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A Family Affair: Mother and son join forces for first time during lockdown for gallery exhibition

© Frances MacdonaldBlown Sands and Sea Pinks by Frances Macdonald
Blown Sands and Sea Pinks by Frances Macdonald

For mother-and-son artists Frances Macdonald and Ross Ryan the sea is their muse, its unpredictability a constant source of creativity.

Living by the sea in Crinan, near Lochgilphead, they look out to Jura and Tiree. And the painters are used to seeing the elements at their peak – gales stirring the sea into angry, crashing waves or a sun-kissed calm creating a ripple on the gentle water.

Adding to their artistic challenge, sometimes both extremes can be witnessed in the time it takes each of them to get paint on canvas.

© Supplied
Mother and son artists Frances Macdonald and Ross Ryan

Both enjoy working outdoors – Frances in the calmer summer months and Ross in the winter wildness. And, while their art occasionally takes them to far-flung climes, in this year’s lockdown the artists’ inspiration has been on their doorsteps. The results of what they’ve witnessed from their Crinan base will be displayed in their first joint exhibition, with A Family Affair opening at The Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh later this month.

Both are excited to be displaying their work side by side, even though their approaches are significantly different.

Frances, who has been painting professionally for more than 25 years and whose work is on display in many private collections, said: “It’s nice we have been able to do this together. Most of my work this year has been looking out to what I can see around Crinan – Iona, Jura, Loch Sween, the Mull of Kintyre. I like to go out on the beach and work from there, if possible. I use a palette knife to paint these days. I used to use pen and watercolour. I like to paint in the summer, whereas Ross prefers to paint the gales in winter.”

Ross’s unusual approach could be referred to as extreme painting. “I enjoy being out in the elements – it makes it difficult, but also easier,” he said. “If it’s blowing a gale, I can’t sit and ponder, because it becomes a battle fighting the elements.

© Ross Ryan
Balephetrish Bay, Tiree, by Ross Ryan.

“The weather gets into the work, in a non-pretentious way. It’s like the storm is the conductor of the painting and I’m the musician taking direction.

“Some paintings are abandoned or damaged – the colours running while the rain is chucking it down. It all becomes a bit of a laugh, to tell the truth. I was on Tiree last winter when Storm Brendan came in and I was watching the big squalls approaching. It’s a bit risky, but I like it.”

Ross, 46, has always had a passion for painting but his mum never tried to influence him. He went to art school and then began travelling the world, painting in places like Spain and Berlin. He also sailed across the Atlantic, dropping messages in bottles into the ocean each day and then travelling to wherever they washed up to paint the area and interview its finder.

Frances’s path was different. “I’d always been able to draw and it’s what I would do as a child,” said Frances, who has also been running the Crinan Hotel since the 1970s. “I didn’t go to art school because my parents persuaded me to do something else as a career, but I continued painting as a hobby.

“It started off as watercolour sketches. I would paint one and put it on the wall at the hotel and hope someone would buy it for £50. But over time it turned more serious and I began to get into bigger galleries.”

While Frances enjoys spending time in her studio, Ross also likes to work from his wooden boat, Sgarbh, bought by his parents in 1979.

“The boat is quite dear to me,” he said. “I’ve been going on it since I was five. I rebuilt it over seven years, but to have a boat like that is an extravagance, so I need to work to keep it and I do charters in the summer.”

© Supplied
Frances with baby Ross

Frances, too, has a boat. For now it sits in the canal in front of her cottage, but she once enjoyed adventures on it with her husband. “Nick and I bought it in 1971 when we came to Crinan. It was just a little fishing boat, only 24ft, but we shipped her down to the south coast of England the following year and sailed the Channel and up the Seine to Paris. It was quite scary, to be honest.

“We sold it when we got Scarbh but eight years ago we saw it on the beach, looking a bit neglected, so we bought it and had her restored.”

Frances and Ross are looking forward to people being able to see their show in person, after Ross’s show earlier in the year at The Scottish Gallery was forced to go online due to the Covid lockdown. “I managed to sell half the paintings, but it was two years’ worth of work and I couldn’t even go to see them on the wall. So hopefully this time I can go over and see my paintings sitting side by side with my mum’s.”

Frances added: “I’m pleased to be able to share the space with Ross. It’ll be nice to do it together.”

Until then, both will be down by the water at Crinan capturing the weather.


A Family Affair, The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh, Nov 28-Dec 23