Interview With Irish Watercolour Artist Mary Crowley

"[This painting] is of two wee fishing boats that are always tied up at Leenan Pier in Clonmany, Co Donegal. I love to sit at this pier and watch the fishermen working. I often am found sitting on the beach opposite this pier just watching the waves- there is something hypnotic about the sea. I love waves, their form, sound, power and ever changing colours. I often try to catch that momentum in watercolours for hours
." -- Watercolor Artist Mary Crowley

What do you know about Ireland? If you're like me, most of your concepts of the Emerald Isle come from St. Patrick's Day Celebrations : shamrocks, and leprechauns, wearing green, and for some, drinking green beer. Some concepts come from movies - whether a political history such as Michael Collins or a romantic movie such as The Quiet Man or perhaps a television show such as BallyKissangel. Not having set foot upon Ireland's shores, I must admit that my ideas are somewhat limited. I hope travel will cure me of that one day, even more so after conducting this interview.

Recently, I found these stunning works online by Watercolour Artist Mary Crowley. It was their beauty that caught my attention. I never knew watercolour could be so vibrant! Upon further inspection, I found that Ms. Crowley is an Irish native, and that these paintings I admired so much were of Irish landscapes. I knew immediately that I wanted to present her work on this blog if she would allow me to do so, and I am happy to say that she agreed.

I hope you enjoy reading about her creative process and inspiration as well as viewing such lovely landscapes of the country she calls home.

Watercolour Artist Mary Crowley

I notice several of your paintings show your connection to the sea.

Safe Harbour. © Mary Crowley

Buncrana Blue Skies. © Mary Crowley

At Rest in Urris. © Mary Crowley

I have a deep love of Water and the Sea. I even bought my home looking out onto Lough Swilly. I find sometimes the urge to paint boats water and beaches will override my need to paint waiting commissions. I can be found sitting on the rocks near my home sketching waves and rocks and tidal pools. I am so content laid in bed listening to the waves crashing on the beach in front of my home. I think it mainly comes from living on an Island.

Speaking as an American who has never had the good fortune to travel to Ireland, what do you think would surprise people like myself the most about Ireland?

I think that most Americans would be surprised that we have all the modern conveniences of other countries, but we still have a strong sense of community. There are the usual touristy things like pubs with traditional music and dance. But we also have a thriving coffee shop and cafe culture, where the owners will come over and chat and discuss local events and welcome strangers. Mainly we as Irish people still have time to stop and chat and smile. Whilst walking down the street in the town where I live, most people will smile and say hello. If a stranger looks lost we tend to stop and help them, it is this friendliness that makes Donegal people so loved.

Forgotten. © Mary Crowley

How would you describe Donegal?

Donegal has been referred to as Ireland in miniature with beautiful, deserted sandy beaches dappled along its rugged coastline and breathtaking scenery amidst its unspoiled natural environment. The scenic mountain ranges and rambling hills offer boundless routes for hill walkers and hikers, while the beaches provide excellent facilities for sailing, swimming, water sports and fishing. Our scenery is literally breathtaking and we guarantee views that will lift your spirits and remain with you forever and the ever-changing seasonal shades and skies mean the colours and hues are always different no matter what time of year you visit. Donegal is an artist’s paradise.

Malin Head Sheep. © Mary Crowley

When I noticed that you describe yourself as a 'self-taught artist,' I found that incredibly encouraging. What, if anything, do you feel is the greatest obstacle in becoming an artist when a person learns the creative process in that way? And conversely, do you believe there are advantages to being self-taught as opposed to formal schooling?

Being self taught I found that the greatest obstacle to me was frustration - my disappointment at the time taken to learn each step in the watercolour process. I wanted to paint a masterpiece immediately. I kept repeating errors because nobody was there to correct my tiny mistakes. That made all the difference to the time it took for me to learn basic techniques. Having no curriculum to follow meant I learnt in a haphazard manner. I spent a lot of time trying techniques and processes that have not been relevant to my style of painting.

Finally a major obstacle was my discovery that an ability to draw is essential as a basis for a good realistic painting. My drawing skills were zero as I had never taken art at school, consequently my progress with this is still slow.

To me the greatest advantage to being self taught over formal schooling is I can work at my own pace and because I have learnt through trial and error I have my own style. I do feel that it would have been wonderful to have been classically trained in both drawing and painting. (Sadly not readily available to me) I believe formal training in painting and drawing techniques has an awful lot to offer a representational artist.

How did you get started?

Following a serious illness I started to paint, my doctors had advised me to take up something to help me relax. My Cardiologist was not impressed when I told him that I had decided to take up Watercolours, as an Oil Painter he felt oils would be much less stressful. He joked that Watercolours would cause a second heart attack!

Wish I Was There. © Mary Crowley

This does look like a glorious beach to get some sun and meditate.

Are beaches such as this one in abundance?

Inishowen, Donegal has some of the most beautiful beaches in Ireland. From secluded, private coves, to long family-perfect strands and Blue Flag beaches. Nothing rejuvenates the mind and body than a stroll along an endless sandy beach and the roar and smell of the Atlantic breakers crashing on the shore. We are so lucky, Wendy you could practise your yoga happily here.

Shadow Play. © Mary Crowley

The Laneway. © Mary Crowley

The Winter Hush. © Mary Crowley

These landscapes seem like a good place for a walk. The light in all pictures is very lovely, even with the snow. Is it tricky getting the light right?

When I paint I try to relate what I see - I enthusiastically try to capture the light and atmosphere of my environs. The light is constantly changing in the West of Ireland therefore it is very challenging for an artist to try to capture it.

The Peace Bridge. © Mary Crowley

This print depicts the beautiful new Peace Bridge in Derry and The Guild Hall two of the best known tourist areas of Derry. This year 2013 Derry is City of Culture.

What happens in the City of Culture Event? Would you mind talking about that?
What would a tourist look forward to discovering  in Derry and The Guild Hall?

Derry~Londonderry was awarded the UK City of Culture designation for 2013. After many years of turmoil Derry-Londonderry is enjoying the dividend of the peace process and undergoing a renaissance, transforming physically and culturally.  Being designated UK City of Culture for 2013 enabled the city to accelerate the pace of change and provided a new story for the city to tell to the world. The Guildhall is a beautiful building and is well worth taking time to see. It is located in the heart of the city, just outside the city walls and close to the Peace Bridge.

The Guildhall. © Mary Crowley

Fashioned in neo-gothic style, the Guildhall is one of the most striking buildings in the North West and was originally built in 1887 by The Honourable The Irish Society.  The red sandstone building is of neo-gothic architecture, with Tudor overtones.

The Guildhall contains stunning examples of stained glass windows and visitors will be intrigued by its unique history and appeal.  The staircase, main hall organ and corridors give a fascinating insight into this distinctive building.

The cultural programme for 2013 featured a calendar full of big ‘cultural brands’ including the Turner Prize, London Symphony Orchestra, Royal National Ballet, and the Lumiere Festival.

The Pier to Freedom. © Mary Crowley

What were you thinking when you painted the Pier to Freedom?

I felt the woodwork on the pier was begging to be noticed, everybody steps on to the pier looking at the water. I felt the wood deserved to be painted as it gave access to the water’s freedom. I loved the colours, all around felt warm and was bathed in shades of green, even the shadows just made the pier look stronger.

Safe Haven. © Mary Crowley

The water underneath the swan and cygnets appears so much like the genuine article. How would you advise anyone having difficulty with painting water as opposed to land?  Would you mind describing a bit about your creative process in making it look fluid?

 I think I would advise anybody trying to get to grips with water, to stop looking at it as a solid colour, just find the shapes in the water and paint the tones you see.

I tend to paint water using glazes, with transparent washes. I apply my wash then let it dry completely and glaze another wash over some areas letting it dry before glazing again where needed. Sometimes an overall wash to join everything is needed to add that final depth to water.

Causeway. Antrim. Northern Ireland. © Mary Crowley

[About this work]: According to Irish legend, the columns are the remains of a causeway built by a giant. The story goes that the Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool) was challenged to a fight by the Scottish giant Benandonner. Fionn accepted the challenge and built the causeway across the North Channel so that the two giants could meet. In one version of the story, Fionn defeats Benandonner. In another, Fionn hides from Benandonner when he realises that his foe is much bigger than him. Fionn's wife, Úna, disguises Fionn as a baby and tucks him in a cradle. When Benandonner sees the size of the 'baby', he reckons that its father, Fionn, must be a giant among giants. He flees back to Scotland in fright, destroying the causeway behind him so that Fionn could not follow.

I love the causeway, I especially like it at first or last light of the day. I needed to paint the subtle effects that a colourful sky has on the rocks and columns.

Greencastle Gold Course, Co Donegal. © Mary Crowley

It has been said in jest that golf is "a good walk spoiled." Yet the scenery surrounding the golfers seems to be a bonus to the activity at hand. How do you decide what landscapes to feature in your art? Is there some particular element that catches your eye?

I am particularly drawn to light more than any certain feature, the “thing” that attracts me to landscapes would normally be the colour harmony or the intimacy of the place. Water can make me really wish to paint. I like the movement of flowing water.

When thinking of Ireland, I think of the description I have heard the most: The Emerald Isle. In images, Ireland does seem very green. Do you think that description does it justice?  Do you think it is accurate?

Yes Wendy, Ireland is very green… but if you really look into the details of our landscape there are many other lovely colours present. The description is apt and probably does it some justice – we have enough rainfall to keep everything lush. The word green in relation to Ireland is covered by the song words “The forty shades of green”

[About this work]: Carrickabraghy Castle, one of the iconic sites of the historic Inishowen peninsula, is now in ruins and in imminent danger of collapse. The Castle is of great architectural and cultural value and has potential to be developed as an educational and tourism resource that could create valuable jobs locally. I for one love visiting and painting Carrickabraghey Castle.

I am selling my Limited Edition print of Carrickabraghey for €35 and I shall donate €5 for each one sold to the restoration fund.

The closest comparison that comes to mind for me as an aged, historic landmark in my part of the world would be the Alamo. It would be devastating if it began to collapse and was left to do so without any attempt to restore it. I think it highly unlikely that would be allowed to happen, because it is an icon. Do you think Carrickabraghey Castle is regarded in a similar light? Could you explain what it is and a bit of the history?

Wendy I am afraid our wee castle is just a small local castle only important to the inhabitants of this area. It doesn’t have International fame like the Alamo.

Carrickabraghy Castle is one of the iconic sites of the historic Inishowen peninsula, it was in ruins and in imminent danger of collapse. The Carrickabraghy Restoration Society hopes to save the castle and preserve it as an important ruin. I shall have to repaint my picture as they have strengthened the structure so much.

Inishowen was the land of the O’Dohertys, it has five other historic castles, but the O’Doherty Castle at Carrickabraghy is the only one at present undergoing conservation. The castle was built in the 16th century, it was occupied by the Doagh Branch of the Ó Docharthaigh. Gearalt, a member of that family, held the lordship of Inishowen from 1526-1540 and it was probably while he was chieftain that the castle was built. On Gearalt’s death the lordship returned to the Elagh Branch where it remained until the death of Cahir (Cathaoir), the last chieftain of Inishowen in 1608.

The castle is one of my favorite places to sit and paint, it has the wonderful backdrop of the Atlantic and Malin Head, there is also an amazing blow hole behind it -where the sea roars up and belches out all over the rocks, quite an awesome sight.

What do you think it is that draws you, as an artist, to paint the landscapes of Ireland or anywhere for that matter? What do you think it is about landscapes, wherever they may be, that appeal to people who have never been there?

I think that my love of this area makes me want to capture it on paper. I love capturing a delightful scene no matter where I am. Beauty always makes me want to paint.
I enjoy looking at landscapes because I feel there is a rhythmical beauty to them. The skies, fields, buildings all of these elements blend their shapes into colourful or wistful beauty. I feel it is this rhythm that people who enjoy landscapes notice, it draws them to landscape paintings.

Do you ever use your art to promote local culture or events?

During the City of Culture celebrations Craft Connects with the Arts Council got me to host Watercolour workshops in the Craft Village in Derry to try to encourage the public to take an interest in painting. Local Charity’s often use my work to raise money for some particularly good causes.

What do you enjoy most about what you do?

I love my watercolours- I love the act of painting. I feel so content even complete when I pick up my paintbrushes. The pleasure I receive when playing with colour is immense. To be able to articulate the creative process through painting gives me great satisfaction and joy. I often get lost for hours whilst painting as my thought processes seem to switch to a different dimension.

Thank you, Mary! It was certainly a pleasure learning more about your Art, and also Ireland!

All images are used by permission, are property of Mary Crowley, and are copyright protected. Thanks!