Thursday, June 14, 2018

Reflections on Painting Retreats

Painting at Eilean Donan Castle

As I write, the rain is falling on Loch Portree, just outside my window. The Cuillins, which I can see from here on a clear day, have vanished in the low clouds. I understand that this is typical weather for the Isle of Skye in Scotland, but it is strange to us. We have enjoyed two weeks of record-breaking dry weather for our painting retreat: sun some days, overcast on others, but never a drop of rain.

As wonderful as the dry weather was, I am cheered by the rain. Sometimes I pine for it when I am at my New Mexico studio, where we often have weeks, if not months, of clear skies. Here, the rain is much needed. The Talisker distillery, over in Carbost, uses spring water for their whisky, and the springs are running low. But besides the distillery, the fields and trees need it, too. One of my favorite hikes is in the heath in Sligachan, where the trail wanders uphill along the river and into the Black Cuillins. The trail is completely dry. Yet you can see where the boggy spots would be during a normal season; the earth is black there, and water bars have been built of stone to shunt the flow away from the trail. There is nothing to shunt this season.

Despite all this, the heather is starting to bloom--bouquets of tiny purple flowers, visible if you look closely, but soon to carpet the hills. The ferns and bracken have unfurled and are approaching their deep summer greens, and the moss looks vibrant. Life continues apace. Birds sing and look for mates in the heath, and from across the loch, I can hear a solitary cuckoo, loudly calling.

And what of the midges? They hit their stride in early June, but they have been rare for us. We have sought out breezy spots for painting, and the wind may have driven them off; but even when we take a hike early in the morning and it is calm, the midges are few. I have some red welts on my head and arms, but nothing like I had expected. Perhaps this dry spell has interrupted their development. I, for one, do not miss the midges.

All of this fine weather has contributed to a relaxing and successful ten days for our plein air painting retreat. Ten days sounds like a long time, but each day was filled with sketching--morning and afternoon and sometimes evening sessions--plus exploring, with each day bringing a new location. (We went to one location twice, Sligachan, but that was by popular demand.) At first, we brought lunch, but then we figured out most villages had a cafe, and so that added to the adventure.

So what makes for a successful painting retreat? First, excellent planning. Trina spent a great deal of time hammering out details with lodging and traveling. Second, an excellent local guide. Marion has lived and painted on Skye for ten years, and she knows all the good spots and understands the logistics needed for outdoor painting. Third, an excellent organizer. Not to blow my own horn, but I am good at making sure that all the pieces fit together. Finally, an excellent group of painters. Our group consisted of serious artists, some of whom are professionals, who all worked well together. By the way, having a good group didn’t just “happen”; I invite only previous students or artists whom I know personally and whom I feel will be compatible.

Another key to a successful retreat lies in having a common goal. We understood that the weather might not be perfect (and in fact, expected it not to be!) and that painting might require working in short sessions. With that understanding, we all chose to consider this a sketching trip. That is, we weren’t planning to make finished paintings that we could take back home and sell. Some made sketches in journals, incorporating the written word or even clippings from brochures; others made them on scraps of paper that could easily be reworked in the studio or used as a reference for later paintings. We also stripped down our gear, and to make things as convenient as possible, we worked in watercolor, gouache and pastel. I didn’t even bring a tripod but found plenty of rocks to sit on, which I cushioned with a gardener’s foam knee pad.

This afternoon, as the rain continues to fall, I’m thinking about other painting retreats including a return to the Isle of Skye in 2020. If you’d like to join us on a future retreat, please remember that I give preference to past students. If you haven’t taken a workshop with me yet, now is the time to sign up. You can find a complete list plus details at

Now I’m going to do a little painting of the view from my window.

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