Mourne Mountains

The Mournes ‘En Plein Air’ with Donald McKay

8th April 2019 by Donald McKay Share

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My name is Donald McKay and I’m 63 years of age. I’m originally from Belfast but now live in the Kingdom of Mourne along with my wife Susanne.

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I’m fortunate to only work three days a week in construction, which leaves me plenty of time to concentrate on my painting.

I’ve been rock climbing in the Mournes since I was sixteen, having joined the then Glenfoffany Climbing Club in 1972. Since then, I have rock climbed all over Ireland, mainland UK and the French Alps, but nothing compares to the Mountains of Mourne.

I initially took up watercolour painting in 2000 after giving up working overseas and in 2007 became an elected member of the Ulster Watercolour Society.

Over the last few years I have concentrated more on oil painting and En Plein Air in particular, which basically means painting your subject outside. The aim is to complete an oil sketch in 2 hours before the light changes, which is known as Alla Prima, or getting it completed in one wet.

These sketches can then be completed in the studio or used as a reference to reproduce a larger painting.


Modern painting equipment has made it possible to venture into places like the Mournes, although the kit is still quite heavy. The pochade box itself rests on a camera tripod and holds within it a canvas board, and the box itself becomes a pallete for mixing the paint. When the oil sketch is completed, the lid can be closed without fear of causing damage to the painting.

The Annalong Valley is always a big draw for me with plenty of rock material on offer to paint, and I suppose it brings back lots of great memories of days rock climbing on the crags.

That said, my favourite view is from the saddle between the north and south tors on Binnian, looking north. I have yet to come across a better view anywhere I have been, although it is a trek with the painting gear. I was up a few weeks ago with a strong wind and it was bitterly cold, but managed a pencil sketch and some photographs, and I’m now working on a studio piece.

The best time for en plein air painting is obviously in good weather, but when are we guaranteed that? So the best is just to head out with the gear and get tucked in behind a boulder for shelter. Even an hour-long colour sketch is worth it.

As the better weather is coming, I will put up the locations where I’m heading out painting in the hills, and if you happen to be in that vicinity come by and say hello!

If any of you ever have a mind to take up painting, be it watercolour or oil, my advice to you is buy a starter set, get out in the hills, and just give it a go – there is no better reward.

If anyone is looking further advice on equipment for painting outdoors, you can follow and message me on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and my website, all of which are mckayartmourne.


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