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!

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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