Leaving Edinburgh in June of 2016, we drove through the highlands towards Skye, stopping to visit 3 castles in 3 days along the way (Edinburgh Castle in the city, Sterling Castle south-west of the city, and Eilean Donan near the new bridge to Skye). Though rain had hit in Glencoe the night before, locals continued to express concerns of drought. For Scotland, I guess this means it rains periodically instead of every day. Lush green around us, with flourishing flowers, would seem to say that the land had seen plenty of water! But, I’ll admit that the fact that I could wander with my camera beneath the bridge at Eilean Donan confirmed lower amounts of rainfall than the area was used to seeing. Around 5 p.m. (according to my sketch journal), I walked a good ways out onto rocks beyond the castle and sat down with my sketchbook to draw. The panorama (in the photo montage below) was taken from that vantage point. It was interesting to see and sketch the castle from this less iconic angle. Just as I finished my sketch, large drops of water began to plop onto the page. Stowing away sketchbook and camera, I scrambled back over the rocks toward castle and proper land.
As I’ve mentioned in other blog posts, Eilean Donan is one of the most photographed castles in Scotland. In fact, a photography contest was going on while we were there! People from all over the world had sent in their favorite and best shots of the place, seen from various angles, including from boats out on the water, or gorgeous sunrise shots with pinks glowing on the horizon, and nighttime shots with castle lit by star and lamp. These photos were posted all through the cafe where my parents and I ate lunch that day. Winners of the contest had been decided days before our arrival.
Fast-forward to present-day. I was prepping a new unit for my Drawing 2 class – drypoint etching, and decided my demo piece would be a good chance to pull out photos of the castle and try something new in the Scotland Series. Drypoint etching is actually a technique I had never tried before, though I’ve heard plenty about it and seen samples of Albrecht Durer and James McNeill Whistler through the years. It’s a form of etching that doesn’t require acid. Instead, you use a metal scribe (looks like a sharp metal pencil) to scratch your marks into the plate surface. In Whistler or Durer’s times, copper plates were common to use. But, for cost-efficiency and ease of procurement, I picked up Plexiglas sheets from the hardware store and cut them down to size for my students. We actually started the process simply using nails (also from the hardware store), and sharpening them with sandpaper. For my etching, the side buildings and bushes to the left of the castle were all done with a nail. But, once we were a few days into the unit, I determined that it was worth the cost of ordering a class-set of traditional scribe tools. Boy, what a difference! You get much better control and cleaner/deeper marks with the scribe than with a nail.
Though this was my first etching, I’m pretty happy with the results! After a test-print, I tweaked minor areas, adding more hatch-marks, making some transitions more subtle. I’ve also begun to experiment with the inking and wiping process. In printmaking, you can change the look from one print to the next merely by adjusting the amount of ink you apply to (or wipe off of) certain areas of the plate. On my plate, there were bushes that tended to soak up too much ink. So, I’ve begun to wipe those more thoroughly before running it through the press. I’ve also been playing with leaving smudges of ink in the sky to accent clouds there. This is the type of thing Whistler would do with his prints as well, leaving sky or water virtually empty, but using a hint or smear of ink left on the plate to give subtle shading to those smooth surfaces. My kids are really enjoying this unit! They love getting to use the printing press (which looks like a metal dinosaur with a captain’s wheel to steer it). Perhaps I’ll get permission from a few of them to post results of their work on my blog. If you’re an art teacher reading this blog, I’ve been very happy with the Akua Intaglio inks and Akua tarlatan for wiping plates. The inks have an oily consistency but are soap and water washable, which makes for easier clean-up. Having tried drypoint etching, I’ll definitely keep using this method/media. There are several other shots from the Scotland trip that would translate well into printmaking. Now that I have a feel for using the scribe tool and creating shadows and texture with cross-hatching marks, I’ll work on improving depth, shading, and subtleties within the technique.
Opening the window of your apartment on the Royal Mile, you’re met with sights and sounds of a bustling city. Tourists and lorries, street vendors and shop owners create a chatter of activity. This cacophony is part of the music of Edinburgh. However, it’s merely the backdrop for a ribbon of song that floats and weaves through the city street. For, on several corners stand Edinburgh pipers whose bagpipes screel the notes of the nation.
During the several days we spent in or near the Royal Mile, we saw (and listened to) pipers of all ages. Each wore a traditional kilt, some in full regalia. And most played traditional Scottish bagpipes. Then, one day we came across a young piper whose music carried more harmonies, without the shrill drone of Scottish pipes. I asked the young man, whose name is Rex, whether these were Uilleann pipes – an Irish form of bagpipe I’d heard once in college. The Uilleann pipes look a lot like those Rex played. Turns out I was on the right track! Rex was playing a lesser-known instrument called the Scottish smallpipes. In preparation for this blog post, I emailed Rex, asking for more information about smallpipes and his experiences as a piper. Rather than summarize what he said, I’ll share his responses here:
Specifics: The ‘Scottish smallpipes’ as played when we met are a less commonly played form of pipes. The more traditional ‘Highland Bagpipes’ are most common. They have a huge link with Scottish culture and are referred to by some as an ‘instrument of war’. The ‘Scottish smallpipes’ are more quiet and usually played in pubs and at local gatherings. Very few people play these and so it takes around 6 months to a year to get a good set from a maker. They have the same finger work as the highland bagpipe although look and are played differently (with a bellow instead of a blowpipe). They are great for playing with other instruments, particularly the guitar whereas the highland bagpipes are more of a solo instrument (unless of course played with drums) The Uilleann pipes, also known as Irish pipes are, in my opinion the holy grail of piping expertise. There is a saying which is: “7 years learning, 7 years practicing, 7 years playing”…21 years to master. They are usually played sitting down and have 2 octaves with wrist actions to hold chords at the same time as playing. These are extremely complex to play and indeed make, which is why it can take several years to get hold of a set.
When traveling, you meet many people along the way. Some are faces in passing: the friendly young woman in a dress shop; an Irish gal who visited Edinburgh for a month and decided to stay a year; a young rugby coach who serves Subway sandwiches; the Edinburgh native who shared stories of her city as we hopped on a tour bus. Others we’ve been in contact with for several months and may stay in contact with long after we leave…such as the lady who owns our tiny rental home on Storr Loch. Each face is a Polaroid snapshot of our time in Scotland. A snatch of conversation here, a smile or word of advice there; all lives colliding, intermingling, then going our separate ways. I suppose daily life is like that back home, but I notice the people and remember the conversations more here because they’re connected with new sights and experiences.
Today’s portrait is one of those passing faces. In fact, I only know his first name because I happened to ask the receptionist at our hotel. Charles performs at Glencoe Inn several evenings a week. If I remember correctly, he was a drummer in a band that traveled ’round parts of Europe. But he felt that drums drowned out easy conversation. So, he picked up a guitar instead, where he can play and sing more as background music in the local pub. Simon & Garfunkel; the Beatles; Peter, Paul & Mary; and several other favorites are now part of my Glencoe memories. We talked of guitars – the tone difference between a Taylor and a Gibson. My dad has a 12-string he’s played since I was born. Charles has a 6-string, specially made for his left-hand playing. Mom and I will pass through that area again at the end of our trip. So, perhaps we’ll see him perform once more!
My brother and sister-in-law gave me a pocket-sized Winsor & Newton Cotman watercolor set for my birthday this year, in anticipation of this trip. They also gave me a couple of watercolor sketch pads. So, I came to Scotland prepared to paint! Winsor & Newton is the brand I’ve used since high school. The colors are rich; the texture is creamy. They cost more but are worth the investment if you plan to work long-term in watercolor. When you’re purchasing paints, cheaper brands tend to have a duller color and dusty texture as they dry. It’s as though they sit on top of the paper and don’t want to soak in or blend properly. My Cotman watercolors have never disappointed. And the pocket set is wonderful, including a tiny paintbrush that holds its tip shape and carries pigment well. The above portrait is approximately 7″x7″, all done with a Winsor & Newton sable (round, size 4) brush and the tiny brush from my new set. Sable brushes can cost anywhere from $20 – $60 each. However, if you take good care of them, they’ll easily last you 6+ years. This painting is completed almost entirely with blue, Alizarin crimson, yellow ochre, and burnt umber. My pocket set doesn’t include Payne’s Grey (my students know this is one of my favorite colors) or black, but I can get by without those…mixing burnt umber with blue to make a grey. I hope to post a few more “Portraits of Scotland” in the next few weeks, so stay tuned!