A brush with adventure
A trip to Venice to learn to paint does that and a whole lot more
By Gregory Montgomery
Times Union Staff Artist
It’s a strange thing to have to admit: I’ve been an artist and designer for more than 30 years, and I’ve never really learned how to paint.
Sure, I've bought watercolor kits and lots of how-to books. I've even sold some painted ink sketches that turned out well. But honest-to-goodness procedures and techniques I had never learned.
When I informed my friends that I was signing up for a watercolor class in Venice, their reactions were unexpected. None of my previous journeys — no outback trek, no unpronounceable Mayan ruin or rafting adventure — had ever produced such groans of envy.
Actually, I wanted to do more than just learn how to paint — something I could have done at any number of perfectly good schools or night classes right here. I wanted to go somewhere marvelous, exotic. I wanted to meet the kind of people who presumably go marvelous places on a regular basis and eat marvelous things for breakfast, and return to tell marvelous tales. And learn how to paint.
The idea emerged in the darkest depths of February, when I picked up International Artist magazine’s special section on international art classes. I couldn’t put it down: There before me lay a map of the world with exotic places circled. Next to each spot was the name of an artist and a description of the landscapes and wonders of this particular area. They were mostly one- or two-week courses. The fee for each class included everything — lodging, some meals and arranged tours, plus daily sessions with the master — except airfare and art supplies.
But where in the world did I want to go? That part was easy: I just looked at the painting styles of the teaching artists and picked one I liked. Australian David Taylor had a bright, liquid style and would be teaching in Venice — the city called the Queen of the Adriatic, with its Grand Canal, its romantic tangle of tiny streets, grand piazzas and jewel-like buildings. Home to the likes of Titian, Tintoretto, even Casanova. Sounded pretty marvelous to me.
I arrived in Venice by train. On time, but in the wrong place. A later look at my instruction sheet from the tour company clearly showed that I was supposed to meet the group at the Mestre train station, which was back on the mainland about five minutes from the city. From there a bus would take us to the nearby fishing village of Chioggia (kee-YO-jah), where we would be staying for the first few days, after which we would return to Venice for more painting and sightseeing.
I had stayed on the train one stop too long, but I didn't realize that until — 45 minutes had passed — time spent buying canal maps, thumbing through “Venice by Night” coffeetable books and having no luck with my phone card.
While sitting down and sketching the cathedral across the canal, inspiration struck. I held a five Euro note in the air and said, in English, to nearby cellphone users, “I need to make one quick call, may I use your phone?” I made the call. No one would take my money. The tour sent a guide to retrieve me, and transport me via buses, water taxi and ferry to the hotel in Chioggia. Even getting lost was picturesque.
On Sunday evening about 6 p.m., the now well-worn instruction sheet directed me to the get-acquainted mixer in the lounge of the hotel, a recently refurbished four-story, four-star affair only yards from the lagoon that connected it to Venice. Its lobby was small, done in marble and dark woods; a grand stairway filled the far end of the room.
More than 20 people crowded the small lounge and spilled into the lobby. Each person wore a name tag including country of residence. It was a far-flung bunch: Australia and New Zealand were well-represented; South Africa, Germany and Switzerland, Great Britain, Ireland, Canada, plus four from the U.S. rounded out our crew.
I spoke to one young housewife and mother from a remote town in New Zealand who said she lived in a beautiful place but was frustrated by her inability to capture what she saw. She explained her decision to take the class by noting, “If you want something and you live a long way from anywhere, you just have to go get it.”
Paint in the rain
The next morning started with overcast skies and a threat of rain. I woke up late and scrambled to assemble my gear to get to the lobby by 9 a.m. How, I asked, does one paint watercolors in the rain?
Not to worry — or, I should say, “No worries!”: Our instructor and tour leaders were all affable Australians, and were prepared for inclement weather.
The painters in training were loaded with enough gear to make a fly fisherman look naked: easels of every description, collapsible stools, water bottles, great blocks of watercolor paper, backing boards, spools of tape, large satchels for paints and towels and tissues. And umbrellas.
Most remarkable though were the hats. Sunglasses change the color of what you're looking at, so you need something else to protect your eyes from the sun’s glare. From well-seasoned Australian styles to mushed Borselinos and tweeds from County Cork, the headgear made a major collective fashion statement. Mine had been rolled up in a suitcase for two weeks and had sort of a hat-cowlick. Still, I was grateful for it in the rain.
We set out across the square in front of the hotel and made our way down the main street, past shops and cafes. By pre-arrangement, we were to watch our first painting demonstration under the protection of the police — roof, that is. The police station had the largest front porch of any public building in town.
David, our instructor, was a big fellow — well over six feet tall, with the sturdy frame and hands of a rancher — with a big hat. His painting style, however, had the sort of delicacy that reminded me of a ballerina. After the first few strokes of color on a fresh sheet of paper, he would do a bit of a galloping hop, then he’d settle back into the painting anew. It took a while to get used to the sudden movement, but it became clear to me why he was doing it: It is terrifying to stand before a blank white sheet of paper, to look out at a scene of dazzling color and complexity and movement with the idea of capturing its essence. And to make the first mark. You face a thousand decisions about color, position, texture and shape; you feel like jumping out of your skin. Instead, Taylor’s hand seemed to be jumping in, a single stroke beginning the process of recording the feeling, not the details.
Out of the light drizzle, we gathered closely around David to watch him paint. Two or three ladies from across the street and most of the policemen in the building also craned their necks to watch. This is what I had come a quarter of the way around the globe to see: How do you begin?
In the days that followed, our group of more than 20 would set up our easels all over town, painting for three or four hours at a time. We all picked a subject to paint. We perched on bridges, canals and balconies, or sat in cafes. David walked around checking on our progress and offering suggestions. He was careful not to paint our paintings for us.
It took me days to get comfortable with the unfamiliar brushes, paint mixing and the simple notion that painting is not drawing with a brush. When frustrated, I desperately wanted to drop the brushes and just draw the scene. I slowly learned how to rely less on the quality of the line and more on color, texture and form to tell the story.
I did not go along quietly, but in the end, I had learned to squint my eyes to simplify the scene; to mix the difficult hues; to break complex objects into simple shapes; and to work the paper’s wetness to my advantage — sometimes.
Painting the people
There was much to learn and many to learn from, and not just during our painting sessions. The unexpected highlights of my days quickly became the meals shared with the wonderful people I was getting to know.
One evening, the conversation turned to Beijing, and the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Sitting at our table, one woman had been a young Chinese professional fleeing the square the day of the military crackdown; an older British man had also been across town that day in his embassy — he was the British ambassador to China.
This was Alan — Sir Alan, actually — a man with the build of Santa Claus, the wardrobe of Ian Fleming and the ability to speak fluent Mandarin Chinese. The smoothest, most gracious and engaging of persons, he told stories and conversed with wit and intelligence.
Another evening, I sat spellbound for hours listening as ranchers from New Zealand told me about their travels on the trans-Siberian railway. They told of the cold and the terrible beauty of the place. Their story left me wondering if I had the courage for similar expeditions. So many meals with so many fascinating people: I was rich.
The final day, we didn’t paint. Instead, we held an art exhibit in the very same lounge where we had met at the beginning of the class. The hotel staff was invited, and there was champagne all around. Each of our paintings was displayed, taped to clean boards. I cringed at the notion of showing work done in a style that I didn’t feel I had mastered, but it was great to see the growth of me and my fellow students in less than a week.
We exchanged hugs and addresses, and promised to meet again. A round or two of applause for our teacher and the tour staff and we boarded the bus for the airport.
I went to Venice to learn how to paint and add some color to my drawings. I came back a different person. The people I met and the places I saw stretched me, and added color and texture to my life.
Originally published in the Albany Times Union on Sunday, November 16, 2003.