On Coole Lake


Dear Artist,

Her name is indeed Colleen, her friend is Emmet; a horse of a dog not much given to saying anything, which is unusual for the Irish, but he is at least fluent in drool. Colleen and I are painting at Coole Lake. In the misty off-skip, swans silently glide.

The wood that comes down is not far off, but from here it appears distant, the green bushes are all in blue-purple, accepting the atmosphere and the swirling insects between. There is no definition at the edge. It’s a job for watercolor, which Colleen goes at with a big goat-hair. Her puddle moves down her Whatman. In watercolor, what is, is. It’s carefully chosen by looking for a while at the condition, then a commitment to a complexity of Winsor blue, gamboge, burnt sienna, alizarin. With acrylic I’m too used to guessing wrong and adjusting later. There’s a discipline in watercolor. Center of interest? — she’s already prepared for it with resist — swans — cursory yet expressive — in the right place. I labor on with my stiff medium. Commit and correct. What you lose on the straights you make up for on the corners.

Hey, nobody ever said you have to paint acrylics opaque. I re-prime a canvas in white with brushstrokes showing. After it’s dry the medium-filled washes are done by the leprechauns. “What have I been doing?” I ask myself quietly, checking Colleen’s palette for the second time. I’m using a big fat Robert Simmons Expression round. A pair of swans swims close by. A hare comes down to the lake’s edge and takes a drink. Emmet, spread out like a bone-yard, looks over and groans. He knows he can’t catch her.


“The Wild Swans at Coole”
illustration by Jackie Morris

Best regards,


PS: “Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold,
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.”
(from The Wild Swans at Coole, by W B Yeats)

Esoterica: I still like Ways With Watercolor, by Ted Kautzky. Colleen recommends Water Media: Processes and Possibilities, by Stephen Quiller and Barbara Whipple. See Nita Leyland’s list of watercolor books.

The following are selected responses to the above letter. Thank you for writing.


Watercolor vs. Acrylic
by Dianne Middleton, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

To paint a successful watercolor it seems one must know what the finished result will look like before the first stroke of blossoming color is applied to the paper. Then the watercolorist falls into somewhat of a spell while executing the work. The subject speaks to the watercolorist on a different wavelength as compared to working in acrylics. There is a satisfying freedom of expression as I watch colors flow with the water.

Acrylic painting gives the artist freedom in other ways. There is flexibility and ‘correctability’ inherent with the fluidity of the paint that is appealing. Gel mediums, gessos and water help to guide the flow of paint. Somewhat like watercolor painting, but not. However, both media share the heartbreaking fact of having some of their initially applied brilliant colors drying duller, darker or lighter than hoped. Sadly, it all comes down to science. However, “Expect the unexpected.” Above all, I keep in mind that there are abundant technicians producing art – but very few true artists alive and painting.


Happy here too
by Jane Capellaro, Virginia, USA

With my watercolors and pencils in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, I could stay here forever in the spring mist. Everything is green and a light wet gray, there is nothing in the distance, all the mountains are hidden in fog. And the Rhododendrons are blooming. I am Happy.


by B Doherty of Wexford, Eire

As an O’Doherty, I’ve spent many an August in County Donegal, the name’s birthplace and just a short distance from your location at the time of this note. As many times as I’ve been over, never have I picked up a paint brush. Always on the go visiting family and friends. Seems to be a sin against God and nature. Ah well. Next time. Should mention that I am a high school art teacher in MD. I’ve passed on many of your letters to my students and colleagues. I also have friends who are writers and musicians that appreciate your thoughts on creativity. Slainte!

(RG note) Ireland swims in sin. It’s sinful to do this, sinful to do that. I’ve sometimes thought about the sin of despoiling natural beauty with the inadequacy of my brushwork. But not for long.


Around Coole
by Tim O’Shaugnessey, Co. Cork, Eire

The O’Shaughnessys were the powerful family in that area in Tudor days. They kept a castle at Gort, which is nearby where you are. In the Cromwellian wars the O Shaughnessy left the castle to be defended by an English lieutenant by the name of Foliot. The attackers sealed the 12-foot wall to the courtyard, and the castle was sacked and burnt to the ground. The mansion house at Coole, beside the lake, is now gone. This was the home of Lady Gregory (1859-1932) who was a playwright and one of the founders of our Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Lady Gregory gathered at Coole some of the literary bright-lights of Ireland. Near where you are there is an “autograph tree” where you will find carved the initials of George Bernard Shaw and William Butler Yeats.

(RG note) Found the tree.


Ballylea Castle
by Marian Dell, Toronto, Ontario

You should visit small Ballylea Castle which is near there if you like Yeats lore.

(RG note) On the wall of this tower where Yeats lived there’s a tablet which is inscribed:

“I the poet William Yeats,
With old mill boards and sea-green slates,
And smithy work from the Gort forge,
Restored this tower for my wife George.
And may these characters remain
When all is ruin once again.”


Jack Yeats
by R B Goncalves

Jack Yeats was the brother of William Butler Yeats and was recognized as a great national painter of Ireland. He painted at Coole Lake in the thirties and forties. His idea was always to try to capture the mood rather than the details of his subject matter which early on was rather tender in nature. Later his colors became more vivid and his style expressionistic. He died in 1957.


Private passion
by Randy Fitzwalter

In this nutty world of mass-media gurus, Oprah Winfrey, televangelicals, and celebrity solutions—your message for happiness is clear: “Find a private passion that takes more than the average skill. Approach it with integrity and try to get good at it. Share it.” For artists who have been in the business for a while, there’s the possibility that they may take this process for granted. For those new to the game there is a vision that is not impossible to follow. It’s a vision that we set for ourselves.


Social benefits
by Warren Criswell, Benton, Arkansas, USA

Now here’s a “Painter’s Key” that hasn’t been discussed yet in these letters as far as I know, although it’s one frequently used, especially by male painters: Painting as a way to pick up women. Works for me. Or used to. Sometimes.

(RG note) An artist at work, particularly alone, is definitely a filter for meeting interesting and sometimes like-minded people of both sexes. The situation permits the asking of questions — and it’s often quick and easy to size up the people who come by.


Art auctions
by Gerhilde Stulken

It seems I get hit all the time for donations of my artwork. Do you ever write on the subject of charity art auctions? Please inform me if you do.

(RG note) There is a letter and some excellent responses on this subject if you go to Charity Art Auctions


Online art
by Zachary Goodman, collector, Phoenix, Arizona, USA

As you may have noticed, every Tom, Dick and Henrietta who can’t find a decent brick-and-mortar gallery to represent their crummy art has got themselves up and running on the internet as though nothing was wrong. So for those of us who are looking to buy, to invest, to acquire something of lasting value and maybe even beauty, we have to be more careful than ever. To make it even more difficult the business suffers from the same problems as the old mail-order catalogue game. That is — the thing you ordered didn’t look nearly as good when it arrived as when you saw it illustrated in the catalogue.


You may be interested to know that artists from 86 countries have visited these sites since January 1, 2001.

That includes Moncy Barbour who says that his “brother in law’s ancestor’s shipped William Wallace to Ireland once, and this fact is well documented.”

And Roger Cummisky of Dublin, Eire, whose recent show was an interpretation of the river gods of Ireland commissioned over 200 years ago by the famous architect James Gandon for the Custom House in Dublin. Seamus Heaney dropped in to see the show. Roger quotes James Joyce: “Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount Strand?”

And Ann-Rosemary Conway, who says, “Come as the goddess that you are; bring your drums, goddess banners, lunch and your goddess music, bands, songs, dances, street theatre, poetry, paintings, sculpture and pottery.”



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