When I arrived at Olhao in the Algarve, our base for the course in Portugal, a day before the course, I was greeted by fresh sea air, glimpses of the distant islands on the horizon, and the skyline of the town. I popped into the art school in the historic centre of town, our home for the week, and admired the recent changes to the well-appointed rooms (all en-suite) enhanced by the two swimming pools.
I could hardly wait to make my way to the harbour, just two minutes away from the Art school. As I strolled along the old cobbled streets, it was difficult to choose from the many painting subjects. However, by the end of the day and secure in the knowledge there was plenty for beginners and advanced painters alike, I had noted the good spots, in readiness for the painters arriving the following day.
On our first day it was great fun to sketch and paint street scenes and the houses with their decorated facades, many still covered in the traditional tiles, and featuring faded and crumbling paints on old doors (the 'shabby chic' of the town). While we painted around the two big churches in the middle of town, the storks were not letting us down, and had settled in their nests on towers and pediments. Naturally the many cafes in the vicinity were very welcome for 'elevenses' and to discreetly sketch people at the same time.
The following day, we painted by the harbour. Olhao is a historic fishing port, and the seafront complete with promenade is a wonderful painting subject, offering shade under palm trees. The Marina mixes pleasure boats with commercial fishing craft bobbing on the water, and an impressive replica of the ship which was involved in the revolt against the French occupiers in the 19th century is moored at the waterfront - and is very paintable too. Also located by the seafront, the red brick towers of Olhao's large fish and vegetable market is the place to be on market day. A riot of colours and shapes with plenty of atmosphere! Most of us painted at the outdoor market, where vendors under colourful umbrellas offered an exotic range of fruit and vegetables which were fun to paint. The inside of the fish market was also worth a visit and sketch, where there was the most unusual range of fish on display. We had several meals at the local restaurants, when we were able to taste some of the better known freshly caught fish washed down by glasses of Portuguese wine.
Now it was time to take to the waters! Our host and the owner of the art school, the Hon. David Clark ? had kindly arranged a private water taxi to take us to the beautiful island of Armona. The driver, Nuno, is a marine biologist and was able to tell us about the wild life and the surrounding nature reserves before we set off. The island was as beautiful as I remembered from last year's visit; small white-washed houses fronted by lush gardens filled with flowering shrubs and trees, and long sandy beaches with Sunday bathers. The lunch on the roof terrace of the seaside cafe was outstanding, though I rely on reports from everybody else for this, since I had grabbed a sandwich from the breakfast table and stayed to continue my painting of the lifeguards on the beach, who conveniently sat still the whole time! However the painting did not turn out as well as I would have liked (you can't win them all!), and I returned to paint on the island after the course, this time with more success.
The next mode of transport was more mundane - a short taxi ride to the charming fishing town of Fuzeta. This small town is one of the Algarve’s least 'discovered' places and it has retained its unique character as a working fishing port. Indeed, its daily routine revolves around the fishermen, whose colourful boats line up alongside the river in town. A line of lively kiosk-cafés spreading towards the river beach are very welcome for that extra coffee and a Portuguese custard tart halfway through the morning. The harbour here is small, and features one of the most paintable old boats I've ever seen, kitted out with a prominent cabin more closely resembling an exuberantly painted shed, than maritime structure. It made a brilliant subject for all painters in the group regardless of experience.
The last day inevitably approached, and some of us spent the day in the studio completing unfinished work. Others painted from the roof terraces or discussed last minute tips for future paintings, and prepared for an informal showing of our paintings in the evening. When we gathered, glass of wine in hand, we were able to admire the fruits of our labours from the week. It was a splendid, varied display, showing the many personal styles in which each painter had captured the scenes encountered throughout our stay in Olhao. Happy and satisfied we tucked into our last, delicious dinner, this time prepared by the lovely Margarida, who looked after our culinary needs when not dining out.
On my return to London I sat down immediately and planned the course for 2016, a good thing to look forward to...
"It was great to paint in the town and so close by the sea. The excursion to the island was sheer bliss and so was the food."
"We had a lovely time and we are now planning where to go next with you."
"It was a joy to be with you in Portugal and I loved every minute of the painting!"
After my trip to Sicily in April, I was itching to return to Italy. So much so, that I flew out a week before the next painting course in Tuscany and spent a few days painting and exploring Lunigiana, the beautiful less known region just north of Tuscany. A long awaited visit to Equi Terme village and Spa set in the most dramatic mountain landscape surpassed all my expectations, even though I have had brief glimpses from the train on previous excursions. However, the week whistled past and it was time to get ready for the painting course. The painting group arrived under a clear blue sky and we gathered after arrival to get know each other and our charming host, Karsten Mueller. After a refreshing cup of tea he made sure that everybody was comfortably ensconced at the apartments in 'La Vecchia Canonica'. It was too late for a dip in the pool – that had to wait for another day- but it was a perfect first evening for a glass of wine on the little terrace overlooking Cotto village and the stunning mountain peaks beyond.
This certainly put us in the mood, and next morning we set to work with paper and brush. Taking it easy on the first day, I suggested to paint the old wine caskets in their attractive whicker baskets dotted around the front entrance to the villa – some of them are holding up to 54 liters of precious fluids.
My demonstration helped everybody to make a good start and by day two we were in the swing of things. We ventured out to the impressive castle of Veruccola, dating back to the thirteenth century. At its base nestles a delightful jumble of stone houses, a splendid river and bridge, and luckily for us also a restaurant, ideal for lunch. Painting in Cotto the next day, the weather had turned and I used the opportunity to demonstrate an easy way to paint people/portraits by using only three colours: Yellow, Red and Blue. I had written an article in the Leisure Painter Magazine about this method the year before, so it was nice to demonstrate the technique first hand. The initial difficulties in capturing the human shape were soon overcome and everybody enjoyed learning a new skill, an experience which would come in handy later on in the week.
Thursday was our excursion day to the fascinating medieval town of Lucca. This time a 'foursome' from our painting group even rented a Quattrocycle for an exciting ride around the top of the double-sided city walls. Lucca has so much to offer: Duomos and Churches, Museums, pleasant shops set in old narrow streets and a great variety of tempting restaurants, cafes and gelaterias. Of course there is no shortage of painting subject there either and the cafes around the old amphitheater are a great place to paint from and watch the world go by. We finished the day by taking the train to the mountain village of Monzone, where we had a delicious meal in the local restaurant. Our enthusiasm was not dented, when grey clouds appeared on the sky the next day. Our friendly driver for the week, Paolo, took us to Fivizzano, the nearby old town featuring a cobbled square complete with Medici fountain. Several hours were pleasantly spent sketching and painting the regular visitors in the local 'Sports Bars' and cafes. Popping in and out for a quick expresso in passing or a longer chat over a mid-morning snack, we had ample subjects despite the fact that some people disappeared unexpectantly fast. Our practise from two days earlier paid off and the wonderful array of local people about their daily business captured on paper was our just reward.
The final day in Cotto presented us with a last chance to paint the stunning mountain panorama of the Apuan Alps from La Vecchio Canonica's terraces above the swimming pool. But is was also a day to finish off details from previous paintings or indulge in a quick still life of the knobbly local lemons and bulbous spring onions on the kitchen table. Soon it was time for a sip of Champagne in Fivizzano's gorgeous hotel and restaurant, the Il Giardinetto. In a private corner surrounded by fabulous portraits of former famous guests we had an informal showing of our paintings - a very suitable setting. We celebrated the week with a delicious ‘last supper’ and a happy glow was on all face as I looked around the table.
The pangs of saying goodbye to everybody on Sunday morning were somewhat softened for me, because I had been invited by my friend, and Cotto resident, Georgina to visit the famous marble mountains above Cararra - the artist Michael Angelo’s favourite Quarry for selecting marble for his sculpture. Cut into the mountains and high above the town of Carrara, the snow white marble ‘fields’ reach up to 1,500m (approx. 4,900ft) and are truly breath-taking. Carrara was featuring open days that weekend for their many artist studios and I was able to observe sculptors at work, cutting stones and polishing marble sculptures. Seeing the variety of art on display was a splendid way to finish my stay in Tuscany.
"Thanks for the fantastic week in Cotto. There was so much to paint in the village and I loved all the other places we visited too - would have loved another week there."
"Great locations and outstanding tuition!"
"It was a truly wonderful holiday and I loved spending time with you and the group and painting so much."