“Wow, that’s brilliant,” exclaims a tourist, cooing over my boyfriend’s easel, as we stand side-by-side painting the view outside’s Mayfair’s Connaught hotel. “You’ve captured the tones, the mood, the energy. Look at those light-dappled trees!”
He turns to my canvas.
“And this…” The statement hangs in the air while we collectively consider its four blobs of colour planted flatly on white. “This is… interesting.”
Who knew that a five-star art course would be the activity that pushed my previously happy relationship to the brink? For, while galleries are my happy place, I last completed an art work aged eight, have never before handled oils - let alone a 45 quid tube of Cerulean Blue - and have to be told not to wield my hog-hair brush like a pen. Where other pupils associated art classes with freedom, for me they yielded only mortification, and a constant, unnecessary anxiety that my creation might end up on the wall.
In contrast, Terence, my beloved, spent his teens mooning moodily about an art room, and has been known to whip out a sketch pad while on hols. And he’s not alone. Only last weekend, the Duchess of Cambridge’s skills as an artist were revealed by way of a depiction of St. Mark’s Church, Englefield, sketched for the order of service at her sister’s wedding.
Television is obsessed with art, including Sky’s Landscape Artist of the Year, Portrait Artist of the Year, and BBC1’s Big Paint Challenge, which puts budding Bacons through a boot camp. The emergence of “mindful” colouring books as a stress-relieving tool has led to an enthusiasm for generating one’s own creations, with “influencers” such as the Hadid sisters getting in on the act.
And now, The Connaught, ever modishly au courant, will be offering summer classes entitled: “En Plein Air in Mayfair,’ outdoor painting lessons delivered by distinguished artist Alex Fowler. When Terence got wind of this, he insisted we should be first to enjoy the experience, despite painting being second only to being hanged, drawn and quartered in the category of things I’m not keen on doing in public. “Still, it’s only three hours,” I consoled myself. “What can possibly go wrong?”
The answer began to become clear over breakfast in the hotel’s Coburg Bar, where we were introduced to our teacher, Alex, a dashing chap of 41, who has been giving lessons for almost a decade. His self-portrait has just been shortlisted for the Ruth Borchard Prize, while recent landscape projects have taken him to Jerusalem and San Francisco.
The night before, Terence had given me a panic attack by endeavouring to teach me about vanishing points (something to do with maths), rendering me shaky and unslept. He, in contrast, looks more euphoric by the moment, not least when he learns that he and Fowler are products of the same art rooms – Eton and Chelsea. A floppy-haired love-in ensues.
“Forget the posh-boy bromance,” I inform our guru, “how are you going to deal with this terrified beginner?” Alex beams: “There’s an unnecessary fear around painting, but we’ll show that you can cover a lot of ground quite quickly. The aim is not just to nail the visual experience, but the emotion; to crystalise movement, light, colour and shape, not necessarily in a realistic way.”
“What about practical tips?” I demand. “Use as big a brush as possible,” he advises. “Go after the big shapes, the big relationships: the sky and the trees, the windows and trunks can come later. You can be slapdash – some of the best painters are. Be messy, bold. And don’t expect things to look right from the start. Let the painting make itself. Dive in and have fun.”
Terence is nodding with the zeal of a man who is about to get this motto printed on a t-shirt. “It’s not a competition,” adds Alex, patently unfamiliar with our relationship.
We step into the sunshine to find five-star painting kits awaiting us, care of Chelsea art emporium Green & Stone. I can understand how one might fetishise equipment of such magnificence – brushes, oils, and a handsome mahogany palette totalling £381.89 - even if I don’t yet understand what to do with it. Publically identifying with the role of artist is a lot easier standing behind a handmade Italian easel.
“Let’s find some views!” declares our leader. We spend a few minutes squinting through viewfinders and using our phones to play with framing. Then Alex bestows an apron and Lucian Freud-style belt rag upon me, fixes me up with a palette of white, primary colours, and a couple of turd browns, and away we go.
It immediately becomes apparent that ours is a case of school swot versus teen rebel, Terence blithely daubing away, me sullenly staring. Saint Alex hovers cheerily between us - a genius at balancing both our needs - encouraging me to squint, simplify, and block the main shapes, while Terence knocks up an instant masterpiece.
Forty-five minutes in and it occurs to me that I’m really rather enjoying crushing colours with my palette knife; 90 minutes in and I’ve had enough. My eyes hurt not from seeing differently, but from seeing at all. I realise I am far happier not looking and leaping to conclusions. Besides, my creation is brilliantly bad.
I had hoped to be a fauvist, but what I have produced is more of a medieval mess – crude blocks of colour sans perspective. It may not impress the tourists, but I actually really like it. I inform Alex that I’m ready to stop because I don’t want to destroy what I have achieved. He urges me to keep going, inspiring a flashback to my adolescent art-class self, beset by boredom, truculence, and a pressing desire for chips.
Three hours after we began, we head back into The Connaught for a chips-based debrief. Terence adored everything about it, and learnt that he doesn’t have to worry so much about getting things right. I adored Alex and the kit, and learnt that some passing concern for getting things right would be no bad thing. We conclude that my problem is less with realism than reality.
1) Consider how best to frame your subject. Use your phone or a viewfinder to establish a good crop.
2) Look for the pattern of colour shapes, thinking about the big relationships first. Use a big brush to help simplify.
3) To get the drawing right, compare horizontal and vertical distances, measuring across the space with a pencil. Drawing is simply: “How wide, by how tall, by what angle?”
4) Colour is to seeing as taste is to eating. Mix colours with a palette knife to help see them as individual colour spots in relationship. A lot of painting happens on the palette.
5) Painting is as much about the experience and emotion. We are not cameras. As Matisse said: “Verisimilitude is not truth”.