Painting Callanish

Sketches of the Isle of Lewis's most fascinating ancient monument

Painting Callanish
16th July 2006 Jane Tomlinson

CallanishCallanish is a remarkable neolithic monument on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. It is a circle and avenues of stones which in plan form look like a huge celtic cross and was erected 5,000 years ago. Read more about it here.

The stones work like a lunar (and to some extent solar) calendar and would have allowed our neolithic ancestors to calculate and anticipate very precisely the cycles of the moon. There is nowhere else quite like it. So important is it to my husband Moth that he named his son Callan after it.

I have wanted to go to Callanish for years but getting to Lewis is more of a pilgrimage than a journey. After years of anticipation that ‘some day’ I would visit I wasn’t prepared to be disappointed. And last week when I saw it for the first time, the stones didn’t let me down. It’s pure magic. I rented a bungalow for a week within sight of the stones in order to study, enjoy and paint it. I started with this quick sketch:

I was trying to get a feel for the place, and particularly the intervals between the stones.

The sketch below is predominently made in pencil as I wanted to take a good hard look at the ‘grain’ of the stones themselves, a very ancient rock called Lewisian gneiss which is fossil-free as it was laid down before there was any life on earth.

This next sketch was made very fast with no underdrawing. I was getting very cold in the stiff westerly wind so couldn’t really finish it. I was aiming to show how pink the stones can be in certain light. I finished it off with pen from the comfort of our bungalow.

Ah! When the sun comes out the whole place lights up. This is a view up the avenue of stones towards the circle. With all the buttercups and grasses in flower it made a colourful scene:

This sketch was made in about 20 minutes as the sun sank below the horizon. I’m ashamed to say I wanted to get back to the bungalow to watch Big Brother, so I rushed it a bit, but having a deadline made me look harder at the subject and react instinctively to what I saw. No fiddling, just solid looking:

Finally last Friday, as Moth was out and about looking at all the other many stoney goodies around the west side of Lewis, I decided to spend a whole day making complete, finished works entirely in front of the subject. I was lucky, the weather was glorious and with very light winds. I did this one in the morning:

It’s called Callanish – the sky moves sideways.

And after lunching on probably the finest smoked salmon I have ever tasted – locally produced in South Uist – I moved back to the avenue position and made this painting, Callanish – the avenue:

Here’s me, sitting with Moth as I put the finishing touches to it: