PRETTY AS A PIC­TURE

You don’t have to be a master to en­joy this scenic paint­ing trip to Tus­cany

Daily Mail - - Travel Mail - By Kate John­son

Ev­ERy­ONE should draw, says the artist Fiona Graham-Mackay, our teacher for the week’s paint­ing course: ‘It makes peo­ple look. Draw­ing’s about look­ing; it’s not about ex­press­ing your­self.’ I’m hop­ing it’s not about tal­ent or ex­pe­ri­ence ei­ther, be­cause I haven’t put a coloured pen­cil to pa­per since school.

There are 12 of us stay­ing at the Re­lais Borgo San Pi­etro. It’s a cheer­ful, fam­ily-run ho­tel in a 17th- cen­tury farm­house with ex­ten­sive grounds, just out­side Cor­tona.

One ob­vi­ous ad­van­tage of a paint­ing hol­i­day is that the set­ting is cho­sen for its beauty. We’re sur­rounded by ver­dant Tus­can hills, olive groves, cy­press trees and hill­side towns, all bathed in bright sun­light.

The days fol­low an in­for­mal plan. Af­ter break­fast, Fiona gives ev­ery­one some ideas.

She first ex­plains the ba­sics, such as com­po­si­tion, how the eye en­ters the pic­ture from the bot­tom left-hand cor­ner and the im­por­tance of the hori­zon.

Ev­ery­one takes up po­si­tion, ei­ther alone by a lake or in small groups un­der a cov­ered ter­race.

Un­usu­ally, artists on this course can use oils, wa­ter­colours, pas­tels and char­coal.

Fiona sets me up with a still life and some char­coal (the eas­i­est one, be­cause you can rub it out and start again).

I feel my still life has no life at all, but Fiona finds some­thing pos­i­tive to say about it. She in­sists that I sign and date my at­tempts, too.

She takes ev­ery­one se­ri­ously, strik­ing a bal­ance be­tween those who want tu­ition and those who want to be left alone.

One artist stands in front of her sketch, say­ing apolo­get­i­cally: ‘It’s not very good.’ Fiona says gen­tly: ‘I al­most think there’s too much go­ing on.’

Sure enough the artist changes the com­po­si­tion and is up and run­ning.

Ev­ery­one I talk to is mod­est about their art, and ev­ery­one wants to im­prove. Peo­ple are in­ter­ested in each other’s work, but there’s no ri­valry.

AIlSA, a softly spo­ken GP, loves hav­ing this time just to paint in beau­ti­ful sur­round­ings. She feels it’s an hon­our to be in Fiona’s pres­ence, and to reap the ben­e­fit of her tu­ition and ad­vice on tech­nique. Rea has re­turned to paint­ing af­ter a 60-year break; a bad mark at pri­mary school con­vinced her she was not artis­tic. She’s made up for her hia­tus with 30 cour­ses in the past three years. She’s solo and says she comes for the ca­ma­raderie, the lo­ca­tion, the dis­ci­pline of paint­ing ev­ery day, and to meet a re­spected artist.

An­thony is a re­tired teacher; his work is beau­ti­ful. He loves be­ing with like­minded peo­ple and says the com­mu­nal el­e­ment is a huge part of the en­joy­ment. Though there’s plenty of time to be alone, too.

Some par­tic­i­pants paint morn­ing and af­ter­noon, oth­ers take wine tours or go on cook­ing lessons with a chef sport­ing elab­o­rate tat­toos and a twirly mous­tache. Oth­ers go off to ex­plore Cor­tona.

It’s an ir­re­sistibly charm­ing hill­side town, with steep, nar­row streets, still en­closed by stone walls that date back to the Etr­uscans. It’s so un­changed that this de­scrip­tion, from one of the first known guide­books, printed in Rome in 1639, re­mains true: ‘Be­fore the city lays a vast and beau­ti­ful plain, it is flanked on ei­ther side by dis­tant hills and val­leys while be­hind it are tow­er­ing yet fruit­ful moun­tains. Cor­tona has a pic­turesque as­pect, quite a bit longer than wide, turned to­wards the mid­day sun.’ My high­light is the Fran­cis­can her­mitage le Celle, an ac­tive monastery built in the 13th and 16th cen­turies. St Fran­cis of As­sisi stayed on at least three oc­ca­sions, once in 1226 when he was car­ried here from Siena. His room is small and sparse, with a nar­row plank of wood for a bed. It’s so still and silent that we tip­toe and whis­per even though no one else is around.

A writ­ten guide en­cour­ages visi­tors to dis­cover the ‘spir­i­tual ben­e­fit which Fran­cis be­queathed to all who seek with pure and sin­cere hearts’. It adds: ‘Prob­a­bly you may re­cover some­thing. Bow down humbly and pray.’

Not bow­ing down, but un­fail­ingly hum­ble, the artists gath­ers as Fiona holds an ex­hi­bi­tion of ev­ery­one’s work in the ho­tel lobby on the last night.

She ex­plains what she loves about each one; the com­po­si­tion of one, the ‘ painter­li­ness’ of another. ‘We can all learn from this,’ she says of one work.

Ev­ery­one is beam­ing with pride, thrilled by her en­cour­age­ment and by the ap­pre­ci­a­tion of their fel­low artists. What could be more in­spir­ing?

The per­fect pal­ette: Cor­tona and the sur­round­ing Tus­can coun­try­side pro­vides an in­spir­ing back­drop for artists of ev­ery level

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