-smoke aggravated bronchitis for about two weeks before this trip. Nastiest case I ever had. And I refused to let the remnants of it cause me to lose out on getting to Carnbane West. A two mile hike uphill. At the crest of the hill, as we felt the freshening breezes, just as my chest loosened up, my deep breaths were snatched away from me. The air was moving upwards. Lightheaded, I stood and felt the odd currents. Due to the position of the site, air currents were pushing up along the wide face of the hill. What an odd effect. My hair lifted from the top of my ears, and hair on my forehead floated a bit. An electric sort of feel, enhanced by the heavy weight of the clouds and mists, pushing up.

So, with “Bleak” and “Heavy” I offer the word “Vertical” to the three-word tradition. Heavy and vertical. I re-drew my very rough draft to reflect the new orientation. I would start low, with a dark, open tomb. I would climb upward through the composition to the distant peak, lightly lit by a pale sun. The tombs were originally faced with quartz, so perhaps a few bright highlights would be in order.

Carnbane West, Cairn H

Carnbane West, Cairn H

I had been studying composition and the way the eye sees about seven layers within a given landscape. Some of my reference photos from earlier in the day showed a lovely brightness just at the line of mountains, before the heavier clouds weighed down the sky. A method of defining and breaking up the grey midtones would be to have a line of lighter sky under the clouds, along the edge of the mountains. Perhaps a bit of toning in the gesso would help with that?

Bright white gesso seemed inappropriate, so I had planned to tone the gesso with grey graphite or another soft pigment. But with the thought of the colors coming through the graphite I was using to render the distant landscape, I considered a soft, yellow ochre to bring in the morning warmth behind the mists and clouds.

I had already decided to create this piece on a panel, so I could experiment with the technique of scratching back into the gesso to create sharp and fine detail for the copious amounts of long, dead grass. A gesso toned with yellow would prevent the scratches from getting too bright, but would lighten them within the shadows of darker ground.

A practice piece would be necessary before the project could be finalized.


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