PRETTY AS A PICTURE
You don’t have to be a master to enjoy this scenic painting trip to Tuscany
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