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Saturday, August 27, 2016

So Much Learned in Prolonged and Far-Flung Travels

As I'm nearing the completion of compiling the best photos from the Scotland trip, I have also been capturing the social media posts I made when overseas.  Such little gems are proving to be profound in their value, because they do not come from just one person. Many knowledgeable readers fed into the information through conversations and their own observations.  Through this, the book in its final form will be so much richer than it ever could have been had I been on my own in this.  Local residents, folks kind enough to meet up with me, show me their own unique little corner of Scotland, those who shared their music, their art, their knowledge and their insights - it all adds to the experience.

Long delays in painting production endured in the wake of ever-changing eyesight difficulties, and my having to adjust and learn to see true color and value once again. But I think I finally have it nailed and the photos will be released for patrons this coming week and I will get cracking on those paintings with fervor. The retraining. It's been much too long, but I am obsessive in my need to get it right and produce the best that I can.

I know that I came home a different person from the one who left. When you bound far beyond your comfort zone and engage in something completely different and far from all that is familiar, such is inevitable. As I capture the social media posts in the wake of the adventure, this collection of observations still rings loud and clear.  Here is my basic list, my heartfelt advice, to anyone traveling far from home to explore unfamiliar horizons.

~ Slow Down. 
Allow yourself to absorb all that is around you. Don't feel like you'll be wasting precious time if you stay in one place for several days. Trust me, you'll learn more and experience more by doing so, and gain a deeper insight to a particular place than the "went there, bought the t-shirt" crowd will ever see.

~Be flexible.
Allow yourself to be spontaneous and impulsive. Be ready to change directions quickly when an unexpected opportunity arises. Chances are, you'll be oh so glad you said "Sure, why not!"
Absorb the little things that are around you. Notice the little things that people often overlook. Unique stone colors in a particular region, intricate details on a building's facade. The insects that gather to a particular wildflower. Tracks of a deer in a distant wilderness. A pathway tucked away and not easily noticeable by the usual throngs of tourists. Closes and Wynds that lead away from the main streets.  The unique color of the sea in one place, and how it differs from the other shores you've seen. There was a magnificent sunset in Oban, and I stopped, transfixed, absorbing all its ever-changing colors while talkative tourists bustled all round me. At least from what I saw, I was the only one who stopped to notice... the others never saw it, but I still carry the treasure of its recollection in my mind's eye.
~Reach out.
Introduce yourself to folks. Be curious. Ask questions. Come to know the people as well as their unique insights into their hometowns. Listen. Learn new things. Your experiences will be so much richer for it!
~Be adventurous. 
Take a chance. Put yourself out there. Instead of touring in the conventional ways, try ways that most people don't. Go by public transport, get out of the tourist hub and visit a pub where only locals go, and talk with the locals who are willing to do so. Try hiking, try camping. Don't just look for the "postcard shots" that everyone else with a camera is after, look for something that is unique and every bit as special, and by all means, get away from the heavily used tourist routes! Seek out the smaller town, the quiet side of the loch, ride a bus where everybody else on board knows one another by first name, family, and local gossip. You'll come home with perspectives that most travelers never encounter. 
Just a few observations.  Don't limit yourself to package tours.  Do your research, compile a list of not only what sights you'd like to visit but also what cultural experiences you'd like to encounter along the way.  Try to do these things in your travels, and you will come away with memories far richer than those of average tourists. Do remember, the most magnificent scenery often lies just a half-mile off the road - so don't be afraid to Get Off The Beaten Path.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016


Rua MacMillan  - acrylics on blue slate turkey feathers
Last November I had a fright with my eyesight. The change happened abruptly, virtually within the span of a day. An urgent trip to the ophthalmologist revealed a condition that occurs with lots of folks with nearsighted vision, and that's the release of debris within the eyeball. It leaves one with 'lightning bolts' in the peripheral vision, and floaters, cobwebs, and other interesting bits in one's field of sight.

More troubling than these ever-present ocular objects is the fact that the affected eye now perceives everything darker than the other, normal-sighted eye. This new normal had left me very afraid to pick up a paintbrush again. What if my color perception has been so greatly altered that it will redefine the course of my painting ability? What if what I now produce will look okay to me, but atrocious to folks with normal vision and color perception? What if?

Even worse was the fact that a feather painting currently lay incomplete. It was a carefully planned multi-feather display that was well on toward completion, a portrait of a talented musician friend from whom I sought permission to paint for inclusion in the illustrated book underway, 'Off the Beaten Path - an Artist's Adventures in Scotland'. Color registers differently now than it did when this was begun, color and skin tones are so subtle in a portrait, oh this won't do at all!

Thoroughly intimidated by the circumstances, I set all color work aside and threw myself into a project that went in an entirely different direction - the production of a fantasy-themed, all-ages coloring book. This was a project long residing in my head, but offered a creative outlet while I adjusted to the change in vision. Black and white, the biggest contrast of all, right? Difficult to mess that up.

That coloring book project grew and grew, and took on a heavily researched life of its own. What I initially perceived as a three-month project evolved to a six-month creation, but that coloring book is another story for another article.

Meanwhile, color work sat patiently waiting, always present, always within view. Eventually the need and desire to complete that work grew larger than the intimidation and apprehension. It had to be met and concluded! The challenge was met, lots of the artist's music was played to carry the work through, adjustments were made, and the work? Complete.

My point is it wasn't as dreadful and impossible a task as I feared it would be. But when you get down to it, few things are.  Fear will prevent you from trying, fear will make things look bigger than they are. In the end, fear wants to be held as an excuse, leaned on as a crutch. 'Don't take on that daunting thing, stay down here with me. It's much safer here.' You can send fear packing by meeting it, acknowledging it, and then rolling up your sleeves and doing that intimidating thing anyway. And that is the place where we learn, grow, and evolve - on that alluring precipice on the other side of fear, just beyond our comfort zone.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Caledonian Waters

The mountains of Kintail. Water was retrieved
above this point.
High up in the mountain pass crossing Kintail, I paused. Not troubling to take the 40-pound pack off my back, I crouched by the trail. Sunlight glinted off spring water which funneled into the footpath and tumbled along that course down the mountain's flank. I fished out a 4-oz. plastic bottle from my pocket and filled it to the brim, secured its cap tightly, and placed it in the side pouch of my camera bag. It would be identified with a label at the campsite that night.

This action played out again and again all across Scotland as source water was collected along with sketches and many many photographs - Stirling Bridge, the River Affric, a spring on the Isle of Skye, high tide in front of St Columba's in Oban, a lakeshore in the Trossachs - and the ever-present Scottish rain, just to fill in the gaps.

It was an idea that was hatched this Spring, as I worked to improve ability in watercolor and colored
Water was obtained  from the river
under the Old Stirling Bridge.
pencil for sketchbook purposes. What if, when doing these field sketches and paintings in my travels, I find a way to collect water from these
places? What if I could bring that water home and employ it in watercolor in mixed-media creations in depicting the areas where the water came from?  It was one of those ideas that strikes in the early morning before one is fully awake, but it was an idea that stuck.  It was an idea well worth pursuing. While many use the water nearby when painting outdoors, I am not aware of anyone who has gone to the trouble of collecting such source water with great deliberation for purposes of studio work upon returning home again.

The idea immediately delighted.  One would
not know upon looking at a painting, of course, but that's where a certificate will come in. Each will have a certificate in a pocket on the back, explaining the idea and the process.

I've nine bottles in all. I do wish I'd filled more, but there was a factor of ever-growing weight involved, and as my whole world was on my back when going from one place to another, I had to be selective in what I would bottle.  All made it home safely, and now those nine filled bottles are safely tucked away in a studio drawer, awaiting image selection and the winter's work that lies ahead.

"Caledonian Waters" is one name under serious consideration for this body of work.  I look forward
Eight of my nine bottles.
to the creative process to come, and flights of memory that are sure to accompany as each dear bottle of source water is opened and applied to each geographic depiction.

Watch this blog, as these paintings will be presented here as this body of work grows and develops.

Until Monday - all the best!

Monday, October 26, 2015

Scotland - Cannich and preparing for the Affric Kintail Way

The little bus rumbled along rural road, with the driver chatting happily away to me as we made our way through the magnificent countryside.  This region of the highlands that is just west of Loch Ness looks remarkably like the region I live in, in Western Washington State. Two college girls clad in shorts and flipflops were the only other passengers on this van-sized bus. They were heading out from Inverness for a day walk around Loch Affric and were at the back of the vehicle, chatting amongst themselves, while I sat up front to listen to the driver and his wealth of stories.

This is something I've made mental note on many times. When one travels with someone else, one tends to do so in a bit of a bubble. You have a
built-in conversation partner, with no real need to reach outside of that sphere. If you are travelling solo, however, you must reach out,  converse with strangers,  get out of your comfort zone and talk with the folks you meet. This was no exception, and I learned a lot from the driver about this little community-supported bus, about his own travels abroad, and about renewable energy sources in the Highlands, just to name a few topics.

Because passengers were few and the schedule secure, the driver took me right to the office door of the campsite in Cannich.  This is a splendid place, nestled beneath the red-barked Caledonian pines at the gateway to Glen Affric, and the campsite is at a quiet and comfortable distance from the main road.  The campsite is also home to a very pleasing little restaurant, the Bog Cotton Cafe. Light, airy, of rustic construction, and carrying items by local crafters in their gift shop, this place immediately struck me as one that would be right at home in British Columbia, it had that kind of atmosphere.  The food is also good and the service is very friendly.

River views from walks along the main road
As soon as the tent was pitched and lunch was had, I set out walking to familiarize myself with this place and also with the location of the trailhead for the Affric-Kintail Way, as that long walk would be begun upon leaving here.  Walks around this community immediately put you at a slower, more relaxed pace, as that is the rhythm here.  The river tumbles along its stony course through the middle of the valley, forests line lush green meadows, and on this day the sunlight sparkled.   Soft rosy red is a dominant and signature color here - you'll see it in the bark of the Caledonian pines, in the fur of the pine marten and red deer, and in the plumage of crossbills and bullfinches.

I took an extra day here, just to take in the nature and the serenity. It truly is beautiful.  On the night before my long walk though, I hiked out to The Slaters Arms for a large protein-heavy meal and a pint. A spaniel welcoming crew are waiting at the door here to greet you upon your arrival, and the establishment has a wonderful and very traditional atmosphere. This was the first time I ever experienced mutton stew, which was just sublime. I would happily return here again, if given the chance.

Primary school in Cannich
Glen Affric has a wealth of nature and beauty to take in, and is the ancestral home of Clan Chisholm.  Glen Affric and all its splendid walks, is also an easy drive from Cannich.  I would recommend this quiet little community as a base, if one wishes to take day-trips into the glen to explore.  I certainly enjoyed my restful stay here.

I love the letterboxes to be found throughout
the rural highlands!

Our Lady Catholic church in Cannich

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Scotland Snippets - Morvich

White sheep grazing happily on steep green hillsides, purple foxglove with backdrop of dry stone walls, quaint cottages with Gaelic names - Tigh na Mara, Tigh an Alt; fishermen with outboards slowly making their way across the sea loch, wait staff at the little restaurant cheerily waving to them as they pass. The scent of peat fires drifting from older cottages in the evening breeze.  Sunlight dancing across the water before settling behind the Isle of Skye for the night, the towering mountains of Kintail standing sentinel over all.  That - is Morvich and vicinity.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Dextral Case for Spiral Stairs

Even when the journey is over, it isn't really over - for one continues to learn.

It's an enormous stack of photos that must be gone through. I am doing so, methodically, painstakingly. They are being grouped by location, by timeline, and by subject.  In so doing, I paired two photos from two different weeks and two different locations.

Descending the stairs of St Rule's Tower in St Andrews, Fife.
A kind university administrative friend in Saint Andrews showed me Saint Rule's Tower at the ruins of the old Saint Andrews Cathedral. A talented musician friend showed me some of the hidden gems in downtown Glasgow, among which was an architectural center known as The Lighthouse.  In both locations I snapped a photo of the whirling pattern of a descending spiral staircase, but it wasn't until now that I noticed that both sets of stairs spin downward in a counter-clockwise fashion. And I began to wonder why. Do all spiral stairs run in this direction?

Add caption
After some very interesting online dialog on the matter with friends and a bit of Google research, the facts and reasons began to reveal themselves. Once known, it was rather obvious. Most spiral stairs in the UK do this, and the practice has its roots in medieval history.  Castles, towers and other such buildings were defended from the top down. Having a spiral staircase that descends in a counter-clockwise fashion makes it easier for the owner to ward off invaders, as his right hand is not obstructed and he may freely swing his sword.  The invaders who climb these stairs are doing so clockwise, so it is more difficult for them to fight. Most people are right-handed, so this is why this construction is effective.

There are notable exceptions to this, though. There are a few castles whose owners were left-handed, and so theirs were built with left-handed stairs so they may more easily defend their castle.  Ferniehurst, owned by Clan Kerr, and Bolton Castle in Yorkshire are two examples of such. There are stories that Clan Kerr trained their swordsmen to fight left-handed, so that they would have an advantage in attacking castles and ascending the more commonly built right-handed stairs.

So how are such spiral staircases built here in America? Did architecture continue this medieval practice, or does the direction of the staircase rely completely on aesthetics and design?  I don't have the answer to this, but one thing's for certain - next time I find myself in a large building, I'll opt to take the stairs!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Sights and Sounds of Saint Giles Cathedral

Although I don't want to be too wordy with today's post, I would like to give acknowledgement to the wonderful array of portable technology and connectivity that we have at our beck and call these days, and all the doors that are open because of it.

Imagine being in Edinburgh, and mentioning on social media that you wish to head out and visit Saint Giles Cathedral as you've not yet seen it, and then hearing back from a talented musician that he just happens to be performing in that cathedral within the hour. That's an opportunity that you would likely have missed otherwise, or an opportunity that would not have existed at all just ten years ago.

Now imagine you're also going to that cathedral with a head full of fresh knowledge, because a mason friend from Canada, who recently visited Edinburgh, mentioned on his social media page the presence of something you'd not heard of before - mason's marks - and he posted a photo of one. Intrigued, you did a fair bit of research into these and determined to find some when you get to the cathedral. You successfully find a few, because the kind volunteer there put you on the right track when you asked about them.

Your visit just became that much richer with this wonderful tapestry of knowledge and experience that you probably would have completely missed otherwise.  I would not have known anything about mason's marks, let alone having looked for them on the cathedral's central pillars. I would not have heard the haunting duet between stone and instrument when Tom Oakes gave such a spellbinding performance inside that grand building.  They were experiences and knowledge that could be readily collected and brought home to be shared with others.  It is an amazing time we live in.

No more words. Let me show you a few snapshots from this magnificent cathedral.

Until Monday -- all the best!