Culloden Moor – some abstract watercolour sketches

I’ve been wanting to paint Culloden Moor near Inverness for a long time. It’s an amazing place, so steeped in history. Anyone who’s a fan of Outlander will know the story: Culloden Moor is the location of the Battle of Culloden in 1746 between the Government forces and the Jacobites, where Bonnie Prince Charlie’s supporters were defeated and he subsequently escaped “over the sea to Skye”.

The National Trust website describe the battle particularly well in a few paragraphs:

“Towards one o’clock, the Jacobite artillery opened fire on government soldiers. The government responded with their own cannon, and the Battle of Culloden began.

Bombarded by cannon shot and mortar bombs, the Jacobite clans held back, waiting for the order to attack. At last they moved forwards, through hail, smoke, murderous gunfire and grapeshot. Around eighty paces from their enemy they started to fire their muskets and charged. Some fought ferociously. Others never reached their goal. The government troops had finally worked out bayonet tactics to challenge the dreaded Highland charge and broadsword. The Jacobites lost momentum, wavered, then fled.

Hardly an hour had passed between the first shots and the final flight of the Prince’s army. Although a short battle by European standards, it was an exceptionally bloody one.”

As you would expect a moor to be, it’s quite devoid of land features, just a flat landscape of heather and grass. It’s quite difficult therefore to find a point of interest for a painting. When you walk round however, it’s peace and barrenness add to the atmosphere of the place. You are transported back to that day in 1746 and imagine to horrific massacre of the Jacobite and huge number that lay dying in the heather.

I didn’t want to include anything that hadn’t been there in 1746 so I shied away from the memorial cairn and headstones which mark the graves of the clans. I found one of my photos that highlights this flat barren landscape.


There is a small burn that moves diagonally across my photo so I thought that would create some interest. I zoomed into the upper right area keeping this in mind.


For the sketch above I quickly used watercolour paints to define the general shape of the burn and the horizon with trees and hills behind, with a wet on wet technique. I wet the paper and then allowed the paint to make blots and shapes as it wanted. The I used quinacridone rose for the foreground to represent the heather. Allowing this to dry, I then worked in darker tones along the horizon and areas of the foreground. While this was still wet I scraped pastels with a knife over some wet areas, which then started to bleed a little. I also used a water colour pencil to quickly describe the darkest bits and a few plants.

While working on this I was also working on a few other sketches, trying out different media and techniques but all in a very quick and gestural style. I didn’t particularly want to capture a likeness, the photo was a basic idea only. Rather, I was trying to capture the feeling of the place. I’m not sure I can describe exactly what that was but I knew in my head what it was!


This one above was done with Windsor and Newton inks, I used Cobalt, Peat Brown and Scarlet initially and finished this with more scraped charcoal, pastels and watercolour pencils. My black Indian ink had unfortunately separated and I soon found that poking it with my brush didn’t get much more than a washed out grey.


This sketch above was done as a very quick description of the main shapes using a black blendable pastel pen. I picked these up a while ago really cheaply and didn’t really know what to do with them.


They’re really strongly pigmented so you only need a light touch so because of their crayon-like shape difficult to do anything with any detail.

I thought they worked quite will here though. A quick sketch and then some water and it’s quite a powerful effect. I scraped some brown pastel over some areas which worked quite well. I think these pens definitely have potential but I need to work on their application


This last sketch was done in charcoal with water over it. This was quite interesting as I’d never tried to dilute charcoal before. In contract to the blendable pastel pens above, which are really dilutable, the charcoal was quite resistant so it gave a great granular effect, I would definitely try this again. I then used some of the scarlet Windsor and Newton ink in for the heather with a touch of green water-soluble pencil. I went over the dark areas at the end with charcoal again.

Maybe not the most refined sketches I’ve ever done but as always, a lot more fun to do than fiddling with tiny details. It’s given me some thinks to think about for a painting of Culloden.




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