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Drawing Dry Stone Walls

Last Saturday was National Drawing Day, which was a great excuse to dust off my watercolour set and dig out my pencil case.

The Dry Stone Wall Association of Ireland ran a 'Draw a Wall' campaign as part of the National Drawing Day in a bid to encourage more people to stop and look at the beauty of our dry stone heritage.

So like many others on Saturday, I dug out the art supplies and had a go at drawing and painting walls.

We did have the extra challenge of being confined to 5km of our homes due to the current restriction in place with the Covid 19 pandemic, but I had plenty of dry stone related images on my laptop to keep me occupied. and distracted during the lockdown.

I do photograph walls often but I do need to spend more time drawing them. Not only is there great satisfaction in drawing dry stone walls but there is also the benefit of being able to isolate or enhance certain details that may otherwise be lost in an image. Across is an example of this, where I was documenting this lovely 'vertical wedged' dry stone wall in the hills of South Tipperary, when I discovered a number of very faded 'Benchmarks' (or crows feet) in some of the larger red sandstone blocks. These benchmarkers are relics of the ordnance survey of Ireland that was begun by the British military in the 1830s, and aimed at producing an accurate map of the country for a new rateable valuation and taxation system. Sometimes referred to as 'Crows feet' due to their shape, these marks were part of a low-tech yet sophisticated system that enabled the ordnance surveyors to map the terrain by siting their "bench" against the horizontal grove and determine height above sea level. Corresponding Benchmarks can also be found on the old survey maps.

The ones I came across on this old wall were very faded and were very hard to photograph but what was almost completely lost in a photograph was clearly captured in my sketch.

While I did a fair bit of watercolour painting in my late teens and in my early years of art college, they were completely lost to me for quite a few years.

[Images above, from the Du Noyer exhibition]

It was actually two years ago when at an exhibition in the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork City that I got inspired to pull out the watercolors again. Coincidently the exhibition relates to the aforementioned 1800's Ordnance Survey of Ireland. The exhibition was entitled Stones, Slabs and Seascapes: George Victor Du Noyer's Images of Ireland (1817 – 1869).

Du Noyer worked at the Geological Survey Ireland from 1847 until his death in early 1869. A resident of Dublin, he spent a great proportion of his life travelling by foot around the south-east corner of Ireland documenting Irish geological features and societies. The Irish painter, geologist and antiquarian left behind a legacy of over 5,000 watercolours and drawings, dating from his school days to the year of his death in 1869.

Employed by the Ordinance Survey and the Geological Survey, Du Noyer walked the countryside documenting everything that he saw through his scientific drawings.

This exhibition was truly inspirational to me and I believe it was the very next day I blew the thick layer of dust off of my watercolor set and began to re-educate myself in the use of watercolors.

Painting with watercolors is ideally suited to making quick sketches on the go as they dry fast.

In regards to technique, watercolours are very different to painting with oils or acrylics but are actually very suited to painting dry stone walls.

One of the great things about dry stone walls is that they absorb light.

Now I don't mean they absorb light the way a black hole in space absorbs light, but if for example you are like me, and you don't like wearing sunglasses and you find yourself standing facing a block or mortared stone wall and the sun breaks through the clouds, you become blinded as the sunlight bounces of the solid mass of the wall, directly into your squinting eyes.

When the sun breaks through the clouds and you are standing there admiring a dry stone wall, something magical happens. It is the dry stone walls ability to absorb light into the negative spaces between the stones that makes the wall come to life, creating a deep texture to the wall.

When painting with watercolors you work from the darkest areas of an image, always leaving the lightest areas til last as unlike oil or acrylic paints, you cannot paint light over dark.

For the most part (with exception maybe to painting 'single' lace walls), when painting dry stone walls with watercolours you are not really painting stones at all, you are really painting these 'light absorbing' negative spaces between the stones.

The for the first sketch I created for National Drawing Day was this interesting stone faced ditch in west Cork. The majority of stone faced ditches in this part of the country are vertically wedged stones, however this criss cross, almost herringbone pattern caught my eye.

The next drawing I did for National Drawing Day goes back to my first point about being able to use sketching to isolate details in a landscape that can be lost into a busy landscape. This time though the detail being highlighted is considerably larger than a crows foot.

The small coastal town of Baltimore in west Cork is busy and compact place with a very busy harbor full of sailing boats and passenger ferries taking tourists and islanders alike out to the nearby Skerkin and Cape Clear Islands. There are lots of interesting stone features to see here, but one of most beautiful in my opinion is one that is often hardly even noticed or appreciated by many.

This is the stone sea wall within the harbor. This beautiful wall shows of the incredible strength of walls that are built with stones that are flipped from their more common horizontal beds into a vertical position and wedged together like tightly packed books on a bookshelf.

I initially planned to include in the sketch part of the sailing club building that is protected by this sea wall but thankfully I changed my mind and the focus remains of the beautiful sea wall.

It is also worth noting that this sketch started off as a pencil drawing that I then coloured in with watercolours and I was not happy with the result at all. I then highlighted the negative spaces in the stonework with a ink pen and suddenly the image came to life :)

I really enjoyed getting the sketchbook out for National Sketching Day and hope to do a bit more while this lockdown continues. Have you been sketching any walls? feel free to email me your creations of post them on my Stone Art facebook page.

If you would like to see all the great artworks that were created for the 'Draw a Wall' campaign for National Drawing Day, you can find them all on the DSWAI website here or click on the image below.

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