Saturday, May 25, 2013

The City of the Tribes

The City of the Tribes: so named for the twelve family names who...well, I don't know what they did, but I guess they had the place sewn up. I couldn't even give you all twelve names. That's what Google is for!

Anyone who has visited Galway City on the west coast of Ireland will be familiar with its liveliness and charm. The above scene is the embodiment of the dinkiness that is Galway, with its sweet little cottages, painted in defiantly vivid colours.

Galway is a medieval town, established in 1124. I don't know that much about its early history, but back in the 16th Century, when Queen Elizabeth I was hellbent on taming Ireland, the town was a haven of relative peace and decorum in a countryside of wild men. I had better not name names as memories are very long around here but two families were banned from entering the town itself as they were regarded as being troublemakers. I meet people now with the same names and I wonder if time has calmed them down a bit.

Galway is also a city of water. I have no sense of direction and as a student back in the early 90s I was always getting lost, and there was always a river or canal I was sure I recognised nearby. You would think it would be impossible to get lost when there is a network of waterways, complete with distinctive bridges, to guide you around a tiny city but somehow I managed it. Those were happy days of learning, laughter and love, the latter of which vanished like the snows in April. Not all the love I found in Galway vanished: I am married to a Sasanach (English) man I met at a party on Lough Atalia Road (more water), which leads into the docks. They are always full of ships and boats bustling in and out of port. We have three Galway children, who are developing Galway accents (eek).

On the far right of the picture above is a tall building, whose other side is at one end of the docks. So the water you see in this scene is the point at which the River Corrib meets the Atlantic Ocean, with the river coming in from the left of the view, and the sea stretching out to the right. My viewpoint was in the Claddagh, looking at the city itself, and at the row of colourful workers' cottages which form the Long Walk. 

The Claddagh itself is a marshy area bordering the sea, and used to have its own king. When I first came to Galway in 1991 there was still a gentleman to whom the people of the Claddagh paid homage. I don't know if or when that custom disappeared.

I have painted the scene above many times. One day I was at home with my two young babies, one and a half years old and brand new, when I received a call. It was from an old college mate, Fiona. "It's Paddy's leaving do tomorrow," she said. "We'd like to make him a gift of a painting. Do you have anything at the moment?" Of course I didn't! With two babies, the only times I escaped to paint was for a commission - anything else would have been seen as an indulgence. That meant they were all sold in advance. "I'm afraid not, Fiona," I said. "But I can do something for you. What time is the presentation?" "Five o'clock," she said. At six o'clock the following morning I was already on my little stool, across the river from the colourful houses. I had phoned my framer in advance and he had a mount cut to size, and a frame ready. At midday I dropped it in. At half past I collected it and by half one I was home to give the baby his feed. It was a moody piece, painted in the rain, which gave the slate rooftops a lovely shine, and the sky was full of soggy clouds. I think Paddy liked his painting and I'm sure it reminds him of the time he spent as a palaeontology lecturer here in Galway.

It's not the easiest scene to paint, although I always enjoy it. I start with a long horizontal line in the middle. I usually use the bottom of the houses as a baseline, as I know that's straight. Getting that line horizontal is actually the hardest thing I do - you need a huge T-square or a very long ruler...and I don't like to measure as the hand-drawn element is lovely. To a point! No one wants to see the right drooping down, as i always seem to do.

Once I've got my line straight, I do construction lines for all the windows and doors. They are not all on the same line but enough of them are that it's a useful guide. Then I do the same with the vertical sides of the windows and doors.

Next, I block in the roofline. They are fun to do because the angles are really cute and if you get it right, your picture will look automatically sweet. The perspective will become clear, as the rooflines change on the left and right of your view.

The next bit is fun - that's when I ink in with my trusty Platinum Carbon pen. It's when it's all done I simply wash watercolour on top.

You can't really go wrong at this stage. A good tip is to wait for the sky to do something interesting - a mix of cloud and blue is always best - and when it arrives, paint as fast as you can. Don't forget to do the sky (a) in one go and (b) preferably before you have painted below it, or you will smudge your newly-painted bits.

I needed about four hours to do this, maybe a bit more - it's good to do it over two days but just remember to do the bits that will change first, like the sky (see above) and of course the tide. I know you can't guarantee it (especially not in this mad country) but try to choose two consecutive days when the weather will be more or less similar.

That's it!

If you were to walk left from the end of the row of houses above, you would immediately be in the best part of Galway City. It's known as the Latin Quarter and consists of narrow, pedestrianised streets, with bars and restaurants along its length, and outdoor tables full of lively conversation. There are often buskers along there and they contribute wonderfully to the happy atmosphere. I first arrived in Galway in the month of October. It was just a normal Tuesday afternoon and there were no festivities on at the time. I remember thinking the atmosphere was like Grafton St. (Dublin's fanciest street) at Christmas. I now know that it's always like that (apart from a November afternoon on a school day in the rain).

Here's a view down Kirwan's Lane, one of the seven medieval lanes which lead off the twisty and windy Quay St., the busiest part of the Latin Quarter:

 Here's another view of the Long Walk, drawn from a bit further along:

There are always swans in the sea there and they always find their way into the scene. I really like drawing them - that S of their necks makes such a nice sweep with the pen.

Other occasions for which I have painted the Long Walk include: for my father's birthday two years ago (he is nuts about that scene); for my friend Irene's wedding: for my friend Cathy's 40th birthday and for my husband's friend Glenn's 40th birthday. I've painted it just to make a few quid. And it's been good to me: I've sold 45 prints of it, so there are 55 left in the print run of 100 at this time. 

You're not supposed to park where I like to park when I paint The Long walk. It is typical of Galway that far from asking me to move on, the traffic warden has made sure no one blocks my view.

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