What makes Umbria a special place to paint? A personal authentic adventure
Speaking personally, as a professional watercolourist and as a complete newcomer to painting outdoors in a foreign country, I’m not afraid to say it was terrifying!
I couldn’t see anything special, all I could see initially was a VAST expanse of sky and farmed land with muted buildings barely visible all in hues my palette has never had to capture. I realised in about 5 seconds I was starting from scratch, surrounded by other far more accomplished artists, and needed to hold my head up at the end of the week!
I watched Christine our tutor in abject horror as she painted wet into wet, a technique I rarely use in my studio as I can’t control it. I like sharp edges, strong colours, well defined outlines and suddenly with damp air and occasional unexpected drizzle I was being put out of my comfort zone by a country mile.
The temptation was to hide behind Christine and just watch other people paint … but I knew that wouldn’t help me grow and develop as a painter, so I took the plunge.
My first painting took a while to bubble up to the surface and then come out….
I found it hard to accept the randomness of the watercolours with no hairdryer or studio space to allow drying to happen. I had to completely let go of every painting technique that has ever worked for me before. I realised this wasn’t even watercolour as I knew it – this was a whole new world!
But I love a challenge, and I know well enough that a week’s painting holiday is a therapeutic process as much as anything, so I went for it willing to risk it being a mess. Actually I love the finished result :
Interestingly the vista scared well over half of the students. The sheer enormity of it, and the distance away from the eye made us feel intimidated and overwhelmed. How ironic! Were walkers or just regular holidaymakers we would have all been ooh-ing and ah-ing at the scale of the view and taking multiple panoramic spectacular photos!
I learned a lot about composition in those first view hours. I realised the importance of giving the artist’s eye and the finished painting a focal point – something to latch onto – to give the artist something to hone in on and develop. I chose the large monastery in the right foreground and minimised the village around it to give it more gravitas. I found the whole process to be a bit of a baptism of fire but it was just so helpful in showing me in one afternoon what composition is all about.
Listening to the other students’ struggle with the landscape I decided to break the view down a little for myself to help me see the component parts a little more easily. I created window boxes with masking tape on some hot pressed paper and painted little “doodles” in each box.
Each of the doodles was a vignette from the landscape and surrounds, giving me a feel of the area without trying to create a huge expanse on one page. Quite a few of the other artists took my lead on this and as the week went on a few more birthday card images arrived!
Day 2 took us outside Monte Castillo to a stunning view back up to the village. Again many students were fazed by the breadth of the vista but I found that the first day had eased my fear of being unable to paint and I was ready to get splashing! My chosen colours taken to Umbria were woefully inadequate which was great – it encouraged me to get creative with my mixing. How I love Naples Yellow!
I began by splashing soft washes and banging the paper on the floor to create a random background – again to loosen up my need to control and to allow a softness to come through in the finished piece.
Once that was drying and while I was beginning to create another story board of doodles I wandered about while observing the artists. I kept hearing the same things over and over again …. How do I mix this colour? I’m no good at mixing colours, I wish I could just let go and loosen up a bit …
So after I created a page of doodles I set about creating another sketch of Monte Castillo with the single intention of NOT representing any of the colours accurately, simply as an exercise to see what would happen. This is what happened :
It was liberating and joyful to be so free in expression, to make the pleasure of painting and playing the goal of painting instead of making the goal a perfect representation of the colours of the view. The joy and giggles in the group began to build as a German car pulled up in the olive groves and a large gentleman stepped out, marched up to my painting and began taking photographs of it with the view behind!
The view was spectacular and thanks to Cristiano our wonderful Back Up we were all very well looked after. Just at the last moment the heavens opened and we were ferried back to base camp for “Show and Tell” – where we all got to share our work and hear our tutor’s expert suggestions on how to take the painting from where it is to where it could be called finished.
Day 3 was a lovely day out in Cecanibbi, a small hamlet on top of a hill not so far from Todi with stunning views out over the Umbrian countryside – or at least it was on the day of our recce! On day 3 we were driving through evocative mists and restricted cloudy views bringing the silvery greens of the olive groves into our close vision. It was pretty chilly in the village so a few of us decamped for a coffee with Cristiano the intention of beginning to paint a little later.
Sure enough it warmed up perfectly and we were back and ready to go by 11am.
Being in the villages is a privilege. The inhabitants welcome us and try their best to chat with us but with not even rudimentary Italian it was a chuckling gesticulating adventure. Thank goodness for our Italian back up as he was able to praise the locals on all our behalves bringingsome fabulous toothy smiles out.
I took advantage of a shady corner to experiment with treating gouache rather disrespectfully – painting only with the stick of my brush rather than the bristles and incorporating dirt from the street and my fingers to move and combine colours rather than mix them.
We all loved the final effect, although as it’s not an oil it will crack and perish in time.
Day 4 was our day off and I took advantage of the opportunity to disappear into the top alleyways of Assisi with my sketchbook. I adored Assisi, especially wandering off away from the crowds to really immerse myself in some doodles. I added the colours when I got back – just simple watercolours without too much mixing from my travel watercolour kit rather than the gouaches. I was able to use the guest house hair dryer too which meant for a quicker process.
Day 5 was probably my highlight as an architectural painter – the view of Todi. A delicious cornucopia of roof tops and angles, cypress trees and hubbub.
There was once again something for everyone – from a study of people to vistas or weather veins, from chimney tops to chihuahas.
My first 3 paintings were inspired from the two views above :
Each time stripping back a little more detail and looking into the tones and colours, feeling into the stories that may be told by the houses. I was getting braver in my painting style, more splashing and flicking, more sketching with colour and pen rather than pencil, really beginning to let go and allow the paint to do all the work. Compared to that first painting of the view from Monte Castillo, the promised magic Christine had talked about was in full flow.
At lunchtime the view was spectacular so I spent an hour sketching in ink a bit of an ode to chimney pots – of which there are many and which remind us that Italy gets very cold in the winter!
And from incredible detail, but in my slightly quirky style still honouring perspective but with a twist, I went completely the other way into an abstract of the gorgeous monastery from the viewing platform..
Allowing writing and stripes, shapes and words to speak through the painting, the sadness that our amazing journey was coming to an end with our last full day of painting being over was palpable for all of us, our journeys together had been so wonderful. Every one of us had developed and blossomed both as people and more importantly as artists, individually and collectively – and not one of us was looking forward to having to pack up and go home.
Day 6 – a half day in an Agritourismo chalet before an afternoon of packing up – and a wish for sunflowers was granted. I used a lot of artist’s licence in this stunningly spectacular venue where we had dined on our evening out. Truly the best food ever – and as a vegetarian in Italy that’s really saying something!
The sunflowers were either hanging their heads awaiting harvest or were already long gone, so I found a lone solitary flower and photographed her, and then extrapolated a glorious view into this :
And then to prove that I could paint more than just loose and styalised, I decided to actually paint the sunflower. I was a little plagued by a family of flies but I managed to create something I love before their buzzing got the better of me and I left the field!
From here it was back to the hotel and to a final finishing up afternoon ready for our “Art Exhibition” in the evening. It was absolutely beautiful to see all the efforts by 14 painters, some beginners and some very accomplished, spread out in the huge conference room on the first floor. Even the most bashful artists were able to see how far they had come and how much they had learned. It was lovely.
Would I go again?
Definitely. There is so much to help develop your style in this part of the world. The muted colours of the Umbrian architecture allow you to explore your palettes of Umbers and Siennas and, if you like Daniel Smith’s colours, it’s a total feast for exploring his range. Ultramarines and Brown Madder make delicious shadows and the changing light really helps you develop your eye into seeing what’s there and not chasing the shadows but perhaps taking a photograph at your favourite moment and using an ipad or camera to remind you where the lines were.
What makes Umbria special?
Teetering hilltop villages, stretches of sunflowers, deep purple hues in the fields and smokey silvery olive groves. Gorgeous red chimneypots and hand made clay tiles, narrow streets, sharp shadow angles and, of course, pasta – including Gluten Free!
Cecanibbi, Assisi, Todi, Sunflowers, Chimneys – just gorgeous painting subjects.
I decided to pack Zen style but I wished I’d had a better range especially of yellows. I went with Lemon and Windsor Yellow but they are simply too green and so make your greens garish and loud. I borrowed some Nickel Azo (Daniel Smith) and some Green Gold and would have died for some Gamboge along the way. I loved playing with Quinacrodine Sienna which creates a fantastic black with Ultramarine. Reds were also tricky – I couldn’t get hold of Brown Madder before I left and so was struggling a little with the Vermillions and Light Reds. Happily all the guests are so thrilled to share their colours you do get an amazing opportunity to experiment with colours you might never have played with before!
What to bring?
Definitely needed a light weight waterproof and a warm sweater for the cooler days. Early September is potentially very warm (high 20s) but if it’s a cool day then the evenings are chilly.
My ipad was invaluable as it’s got a big enough screen to work from in the evenings. Water pots are really useful – concertina style or floppy pots.
Also I think most of us had brushes that were too small and dried too quickly so a squirrel mop or two (expensive but so worth it as they hold a huge amount of water and have a fine point).
Umbria is oozing with culture – whether you are a keen historian or are interested in local economies or behaviours there’s something for everyone. Our day out to Assisi was magical and a cornucopia of delights for everyone. The tour operators are very hot on ensuring that wherever we end up there is accessibility for everyone as of course not everyone is as mobile as the leaders! Stunningly beautiful especially when the sun is shining in September.
Cristiano our back up knows everything. He was completely dependable to come up with the goods at every step of the way. Where the hotel could put things right, Cristiano ensured that they did. He looked after every single person on the trip like his own mother or father.
Christine our painting tutor was a total delight. Keen to ensure that every artist progresses a little every day it was wonderful to watch her gentle but utterly honest style of criticism and encouragement. By the end of the week you could clearly see how every single guest had moved mountains from when they arrived to the end of the holiday.
For more information about our forthcoming ten day painting holiday in Umbria, click here:
Ten days Painting Holiday in Umbria
6th June 2017
with Susanna Bailey