My paintbrush laden with Prussian blue, I hesitate in front of the easel that holds my blank canvas. Looking anxiously at my tutor, Doris Lindemann, I secretly hope she’ll show me what brush technique to use. Instead, with a knowing smile she reminds me: “It’s your painting, you make the decisions.” And she’s right; I want every brushstroke of my first landscape oil painting to be mine. Yet here I am on a painting course in St Ives, a town that oozes artistic heritage, and I’m suffering the painter’s equivalent of writer’s block.
At least I’m in the right place to find inspiration. For more than a century this west Cornwall fishing town has been a magnet for artists, many attracted by the town’s often-quoted unique quality of light. Artists whose names represent a roll call of 20th-century British art – Alfred Wallace, Barbara Hepworth, Patrick Heron – all worked in St Ives and their success has helped turn the town into an artist’s mecca.
German-born Doris was lured to the town for similar reasons. An established landscape painter and past student of the acclaimed Irish School of Landscape Painting, she’s worked in St Ives as a full time painter, printmaker and tutor since 2000. She runs painting courses from her living room-cum-workshop, Ultramarine Studio, overlooking St Ives Bay.
Despite the spectacular view of the Cornish coastline from the studio, my first task is to choose a picture to base my painting on from one of Doris’s many Cornish landscape photography books.
“Using a photograph removes the process of transferring a three-dimensional scene on to a two-dimensional canvas,” explains Doris, “meaning we can spend more time on painting techniques.”
After choosing a Cornish seascape taken at dawn as my inspiration, Doris briefly chats about colour and the importance of using a limited colour palette in landscape paintings. Next she leads Linda, the other course participant, and I through the painting process: the initial underpainting of the canvas with acrylic paint; the blocking-in stage, where the basic colours, shapes and textures are established; and finally working in fine detail using oil paints.
To help ease my fear of the blank canvas, Doris encourages me to stop trying to visualise the finished painting, and instead turn my attention to slowly building up the colours and textures over the coming days to produce my own artistic interpretation of the seascape photograph. Amazing myself more than anyone else, by the end of the first day I’ve blocked in my canvas (creating a base for your oil paints using opposite colours in acrylic paint) then roughly built up the colours in acrylics. Although it looks like a child’s painting, I’m thrilled with my progress. “Wait until tomorrow when you start using oil paints, and then you’ll really see progress,” Doris assures me.
CREATING MY MASTERPIECE
And it’s with the slow-drying, malleable oil paints that I finally relax into the painting process. Egged on by Doris’s infectious enthusiasm, it’s not long before I’m nonchalantly standing in front of my easel – paintbrush in one hand, a palette full of thick oil and paints in the other – lost in my painting. Using the different brush and palette knife techniques Doris demonstrated to us throughout the course, I manage to depict an array of different effects, from heavy, brooding clouds to calm, silky seas.
As the afternoon sun dips low in the sky, I put the finishing touches to my painting. Looking out of the studio window, I watch the ever-changing light dance across the Atlantic Ocean, catching the silhouette of Godrevy Lighthouse in the distance, and it’s easy to understand why this small Cornish town inspires so many artists. After a nervous start to the course, I leave St Ives with my first oil painting tucked under my arm. It may not be a Leonardo, but it’s certainly going to take pride of place on my mantelpiece.
St Ives, Cornwall TR26 1AS
Landscape painting courses run from 1 Nov-20 April and 1 June-20 Sept and cost £145 for three days or £240 for five days. Tea and coffee provided throughout the day.
The Garrack Hotel and Restaurant
Burthallan Lane, St Ives, Cornwall, TR26 3AA
This family-run hotel and award-winning restaurant offer fine views. Private parking, indoor pool and a short walk from Ultramarine Studio.
Tate St Ives
Porthmeor Beach, St Ives, Cornwall, TR26 1TG
Includes the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden.
Higher Stennack, St Ives, Cornwall, TR26 2HE
This studio and museum celebrates the life and work of Bernard Leach.