John Dryden, Britain’s first poet laureate, once said, “the purpose of art is to delight and instruct, with the emphasis on delight…because instruction is not always delightful, but delight is always instructive.”
Dryden died 317 years too early to experience the ‘always delightful’ tuition on painting and drawing given by James Willis during a week’s workshop in a balmy autumnal Tuscany, where I joined a small group of six amateur painters holidaying at the Villa Nobile, just south of Cortona.
Having arrived at the villa after sunset the previous evening, it was not until early the following morning, as the sun appeared over the horizon, that the lovely villa and its surrounding parkland were revealed. Mustard coloured sandstone and terracotta, surrounded by sunflower fields, citrus and cypress trees, we could have stepped into a Van Gogh painting.
After a nourishing breakfast of scrambled eggs, coffee and cornetto, our work began in earnest. James started us off by the villa with “warm-up’ exercises in drawing – getting us to do a sketch in 15 minutes, then a second in 30 minutes, and followed this with an introduction into his thinking and techniques when approaching a subject.
We were then on our own, walking around the villa and choosing a view, a building, colours to use and a painting to start. Later that day Raffaele Nobile, the owner of the villa and our host for the week, drove us to Cortona for a short walk and an aperitivo and the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the inspiring Tuscan countryside.
The following days followed a similar pattern. Raffaele would drive us to various scenic locations in the area; Montepulciano, Montecchielo, Orvieto, Trequanda and Farneta, where he had found good positions from which to paint beautiful views, architecture, skies, roofscapes, or a combination of all these, providing us with comfortable painting chairs, always present at the back of the bus. Gathering us up at lunchtime for something light and delicious at a little café he knew, we’d then make for a different location in the afternoon, before he’d round us up again for an aperitivo and dinner – either back at Villa Nobile or at a local restaurant. It was a routine I could have lived off.
Born in England, of Italian parents, Raffaele has returned to Tuscany to live and work restoring the villa as a location for art and cookery holidays. An amateur artist himself, he has a deep love of Italy, and Tuscany in particular, and a profound knowledge of the area which he loves to share. This latter also enables him to find sites which others might overlook. The best example of this was the bend in a road on the way to Cortona, overlooking the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie al Calcinaio. Raffaele had realised that, because of the topography, there was a large enough area of grass and trees between the two roads on the bend for him to park the bus, and for a group of painters to be afforded the best view from which to paint the church below. It was ingenious and just one example of how an intimate knowledge of place offers the visitor a unique opportunity.
Our itinerary was flexible and we were free to choose whatever we wanted to do. If you decided to find a spot from where to draw or paint, James would come to find you and check that you were happy with what you were trying to achieve. Whilst sitting on the steps of the Town Hall at Cortona, trying to draw the architecture of a complicated roofline and angled street in front of me, James patiently showed me how, using the dimensions of a pencil to gauge distances and angles, drawing architecture could be simplified.
The days were golden and warm as we travelled around our part of Tuscany, often visiting small hilltop towns, themselves abundant with Renaissance and Medieval art, with Raffaele providing insight and James continually encouraging our own artistic efforts. He would give lessons on site of a particular aspect of technique, such as cast and reflective shadows – which became a recurring source of hilarity as I, a less experienced painter than the others, tried to absorb this “rule” and put in into practice.
One evening we returned late to a beautiful sunset of a sky streaked with violet, orange, azure blue, pale and deep grey. We set our easels with the encouragement to “paint what you see as quickly as possible”. Rather frustrated by my artistic efforts that day, I was just happy to sit and watch the gorgeous colour show, moving and changing as the sun dipped over the horizon, happy to indulge in the ‘art of seeing’.
During a holiday such as this you start to really appreciate the obvious fact – that creating a drawing or painting takes time. We live in an instant society – you take a photo in a minute, send a comment in a few characters – and move on. Creating a drawing or painting demands observation, attention and makes you slow down, explore your reactions to colours, lines, shadows and shapes; it can become a near-meditative experience. As Thomas Marton once reflected, “art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”
The final evening we all brought our week’s work for James to review. He was encouraging as always, pointing out our individual strengths and exhorting us all to continue painting on our return. I was a little doubtful about my own progress but when I returned home I followed the advice of a fellow painter friend and framed my pictures adding them to my previous attempts on a wall of ‘nearly masterpieces’. The wall faces the dining table in my little cottage and the pictures serve as a delightful reminder of warm Tuscan days, spent in beautiful locations, interrupted by delicious food and wine, seeing real masterpieces and attempting to create my own.
In the spirit of Vincent Van Gogh, “in spite of everything I shall rise again; I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in my great discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing.”
I return to Villa Nobile in June 2018 to try to do better – come and join me!
Tuscany in the Frame offers art workshop holidays across Italy. For more information about their 2018 tours, visit www.tuscanyintheframe.com. For more information about art holidays around the world, visit www.artsafari.co.uk.
For more information and to see more art by James Willis, visit www.jameswillisart.co.uk.