The pain seemed to come from nowhere. I suddenly noticed that my ankles and feet felt like they were on fire.
I was so absorbed in what I was doing that I hadn’t noticed the shade I was standing in recede as the hot Provence sun moved across the sky in a direction I hadn’t anticipated.
A direction that meant it was now shining directly on my ankles and feet. Every bit of skin not covered by my Crocs was now livid pink and burning.
I’ve just come back from one of the most amazing painting experiences of my life – perhaps the most.
When Julian invited me over to help out on one of his plein air workshops, I had no idea what to expect. In fact, I wondered if I was just too busy to go (slaps self repeatedly).
To say that this was a learning experience would be a drastic understatement. It was intense. I think I’m going to be processing it for some time to come.
You see, I’ve never done plein air before. As you probably know, I paint still life. Flowers. Fruit. Bowls. Inside. Where it’s cool. And there are no beasties to bite and sting. And colour behaves.
And this is what really threw me about painting outside – the colour.
A whole new world of colour
More specifically, it was the value.
I knew that part was going to be hard. Even painting still life inside, the value range you see is very often a bit wider that the range you can hit with paint. So you have to compress a bit.
But outside, especially in the summer in Provence, the value range is many orders of magnificence greater than inside. Being prepared for that to happen intellectually made it absolutely no easier to handle in practice.
And despite Julian’s sage advice regarding picking a comfortable spot in shade to paint from, I did seem to keep finding myself standing directly in the hot sun more often than was really sensible.
I realised rather rapidly that judging colour with the sun lancing directly into your eyes and in 35 degree heat is NOT the same as trying to do it sitting in the calming and gentle north light of a Cotswolds studio. Not even a little bit.
As if the violent compression of the value range wasn’t enough, I found it next to impossible to judge the hues much of the time.
Many of the colours were low chroma, and they turned more blue as they receded into the distance. But I kept understating that effect.
And colour on your painting looks very different when you have your painting surface in shade – which it really needs to be. It’s very easy to turn out a painting that is much lighter than it looks to you as you paint it.
Some of the colour, though, was very high chroma – higher than I could reach with paint. The sun shining in the afternoon on a green field was way beyond even Michael Harding’s lemon yellow.
Much of the time, the chroma and value complications work together, so that attempting to keep the chroma at a high enough value to make the colour work in the overall composition was next to impossible.
One-to-one comparisons, which have taught me so much about colour in interior studies, are impossible in that bright sun. It comes mostly down to comparison.
At least having an understanding of hue, value and chroma and what can be achieved with paint helped me orientate myself. And Julian gave great advice on colour as we painted, sometimes using hue and chroma to show contrasts that were too understated with value alone.
But it being challenging should in no way suggest that it wasn’t enjoyable.
It was exhilarating.
Despite the colour challenges, the heat, and all the basic things (like where I was standing) that I got wrong, it was a completely inspiring experience.
So much so that I’ve already started hunting out spots to paint en plein air now I’m home.
Obvoiusly my head is buzzing with new thoughts on painting. It feels like everything I know has been turned on its head and I’m seeing things from a different angle.
But just as spectacular as the painting were the place, and the amazing Job Julian did of running the workshop.
There were 12 people, staying in an incredibly beautiful and atmospheric 900 year old Provence mansion filled with period furniture. I’ll stick a couple of pictures up here, but they don’t do it justice by a long shot.
The food was amazing. A Masterchef-winning cook with a team made us incredible lunches and dinners, and Julian supplied sumptuous wines (which I may have over-indulged in a little during a couple of late night art chats).
And Julian is incredibly helpful and informative. From tips on composition to colour advice to finding us the best off-the-beaten-track spots to paint, he was a mine of information and always on hand and ready to help. He knows the region intimately from a painter’s perspective, having painted there for (I think) about 20 years.
I don’t really know how he did it all. I suspect he may still be asleep and recovering even now.
As a first exposure to plein air, it was a truly magical experience for me, one I will be carrying with me forever. No exaggeration.
And it’s opened up an entirely new world for me, one that I was surprised to find that I didn’t immediately suck at (I expected to) and that I intend to explore much further now.
Thankfully I happen to be in one of the most beautiful parts of England so I have no shortage of subjects here.
You can find out what workshops Julian has coming up next here. Seriously, go on one. You won’t regret it.
I’ll be auctioning some of the paintings I did whilst I was there over the next few days.
Best wishes and thanks for listening to me gush,
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