School had finished and the the final exams – three days of art – were over. I was 16. I closed my sketchbook, put the lid on my box of pastels and thought ‘must keep that up’.
26 years later, I was slightly nervous travelling to Posara in Tuscany for a week-long watercolour course touted as being ‘suitable for all levels’. Despite having booked on the Watermill’s course several months earlier, despite having bought all the materials from a list supplied by the course tutor, despite vowing to practice diligently before I got there, I’d done nothing. I was seriously about to put tutor Mike Willdridge to the test. How would he cope with somebody who hadn’t held a paintbrush for over a quarter of a century?
Arriving at The Watermill in Posara
The Watermill is run by English couple Bill and Lois Breckon, and offers weekly painting courses throughout the summer in the heart of Tuscany. Visiting tutors conduct the courses which range from watercolours and oils to acrylics and pastels, the cost includes all tuition, accommodation, meals, drinks, day trips and airport transfers.
Five of us have arrived on the early flight from Gatwick to Pisa. Bill is there to meet us and hand us over to Paulo, who drives us for an hour through the Tuscan hills, past the marble mines that produced Michelangelo’s David, to the lovely village of Posara, nestled in a lush green valley.
We arrive at a beautiful old watermill, dating from the 17th century, which ground its last load of wheat, oat and chestnuts in the mid 1980s. Run as an artists’ and writers’ retreat for the past few years, a collection of stone and terracotta-coloured buildings lead off the courtyard, with smart accommodation in separate apartments.
Underground are the old mill rooms and cellars, there’s a huge ancient olive press and loads of nooks and crannies to explore, and upstairs a big light-filled studio. A river runs through the grounds with a winding river walk through overhanging trees and bamboos, there’s a walled garden off the courtyard with trellised roses, picnic tables and sunloungers, and a small terrace where we take our pre-dinner drinks every evening, all set against the backdrop of the green Tuscan hills.
Exploring Tuscany – armed with paints
There are enough vistas around the mill to keep any numbers of artists happy but, with Tuscany on your doorstep it would be rude not to explore. And so, after our first day ‘settling in’, painting and sketching around the Watermill, we head off into the surrounding countryside every day, with lunch booked for us in local restaurants or packed into picnic hampers to eat in the sunshine.
And – after a shaky start when I realise on our first evening in the lovely Café Elvetico in Fivizzano that pretty much everybody else in our group of 12 has been painting for years – I settle in to a week of becoming a ‘lady artist’, helped along by our excellent tutor. Even the seasoned painters (who take regular classes and painting holidays) agree he’s been one of the best they’ve had. He mixes demonstrations with one-to-one advice sessions, and studio masterclasses on topics such as colour mixing, oil painting and using charcoals. He also shows us how to tackle perspective, paint running water and sketch busy street scenes and markets.
Why learning is such fun
But the great thing about coming on a course like this is that I don’t just learn from the tutor, but from everybody in the group; people are generous with their knowledge and happy to give me tips – and also to let me poke around in their art materials.
So now I know that watercolour pastels and pencils are great for sketching on the go, I know how to create colours using just a few basic shades and I know that the furry monkey trees we see on our walks home from Fivizzano date back to the time of the dinosaurs.
I love packing up every morning and heading out into the ‘Tuscan unknown’, driven by Paulo or Lorris into the hills – to Verucola with its imposing castle, Pognana and its country church, and high high up to the tiny town of Monte dei Bianci. And I love coming back every evening – either walking through the lush countryside as it winds its way downhill to Posara as some of us do, or taking a lift in the cars that carry our equipment. Back to dinner and the tasty home cooking of Marcella and Lois – delicious fennel bake, lasanges, Italian stews, risottos, Marcella’s tiramisu and Lois’s chocolate cake – so good we have it again the next morning for breakfast.
Midweek we have a day off (though we dutifully pack sketchbooks – obviously!) and a choice of a day trip to the medieval city of Lucca or the Cinque Terre fishing villages, both an hour away by train. I choose Lucca, Puccini’s birthplace, and wander through the cobbled streets admiring centuries-old architecture, take a walk on top of the Renaissance-era city walls, visit Tintoretto’s Last Supper in St Martin’s Cathedral and sit for an hour in the Piazza Dell ‘Anfiteatro, the city’s original amphitheatre, now ringed by buildings and a thriving hive of busy cafes and restaurants.
And then – my first exhibition!
On Friday night, our last before we head home the next morning, we have an exhibition of our work in the studio and I’m beside myself with excitement – my first exhibition! To the sound of Prosecco corks popping we admire the beautiful watercolour landscapes and sketches that have been produced during the week – yes, even mine. I’m particularly fond of my first work, a still life I call ‘Banana’, and also really like ‘Door’, a later work (dating from Thursday).
Art. It’s just like life really
And so I go back to London thinking (a) this was one of the best holidays I’ve ever had (b) I will forever carry a sketchbook around in my handbag and (c) isn’t painting a lot like life, judging by selected nuggets of advice from Mike throughout the week:
– You can try to copy somebody else’s perspective, but it will always look false, you have to find your own
– Always look for the colour in the shadow, things are never as black as you think they are
– Nothing is ever ruined, just wash it out and start again
– That one thing you didn’t mean to do, can suddenly pull everything together and make it work
One of the group, a painting class veteran, summed the week up perfectly on our way back from dinner one night. ‘It’s a fantastic few days, you meet like-minded people, you learn new things, it’s always interesting. It’s just wonderful.’
I agree. It was just wonderful.
Information, prices and booking
I stayed at The Watermill at Posara on a week-long watercolour painting course with British artist Mike Willdridge. Courses in watercolours, oils, acrylics and pastels, with a range of tutors, are offered from May to October every year. Prices include transfers from Pisa, all tuition, seven nights’ accommodation, pre-dinner aperitifs, all meals (including local restaurants), local travel and a mid-week visit to either the Cinque Terre or Lucca. There is a discount for non-painting partners. Flights not included. For more information contact www.watermill.net or 020 7193 6246.