Achill-based landscape artist Padraig McCaul turned 50 this year. So far his lifetime, he’s worn many different hats. Arts student. Accountancy student. Clothing retailer. IT professional. Band member of The Harvest Ministers. Husband and dad. Artist. Some hats he tried on, didn’t like the fit and put away; others he continues to wear with pride.
The old stressful life in retail and IT now is a distant memory. Now, he’s a full-time artist, producing his own work and giving classes. For many years, McCaul’s landscapes were unpopulated – buildings might appear, but never people. That’s changed now too.
Originally from Dún Laoghaire in Dublin, McCaul now lives on Achill with his wife, Anne, and their three children, six-year-old twins Claire and Rory and three-year-old Tom. His family have become part of his work, and along with the island, they too now are inspiration and motivation.
‘Island Life’, an exhibition of McCaul’s work, opened in The Western Light Art Gallery, Keel, Achill, on Sunday. In it, viewers will find McCaul’s distinctive landscapes, some peopled, some not. All are Achill.
The move west
“Friends of mine used to come to Achill camping every year, and when I started painting – about 15 years ago – they said, ‘you’ve got to come over to here’,” McCaul tells The Mayo News.
“I’d never been before. I came over for the first time maybe 12 years ago. I came over on my own. I’d spent two months in San Francisco with work and it was quite a stressful job over there … When I came home I said, I’m going to take a week off – I need a break from this. So I used that time to come over to Achill.
“I booked myself into the Bervie Guesthouse, and I just had the most incredible four days. I’d never been struck by a place … I was just gobsmacked. It was June – glorious sunshine, blue skies. I was just blown away. Completely and utterly captivated. Every day I was looking at different parts, and I just fell in love with the place.
“I started coming back regularly over the years, painting. Then we got a house on Achill, about seven years ago. I got married eight years ago, and we’d come and go between Dublin and Achill.”
The west constantly tugged, and eventually, the McCauls decided to stay. “When the twins were ready to go to school … we said we’d come down to Achill and see how it works out. And it’s been brilliant; absolutely great.
“The kids started school here in Saula and our little guy, Tom, started in naíonra this year. Because we got to know a lot of people over the years from coming down, it’s just been a lovely transition. We’ve been very warmly welcomed into the community.”
Love of the landscape
Since moving to Achill, the island has formed the bulk of what McCaul paints. Words such as ‘desolate’, ‘stark’, ‘quiet’, ‘provocative’ have been used to describe McCaul’s work. While the qualities are certainly there, the paintings are not depressing.
“It [the landscape of the west] can seem pretty desolate and wild, and sometimes I want to get some of that into a painting, but all of my paintings have to have warmth. Warmth draws people in. Some of the work would be that broody, dark, sort of west-of-Ireland skies … but even with those pieces, I’ll try to make sure there’s life or warmth in the painting somewhere.”
He cites French artist Claude Idlas as an influence. “Very simple shapes, lovely strong, blocky colours – primary colours, primary yellows and blues and reds, and various shades and hues of them … happy paintings. When I started painting I wanted to get across something like that as well.”
McCaul found ways to use the same colours, but ‘to make them believable’ in an Irish landscape. “With a lot of traditional Irish landscape [art], the colours might be true to what you see on a fairly dull day, but they just don’t convey any sense of warmth.
“I use the colours to get the right feeling. That feeling, say, of standing on the beach all on your own. That’s one of my first memories of Achill. I couldn’t sleep, so I got up at about six in the morning and went for a walk on the beach. A beautiful summer’s morning – no one there, tide out. It was just this idyllic morning. The sound of the sea, the breeze, the cliffs. And I was sketching it – but how do you get across that amazing sense of feeling, that sense of being there on your own, listening to the water, the early-morning birds and the wind? I think colours are a way of doing that.
“There’s a lot of movement in my work too. All the work is done with a palette knife. The initial painting is painted with a brush in outline … everything else I do with a knife, constantly moving and blending the paint around the canvas. So even though there might be a simple composition with three or four main elements, there’s a huge amount of movement in subtle colour changes. Every block of colour has a lot going on within it.”
McCaul’s work has recently begun to move away from ‘strict landscape’, and he has started to introduce figures.
“All my paintings were always about landscape,” McCaul explains. “Even when I put buildings into them, the buildings were simply there to draw your attention. They were always kept very simple – no doors, no windows, no man-made elements other than the shape of the building. The idea is to draw the viewer in, but there’s nothing there to hold you – you continue on into the landscape. The buildings are effectively part of the landscape.”
The appearance of figures is linked to one of McCaul’s other hats – the hat of the musician. “I was prompted by Will [William Merriman], who I play with in The Harvest Ministers. We just released an anthology of the best of what we’ve done over the last 20 years. We’ve released six albums and various singles over time, particularly in the ’90s. Will asked me to do something for the album cover, and he specifically wanted me to put some people in the painting. And I was like, ‘Will, I don’t do people!’”
Merriman wouldn’t take no for an answer, however, so McCaul gave it a go – and he discovered a new element to incorporate into his landscape art.
“I was looking for a way to put people or figures into the paintings that allowed me to use them in the same way that I use the buildings – as focal points, where I could put lots of colour and lots of texture but very little detail. So I started putting in very simple spherical heads and a body and two legs and that’s it. Everything else – all the character – is in the colour, and maybe the slight of a figure’s stance. You can put a lot of expression and character into that.
And the figures themselves? Well, they were there all along, under another of McCaul’s favourite hats. They are the members of his own family.
“The paintings are much more personal, because they’re about my own family – but they’re still landscape paintings. Even though the people might be the central figures, like the buildings, they’re not there to hold you – they’re there to draw you in and bring you to the rest of the painting. They’re a way to bring the landscape out.”
The focal points might be kept simple, but there’s one detail likely to resonate with local viewers: the occasional appearance of a Mayo jersey. “Ah,” McCaul laughs, “That’s ’cause unfortunately my kids, the three of them, have switched over to Mayo. So we’ve got three Mayo supporters in the house. My little guy, Rory, started playing football about two years ago, and he’s really gone completely Mayo mad. We go into McHale Park for the home games. I tried to push Dublin at them, but they’re not interested…!
“It’s amazing the way you can tell a story in a painting just by including one or two tiny details, like a jersey or a football – but still leave enough room for whoever’s looking at the painting to put themselves into it or take more from it.”