Monday, June 11, 2018

Scotland Plein Air Painting Retreat - Interim Report 5

Snizort Bridge 5x7 gouache by Michael Chesley Johnson

In my workshops, I stress the importance of having a goal when you go out to paint. This holds true for a painting retreat, too, even if that goal is simply to relax. When we did our critiques Sunday morning, I asked each artist as she presented her work two questions: What goal did you have for the retreat? And did you reach your goal?

Two artists, who had a show coming up, came to collect reference material for studio work; one came to learn how to abstract the landscape without losing the identity of a specific place; and another, who had never been outside of North America, came literally to expand her horizon and to keep a detailed journal. My own goal was to explore a new medium (gouache) and to gather references for a series of paintings I have pre-sold. Everyone agreed it has been a good week. (It also helped that we enjoyed a record-breaking dry spell on Skye; they’ve never had 20 days--and counting--of zero precipitation.)

Marion had made lunch reservations for us at the Skeabost Hotel, a historic hotel that started as a hunting lodge in 1871 on the banks of the River Snitzort, so that became our morning painting spot. But before lunch, a couple of us hiked the gravel road that follows the creek through woods of beech and oak to an old stone bridge that leads to tiny St Columba’s Isle. St Columba was the first Christian missionary to Scotland. The island, which sits in the middle of the creek, has two little ruined chapels plus an ancient cemetary that contains two carved effigies from the sixteenth century. Afterward, I headed back to the bridge where I found a good viewpoint for painting, a rocky perch right above the river.

After lunch, we drove off to another cemetary. This hilltop one was much newer, dating from the first world war. Stone walls criss-crossed the treeless hills, and sheep munched on the grass. As much as I liked the long vistas with lowering clouds, I had a hard time settling on something to paint. Maybe I was distracted by the sheep; a lamb accompanied each one, and it was fascinating to watch how the lambs interacted with their mothers. Finally, an old hawthorn tree by a stone wall drew my eye, and that became the subject for an impromptu demo.

A visit to Scotland isn’t complete, I guess, without a visit to a whiskey distillery. The next day, and the last day of our retreat, we headed for the Talisker Distiller in Carbost, where two of our party toured the plant. The rest of us painted on the shore of Loch Harport. Clouds made beautiful formations over the loch, and I found myself compelled to include them.

Next, we headed back home by way of Sligachan. All of us wanted to paint there one more time before the retreat ended. After lunch at the Sligachan Hotel, I hiked to a waterfall I’d discovered last time, but I soon realized there was no way to paint it safely, as I would need pitons and rope to anchor myself at the edge of the deep cataract. Instead, I found a little boggy pond and a grand view of the Black Cuillins. I was quite content on a little ledge, painting away, as the clouds thickened. I think a little rain may have fallen on the highest peaks.

And that was our final day. This morning as I write, two are preparing to drive to Glasgow for their flight. Another couple stay one more night before leaving. Trina and I are here till the weekend, but the record-breaking dry spell is predicted to come to an end soon, so I may not do much more sketching. When we leave Skye, we will head for the Orkney Islands, where I plan to track down my Halcro ancestors.

I enjoyed painting with everyone this week, but the retreat would not have been anywhere near as successful had it not been for Marion Boddy-Evans.  Her knowledge of the island and her cheerful demeanor added so much to our trip.  Thank you, Marion! 

We are already planning another plein air painting retreat on the Isle of Skye for May/June 2020.  If you're interested but haven't taken a workshop with me yet, please know that I give booking preference to past students.  For a full list of my workshops, please visit my website,

Return to Sligachan 5x14 gouache by Michael Chesley Johnson
Loch Harport 5x7 gouache by Michael Chesley Johnson


This little fellow, and English robin, perched
right on my work surface to say hello.

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