May in Tuscany
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."
A Sicilian Adventure
It was a warm night with a lazy sunset over the sea as I was waiting for the painting group on the viewing terrace at Palermo airport. Sicily was in full spring mood already and the colours of wild flowers mingled with the oranges and yellows of citrus fruits. Next day at the Fattoria Mose, the mist from the night before had cleared and given way to brilliant sunshine and a marvellously blue sky, a great beginning to our Sicilian adventure.
After a leisurely breakfast involving a variety of home made jams and marmalades everybody was ready and eager to face the first painting day. We enjoyed an exploratory stroll around the various gardens, buildings, olive and orange groves and settled happily onto our new surroundings. There was no shortage of subjects to choose from: Archways, ancient olive trees (some 500-700 years old!) old pottery, wild flowers, landscapes prickly pears and Acacia trees heavy with yellow blossoms.
For my first demonstration of the week I focused on a nearside object, the huge, old olive vessels grouped around the trunk of a magnificent Palm tree. A perfect motive to get started. We got more adventures the following day and set off to the nearby Lido, a long stretch of beach below the historic town of Agrigento. The sea-shore, sparkling ever brighter as the day progressed, was only rivalled by the blue striped blinds in the building that made our foreground motif. The setting had the mood of an Edward Hopper painting: the modern house fronted by two palm trees with endless blue sea beyond. The local bars and Gelaterias were very welcome for a snack and refreshing drink, or a delicious Sicilian ice-cream.
Tuesday, our third day, was wonderfully sunny again, and we spent another day painting at the Fattoria Mose. This time I chose for my morning demonstration the half open terrace gate with views through to the farmyard and distant landscape. Framed by ochre coloured walls and flower pots, this is also the gateway frequently used by the numerous puppy dogs and cats - painting subjects in themselves, though somewhat unreliable. After the day's work it's lovely to relax on one of the terraces or gardens with a cup of tea or an early glass of wine. A just reward, as one watches the sun slowly disappear behind the hills. Soon to be followed by another delicious home-cooked meal. The food at the Fattoria is rather special; home-grown produce when in season and following traditional recipes of the Agnello family who have lived for several generations at the Fattoria Mose. Chiara Agnello and her sister Simonetta Hornby even featured recently in their own Sicilian television series (not Montalbano!) dedicated to their uniquely local way of cooking.
Midweek, painting took a bit of a back seat, when most of us went on an exciting tour to see the world famous mosaics at the Piazza a Marina, a complex of Roman Villas. The mosaics are highly detailed, and well-preserved. One wall even depicts a group of young women in bikinis exercising in the gym – an astonishingly modern scene. Thus inspired we followed the historic motif, and went to paint another famous sight. The ancient golden Greek temples in the beautiful Vallee di Templi. At the foot of the stone steps leading to he temple of Juno we found shade under pine and olive trees. The tricky bits were not as one would imagine, the magnificent temple columns, but some of the trees and cacti adoring the scene. Plant-life seems to be one of the greatest challenges in outdoor painting. It was however a good opportunity to talk about ways of how to tackle 'greens' the easy way.
We had a chance to practice mixing greens on our last day at the Fattoria, with time to spare for unfinished paintings. There was excitement in the air as we were getting ready for the last night's showing of the best of the week's paintings. It was a delight to see everybody's work, exchange experiences, and marvel at the diversity of the styles and subjects. We celebrated the end of the course with home grown artichokes, wine and song, until it was time to throw a few things into the suitcase for our departure the next day.
The Sicilian sun, Chiara's warm hospitality, and the many subjects to paint combined with the enthusiasm and friendship of our group made this a very enjoyable painting week indeed, and I cannot wait to go back in 2016.
"Such A great group in Sicily, loved the week."
"The best painting holiday I had for a long time. Learned so much from you and loved being with the other painters."
"I wanted the holiday to go on forever... thanks so much for your inspired teaching."
"The Fattoria Mose is a wonderful location."