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!

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.

* * * * *


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