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Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Sligachan: The Story Behind the Painting

24x36 Oil/Canvas
by Michael Chesley Johnson
Available - See Details Here

Early last summer, I went to Scotland for the second time as a painter.  I took my little gouache kit, which made me very happy.  It permitted me to sit on a rock with my watercolor journal in my lap and to work unencumbered by tripod, turps can and the like.  If I had to choose an analogy, I would say it was like flying the way one flies nimbly in a dream, like Peter Pan.

Here's a YouTube video of my gouache sketches
(Can't see the video? Here's the link.)

Our painting group spent over a week on Isle of Skye.  One of my favorite painting spots was in Sligachan, just at the foot of the Cuillins.  Two beautiful stone bridges with arches cross the River Sligachan, which wasn't much of a river when we were there, just a trickle over tumbled rocks.  The Sligachan Hotel, a white edifice that looks like it has withstood many a Skye winter, promised an escape from the elements, and we enjoyed nice lunches after painting in the brisk June weather.  We went twice to paint—once, when we had spitting rain and much wind, and a second time, when we had fleeting sun with clouds that whirled around the peaks of the Cuillins.  It proved to be a moody place, which is perfect for my idea of Scotland.

My gouache kit, on-location at Sligachan
Painting beneath the "new" bridge - the bridge
I feature in the painting is in the distance
(Photo by Marion Boddy-Evans)

After I returned to America, I decided I wanted to take my little gouache sketches and make something big.  I finally decided on a view of the larger of the two bridges in Sligachan and to treat it as a picturesque landscape, where there is little indication of man and much of raw nature.  (If you aren't familiar with terms like the sublime, the picturesque and the pastoral, I refer you to this article.)  After looking at some of my photographs while thinking of a design, I knew I would have to take some liberties with the topography—but then, that's where being an artist gives you a certain god-like power.

I had two large canvases available; one which was square, and the other, rectangular.  Rectangular is always more suitable for a vista, which was my intent.  Then I got out my newsprint and charcoal and made a number of sketches in the same 2:3 format as my 24x36 canvas.  I always have trouble choosing a design among so many qualified candidates, so I put it to a vote in social media.  I ended up combining a couple of the top choices.  Then, I toned my canvas with Gamblin's transparent earth red—a warm, rich, orange hue—and laid in my final design with compressed charcoal on the canvas (coarse cotton) and sprayed it with fixative afterward.

Then I got busy with the painting.  I quickly brushed in the general color and values with paint thinned with Gamsol.  Gamblin's Portland Greys were a big help with this muted scene.  I next worked on painting the bridge.  The bridge is the center of interest, and I wanted to get the drawing right.  Built in the 1820s, the bridge uses three arches to span the river, and the bottom of each arch is supported by a pier.  The piers, I found, were problematic.  They are reinforced with angular sections that jut out into the flow.  Since the scale of the bridge in the painting is small, I eventually omitted these angular bits, as they caused the bridge to look more complex than I wanted, calling too much attention.  Also, although perspective does exaggerate the rise and fall of the bridge as it crosses the stream, I exaggerated it further for effect.

The foreground I painted almost entirely with a knife.  I wanted the crisp edges and strong contrasts that one finds in such a nearby sunny patch.  Elsewhere, I did use a knife—one needs to use it everywhere in order to keep the painting unified—but sparingly.  For the first time, I also used Gamblin's Neo Megilp medium.  One of my favorite words describes this medium:  thixotropic.  That is, it is a gel that become fluid when stirred or shaken.  The medium, which is a modern non-toxic replacement for the old, poisonous Maroger medium, keeps the paint workable for several hours and dries to a satiny gloss.  I used it freely in this painting, thinning the paint almost to a glaze in some areas, or keeping it thick and impasto-like in others.

Although the painting focuses on the bridge, I've left spots of light in the gloomy distance to carry the eye around.  This required a little adjusting and re-adjusting; at one point, I had so many spots of light things were a bit busy.  But with a knife, I was able to make adjustments easily.

I thought I'd include images of a few of the preliminary design sketches and steps of the painting process here.  I've got another retreat to Scotland scheduled for 2020.  I'll definitely visit Sligachan again.

Some design sketches.  "B" was the favorite in my poll.

Larger versions of "B"--or am I changing my mind?

Charcoal on 24x30 canvas, pre-toned with
Gamblin's transparent earth red

Step 1

Step 2

Step 3

Step 4

Step 5

Step 6
After this step, I decided I had too many sunspots in the distance,
and the light on the rim of the cloud was too obvious
a path for the eye.
Final Version
24x36 Oil/Canvas
Available - See Details Here