While other global leaders are sweating it out preparing for what is arguably the most important world summit for a generation, our dear Prime Minister was this week photographed at an easel on the balcony of his luxury holiday home in Marbella. Was it just for the paparazzi – another conveniently Churchillian scene – or maybe Johnson’s recent dabbles at nursery school art have persuaded him that he needs to refine his technique? Or perhaps he genuinely enjoys the diversion that art offers?
Like many others, during lockdown, I daubed a few papers and canvases with naive splashes of colour, experimenting with my stash of watercolours, acrylics and chalk pastels that rarely see the light of day otherwise. I was quite pleased with some results but, to be honest it wasn’t about the outcome, it was more the process (that’s the excuse I make anyway).
I was trying out techniques picked up on art holidays. Art is all about looking. As artist Patrick Heron said: “Looking at something – anything – is more interesting than doing anything else, ever.”
Sitting with paper and pastels, looking at a scene in front of me – not from an expensive holiday home in Spain but from my narrowboat home – was completely absorbing. I stopped glancing at my phone every five minutes and focused on what was in front of me. Nothing else seemed to matter much.
My first art holiday was at the St Ives School of Painting with a local artist, abstract expressionist, Ges Wilson. In the classroom – the newly refurbished Porthmeor Studios, a former boat and net store above the sandy beach – we experimented with different painting techniques, using palette knives, brushes, squeezed paint and mark-making with charcoal, cut-out shapes and more.
We learnt about layering and how we can obliterate our mistakes and what we don’t like, and how there needs to be a calm space in a busy scene. The next day, sitting outside on the coast – or ‘en plein air’ as artists say – Ges showed us how to mix primary colours to make secondary and tertiary ones.
“Northern European colours are definitely all tertiary,” she said. “We don’t have hot Australian or Mediterranean colours.” We learnt how warmer colours suggest foreground and cooler ones, background.
Another Cornish painting school beckons now. I hope to join the Newlyn School of Art on one of their outings to the Isles of Scilly in the spring. The work of Patrick Heron and others adorns the walls of the holiday cottages where we’ll be staying on Tresco. There’ll be no end of looking.
Five of the best art holidays
Bullclough Art School, Peak District
This art school in the Peak District National Park hosts courses with artists such as Rachel Cronin who paints evocative abstract landscapes (bullcloughartschool.com). She will be your tutor on a winter landscape course March 3-5, 2022. £525 per person including all materials. Accommodation is extra. There is an on-site option of a beautiful beamy loft or find somewhere to stay nearby such as Secret Cloud House glamping, 10 minutes’ drive away (secretcloudhouseholidays.co.uk).
Alpha Painting Holidays, Cordoba
Paint whitewashed hilltop villages in Cordoba on Alpha Painting Holidays’ first post-Covid venture overseas in spring 2022. Watercolour artist Grahame Booth will teach you techniques to capture scenes in this mostly en-plein-air course. Dates are March 19-26. From £1,295 per person, not including flights. Staying at Hotel Rural Huerta de las Palomas (alphapaintingholidays.com).
Newlyn School of Art, South Cornwall
Artists have been settling in this fishing town on the south Cornwall coast since the late 1800s. The light – reflecting off the sea around the narrow peninsula – is acclaimed by many artists. The school also hosts holidays in the Isles of Scilly. The first date in 2022 is May 11-16 with the superb landscape artist Paul Lewin as your instructor. Ten people maximum on the course. From £1390 per person, including all materials, tuition, B&B. Transport not included (newlynartschool.co.uk).
European Waterways, multiple locations
If – unlike life for most artists – money’s no object, you could gather together a group of friends or family and cruise through southern France while enjoying your own private art tuition. European Waterways organise chartered art cruises on the hotel barge Athos on the Canal du Midi. In the company of a qualified and experienced watercolour artist you will set up your easel in market squares in pretty towns such as Pezenas and find inspiration in the sparkling waters of Etang de Thau. Between May 1 and Oct 2, 2022, based on eight passengers travelling, whole barge charters cost £39,700 (£4,962) per person (europeanwaterways.com).
HF Holidays, multiple UK locations
HF Holidays usually hosts painting holidays overseas but not for the moment. There’s a great variety of UK ones though, all suitable for beginners, from painting with water-mixable oil paints to learning to draw. Locations range from the Cotswolds to Northumberland. You could try an en-plein air acrylic landscape course in the Isle of Wight in May 2022. Seven nights from £1,149 including accommodation but not materials (hfholidays.co.uk).