Sunday, June 5, 2011

Inside/Outside in France: "Country Church"

Since 2009 one of my recurring interests has been painting scenes viewed through a door or window. Examples that have featured in my blog include "The Open Door" (Feb. 14), "Hanging in the Rain" (March 13), "Designated Driver" (April 23), and, most recently, "Through a Curtain" (May 2)."Painting the Porch" and "Buying Postcards" are further examples of paintings that include an inside and an outside view.

Painting the Porch - acrylic - 14 " x 11 "
Buying Postcards - acrylic - 14  " x 11  "
The two paintings are based on a single photograph that I took inside the village church of Montaigut-le-Blanc in 2001. The photograph shows all three female figures --the woman selling postcards, the woman buying the cards, and the woman sitting outside painting. In my initial sketches I included all three in my composition, but I couldn't make it work. The figures seemed to get in each other's way and provide no clear focus for the viewer's eye. So I tried separating them, while still keeping the church interior almost identical in each panel. I found that it worked better to make the wall and rock garden look larger and nearer for the "Painting" panel, so as to frame the artist in a setting. In the "Postcards" panel, on the other hand, the scenery outside is just incidental background: all the action is inside the church.

I was in Montaigut for my first painting holiday, an eagerly anticipated event for which I'd been saving. I arrived with high energy and enthusiasm, inspired by a show of Morandi's still life paintings that I had just seen at the Tate in London. In one important respect the trip was disappointing: since the program was advertised as a "workshop" I had expected a fairly structured format, with assignments, supervised work, and critiques. This never materialized. The only instruction was a painting demonstration each day, and for the rest of the time we students were left to ourselves. Since then I have participated in several painting holidays, in England, France and Canada, and have found in each case that, without being slave drivers, the instructors have kept their charges busy and given lots of direction and feed-back, so I know now that my expectations were not unreasonable.

Determined to draw and paint anyway, since that was what we were there for, my friend and travelling companion (who is the woman painting the church porch) went off each day to find a good spot to sit and sketch. There was a wealth of subject matter only steps away, a choice of flowers, gardens, buildings, street scenes and rural landscape. Montaigut is built on a very steep hill, and all the streets are zigzags, with narrow terraces between them. At every turn there is a look-out point over the surrounding country. The park-like churchyard, with its shade trees, clumps of dahlias, warm stone walls, and Romanesque church, became a favourite sketching place.

The village is situated in the central part of France, in Auvergne. The terrain is some of the most turbulent and tormented that I have ever seen, a succession of dramatic ridges and gorges, with the occasional eroded and extinct volcano. Shortly before the end of my stay there I was able to get an aerial view of this landscape. It was my birthday--a rather special one--and I decided to treat myself to a ride in the hot air balloon that sailed by every morning and evening, its timing determined by the need for the right kind and strength of air currents. I had to leave dinner a little early, before dessert was served, which caused me a touch of regret, since the desserts were always delectable. The balloon basket held two other passengers besides myself, and the pilot. I loved the sensation of flying in near-silence, one minute soaring to dizzying heights, the next skimming the trees and hillsides. We flew until it was almost dark, our flight extended longer than expected because we were waiting for the right current to flip us across a highway. We needed a level bit of field where we could land, and where the balloon operators' van could come and pick us up. After we were safely down and the balloon was deflated and folded, the van driver produced a hamper from which the postponed dessert appeared, decorated with sparklers! The assembled company sang "Happy birthday" to me, completing a truly magical evening.

As well as sketching and painting in and around the village, I took photographs, and in 2009 dug out the one of the church. I painted the two versions on wood panels, each 14 " x 11 ". It was only after completing them that I discovered that if I placed them side by side as a diptych, they seemed to complement each other and make a single work. Now I would not want to separate them: I think they look best hung an inch or so apart.

Country Church (diptych)