Whether it's painting a rural or urban landscape or portraits of Barack Obama and Frank McCourt, Una Heaton is drawn to "moments that capture my eye". Working from photographs, she has painted "faces with character", and touring the coast of Ireland with her husband, she has painted vivid, colourful landscapes.
One of nine children, growing up, her mother bought her a sketchbook every Saturday and "sketchbooks were my world". In primary school, "Sister Perpetua saw I had talent and encouraged me to attend secondary-school art classes while still in primary", arranging for her to skip classes "except Christian doctrine" so that she could attend these advanced art lessons. During Christian doctrine, an obedient Heaton never asked to be excused but her enthusiastic art teacher, on discovering Heaton's absence and hearing her explanation, told her: "Nothing interferes with your art!"
Limerick-born and bred, and "very proud to be from this fantastic city", at Limerick School of Art, Heaton began an art teacher's course, but unable to afford full-time college, began a career in advertising, creating company logos, signage, theatre backdrops and calligraphy. Portrait commissions and landscapes followed and she's now part of an enterprise and investment plan that's creating a new vision, Limerick 2030. She's also writing a book about setting up and running the Frank McCourt Museum.
"Vibrant and quick" watercolour is Heaton's favourite medium.
"I'm a fast painter and like to capture a moment quickly. When watercolour dries, the tones blend together to give ever more exciting results."
Heaton has been to Skellig several times in all seasons but spring is her favourite time - "When the puffins are there in abundance before they migrate".
The historic site draws her back.
"The isolated beauty, the hostile environment. How did the monks survive? It takes your breath away. The colours and contrasts of the sea with the grey of the rocks and the bright puffins stimulate a need to paint."
From "photographs and quick sketches on site", Heaton made this Skellig painting last summer; it's empty of people because "I wanted to portray the solitude, the vibrancy of the landscape, the heritage of the location".
Compositionally, Heaton has chosen a perfect spot. In the distance those purple-blue mountains on the Kerry coast beneath summer clouds, then that calm sea and in the foreground, silence and bright sunlight on craggy, spiky rocks and their shadows work together to create a dazzling piece. The contrasting soft, bright green growth and the diagonal, narrow stone path leading upwards invite the viewer in.
Heaton's studio is a "woman's shed" in the garden. She loves being an artist, loves "the freedom and ability to express myself and get lost in creations. I put on Joe Duffy or Lyric FM. Sometimes, I just like silence".
Lockdown allowed Heaton time to sort out her workspace, which had been "flooded when the river Shannon's banks behind our house flooded. My daughter, son-in-law and baby ended up being cocooned with us and they, along with my brother-in-law, helped me get my studio back".
Life on pause and the lack of distractions have been "a strange blessing". And Heaton has created a new collection of huge works, acrylic on canvases, "depicting the colour and movement and wildness of the Irish coast".
Future plans include painting Prague and Venice but she's also looking for "new parts of Ireland. There are hundreds of castles, valleys, cliffs, seascapes and people that will continue to inspire me".
And she hopes to return to Skellig. Only 180 people are allowed visit Skellig Michael on any given day. No visitors are allowed this summer but a global Star Wars audience has seen it on the silver screen, and in this painting Una Heaton brings us there in all its empty, peaceful, prayerful, stunning beauty.
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