Waiting for the Boat, Isola di Ponza, oil on board, by Richard Pikesley

Richard Pikesley answers queries about joining an organised painting holiday.

The benefits of a painting holiday

For an accelerated and focused learning experience as a painter, there’s little that can beat being away from the daily routine, especially when surrounded by like-minded painting enthusiasts.

I always enjoy travelling with other painters and my trips have taken me around the world. My approach to painting holidays is to be involved in the choice of location and I teach a little through demonstrating and group discussion, but much of the real learning and teaching goes on individually as I try to keep tabs on where everyone is working and I try to drop in on them at just the right moments through the day.

At the end of each day we gather for informal conversation and to share experiences about paintings done and subjects spotted. If a topic comes up that concerns several artists, this is a good time for a bit of teaching or a spur-of-the-moment demo. It’s a really fruitful part of the experience.

Dinners are relaxed social occasions where we get know each other better and enjoy convivial conversation. This is also when I make sure everyone knows what we expect to do the following day. I find this less formal approach allows individuals to develop quickly and I’m always amazed at the roomful of paintings and drawings displayed in our informal exhibition on the final evening.

Your holiday questions answered

Q,  What painting kit should I take on a trip?

A.  These days I concentrate on keeping the weight and the complexity to a minimum.

My pochade box holds everything, including a range of sizes and shapes of painting boards. A lightweight folding fishing stool completes the kit

I generally take my oil painting kit and have a lovely old half-box easel that holds loads of brushes and tubes but is much less bulky than its bigger brother. Importantly, it has cranked hinges on the folding palette, allowing me to fold it up to move without squashing the paint.

I like using a pochade box and, depending on the location, sometimes take this instead of an easel. Without the spread of an easel’s legs, it’s easier to work discretely and to find somewhere to tuck yourself in.

A little folding stool allows me to work on my lap, or I’ll find a wall to balance the box on and work standing up.

I generally take lightweight boards to paint on rather than canvases, again to save on bulk.

I use sketchbooks most days, and away from home I’ll have two in my bag, so that if I’m using watercolour I can alternate between books to avoid turning a page and blotting a still wet study. My preferred sketchbooks are robust hardback books with HP paper that will take a lot of punishment and lets me use pencils and pens in the same book as watercolour.

Some tubes of watercolour and white gouache plus a few brushes and pencils completes my travelling kit.

If your main interest is watercolour the materials and equipment will weigh less; paper pre-cut into quarter sheets will be big enough for most needs, and by taking thicker paper that won’t need stretching, a heavy drawing board becomes unnecessary. Lightweight ply or even foam core board cut just a little larger than your paper will be robust enough.

Remember, all your painting equipment and materials must be securely packed in your hold luggage if you travel by air. 

Q.  I’ve never worked with other painters, will I enjoy it?

A.  I’m pretty sure you will. Painting can be a rather solitary business, and while being on an organised trip will still allow you to ‘do your own thing’, it’s very enlightening to see what your fellow painters make of the same location. It’s like suddenly having lots of extra pairs of eyes.

Getting together in the bar at the end of the first day is always a good moment as intelligence is shared about the best views and the best cafés. And we all learn so much from seeing the world through all those extra eyes.

Depending on the location, I try to stay in touch with all the painters, dropping in on each several times a day. The one-to-one conversations that result from these visits can be really fruitful with the subject in front of us and time to talk.

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Q.  How do I decide what to paint?

A.  You will know it when you see it. I have a painting friend who says he just walks about until something winks at him. However, beware of just wandering about aimlessly.

Years ago, before my first trip to Venice years ago, another friend said I shouldn’t shy away from painting all the obvious subjects as they had excited so many painters over the years for a reason and to paint the Salute across the water is still a great thing. I distinctly remember a sort-of-crisis when I decided to explore a little further afield, convinced there might be something even more amazing round the next corner, and wasted a whole day. In fact, the opposite approach can be really fruitful.

These days I often focus on a single location, painting many little oils and watercolour notes from the same spot and really exploring the changing light. Between paintings, a careful line drawing, developed throughout my stay will make the subject ‘mine’ and give me an invaluable reference for studio work.

Painting in a very public space can be a little bit daunting, but I’m always struck at how quickly even novice painters get over any sort of stage fright. A little about exactly where to set up is always helpful. Setting up just a few feet away from the flow of pedestrians in busy cities means you can work in surprising peace and, on the whole, those who do come closer will wait for you to take a break before starting a conversation.

Q.  In rapidly changing light, how do you get enough information?

A.  When I see something marvellous I want it immediately! My instant response might have immediacy but would never give me enough information to take back to the studio to build a bigger painting. The apparent solution of just keeping going on the spot doesn’t work either, as a whole day’s work on one piece will result in a confusion of light effects that will cancel each other out.

I’m definitely a heart-before-head person so my fast study will usually be my first response. Often a single viewpoint will offer a progression of ideas through the day and several quick studies made in succession will reveal changes in the character of a view, or offer alternatives of framing as I change formats or turn a little.

With two or three of these quick studies in the bag I can go and have some lunch and switch off for an hour. Later I’ll return to the same spot with paper and pencils or a pen and make a careful line drawing that won’t be light dependant, so I can dip in and out over my time in that location and add a little each time. I measure a lot; even after many years I distrust my guesses.

Working around a particular location, a careful line drawing will help to inform rapidly made painting when I return to the studio

These drawings aren’t pretty but they are very valuable to me as they give a clear record of where all the edges fall and how everything fits. A single drawing made in this way will give me the back-up information I need to complement all the little painted studies made from the same spot.

The main thing is simply to look and make some sort of visual record. If you find your drawings and painted notes aren’t giving you enough, scribbled notes can give you another layer of information and, later, help to stimulate your visual memory. You are less likely to form good visual memories if you rely too much on a camera.

Q.  How do I carry wet paintings, and get them home safely?

A.  If you paint in watercolour, pastels or acrylics this is unlikely to be an issue and finished paintings may be packed in the same way as your supply of blank paper was for the outward journey.

Matchsticks glued to the back of each board allows them to be staked and carried in a ‘brick’, even when wet

For oil painters though, a bit more planning is needed. For both canvases and boards it’s helpful to work around particular sizes as this makes carrying the wet artwork much simpler. I glue matchsticks glued onto the back, perhaps one in the centre of the short side and two on each long side. These are stuck very close to the edge and at the end of a day’s work or when packing for your return flight, the paintings can simply be stacked in a separate pile for each format and secured with rubber bands. As long as the one on top is either unpainted or bone dry they are really easy to carry as a ‘brick’; the matchsticks will only mark the very edge of each board and this can be easily retouched. Pairs of canvases of the same shape and size can be packed face-to-face and separated by canvas pins before being securely tied with string.

For more advice on painting holidays from Kevin Scully


About Richard Pikesley

Richard studied at Harrow School of Art, Canterbury College of Art and the University of London Institute of Education. He is a past president of the New English Art Club and a member of the Royal Watercolour Society. Richard has exhibited widely and won many awards.

See more from Richard on Instagram.

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