Nine days of blazing sunshine and brilliant blue skies. This year Southern Morocco was on its very best behaviour for our merry band of painting students.
On Saturday night we were greeted in Ouarzazate by our friend, guide, and host Ali Mouni. Early the following morning we set off for the desert, stopping along the way in the town of Tinjedad for a lunch of the first delicious Berber omelette of the week. To arrive at the Nomad Palace is always a pleasure, and in the brilliant light of the afternoon, with rose tints and shadows defining the majesty of the Erg Chebbi dunes, its welcome is hard to beat.
Monday morning, the dunes beckoned, and our paints were clamouring to be released from our suitcases! We settled on a simple subject for our first watercolour adventure in the Moroccan desert, a view of the dunes with the occasional passing Berber included in our compositions, which allowed me to demonstrate the placing of figures in landscape painting. A successful first day for advanced painters and beginners alike was duly celebrated with a glass of chilled white wine or beer, before a a sumptuous dinner.
The nearby Merzouga Palmerie presented a more challenging subject to the artist, involving more of those pesky figures, working in their tiny fields in the shade of towering date palms, with a backdrop of pink toned village buildings in the distance. However, figures in landscape are easier to capture than you think in this neck of the woods because of their flowing, colourful robes. Lunch of 'Madfona' (the traditional Berber pizza, bread stuffed with morsels of lamb, vegetables and egg) was delivered on location by two Alis. Ali Mouni, and our friend Ali from the Nomad Depot in the nearby village. When the day's painting finished, we were invited for a glass of tea at the Depot, where we were shown examples of different handmade rugs, carpets, jewellery and other artisanal goods. Temptation proved too much for some students, whose homes will be all the brighter for their purchases.
By day three we had found the Moroccan hot colour palette, and were ready to tackle a grander subject. A few miles from Merzouga, at a small Auberge on a hilltop looking across a vast open desert landscape, with Casbah style buildings nestling at the foot of magnificent high sand dunes, we planted our easels. To give necessary shade for the watercolour painters, Ali Mouni and his helpers constructed a typical open-sided Berber tent to keep us comfortable. For the beginners there were also near-sight subjects of doorways, earthenware pots, and distant camels. Our painting concluded for the day, we ventured deeper into the desert using three 4x4s, and visited a friendly Nomad family for Berber tea. Though their lifestyle differs from ours vastly, their hospitality acknowledges no international barriers, and we were able to take photos of the family, their children, and their excruciatingly cute kid goats.
After several days hard graft with pencil and watercolour brushes, day four gave those who wanted the opportunity to experience some Moroccan life in action. There is no better way to do that than visit the nearby town of Rissani, on market day. Everything is sold at Rissani Market, from safety pins to camels, via herbs, spices, shoes, and local crafts. We followed that welcome blast of noise and colour with a visit to the stunning fossil museum, just outside the county town of Erfoud. A small group of us elected to remain at the Nomad Palace to catch up with unfinished paintings, or attempt new subjects in peace and quiet. In the evening we had the privilege of being invited to dinner in Ali Mouni’s family home, where we enjoyed splendid chicken couscous, and even more than that, the antics of the many delightful and affectionate children who are part of his extended family.
Camel painting day dawned, always a highlight of the week. You can't have much more fun with watercolours than sitting in front of four splendid specimens of camel-hood, slowly chewing their cud and batting their beautiful (double) eyelashes at us. Though at first it can be hard to pin down the image of the moving creatures, you soon recognise their typical poses and shapes. My demonstration helped to show that there is a variety of colours required to achieve a convincing 'camel' colour. The fun didn't stop there, as all but a few of the group joined me for a sunset camel ride into the dunes, after which a quick bargaining session with the camel boys rewarded them for their efforts, and put souvenir fossils into our luggage.
Our final day in the desert had crept up on us, and we had to make the most of it. A small deserted village near the Nomad Palace was the chosen location, and it did not disappoint. Under azure skies, the painting group chose their views carefully, some finding the single still inhabited dwelling a fine subject for their watercolours, others preferred a Berber tent conveniently erected nearby. For my demonstration, I continued my theme of figures in a landscape, and decided that the background would be the half open door into one of the mysterious dwellings abandoned after the local well dried up. We had our second ‘Madfona’ for lunch, eaten in a uniquely original bivouac constructed by a local ‘outsider’ artist, whose striking arrangements of desert oddments provided an intriguing setting for the meal.
The only thing that ameliorated my sadness at leaving the Nomad Palace was the knowledge that the next location was every bit as spectacular. Perched on a terrace overlooking the stunning Dades valley, and run by Moroccan brothers, two of whom are artists in their own right, the ‘Panorama’ lives up to its name many times over. After arriving at mid-day, we were able to paint on until afternoon had turned to evening, and then reluctantly packed away our brushes before the traditional show of the student’s favourite paintings of the week. There were many exciting works to discuss, and it was notable that the three beginners all had made remarkable progress.
Monday morning, and we made a fairly early start to ensure that we would have as much time to paint as possible when we reached our hotel in Ourzazate. Stopping only briefly at the remarkable rock formations of the ‘Tamnallt,’ we cruised back the way we had come, arriving to find that though we still had sunshine, a brisk wind had sprung up. Undeterred, we settled by the pool and were surprised by how sheltered it was, and by the number of subjects available for our last painting endeavours. Late afternoon, and Ali had arranged for the minibus to take some of us on shopping trip into Ourrzazate, where we could stock up on spices, and make those essential last minute purchases before admitting that the holiday real was almost over, and enjoying our final Tagine followed by crepes with honey.
Everyone agreed that the painting holiday had been an unforgettable experience, and we were very happy to take many wonderful memories away with us, as well as hard proof of time well spent in the form of our watercolours.
With best wishes for your painting,