Mourne Mountains

The Art of the Mournes with Stephen Rooney

28th November 2018 by David McIlroy Share

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We recently spoke to local artist Stephen Rooney, who was featured on the BBC documentary ‘The Chronicles of Mourne’ – he gave us some great insights into his work, what inspires him, and where his favourite places are in the Mourne Mountains.

Tell me a bit about yourself, Stephen.

I am a 26 year old Artist and come from a true Mourne background. Both sides of my Family have always lived here in Mourne, working with the land, stone and sea. My Primary School years were spent at Grange Primary School, Cranfield, surrounded by fields and stunning views out of every window. We had the charming, oldy-worldy Grange Chapel right next door, where I used to sing in our School Choir. On dull, wet and foggy days, our small classrooms often echoed with the haunting blasts coming from the foghorn on the Haulbowline Lighthouse. Paddy Kane, a former lighthouse keeper was our milkman arriving every morning on his bicycle to deliver our classrooms cartons of milk, and make funny faces which brightened our mornings. I am so proud and happy to have been educated there.

My Secondary School years were at St Columban’s College, on the outskirts of Kilkeel fishing town, which again enjoyed beautiful views of every mountain of Mourne from all the classroom windows. I had many great Friends there, carried on from Grange Primary, as well as many new Friends who came from various other parts of lower Mourne. They were happy days, educated under the care and wisdom of amazing Teachers, many of whom remain Friends today. St Columban’s, along with Grange, shared many things in common. There were views from every window, and everyone, be they office/canteen staff, teachers or pupils, we were all like a family. I feel proud to have been educated where I was. After School, I went on to Study at the Southern Regional College, Newry, and studied the National B-Tec diploma in Art & Design. I had to leave the course early after my Father became very unwell. I was the last remaining one at home, so I took time out to look after him.

I always said I would become an Artist, so during this time at home caring for my Father, I began really pushing myself, painting, painting, painting, and building up a following! I am a totally self-taught Artist.

And where did you grow up?

I grew up in a little town land called Dunavil, located a few mile outside of Kilkeel, beside Cranfield. I still live here today. Growing up it was the best natural playground any child could ask for, being totally surrounded by Countryside, with a beautiful beach just a short walk away. There were, and still are, a lot of old buildings left from the WWII Aerodrome that was built here in 1942. I used to play with friends in and out of the various stores, bomb shelters and the two-storey control tower. The local Farmer used to keep lots of pigs. I have fond memories of zigging in through the bomb shelters trying to hold and pet the piglets. Their squeals were vocal, alerting the parent hogs out feeding in the field. I would often make it back out of the shelter with seconds to spare before the furious sow would come to investigate. When not trying to hog-nap, I would scour the fields for newts and frogs, and spend endless hours on my go-cart with the trailer on tow. Looking back it was quite idyllic, and still is a special place to live, steeped in history and beauty.

So what first sparked your interest in art?

Good question! The interest in art was always there from word go. I guess every child loves art. It’s a very accessible activity, however, with me, my love for art was much more deeply ingrained. My playschool teacher, Eileen, remembers me sitting alone in the corner of the wooden cabin colouring in and drawing, whilst the others would be playing on the swings, etc….

I was so much more different than everyone else. My earliest school reports all honed in on my love for art. From my earlier days I always wanted to draw, colour and paint. Every year I would ask ‘Santa’ for paints, paper, play-doh, and anything arts and crafts related. I was always drawn to colour, and always got excited by harsh weather. I’d often sit on my bed looking out at the skies. On sunny days I’d stay indoors and draw, but on wet days I’d be outside on my go-cart splashing through the puddles, and on snowy days?! Gosh, my Family would rarely see me!! I have always loved the snow – in fact, there are photo’s in family albums capturing me out in the snow in my red snow-suit, just about able to walk, I was so young! The interest and love for art was always there, and only manifested over the years. I have little doubt I was always meant to become an Artist. Growing up I never lost sight of what I wanted from life, and never stopped doing the things which brought me happiness.

READ: Spectacular views of Ben Crom Dam from Slieve Corragh

A young Stephen!

READ: Photographer in Focus: Ryan Simpson (Ryan Simpson Photography)

And what do you most like to paint?

Without shadow of a doubt, my favourite subject matter is landscapes. Growing up in this majestic Kingdom of Mourne, surrounded by Countryside, Mountains and Sea, is just so inspiring, I feel the landscapes call me to paint them. I am predominantly a landscape Artist, however I enjoy painting all subject matter, and will turn my hand to anything. I can pretty much paint everything from landscapes/seascapes, right through to architecture, still life and occasional portraits, but my deep love and connection is with the landscapes.

I often sit outdoors observing the skies, as well as the changing tones of the landscape throughout the Seasons. I have always been a keen observer of light and nature. The more I observe, the better the relationship and understanding I build up with Mother Nature, and the better Artist I become. Observation and connection is key to capturing good landscapes on canvas and paper.

Do you have a personal favourite piece of your own work?

I do have a favourite piece, and it goes against my very grain being a predominantly landscape Artist. My favourite piece is actually a Portrait on a large 4ft Canvas. This canvas was never meant to feature a Portrait, as it started life out as a view of Mourne Park Stately home from the lake, (my dream place)! However, quickly I began not liking the way the scene was unfolding, and so in huge frustration I took my charcoal stick and scribbled in a face and body over the wet landscape. I decided instead of binning the canvas, why not try a huge portrait featuring one of my favourite master Artists, ‘Rembrandt’. After loosely scribbling his rough outline and basic features, I could see an accurate resemblance to his own self-portraits appearing before me. One week later the Portrait was complete. I was chuffed! I had it framed in an extremely nice frame, and he now towers over the living-room. He has a huge presence in the room, and always becomes a talking point with visitors. I have been asked a number of times to sell it, but I won’t. Many people often comment saying “It’s like a Portrait you’d see gracing the walls of a Stately Home or Castle” and given underneath the Portrait is a painting of Mourne Park Stately Home, it seems very fitting.

Portrait of Rembrandt in progress
Stephen with Rembrandt

Would you say you have any influences?

I’ve never been the sort of person to be influenced by others or their work. There are Artists I respect and look up to, mainly some of the older masters, and a couple of more modern-day Artists. However, Nature is my one and only influence. I believe in studying my subjects in person, getting to know the clouds, the tree’s, the shapes, the light, the colours, etc…

I will spend many hours outdoors observing all that I long to paint. Each and everyday there is something new to see and learn from nature.

You’ve been featured in ‘The Chronicles of Mourne’ – how does that feel? And how did it come about?

This was such a humbling and amazing experience! Hugely confidence boosting, too! I was randomly contacted on social media by Waddell Media – an award winning producer of lifestyle formats, quality documentaries and specialist factual programmes. They were undertaking the filming for this unique BBC Documentary dedicated to capturing the beauty of Mourne throughout a whole year, as well as meeting various people who work, live and play in the Mournes. We had a telephone conversation soon after, then a face to face interview at my home. They loved my work and character, so arranged a test day in front of the camera. It was my tape from that day which got the programme commissioned. I was signed up. Very cool!

I was filmed a number of times, including twice in early Winter. One day we were out for six hours hiking and sketching during the first significant fall of snow. Sadly, during early Spring I took very unwell, landing in hospital and needing many urgent tests. I was unable to hike for the following few months, and not fit for filming. The timing couldn’t have been worse as more filming was scheduled and needed. I had to be dropped from the programme despite all my filming, however, they very kindly used a clip of me sketching in the Winter episode. I have been in regular contact with the producer who has been so encouraging. Veronica said I am a natural in front of the camera, and hopes to do more with me. This was so encouraging! I would love to do more TV work – I have caught the bug! Every Artist needs exposure, and exposure can’t come any bigger or better than BBC One.

Despite only being shown on the series very briefly, I was an integral part and, have the experiences that will always stick with me. They’re all such an amazing team to work with. Any initial nerves I had soon cleared to the point of not even noticing the camera, it’s just like days out with Friends. Such an incredible experience for being so young. I really hope I get more opportunities to be filmed again.

First day of filming with Veronica Cunningham (producer), and cameraman Mark. Lovely people!

The big question: what’s your favourite mountain in the Mournes to climb, and why?

My favourite of all the Mountains of Mourne is Slieve Muck, known locally as poverty Mountain. I see this mountain from my bedroom window. I have always loved its setting right in the beating heart of Mourne, enjoying uninterrupted views in every direction for as far as the eye can see. Its quite different in appearance from any other of the Mourne Mountains. Being different attracts me. Another key attraction for me is the fact that it is so rarely hiked compared to the other Mountains. Many avoid it for its steep and rugged terrain, but also because it lives up to its name ‘Muck’! It really is quite a marshy summit from peak to base, therefore, all things combined, its rare to meet another soul on my adventures which I love. I can sit on the summit for two hours or more and not see another person; It’s just me and the elements, alone and at one.

I have always observed that in Winter it is one of the more colder peaks. It seems to have its own micro-climate. Snow will often stick on Slieve Muck before most of the other Mountains, including the higher peaks. My favourite Season is Winter, and my favourite weather conditions for hiking are frost, ice, snow and wind. I love to feel a good battering from the weather. I have hiked in many harsh conditions on Slieve Muck, and have experienced beauty there which is unrivalled. During snow events in Winter, I will hike Slieve Muck four/five times per week at varying times, most often setting off in time to catch the Sunset, and then descend in darkness. I enjoy hiking at night, too, sometimes hiking to as late as 1/2am in snow. This is a most challenging and exhilarating time for hiking. It takes you to be experienced and somewhat hardy. I know the Mountains very well, but when it comes to Slieve Muck, I know it like the back of my hand. I call it ‘My Mountain’ because I just feel a powerful, inspiring force there.

A winters night on Slieve Muck
A blizzard closing in on Slieve Muck
An Oil Painting looking towards Slieve Muck from Lough Shannagh

What do you enjoy most about painting Northern Irish landscapes?

Northern Ireland is an incredibly beautiful Country offering any Artist a wealth of subjects to paint. No matter where you venture, north, south east or west, there is something for everyone. We have the rolling pastures, the lake-lands, the jagged, rugged coastlines, the mountains carved by Ice, the Cities, Towns and Villages steeped in history, etc… Just so much on offer! As well as the natural beauty of our landscapes, we are also placed in a very unique position on the globe allowing us to experience all kinds of weather events giving us tasters of much more extreme climates. We can get violent storms hurtling in from the Atlantic, we can draw warmth up from the Sahara during rare heatwaves in Summer, and we can experience the arctic blasts during Winter which can bring significant and prolonged cold-snaps. We can even see the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights), dance over our night skies during Winter, a sight that I have seen quite a few times now. What more could an Artist ask for ?? I believe where I live here in Mourne must rank as the top beauty spot in Northern Ireland, which is why 95% of my paintings are all Mourne based.

Mourne Wall – Slieve Muck (Watercolour)
Hares Gap (Watercolour)
Troopers Hollow – Lower Mourne (Oil Painting)

Finally, give us your “golden rule” for painting the great outdoors!

To paint the great outdoors you must constantly observe. You must build up a real relationship with the natural world around you. You have to connect with your subjects and experience the elements first hand. Only paint what you are drawn to. I never worry if what I am painting will be loved by others. You must first and foremost paint for yourself. If a certain scene stops you in your tracks, then you must paint it. Always paint when the inspiration is fresh and alive. Ideally you must sketch outdoors, and learn to paint en-plein air. Painting outdoors is much more difficult than indoors, but I believe it is essential for the development of an Artist. Even a quick 15 – 20 minute sketch in a small sketchpad often captures the gist of the day. You can then come home and paint a more finished scene. Another point worth noting is that not everything you see needs to be painted. If you feel a certain element or feature within the landscape is adding nothing to the scene, then it is most likely taking away from the scene, therefore leave it out. The most important thing above all, and my golden rule, is to paint what you most love. Whatever makes your heart skip a beat, you must paint that. Certain scenes and certain weathers give me butterflies in my stomach. I’ll feel my heart skip just a littler faster, and all around me will fall silent. It is then when I need to paint more than ever, and it’s then when I am in my true happy place. Magic happens when you’re happy. Always remain in your happy place!

As seen on BBC One’s ‘The Chronicles of Mourne’ – here’s me painting en-plein air in the snow on a bleak winters day. Snow makes me happiest. Snow makes my heart skip a beat, therefore I must paint the snow.

Thank you for taking the time and interest to enquire a little into my life as an Artist and keen hiker. A proud Northern Irish Man from the Kingdom of Mourne! I hope elements of this interview will inspire others to never lose sight of their dreams, and to never let go of what makes them happy.


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