Iona on Iona

5th of January, Arriving on Iona

I remember it took a few days of frantic packing in early January to prepare for my painting trip on Iona. One day it involved going into Cass art with huge shopping trollies grimacing at the checkout as I heard one beep after the next coming from the scanner. When I looked behind I could see my face reflected in all the impatient customers from behind me as they waited. When it came to the next day, it was a relief. I was off to Iona in the car filled with all my stuff and my bike and Dad. Everything looked so crisp and beautiful when we passed the Luss hills at Loch Lomond. The further we went the more I felt circled, protected by mountains.

After the visually dynamic ferry crossing from Oban to Mull and the journey from Craignure to Fionnphort we luckily managed to get the car onto the ferry. It was almost dark and we were tired, but I felt so excited. I could see from the deck the little Iona houses on the island staring back at me and getting bigger as the ferry glided over the choppy water.

The residents welcomed us into the Hostel from the wind and cold and we had a big dinner.  Everyone was friendly and I was lucky to meet Vicky the artist and her family including John Emmett and Oriana. Vicky with her outgoing kind and generous teacher spirit helped me settle in and shared with me her beautiful pastel drawings. Later that evening dad and I played a duet, himself on bassoon and myself on the fiddle. We played an eerie tune by Peter Maxwell Davis, ‘Farewell to Stromness’.

Over the next days, I walked around in the mist. I enjoyed it as it was adding an extra layer to the space that made things more ambiguous, ghostly. I remember sitting on a bench looking out to sea with Dad eating the olive, feta cheese sandwiches we made up from the Spar and watching a fishing boat that came to view and glided past us. As its shape faded into the mist and further out to sea it was reminiscent of a song that was getting quieter and quieter until you can hardly hear it. To get started on my drawing, I made a few ink studies of this feeling of obscurity, being lost.


It took a while for Iona to reveal itself. It came by a surprise when I saw the brown/orange coloured mountains of Mull reveal themselves from across the strong coloured ultramarine sea. I was overwhelmed by how it transformed the space from everything being subtle tones to the sheer contrasts of dark and light. Everything went from being condensed and mysterious like sea glass, to open, articulated and majestic.

Painting on Iona

After warming into things through drawing, I made small panel oil paintings. I took many MDF boards with me (about 50 small pieces!) and was planning on making lots of quick gestural paintings, capturing the landscape in different states of weather and light.

This in mid-January was a real challenge. To cope with the cold, I was wearing (I am not kidding) five jumpers, three pairs of gloves, three pairs of trousers, three pairs of sock and oilskins. Even with all of this on, I could only stay out for short bursts of time, before running back to the windswept Byre to clean my brushes and warm up a little bit with the electric heater. I often could not feel my hands or move my fingers.

Not only was it cold, it was extremely windy. At times, I could lean against the wind entirely and it would keep me upright. Walking around in this was tough, and I was also carrying my painting box, with the paints, my pallet, brushes and a couple of wet oil paintings. All my willpower was required to keep these things in my possession without them flying off into the hills. No wonder John and Rachel got annoyed about how I had paint on the Hostel gate! I could barely open it! Getting around the hostel was a test as I was so covered in paint, and didn’t want to contaminate any of the beautiful white walls and interior. Mark said that if I was lost, I could easily get tracked down as I left a trail of paint all over everything for miles.

No wonder John and Rachel got annoyed about how I had paint on the Hostel gate! I could barely open it! Getting around the hostel was a test as I was so covered in paint, and didn’t want to contaminate any of the beautiful white walls and interior. Mark said that if I was lost, I could easily get tracked down as I left a trail of paint all over everything for miles.

The toughness of these elements made me adapt. I gradually realised that I had to pre-mix my pallet before going out to stop me from getting too cold, and I started to find places which were sheltered. At one point, I had to stop and find an inner calm; accepting that I could only work outside if I came to terms with the elements, and keep the focus instead of cursing all the time!

Although at times it was frustrating, it put a sense of desperation into my work. The mark-making was energetic, rough and unpredictable just like the energies and overpowering sense of the winds and rain that whipped around me. Sometimes the hail would go on to my paintings creating interesting energetic effects on the surface; God’s own mark making! These elements were an enhancement as I remember there was a day when the sun was really bright and I found my paintings were uninteresting. I had too much time to think and not instinctively react to what I was looking at making them less spontaneous and more flat.

Sometimes the weather would be too much, and I wanted to do slow and dense work. The Abbey and Chapel were the answer to this as they were tranquil and had interesting layers to space. It was a bonus when I got offered a hot chocolate by one the Iona community.

I enjoyed looking through the layers of ancient architectural shapes. The authenticity of this building connected to the wildness of the landscape. I felt I got lost in both places as the arches had a sense of looking to infinity, as they recede to a vanishing point like the layers of the landscape you look through.

The light had a Holy quality outside and inside as it filtrated through space. The dark grey stormy clouds surrounded the landscape and I and then suddenly, a beam of light would come down and cast a spotlight over somewhere like the abbey or a patch of what was a dark grey sea. I remember reminiscing this and joking with Mark and Collette in one of our many hostel evening discussions by saying ‘It’s Jesus!’. Even though I am not religious what I saw felt close to something spiritual.


iona roberts pic


Parent’s Visit

When my parents came to stay it was misty again.  One day Mum and I went to St Columba’s Bay and ate sandwiches and we did some drawing looking out to Fidden and islands such as the Paps of Jura. Mum did a great landscape, and mine was interesting but I couldn’t get the colours to work. Luckily the rain came and fell on it, and all the ink started to trickle down in different colours and rhythms. It was beautiful and, yet again, it was God’s own mark making.

My parents enjoyed the Hostel atmosphere and there were lots of interesting people staying at the time. Alongside the regulars including John, Rachael, Mark, Collette, there was Misa – a friendly girl who had come to volunteer for the next three weeks. She is a contemporary dancer and we shared interesting conversations about Iona in context with our lives over later nights. Then there was a kind Italian man, Santino, and Maranda, who was another artist who had her family with her. We all communal and had nice dinners together that my Mum and I cooked up. Mum and I showed what we had been drawing that day and Collette, who is also an artist, joined in, showing us her captivating watercolours she had made on the island.


Visits to Mull

Over the past week, I had been so disciplined with my painting approach that I decided to allow myself time to explore the island. As a change of pace, I took the occasional day trip to cycle on Mull.

I enjoyed the ferry to Fionnphort as I was intrigued by the layers of space as I looked through many of the windows that presented either the interior of the ferry or the seascape, where I observed Iona getting further and further into perspective. Using my sketchbook, I drew the view through these still interior shapes to the changing landscape and sea outside. It was fascinating to see the landscape resemble an imprint when I saw it reflected in the window to the cabin.

When I reached Fionnphort, I cycled to Fidden and Knockvologan making sketches of the changing scenery. I would take a flask of hot chocolate and sit by a farm up at Knockvologan and sketch the view down to the sea before cycling back. At times I would really have to pedal it back to catch the last ferry.



The experience on Iona was a useful time to connect and reflect on my time to the Drawing Year in London. Down South, I was using distinctive styles of drawing to connect more to my painting. Before this, my drawing contained a lot of linear work and here I was connecting to London through using colour and tone, and a mixed media approach. To help in this, I was researching artists such as Sutherland and how they used mixed media to create painterly drawings which had a contemporary, abstracted take on the landscape. Sutherland would use the landscape for the general composition but also add elements into the foreground that abstracted the reality and conveyed his perception.

My mark-making was partially caused by the weather, appropriate for the landscape. I enjoyed sometimes working at close ups of the landscape and at other times the general space. The paintings alongside each other become a narration of the space in general.


Individual one



Andrea’s Visit

After these few days of intensively working, my friend Andrea came to visit. He had to look after himself a lot, but we had fun times. The hostel was rather empty at the time. It was just Misa, Mark and Miranda, who was another lovely woman visiting from Bath. On the 25th of January, we celebrated Burn’s Night. Andrea had brought Haggis, so we had a nice little party and watched a film at John’s. Most of these nights I was playing the fiddle. It was great because as guests came and went I would learn different and new tunes they would sing to me and which I would pick up by ear.

One day Andrea and I went for a long walk all the way around the island. The view gradually changed and we ate a lunch I had made at the Spouting Cave. The sheep were funny as they were posing at various parts of the cliffs like amusing models, and by the sea. I stored the idea in my head of using the sheep amongst the landscape in further work to come. The rocks had varying shapes, and colours which are to the Geometry of the island. We collected rocks and arranged them into interesting still lifes.


28th of January,  Tobermory Trip

The day Andrea left, I took the bus to Tobermory. I enjoyed the contrast on Mull as the colours were orange, almost autumnal, yet the spring green was coming through. The bus went through many different attitudes and dynamics of the landscape. Sometimes there were huge expanses of land and then, in contrast, I would come across articulating details that pin pointed my focus; a fishing boat in the water, a person on the bus, a highland cow, the trees reflected on the window.

The space would be layered and ever-changing due to the movement of the bus and the way I looked and focussed on different things. Often drops of water would fall on the window and create an interesting texture I was looking out to the view. Every so often, the bus would travel past the trees, and I could only quickly glimpse at as they disappeared quickly from view. Sitting behind this would be the constant landscape in a contrasting slower state. The movement of the trees lying in front created a flick book effect.

When I arrived at Tobermory it was soon raining and I felt I hadn’t planned my time well. I remember standing outside absolutely freezing, and drawing using water soluble graphite so that when the rain went over the paper, God’s own mark making yet again occurred. I remember going to the pub to warm up, and the locals looking shocked as I entered absolutely sodden and grubby-looking, and I realised: ‘my gosh, I have been cut off from civilisation for a while!’

On the journey back, it was extremely dramatic as it was late afternoon and the light was at its height for contrast. I remember a rainbow and looking over the Mull mountains where the layers of land were getting darker and more mysterious. The land was overcast and I could see down valleys for many miles of the repeating shapes, some more ambiguous and out of focus due to the clouds and others more present. As the sun went down, space became condensed and simplified tonally, allowing shape to become the focus. It had the essence of a print, and I noticed that in places the land was lighter than the sky, such as a loch that would shine up light a bright jewel amongst the dark surrounding land.


Week of the 30th of January, Drawing Around the Hostel

Over the next few weeks, the interior space of the hostel and its surroundings grasped my interest. After doing my tax for an entire day indoors (which was so boring yet the Hebridean sheep moving passed my windows kept me occupied, and I treated myself to a swim at the end of the day), I went out to draw the sheep. I was intrigued by their rounded, organic form and how I encountered this amongst the landscape.

For a few mornings, I built up a large drawing in my room with charcoal. I was interested in the view outside my room in relation to what was going on inside. The different weathers came to pass, creating different dynamics. Sometimes the Dutchman’s Cap would disappear due to the moving grey clouds that took it out of focus, and then later it would come out again, strikingly in focus, other times dark, then every so often light due to the position of the sun. It was a peculiar, articulated shape that would appear sitting on the horizon. The odd sheep would walk by and the occasional uncoordinated current of birds would fly above the sea, fighting the wind and adding to the ingredients of my drawing recipe.

I started this drawing with the landscape, and then gradually introduced the frame of the window and related the view to the interior with my artistic objects such as the paint pots and pens. It was interesting as the exterior at first glance was minimal yet, the unevenness of the land and the fact I could see for miles required a lot of work with charcoal. I built it up layer by layer adding and removing to capture the depth of the cloudy weather I was observing.

The hostel room was also an active place with different pinpoints of interest. Occasionally I made films about the reflections on the window that cast ghostly impressions on the land. One conveyed Mark working picked up in a reflection at another window which held the view of a different place. Another film was of the layered reflection sheep walking around in various places and rhythms.

The times of day would cast the light in diverse ways. Suddenly, there would be a brightness from outside that shined through one window casting a beam of light onto the floor, and in another conflicting window, it would be dark and raining. As it became darker, more secretive outside, the kitchens reflection on the window would come lighter and closer to focus reflecting back an imprint of hostel life.

One of the days a storm really brewed up. I was in my room drawing but I could not think properly. The force of the gale outside was so noisy it felt as if it was going to blast through the wall. It was interesting how all the rain drops would drip down the surface of the window and make the view outside with the sheep more vague and unclear. This day the sheep were outside, huddling against the window for shelter. I loved watching how their forms would coincide with each other in interesting, flowing ways as the herd receded back into the monochromatic space. The colours were subtle, reminiscent of sea glass.






On the day after the storm, the waves were charged with the aftermath of the energy, yet the sun was strong, casting a vivid light on the surface of the land and sea. Juxtaposing the spring-like light, the power of the waves had dangerous, forbidding undertones. I walked to the North-West beach where I climbed a huge exposed rock and sensed the vast space of sea in front of me. It was vulnerable yet exhilarating and I was lost in the wild expanse I observed. The waves roared up, covering me and my camera in their spray before evaporating away again and leaving soft intricate traces of light filtrated moisture.  The way the waves receded in an irregular pattern amongst the rugged rocks partially covered by the moisture and the light was reminiscent of the many arches in the light filtrated space of the Abbey.





I then went further up to Dun I to catch the spectacular sunset that was a cast of light in a strange shape clouds, before the moon came into presence over the village.



That evening, Collette’s friend Tom made a wonderful marmalade cake. As it was Misa’s last night we went down to the beach. I took my violin with me and played some music as we heard the still fierce waves crash into the beach and pull out again. The moon was out full, almost like it was a day perhaps on another planet. It strongly cast our shadows onto the ground as we stood in a row and let them dance to the Pigeon on the Gate I was playing on the violin overlapped by some of our voices singing on top ‘what shall we do with the drunken sailor’. Our senses were more tuned into our hearing than our vision than usual, due to the darkness. I enjoyed hearing my fiddle playing in context with the wild, textured sounds of the sea.

This was not the only special night. One time we ate a huge fish that had been caught from the fisherman and which was locally produced. The skeleton of the fish looked like the elegant structure of John’s boats being created in the workshop next to the Hostel. Another time we went to the Abbey and I played my violin and Misa and I sang duets. It was great to hear our voices resonate in such a spiritual location.


8th of February, Last couple of weeks on Iona, Drawing at John’s

Over these days, I met the new artist in residence Alison, who was another painter. I remember we shared some of our interesting meals. By this time, I was getting experimental with my cooking, including seaweed into almost every dinner! This night I made fish and lentil curry with garam masala and sweet chilli sauce for Alison which was tasty. I shared with her my work, and she let me off the hook almost by assuring me I had tonnes of work! I enjoyed looking at her work a lot, experimental and energetic and we shared our passion for Joan Eardley, our favourite artist.

It was a joy to spend my next day free from making work, bike riding on Mull where I went to Bunessan and to Uisken. At Uisken I had a flask of tea and sat by the beach. It was strange being there because memories welled up of the summer before last when I was here with my auntie and cousins. It felt like a shadow of a memory as I quietly looked over to the Paps Of Jura and observed how they were covered in snow and cast in an ethereal winter light.


John and Rachael’s

John had an intriguing house which I felt was an artwork in itself. There were lots of interesting ornaments that for me reflected that tactile sense of marine lifestyle, and in context with this were the beautiful views out to the Hebridean landscape. I enjoyed observing and found many strong compositions that caught my eye, arranged by the architectural structures, objects and views. After creating some sketchbook work, I spent time making large sized charcoal drawings in John’s kitchen and upstairs.

The inside of the hostel and John and Rachael’s house allowed me to further introduce form into my work. There were objects close to me which I could depict in the foreground of the landscape, introducing volume into space.

Throughout my time in London, I had become interested in how I encountered forms within the layering of space. The inclusion of form created an interesting variation within the space. I found I created the best work when I related my response to a piece of music. I made the image, and I used music to help me foresee what it would be and how to approach it. For example, I thought of loud and quiet areas in the space. To include the form in my responses to space, I spent time creating studies of near objects or human forms I encountered. Making charcoal drawings from the interior was an effective way to connect my work on Iona back to my practice, as I was starting to focus on how I was experiencing space with the inclusion of form.

Upstairs there was a stunning view through the front to the ocean and the Dutchman’s Cap and the windows on the other side presented the field’s disappearing to an interesting vanishing point. I drew from John’s study as he had many busy objects in the foreground and I could see the back of the house and layers of hills and fields. His possessions were quite like mine as an artist, slightly cluttered and going between practicality such as CD’s, papers and pens; to the aesthetic ones.

In the kitchen, there was a big rectangular window which looked out to the Atlantic Ocean. It reminded me of a porthole as it framed the view outside. Outside had many layers created by different components. The plant patch with the vertical delicate structures of the shrubs, bringing to mind Vincent Van Gogh’s drawings, the walls, fences, the rise and fall of the land, the fields, the fall to the sea, the coming and going of island’s such as Mull, Staffa, Skye in the background, and the ever-changing cloudscape. This view connected to the interior as it was a pattern and repeat of horizontal and vertical shapes as they receded through space.

I realise Iona has been a progression from the Drawing year as I was making my location work more of a physical experience.  Alongside the difficulty of being out painting in the elements, the scale of these charcoal drawings incorporated my entire self. I was scaling up my work in the drawing year as an alternative to working in sketchbooks to challenge my drawing. I felt these charcoal drawings connected more to painting, and the way I work physically in the studio.

The pace of the charcoal drawings and the way I recorded the different moods of the landscape over the weeks introduced the element of time into my practice and I was interested in how the figure, myself, experienced the landscape and how other people were encountered in the landscape throughout time. This can be seen in the objects, the viewpoints, the reflections on a mirror and other aspects of my subjects.

I was viewing my subjects with the vision of a painter. My aim was not to copy it literally, I wanted to show my experience of it. This was something I had been developing in the Drawing Year. I was balancing observation and response. The compositions when making these drawings were using observation but at the same time, I was imaging them as paintings that conveyed a personal journey of the complex layering in space.






It was lovely to share my work with the locals. I was surprised by the number of people who came! Unfortunately, I was getting a cold and I think the exhaustion of being out in all weathers seemed to be catching up with me, but I managed to get by!

I presented large and small drawings, sketchbooks, and paintings and described how I was using this variation of approach to responding to my personal take on the landscape. We discussed the difficulties of all the weathers and how the elements were coming to play. People were drawn to my watercolours and how they reflected my sense of atmosphere and layering, but I stated that it was important to use a variety of approach to get my different takes of the environment.




Over the next week, I relaxed into the good weather and was quite tired from making work in the storms. It was nice to be around in the Hostel, as I could be with some of the special people who were staying. One of the nights I took my fiddle outside and we all looked at the stars. We were taught by a couple of the guests about the star constellations and we ate dark chocolate.


Last Day

In the late morning, the mist was drawing over the land of Mull like a mysterious veil. It was so cold when I was drawing the allotments in the village, I was luckily rescued by a kind lady from the Iona community who invited me into their main house where I got warmed up with a cup of tea and made a few drawings based on being inside this religious interior, looking up the fields to the Abbey and the village houses.

Once I had sadly finished packing, we all gathered in the Hostel communal area and learned some haunting, soul-searing songs one of the women had learnt at the Iona Abbey. I remember clearly the power and emotion of her voice as it filled the room. I felt myself floating away from the kitchen and into the mysteries of the dark landscape seen through the window, reflecting the power of the landscape in the eerie melody.


A walk to the spar


Leaving Iona

I was lucky that mum was available to pick me up. I was sorry to leave but we managed to go on a beautiful walk further exploring Knockvologen and looking at Iona from the layers of the Mull landscape.

The intensity of the experience is something I hold with me from my day to day life in Glasgow. It is wistful that I will not meet some of the people again, but that dynamic added to my experience and the place. The coming and going in context with the stillness of the landscape created variation.

I am currently deciding if I am going to carry out further painting from work made on Iona, or just let it be a series that will be included in my Compass Gallery Show, May 2018. I want this show to mainly based on being rooted in Scotland. Iona was close to heart and has planted an idea of being a Scottish based painter.

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