Travels With My Art

A compilation of Chris's humorous and entertaining travelogues, revealing some of the pitfalls and frustrations, as well as the joy of being a professional artist. Hoping that his efforts abroad will continue to bring in a daily crust to continue supporting his family at home!

5 Apr 2007

The Oldest Clock in Venice

I finished this little painting on my 50th birthday, last week; appropriately enough as it is very much to do with the passage of time.
The clock is reputedly one of the oldest in Venice, on the church of San Giacomo de Rialto, which is just behind the Rialto market. I did the pen and watercolour drawing from my sketchbook. It's only a modest little pen and ink impression, but its just the sort of thing I love to do 'on the spot'. Subjects like this just make me want to sit and draw them, and always have done.
The clock only has one hand, and the dial is 24 hour. Apparently it never worked properly when it was first built, (c.1490s?)and has never kept good time in its history. However the Venetians are very fond of it.
It may not give you the correct time of day, but it will always give you a sense of the timeless nature of Venice.

10 Mar 2007

8 Patio des Naranjos

As soon I walked through the 14th century Moorish arch into the Patio de los Naranjos (Court of Orange Trees), a feeling of peace descended upon me. I’m not prone to these things, but water from a sculptural stone fountain played in the middle of a walled garden, set about with orange trees and some cypress. People sat here and there in the shade, or walked in slow contemplation, and the enclosed feeling of the walls was protective rather than oppressive. One obvious view called to me, so I parked myself in a shady corner, and out came the sketch pad.

At this point I have to produce some photographic evidence that some women can’t resist sidling up to an artist at work! Well, it makes up for the others. “Do you mind if I sit next to you and my friend takes a photograph?” Then they cuddle up to you for a minute, peering at your efforts. “Wow, that’s nice”. It makes my day. Pathetic, I know.

I toyed with looking around the vaulted Byzantine crypt of the Mosque that was on all the postcards. However, it was early evening, and I wanted more yet before knocking off.

An old woman caught my eye, sitting on the steps in front of an impressive arched doorway set into the walls of the Mosque. She had a blanket next to her with small things on it for sale. The way she sat, so still, seemed timeless against the huge old doors, so I discreetly made some quick sketches, and took a photograph, hoping to remember the atmosphere for a later painting. (I did paint it some months on, and sold the painting, but forgot to photo it for the records). I do have the quick sketch still; perhaps I shall paint it again.

I discovered in a café later on that I didn’t like Calamares.

* * * *

9 Mar 2007

San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice

I finished painting this watercolour today; there's a bit more fiddling about with the gondolas in the foreground, but it's finished in the sense that it's now best left alone! Am I pleased with it? As much as I ever am with a painting. It's worked for me as a whole, and that's the most important thing. The light is supposed to be the last sunlight of the day, and I aimed for a very calm atmosphere.

The sea is not easy to paint in watercolour; and the lack of reflection in the water is deliberate. In Venice the lagoon is part of the sea, and it almost never is still enough to make reflections of the buildings. The foreground is busy enough that I wanted to keep simplicity in the water texture.

Should I have made the gondolas darker? Maybe, but I didn't want to draw too much attention from the main focus of the painting; the shadow across the entrance to the church of San Giorgio Maggiore. So I kept the foreground soft, and put the lamp on the left to balance the tower as part of the composition.

One of the reasons I love painting Venice so much, is that I feel as though I am back there again for much of the time.

7 Mar 2007

Use of masking fluid in watercolour

I've started a painting this week in my 'classic' watercolour style! By that I suppose I mean that the painting is carefully composed, with a preliminary pencil sketch (not shown here) to work out tonal values, composition and atmosphere. I love this view; of the island of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice and have drawn and painted it before several times. But now I wanted to do something different, and it occurred to me that if I darkened the sky to have the buildings lighter than the sky, I could get feeling of strong late sunlight at the end of the day.
I rarely use masking fluid, but here it comes into its own. By masking off the outline of the buildings, one can do more than several strong washes of colour in the sky, with no dabbling about, and the buildings will really stand out in front, as they would in a bold flash of sunlight.
I didn't do any preliminary drawing apart from the silhouette before painting the sky, just in case it all went pear-shaped and I had to start again! That's from bitter experience! This time I was OK, and as you can see in the right hand picture, whilst waiting for washes of colour to dry, I have drawn in the gondolas in the foreground, painting one in first to work out what I liked, before committing myself to the rest.
I'm looking forward to continuing tomorrow; its not in the bag just yet.

6 Mar 2007

7 La Mesquita

Showered and refreshed, I emerged back on to the street, bordering on to the railway sidings that my modest hotel overlooked, in what was clearly an unfashionable quarter of the city. Just as when you bang your head for long enough against a wall, it’s lovely when you stop; the absence of clutching a heavy suitcase raised my spirits considerably. Also it was only one o’clock, the sun was shining in a clear blue sky and Cordoba was waiting for me.

If one wishes to sketch in an unknown city, then it pays to visit the postcard stands first. They will present all the best and most obvious views the place has to offer, and it saves a lot of time. Of course one may not wish to paint merely the ‘postcard views’. There are many more subtle and interesting subjects and compositions one can tackle, given a certain sensitivity and imagination.

It would be a shame to miss the blockbusters, though wouldn’t it? Imagine going to Sydney, and not realising until you came home that there was an opera house with a bridge next to it.

One view that was clearly a cracker, from the number of postcard spinners that paid tribute to it, was the skyline of the old city of Cordoba. Looking from the south side of the river, back across the Roman bridge, the fabulous Moorish Mosque ‘La Mesquita’ dominated the composition, hills blue in the distance cooling the heat of the stone in the foreground. More importantly, it was my sort of view, so out came the paints.

For an hour or more, I quietly worked up a rough and ready pen and ink and colour wash impression of the scene. I was quite pleased with it; a nice souvenir, and good to paint from later. Boy the afternoon was hot though! I was working in a spot with no shade, and in my earlier excitement had left the hotel without my hat. Working with the sun behind me, I could manage, but I needed a break, and some shade.

Now some people may wonder why the stereotypical artist wears a silk scarf or cravat, and a wide brimmed hat. Style, yes, and maybe all artists are posers. But I have discovered the origins of such attire. Very early on in my painting career I discovered that if you tried to paint ‘into the light’ ie facing the sun, then within minutes you are blinded to colour and you cannot see anything you are drawing or painting on your pad. So, you turn the other way, and draw what’s behind you. Ah, that’s better. Two hours later you have finished, but on packing up, you find the back of your neck is red as a lobster. So; the brim on the hat acts as a sunshade when you paint towards light, and the silk scarf protects your neck from sunburn. Quid pro quo. Ergo factum and all that. Alright so these days you can wear sunglasses and a baseball cap on backwards, but it’s not me, OK?

Seeking refreshment, I read in my guidebook that the Mosque I had been painting had a courtyard with fountains and shade within its precincts, so off I went for my next drawing stop.

* * * *

6 Cordoba

From an early age, the sound of the Classical or Spanish guitar has had a profound effect upon me, evoking moods or even memories, of places to which I have never been. I am not talking of the rhythms of Flamenco, but rather the more restrained music of the classical guitar repertoire. One evening in my early teens, I happened to see a television programme featuring the great guitarist Andrés Segovia, sitting in the Alhambra Palace playing ‘Memories of the Alhambra’, with fountains and shadows playing around a sunny courtyard. I was hooked, and embarked upon several years of lessons upon the instrument. To this day I intermittently attempt to play such classics as the “Suite Espanol” by Isaac Albeniz. ‘Seville’ ‘Cordoba’, and ‘Granada’ are the names of three of the pieces in the Suite; a series of musical postcards from Andalucia.

Such are the romantic associations with these beautiful tunes, in my mind’s eye, that I was keen to visit all three of these old Moorish cities during the seven days of my visit to Spain. And so the next morning I packed my bags for Granada; hungry to visit the fountains and courtyards of the Alhambra Palace, which I knew rose up out of the city, into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

* * *

At least the bus station was next door to my hotel, so off I went to get a bus to the train station; only to be told that there were no buses connecting the bus and railway stations together.

Obviously no-one had thought of that.

It was a little over a mile across town to the railway station, but my mistrust of taxi drivers prevented me from making eye contact with any of them around me, so I set off on foot, clutching my heavy case to my chest. Forty minutes, I thought cheerfully; coffee en route.

Ten minutes later I slumped into a chair outside a shady café. The day was coming on hot, and my backpack had already soaked the back of my shirt. I had a coffee and croissant and watched Spain go by in the early morning sunshine. Duly refreshed, I stood, loaded my bags on board, and looked at the long straight road east. ‘Why am I so bloody mean?’ I thought to myself. I hailed the next taxi, and was at the station in ten minutes for less than the price of a beer.

Unfortunately there were to be no trains to Granada until much later in the day, but wasting a whole day out of my painting schedule travelling and waiting in stations was not on. There was a train to Cordoba almost immediately though, so I boarded that, rather enjoying the sudden change of plan; easy to accomplish when you haven’t booked hotels, and you have no travelling companion with whom to argue.

The railway terminus at Cordoba has a bus station adjoining it. This was much more promising. I had used the two-hour train journey to inspect the street map of Cordoba from my pocket guide, and locate two hotels I had found (on the Internet back at home) which were reasonably priced and handy for both the station and the old part of the city. No repeat of my experience in Seville thank you very much.

Misreading the signs, I found myself leaving the station through the bus entrance, running out of footpath, and eventually dodging coaches swinging through the vast arches that were not designed for pedestrian use. Realising I was at the wrong end of the shooting match, I turned in another wrong direction and tramped three sides around the entire station complex; a vast blank wall to my left the entire time; passing nobody except for one other person with a case struggling in the opposite direction. We avoided eye contact. My circumlocution presented me back to the top of some escalators, leading down to the platform where I had started. Dripping with great discs of sweat around my armpits, I realised that it could well be another one of those days. The hotels wouldn’t be far away though; I knew that.

They weren’t far away, they were just full.

Clearly internet advertising was successful for them. A largely fruitless further half-hour washed me up in a rather impressive square called the Plaza del Tendillas. Definitely coffee time.

One of the joys of being in Spain and Italy at the right time of the year (which is most of it) is sitting out of doors drinking coffee and watching the world go by. I could take it up full time in retirement. Probably die of caffeine overdose after eighteen months mind you. On this occasion I pulled out my sketchbook on the basis that if I couldn’t find a hotel, there’s no point in wasting the day. There was a girl feeding pigeons, which I made a passable impression of with my pencil, and behind her a tall elegant rounded façade of a building, topped with a white cupola, upon which perched a flamboyant equestrian statue. The sort of stuff I like to have a stab at. It was better than hotel hunting, and boosted my spirits. I was sure I was going to like Cordoba.

I didn’t for the remainder of the morning. It is a mystery to this day how, despite possessing an adequate street map of Cordoba, I found myself back at one of the hotels I had started with. Hesitating outside, I hastily constructed a sentence from my phrase book, returned inside, and asked the signor at reception if he knew of any other inexpensive hotel I might try. He must have understood me, as he was most forthcoming. I grasped most of his response through a series of mutual arm waving, nods and wild gesticulations; which go a long way in any language.

Focusing all my attention on retaining what tattered sense of direction I still had, I staggered under the weight of my bags for two short streets before rounding the last corner to confront; yes you’ve probably guessed by now, hand on heart and hope to die, the railway station was right in front of me, the hotel next door.

Handy for the journey back I thought. Chronically optimistic to the end.

* * *

5 Plaza d'Espana

The first day had been a great success by my standards. My first painting was not a disaster, and I had two other drawings under my belt, which I liked, and could later paint from, in the studio. Giddy with my success I hopped out of bed the following morning, and promptly folded on to the floor. Ow! – My calf muscles had gone to jelly. How many miles had I walked the previous day? Not many, on the map, but the trouble with being in a foreign city, looking for interesting views, is that every side street beckons you down it, to just see what’s round the corner. Not having the restraining influence of my family, I cannot resist, and am lured by sirens up every avenue and down every street. Add to that the night of my arrival, tramping every inch of northern Seville with two heavy bags for hours on end, and my ankles were in rebellion. I resolved to be more disciplined, and conserve my time and energy for sketching.

After a hot and reviving shower, I peered through the blinds of my hotel window to gauge the light (this is something artists do) and plan my day's itinerary. It was an unrewarding experience, as the window opened into the bottom of a well in the middle of the hotel. Actually it didn’t open, but if I craned my neck upwards, with my nose on the glass, and head resting on the window sill I could just see a square inch of grey light at the top of the well, which I presumed to be sky. It was non-committal, and I had to wash my face again afterwards, so I decided to play it by ear, and presently stepped boldly out of the hotel front door into sunny Seville for painting day two.

Or rather I hobbled out on to a cool and overcast morning. The traffic by the bus station was smelly and I could have been on the Edgeware road in March. Now I’m not entirely a fair weather painter. Much as the sun always seem to shine in my paintings, experience has taught me to interpret, sometimes extensively, scenes before me. It’s called artistic license. Some people would call it taking bloody liberties with the truth, but then who wants to see parked cars, and ‘No Entry’ signs in paintings on the wall? Much better to leave out the rubbish, and if you have to put something in an otherwise uninteresting corner to stoke up the composition, have a woman walking a dog instead. An old painter friend once told me that, even if people are familiar with a view, you can leave out practically anything, and they won’t notice; but don’t put anything in that isn’t there, or they won’t buy it.

I used to think an artistic license was something you were given when you graduated from Art School, but being self-taught I never got one. Would that make me an illegal artist? What an exciting idea. Or I suppose I would only be practising illegally if I actually sold the paintings. Well most of the time I’d be alright then.

However, this morning my spirits were dampened. This was the sort of light that is my worst enemy. Heavy cloud, dark and glowering overhead, only lightening to the edges of the horizon. All around, dramatic perspectives, and rich architectural details were flattened, and drained of shadow, interest and colour. The bright spanish light I had come to revel in, and capture would prove elusive today. I wasn’t about to be beaten, but it was going to be a fight.

I stooged about. Drank some coffee, had my shoes shined again, bought some postcards, and wandered around the souvenir shops. Normally I love the souvenir shops, and only reward myself with them after earning a session with my painting efforts, but this morning even they lost their appeal. Maybe it’ll brighten up later I’d thought, but by mid-morning I was so awash with coffee I was like a walking hot-water bottle. It was time to grasp the bullet, so I bit the nettle by the horns and headed off to the Plaza de Espana.

The guide book had promised great things; a beautiful park, horse-drawn carriages, fountains playing in the sunlight (Huh!) and a sweeping curvacious slice of moorish architecture with towers, arches, bridges and lots of fiddly bits, which I usually like. Well I didn’t. It’s no good, I wasn’t in the mood. Even if I had liked it on a good day I wouldn’t have liked it then, and it wasn’t what I’d have liked on the best of days which made it even worse on a bad day. Oh you know what I mean. I was down in the dumps.

A lot of painting is about confidence. I don’t play cricket but I understand that morale has a profound effect on the game, even at the highest level. When the tables start to turn against a side, and a crack in the defences opens up, there can be a phenomenon known as a batting collapse. On a week’s painting trip this can be a real worry. It only takes a couple of bad or uninspired paintings, for the muse to flee in disgust (she is so fickle) and a batting collapse will ensue. Some would say just take the rest of the day off, and relax, but they don’t know how bad it can be to fail on paper, and, horrified with your efforts, feel as though you’ll never paint well again. It is as though the ‘magic painting cap’ I wear that enables me to draw, has been plucked from my head and thrown into the river. This may all sound over-dramatic, but I am inclined to be maudlin when I get fed-up. It’s part of the artistic temperament. (That’s my excuse).

The Plaza de Espana; alright it’s not my thing; but it is impressive. A vast and decoratively ornate structure, it was built in 1929 as a pavilion for the great Iberian-American Fair.(You didn’t go?) Intended to impress, it is a tribute to tiling, and depicts the many diverse regions of Spain in painted tiles all along the front of the collonade. It now serves the purpose of being somewhere to send the tourists in the middle of the day, where they can all go and photograph themselves and ease the congestion in the cathedral precincts.

I settled myself down behind an archway, and drew. It was something to do. Immediately below me, on the lower terrace, a woman was selling castanets, on a blanket, to passers-by. Clearly an expert herself, with a virtuosic flourish of limbs, she would reel off a loud rattling sound reminiscent of those rolling timetables in railway stations. She was doing a brisk trade, and the almost continuous rattling, punctuated by cries of “Castanets!” and a cackling laugh, lulled me into a sort of daydreaming stupor. Many people assume that when artists work, all their attention is taken up considering perspective and composition, or the relative merits of cerulean blue or gamboge, but this is far from the truth. My old Irish painter friend Geoffrey F.Woodworth reckoned that most of the time spent in watercolour painting was waiting for colour washes to dry. He used to practise playing his ukelele during such lulls in activity. Not having brought my ukelele with me (for health reasons) I found myself working up a limerick.

An old man from the Plaza de Espana
Would not stop repeating “Manyana”
His wife cried “You’re crazy!”
He replied “No, just lazy,
For why do today what, um….

Well that’s the trouble, I couldn’t find a rhyme for the last line. I suppose I should have considered that before investing my energy in the rest of the limerick; but my life doesn’t work like that.

It was still teasing me, and nearly cost me an accident crossing the Avenida de Carlos V, as I wandered into the Barrio de Santa Cruz. Now this was more like it. Whitewashed houses huddling around narrow cobbled streets; winding alleyways opening out into picturesque courtyards littered with café tables and people drinking and relaxing. Balconies overhanging with jasmine, terracotta roofs, pots and fountains. If I wasn’t going to stage a recovery here, then I might as well go back to my hotel room for a nap. (It did cross my mind) Rounding a corner, a composition caught my eye that was irresistible. A tall brightly painted house faced me, with flowery balconies, an arched colonnade at the top, pretty windows next to a café with a red awning, and…well all the rest. Perfect subject, rotten light. I would just have to use my imagination. On a good day, experience has taught me to pull a light cord in my head; switch on the sunshine; and see all the deep shadows in my mind’s eye. Sulkily, I took off my backpack, which cleverly opens out into a stool; sat on it, and went to work.

For such an ‘over the top’ subject, I chose to use pen and ink to draw first, and washed in bright colours; mauve in the shadows to make the scene as sunny as possible. After an hour, something was still missing in the middle – but what? It was all going a bit better than I had dared to hope. I didn’t want to ruin it now. A small nun with a walking stick conveniently tottered into view. Perfecto! A focal point; the small black and white figure complementing the two brightly coloured women in dresses standing by the front of the café on the right. In she went.

Definitely time for a beer. Who cares I’d skipped lunch and it was mid afternoon. I was back on track.

* * * * *

26 Feb 2007

4 Torre del Oro

Endless souvenir shops, outdoor cafes and warmly inviting streets provided displacement activities that carried me to that time of day when its too early to go home, but its too late to start much new. My ramblings had taken me to the banks of the Guadalquivir river, which provides a beautiful breathing space from north to south through an otherwise hectic city. At the end of a long paved promenade stood an impressive single round tower, set about with palm trees. I recognised it from lots of travel brochures, so guessed it must be important. The Torre del Oro or 'Golden tower' was a thirteenth century Almohad fortification, so called because it was once covered in gilded azulejos (whatever they are - they're not in my phrasebook).
The early evening light provided perfect shadows in all the right places, so out came the sketchbook, and a happy relaxed hour passed, with happy relaxed people wandering around in the warm sunshine, nobody in a hurry to go anywhere.

Have you ever had a picnic by the river with cattle nearby? If so, you will have noticed that eventually their curiosity overcomes their natural animal shyness; and before you’ve poured the tea out there’s a pitch invasion, and they’re trampling the cucumber sandwiches. Well, painting in public places is just the same. In what other circumstances would a single man be sitting alone, and have single women come along and strike up a conversation, even ask personal questions and sit close to you? As a friend of mine pointed out recently – “Sounds a great way to draw the birds!” I don’t draw birds of course.

So there I was, minding my own business and perhaps feeling a little too pleased with my own work, when this rather attractive dusky Spanish woman looks over my shoulder and murmurs praise and encouragement in broken English. This intrusion was a little less invasive than cows at a picnic, so I happily struck up what conversation I could with the little vocabulary we had in common. Mostly I just nodded and smiled, like those toy dogs that you used to see in the back windows of the cars in front. Then she suddenly asked a direct question;

“Would you do a painting of my niňa?”

My throat went dry and I swallowed. I had no idea what a niňa was, but my imagination ran riot. This wasn’t the sort of proposition one got every day, even in England. I gave a sort of nervous laugh, saying “Uno momento…” and turning with my back half to her, rummaged through my bag for the pocket dictionary. I can’t tell you what went through my head before my finger ran down the appropriate page and found the translation ‘daughter’. I looked up and saw her little girl running up to us. She was very pretty, but I don’t do portraits, so I had to disappoint her.

Time to knock off for a beer then.

3 Seville Cathedral

Seville Cathedral is big. Reputedly the third biggest in the world, topped only by St. Pauls in London, and that other big one in Rome. Visiting any such tourist hot-spot one has to fight off the sense of being a processed pea, amongst throngs of other visitors, turnstiles, gift shops, and those displays filled with illuminated slides. (Does anyone actually buy those things?) It was worth it. The entrance fee was modest, and atmosphere friendly and calm. Like many Cathedrals, the vast interior is broken up by a forest of huge fluted columns, thrusting upwards to a flamboyant ballet of gothic fan tracery, dancing away into the gloom.

David Roberts, the great Victorian painter depicted its interior; the columns as large as giant redwoods, people like ants at the bottom, and apocalyptic rays of sunlight lending a visionary air to the unbelievably huge scene. I found it a bit dark. Blinding sunlight outside, I nearly walked into some of the columns, the light was so poor, and that was after my eyes had adjusted. Huge banks of votive candles ablaze on all sides didn't so much contribute to the illumination as dazzle one's vision like oncoming headlights on a dark road. I stumbled around in the gloom searching for the entrance to the tower, haunted by my catholic upbringing, and wondering if it wasn't perhaps time to think about glasses.

The ascent of the tower was a surprise. My expectation was of a never-ending narrow stone spiral staircase with occasional glimpses through slots in the wall, your eyes stinging with the wind in them as you peer out at a vista of one degree. In fact you ascend by a series of ramps that hug the inside of each of the four walls of the tower. Each ramp has a number at the top so you know how many there are to go.
I think there were thirty-six in all, but I'd have preferred steps, they're easier on the calf muscles. I wondered if a European directive had ordered the Cathedral to fit the ramps for disabled access, but apparently the Moors built the tower so that they could ride to the top on horseback. What the hell does a horse want with a view across Seville? Personally I would have liked to do the ascent on a trial motorbike, although meeting a horse coming down the other way would be a worry.

Finally I emerged, with lots of other panting tourists, into the bell chamber, with openings on all four sides affording magnificent views across the entire city. The inside of the belfry was fascinating too; hung all about with impressive great bells, and an incomprehensible array of arcane machinery, pulleys, levers, cogs, chunky beams and brickwork, that’s about as far away from watchmaking as you can get in the timekeeping industry. I made a mental note to attempt a perspective drawing later, but first looked for a good angle across the city.

The view south had it for me. In all other directions an interesting, but compositionally meaningless, jumble of rooftops stretched away to grey suburbs in the distance; an endless uniformity of apartment blocks standing out there like an audience looking back at me. To the south though, I gazed over two beautiful cupolas sitting on lower roofs of the cathedral, which were worth drawing on their own. Festooned with turrets, carved stonework, rich in architectural detailing, and with buttresses flying everywhere, it was all most satisfying. As if that weren't enough, beyond lay an aerial view of many of Seville's finest monuments: the Alcazar fortress, the Plaza d'Espana, the Plaza del Triunfo, and the old Tobacco factory (now part of the University) which provided the setting for Carmen in Bizet's opera, immortalizing an idiotically romantic notion of factory life in nineteenth century Spain. Finally in the distance the Guadalquivir River stretched to the horizon, spanned by a suspension bridge silhouetted against a blur of industrialisation, cranes and apartment blocks dotted about the greyness. I couldn't wait to sharpen my pencil.

It is of course a ridiculously ambitious subject for a painting, but I didn't care. The challenge of drawing it was irresistible. I was reminded of a boy on television some years ago, who had an incredible ability to take in such a cityscape at a glance, and then sit down and draw the entire thing from memory, both in perspective, and without any mistakes in the layout of the buildings or anything. He paid for this talent by having some sort of autism or other personality disorder. Sadly, although my personality is very disordered, I still have to do all my drawing whilst in front of the subject. Which is a shame, because it was a most uncomfortable position I had to stand in. Wedged into a corner, I was jostled and jogged constantly by rude tourists, pointing right across my face, and leaning digital technology of all sorts against my left ear. Occasionally someone would peer right into my drawing pad, so I could only see the back of their head, and then look back at me, as though I were from another planet. It may have been too hot for lunch earlier, but one hundred metres up, a howling cold wind was whipping my hair, and freezing my fingers, so I could barely hold the pencil.

Early stages of frostbite may account for me losing my pencil over the balcony edge at one point. (Actually I think a bored American youth was chewing gum so hard that his lower jaw knocked it out of my hand but I can't prove it). This was more an irritation than a disaster, as long experience as a travelling artist has born fruit, and taught me to carry more than one pencil. My jacket bristles with pencils. The average stationary wholesaler would envy the stock of pencils I have built up in my jacket over the years. Pausing to sharpen up a spare, a disturbing thought crossed my mind. At breakfast one morning the previous week, my young daughter Charlotte had exclaimed;

"Dad, did you know that if you dropped 50p off the top of the Eiffel Tower, and it hit someone at the bottom, it would go right through them?"

Visions uncomfortably arose in my mind's eye, as I could see some poor Japanese tourist gazing upward in rapt contemplation, to be cut down by a 2B graphite aquarelle, like Harold in the battle of Hastings. A distant siren howled far below in the city. I pulled myself together, sirens are always howling far below in cities.

The cupolas were finished and I was just wishing I'd left more room above them on the page, when a voice behind me spoke, and a hand touched me on the shoulder. I started, (nearly losing another pencil) and looking round my heart nearly missed a beat. A uniformed man addressed me in Spanish. I could see the headline


It was 4.30 and the tower was closing for the day.

2 La Giralda

I slept like a baby. I don't know why people use that expression to describe deep, refreshing and uninterrupted slumber; my experience of babies calls to mind continual waking in the night accompanied by crying, chewing of blankets and uncontrolled pooing. Fortunately I wasn't teething.

A different and cheerful city greeted me, as I emerged blinking into the noisy urban sunlight from my hotel. Yes, even the sunshine is noisy in Spain. The hotel turned out to be not only cheap, but quite serviceable and in an excellent location, only ten minutes walk from Seville Cathedral, and La Giralda; my first stop of the day. Well, actually a café on the Avenida de Construction was my first stop, for café con leche y una tostada, to set myself up for my first days painting. This was after all, a business trip. (I have to say that officially as I'm claiming all my expenses against tax). The Fothergills Gallery Summer Exhibition was only a couple of months away, and 'Impressions of Spain' had already been billed as a cornerstone of the show.

Drinking coffee outdoors in the warm morning sunshine was a treat in itself after the cold grey wet winter I had just left behind. As I was seated in contemplation, a voice called my attention. A small man stood in front of me, talking unintelligibly. He was bending forwards, offering me a wooden box with a ramp constructed on top. I thought perhaps it was a model of some Inca temple he was trying to persuade me to buy, but as I couldn't think of a use for one I endeavoured to communicate this. As soon as I spoke he said " Ah, Inglese! " and then exclaimed "Shoeshine!" and burst out laughing, repeating the word again, as if it was a joke he'd just been told. I tried to smile and shrug him off but he was most insistent. Oh what the hell, they were dusty after the previous nights tramping, and my shoes did have a long road ahead this week. I assented, and he proceeded with a most elaborate ritual.

With my left foot placed on the ramp of the Inca temple, first the laces were tucked in, then some shoehorn-type pieces were inserted in the top of the shoe to protect my socks. A huge shoe brush was produced which danced around my foot with great panache, as a sort of preamble. He then unscrewed the top from a bottle and poured some reddish-brown liquid on to a small mop brush with a long handle ( I would have paid good money for that brush). Thereafter a massaging operation began which will remain one of my life's great experiences. Lovingly the liquid was applied, and all the while in Spanish he was trying to explain to me about his large family - nueve bambini - nine children, and other stuff, which passed me by. The polish had to dry, before the procedure was repeated on the other foot. In between each part, he would make an announcement, as though describing the stages of a Zen tea ceremony. Finally, the big brush returned, and with a vigour that surprised me for his age, he burnished my shoes to a gloss that I could have shaved in the reflection of. The production of a cloth at the end seemed superfluous, but allowed him a few more theatrical flourishes of the hand that I would not have missed. Finally, he announced once again "Shoeshine!" and I could have burst into applause. "Quanto es?" I asked. "Mille" he replied. "Mille?- that's a thousand pesetas, why that’s four quid." He shrugged and held up eight fingers and a thumb- "nueve bambini"- he repeated. I handed over the money. "Cigarrerra?" he asked. I'd have given him anything. I opened my tin of small cigars and he took one seeming delighted. Lighting one for myself as well, I reflected that I had paid more and got less from an evening at the theatre before now.

* * *

One of the problems with a painting trip is that there are usually far more subjects to paint than one could ever sketch or deal with in the given period, and consequently it can be hard to settle to one view in favour of another. The previous year, in Venice, I had decided against climbing the Campanile in St. Mark's Square (as, alas, sightseeing has so often to be sacrificed for sketching time), assuming that there would not be a paintable view from the top apart from a dense jumble of rooftops. Subsequently I saw a fabulous line drawing of the view stretching across the lagoon, in a book of paintings of Venice, and kicked myself for dismissing it.

Thus, in Seville, I had determined to visit the top of the tower adjoining the Cathedral, known as La Giralda. Almost a hundred metres tall, its exterior is highly decorated with Moorish ornaments, fine arches and delicate arabesques. A perfect fusion of Christian and Muslim inspiration, it has become a symbol of Seville, and deservedly appears on postcards, thimbles and T-shirts throughout the city. A classic view of it, from the walls of the adjacent Alcazar fortress must have been painted a thousand times before, by a thousand different artists, but I wasn't going to miss out; I'd come all this way and now it was my turn. I settled down in a shady spot and, in typical English fashion, painted my way through the Siesta period of the day.

'How do you know when a painting is finished?' I am sometimes asked. With a watercolour, it's usually when it suddenly starts getting worse and not better every time you touch it. Then there's nothing more you can do with it, even if you don't like it, except perhaps sell it. In this case I became bored with my staring at my efforts. "TIREDNESS KILLS PAINTINGS, TAKE A BREAK" appeared on a motorway sign in my brain, so I packed up and wandered off for refreshment. Too hot for lunch, so I had an ice-cream (why do they taste so good in hot countries?), and then decided it was time to sample the view from the top of the Giralda.

Canal View of Venice

Today, after a recent experimentation with acrylic paints and more adventurous brushstrokes, I have returned to my traditional watercolour style, to paint a view of Venice; the canal (Rio dei Mendicanti) by the Campo SS.Giovanni e Paulo. I have drawn the view on the spot in Venice, and painted and drawn it twice since. I do paint from photographs sometimes, but always do a drawing first. I have long since lost the photograph of this view, but I have my drawings, and I use whatever artistic licence I please to produce a composition and colours that appeals to me.

What first fascinated me about the view was the chimneys on the roof on the top left of the picture. They are about six feet tall, and really are leaning at rakish angles, looking as if they are about to tumble into the canal! I expect they'll still be there next time I go.

I painted the picture over two days, and used only four colours; yellow ochre, burnt umber, light red and prussian blue. I wanted a 'simple' colour scheme that expressed the atmosphere of Venetian architecture. The painting isn't really about colour; its about composition, light and reflections. I enjoyed doing it, and am reasonably pleased with it. (I don't always like my paintings when I'm finished).

Introduction to Spain 2001

An Artist in Andalucia


At the age of thirteen, my first encounter with the Mediterranean climate was unexpected and wonderful. Stepping off the BEA Vanguard passenger jet on to the shimmering tarmac of Valetta airport, Malta, in July 1970, I was immediately intoxicated by the exotic scents in the air, the hot dry wind, and intense reflected light from the ground. At an age without preconceptions of travel, Life burst in upon me afresh; full of infinite possibilities and excitement. By the time I returned from our family holiday, two weeks later, a distinct change had occurred in me, rivalled in my youth only by puberty. My life was now in colour where before it was in black and white. I had discovered a new world in my imagination, where I could live as a painter in a foreign land, with dry dusty paths and fig trees, breathtaking sunshine and the sound of crickets at night. White stone, warm seas, a hot breeze that ruffles your shirtsleeves and carries the scent of wild sage to your nostrils. In short, I had become a romantic, and one day I would be that artist.
I had already started to learn to play the Spanish (or Classical) guitar, when one evening during my mid-teens I happened to see a television programme featuring the great guitarist Segovia, sitting in the Alhambra Palace, playing 'Memories of the Alhambra', with fountains and shadows playing around a sunny courtyard. I was hooked. The music of Spain had completed the land that held my personal myth. It was to be another thirty years before I actually visited the country of my dreams.

23 Feb 2007

1 Seville

Apart from the flights I didn't book anything in advance. It seemed a far more romantic notion to just arrive in Andalucia; me with a backpack, and a whole new world to be discovered. Inevitably, reality turns out to be a little more bracing than the sunny expectations of one's dreams.

The flight was delayed, and I with my backpack, (and one heavy suitcase), was finally processed out of Seville airport at 10.30pm. It was a Sunday night, and the tourist information point, and in fact anything that looked like a useful counter, had the shutters down. There was no sign of a bus station about, only a line of predatory taxis outside, and a multi-storey car park in the gloom behind. Procrastinating, I wandered up and down, avoiding eye contact with smoking groups of taxi drivers. Eventually feeling conspicuous, I went back inside, and looked up some sort of equivalent to "how far, how much, centre of Seville, and cheap hotel". I had no idea how many miles we were from the centre of town, or where I wanted to go, and I have a deep-seated mistrust of foreign taxi drivers. To them I must surely have appeared to be a walking bag of pesetas wearing a panama hat with "Take me for a ride" on the front.

However the hour was late and I had to find a hotel. I took a deep breath, and strode purposefully out into the night. Right in front of me was a bus with ‘Sevilla Centro’ lighting the windscreen.

One hundred and thirty pesetas later (50p) I stepped off on to the Puerta de Jerez, a sort of Picadilly Circus but thick with palm trees and exotic scents. As I crossed the road, a happy band of revellers rounded the corner. Four beautiful young women in full flamenco dress, escorted by two handsome young swains carrying guitar cases, passed by, clearly on their way to, or from, a wonderful evening. They were young, happy and singing, and a frisson of excitement lifted me on to the Avenida de Construction to go and find all those cheap and plentiful hotels mentioned in my Insight Pocket Guide to Southern Spain.

A very useful book with maps, itineraries; where to find whatever it is you mustn't miss for how much, and how to use the telephones. I had done some homework in advance, so headed for the Cathedral, as I was sure that just to the north of it was deepest hotel country. Suddenly, a spectacular glimpse of "La Giralda", the pinnacle of Seville Cathedral, came into view. A famously beautiful Moorish minaret, capped with a Christian belfry, it was floodlit against a sky of black ink, and scores of swallows caught in the light were soaring and swooping high above the tower, seemingly as excited as I was to be there. I walked on air to my hotel.

An hour and a half later I hadn't found it. According to the map I had walked every street in Northern Seville, and hadn't even found a single hotel, let alone one that was cheap, or even open. I exaggerate. There was one facing me, on the opposite side of a huge square, by the bus station. The huge glass lozenge filled most of my vision, announced "El Splendido" over the door and had more stars than I could see in the sky. Could I really spend my entire weeks allowance on a few hours kip?

My suitcase had become an unspeakable burden, particularly since the strap had parted company with the rest of the case as I’d come off the bus. My ankles hurt, my arms trembled with fatigue, and all that prevented me from kipping on a bench under a palm tree was the thought of all the undesirable types that seemed ever present in the shadows all around. I just wanted to stop, but standing alone at midnight with luggage, and hat on, I couldn't seem to merge in with my surroundings.

In the distance a star winked at me. It was a neon sign announcing "HOSTAL" in vertical letters that was malfunctioning and flickering. I was drawn to it, like the Magi to the Star of David. In a narrow side street a dimly lit door protected with wrought iron supported a sign saying ‘Empujar’. My heart sank. The words ‘Closed’ and ‘Full’ sprang to mind. Wearily I disengaged my luggage, extracted a pocket Spanish dictionary from my backpack, and thumbed through its pages, straining my eyes to finally read the word ‘Push’.

Three flights of stairs later, I delivered the sentence from my phrasebook that I'd been rehearsing all evening; and after lots of waving of arms, pointing and nodding, keys rattled in a door and I flopped on to a bed. Perhaps presumptuously, I thanked my guardian angel, saying, "We did it!"

16 Feb 2007

Van Gogh's Boots

Where better to start 'Travels with my Art' than with Van Gogh's boots? I know from experience how weary his feet must have been when he'd finished a day's painting 'en plein air'.
The picture here shows a copy I made of Van Gogh's original painting (from a postcard). I have just started painting in acrylics, after many years of watercolour as my main medium. Seeking inspiration one day, I saw the postcard on my wall, and made a copy. I did it in less than two hours, but am convinced that Van Gogh would have done it quicker. The brushtrokes are bold and quick, and I became bogged down in copying them all; he would have simply painted the boots. It gave me a good insight into his painting techniques.


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