A pocket full of stones… a handful of joy

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Pictured above: Dugald MacInnes at Balachulish Quarry

Joanna Kessel unearths the inspiration at the core of Dugald MacInnes’s minimalistic slate artworks.

By Joanna Kessel

Born and brought up in Scotland, with strong west coast connections, Dugald MacInnes has deep-rooted links to the landscape, in-depth knowledge of the geology and archaeology, and access to a plentiful supply of slate – his principal medium.  His work is shown nationally and internationally, has been written about extensively and features in many books and periodicals.  I am going to explore the passion that compels him to create his beautifully honed artwork.

Dugie and I meet periodically to talk about our work.  The last time we met, we had barely sat down when Dugie dug his hand deep into his pocket and pulled out a handful of stones, proffering them across the table.  The dense, dark chunks looked interesting but the look of child-like glee on Dugie’s face intrigued me more.  His joy was infectious and I was keen to find out what this handful of black rock meant to him.

Childlike glee and that feeling of wonderment are not solely the preserve of the young but rather that of the inquisitive and curious mind, which Dugie certainly has.  He is always exploring, learning and sharing his knowledge.  Through his artwork, teaching and archaeological work, he makes visible to others the environment around us.

Slate is a metamorphic rock, originally a mudstone formed around 500 million years ago, which then changed radically through pressure and heat.  It cleaves well and offers a range of textural options.  It has a warmth and life to it, ranging from subtle grey tones to gradations of colour that become visible where iron pyrites and sulphur have weathered out, leaving oily sheens of yellow, orange and maroon.

Left: Basalt dyke in slate, Luing.
Right: Slate, iron pyrities and sulphur weathered out, yellow, orange and maroon stains and oily sheens, Luing

Shale is a sedimentary stone, essentially mud, that is still very close to its origins and hasn’t undergone a great deal of change.  It cleaves in a similar way to slate but is very delicate and paper-thin.  It is a dense, dark black and provides a visual and textural foil to the slate.  

Dugie had been seeking this type of black for years and was delighted when he recently came across a local source.  The density of the blackness in combination with the greys of the slate “just clicks”.  The black shale absorbs light whilst the slate reflects light, bringing out its colours.  The creative potential is exciting.

Basalt dyke in Lewisian Gneiss rock, Tiree

Having handled and worked with slate over many years, Dugie has empathy with the material.  He talks about taking control of the chaos of geology, trying to manipulate materials to bend to his will.  At the same time, he recognises that materials have their own particular qualities and limitations and you have to enter a dialogue and work with them.  

As a young man, he was drawn to nature.  He achieved a deeper level of understanding through observational drawing, capturing the shapes and tones of rocky islands on the west coast, which led him to go on to study geology.  Later he made archaeological studies and filled sketchbooks with ideas, considering shape, balance, proportion, line, colour and tone.  Drawing has enabled him to build up a databank of visual research that he keeps returning to.  He sees it as a process of distillation, what he calls “sieving out all the unnecessary”.

Dugie studies, selects and orders the cut slate within his work and, in his sketchbooks, he notes ideas.  In our conversation, he referenced Linneaus’s Systema Naturae; an 18th century means to categorise, order and understand the natural world. 

STANDINGS STONES I. Slate and oil shale. (60x60cm)

He starts an artwork with little more than a vision in his mind’s eye and then marks a few guidelines on the support (to keep lines straight) or an arc with a large set of compasses.  He then picks up the first piece of stone and places it.  It is a sensory process and he has the confidence to allow the plan to change and to feel his way forward, into the work.  Dugie becomes totally immersed and mentioned how he can suddenly come to, and see what’s on his workbench, and thinks, “gosh, I’ve created all of this”.

There is a musicality to his placing of tesserae.  “We need the variation to keep our interest and enable us to see,” he explains.  The intuitive placement and subtle shifts invite the viewer to look closer and connect; many people become immersed and find the experience deeply moving.

During an early art school trip to London, Dugie came across the work of Josef Albers, Homage to a Square, a yellow-on-yellow painting. “I turned a corner and I just stood staring at it.  It moved me and I thought, if I could do that,” he continues.  The simple shapes, composition and colours had a profound effect on him.  He talked about Albers’s work along with artists Rothko and Burri as “getting to the heart of what moves us without all the extraneous material”.  This distilled simplicity is integral to his own work.

STANDING STONES II. Slate and oil shale. (60x60cm)

In our conversation, Dugie talked about responding positively to the visual elements of nature and communicating an emotional response to place.  He spoke about himself as a tiny human being holding a piece of the earth’s crust in his hand and using “geology to express geology”.  It is a sensory dialogue.  It is this deep felt love and attraction to the landscape that drives him to create.  The resulting work has a sense of permanency, peace and quietness, which stems from the materials, the composition and the restrictive use of visual elements.   

Scotland has some of the most varied geology in the world, and Dugie talks about using Scottish slate, but geologically he views it as “of the planet”.  It is billions of years old and was around long before man.  Our conversation segues off into time; geological and human timescales, the time it takes to create a mosaic, the fleetingness of our lives and how we are just passing through.

HORIZONS. Slate and oil shale. (60x60cm)

New work combining slate and shale can be seen in Horizons, which incorporates large shapes of calm and ordered tesserae, separated by the black shale and coming together at that tiny orange focal point – something is about to happen…  Standing Stones I & II incorporate greater expanses of the paper-thin shale creating a lyrical format, suggestive of a gathering or a dance (call and response) the two materials moving at different tempos but always in rhythm with each other.  

We talked about the darkness of the black shale, of singularity, black holes and the universe, a sense of infinity – the dark holes draw the viewer in – of Anish Kapoor’s black, the hollowed-out depths of Andy Goldsworthy’s stone sculptures and the dark portals of chambered tombs.  “The darkness of the shale can take you beyond the surface of the slate – it’s almost like it’s absorbing thought.” 

Dugie knows his context, his materials and where he is going: “I just want to make work that satisfies me.”  And by satisfying himself, he brings pleasure, connection and awareness to those who take the time to study his work.  It is dark and mysterious, it is beautifully honed and it is imbued with honesty and integrity.  It is down to earth.

CONTINENTAL DRIFT. Slate. (60x60cm)

Technical tips from Dugald MacInnes for working with slate

  • Slate has a strong cleavage that allows it to be easily split. The stone from the west coast has been “tortured” by geological forces and some of it can be broken into various shapes in the hand.
  • A wet saw is an excellent way of reducing larger pieces into smaller shapes. These should be applied to the substrate so that the cleavage is perpendicular to it. Other pieces, however, can be laid with the cleavage horizontal to the substrate but “flaking” of the stone must be taken into account.


Dugald MacInnes was born and raised on the west coast of Scotland. This landscape imbued him with a strong interest in geology and archaeology. He was familiar with the slate quarries of Easdale and Luing islands, a familiarity that was to dramatically re-emerge when he was introduced to its use as an artistic medium by his tutor George Garson at the Glasgow School of Art in 1972.

Garson emphasised that Dugald should look upon himself as an artist first and foremost: there was no involvement in Classical mosaic methodology and materials but, rather, great emphasis was placed upon the uses of visual elements in creating art. Dugald obtained a degree in geology in 1985 with the Open University and, a few years later, a qualification in field archaeology at the University of Glasgow.

Slate is Dugald’s principal medium; its variety of colour, texture, and form provides him with a range of approaches to his art; often minimalistic but on occasion he returns to his roots with small studies in which he explores the characteristics of the rock as a way of opening new pathways in his creative processes. Lately, Lothian oil shale has captured his interest and is currently experimenting with new material in combination with the familiar slate. 

His work is mainly shown in the USA, and Europe, but he has also exhibited in Japan and Australia. He teaches his unique approach to mosaic at the Chicago Mosaic School.

Web: dugaldmacinnesart.com
Web: joannakessel.co.uk