recently did something I have been meaning to do for a long time. I went on an art retreat. After much research I selected Brambles Art Retreat. I am very glad I did and I thoroughly recommend it. Nestled in the Devon countryside, about 40 minutes’ drive from Exeter it is housed at the beautiful above pictured Brambles Cottage. I went there by train and the proprietors of the retreat (of whom more about later) picked me up from the station.
The retreat is run by a couple who provide the tuition, Pete Davies and Janet Brady. In addition to providing excellent tuition are also very friendly and congenial hosts. Janet is an excellent cook. The cottage is an old farm cottage, walls two meters thick, low ceilings and wooden beams. My room had a very fetching enourmous fire place.
Outside was a lovely large garden, and nestled in one corner of the garden the studio. It is quite large. Including the instructors there were 7 of us and we fitted in comfortably. It is divided into two rooms and one side room with a sink and all the paints.
On the first day, I started with Charcoal, under the tutelage of Pete. He set up a still life of a bottle, a vase and a couple of porcelain ducks. What he taught us to do was to draw, without using line, only gradations of tone to suggest the shapes and the boundary between them. He particularly got us to concentrate on the negative space between the objects as a guide to defining them. I was pretty pleased with the sketch I produced (above left).
In the afternoon Pete took me and one other of the guests out to a local very distinctive clump of trees, and using the techniques we were taught in the morning to sketch the trees. It was nice, standing out there in the sunshine, with a cooling breeze, sketching away. I enjoyed it and was again quite pleased with the result (above right).
The second day, I moved onto acrylic. A still life was set up for us, and again using the techniques from the day before using graditions of tone, but this time with addition of gradations of colour to paint the still life. Again the idea was to avoid the solid lines. One tip Pete gave for painting the coffe pot and the table was to paint in the lines of shadow and then with the addition of very little silver and gery the eye will see it as reflective. It worked very well and it is something I am glad I found out.
The actually tuition lasts from 09:30 to about 16:00, with a break of roughly an hour for lunch. After that your time is your own. One night we went out for a meal in the hotel in the local town, which we very tasty. We also took Jupiter for a walk round the local countryside, along the bank of the babbling river that flows through the valley, a few hundred yards from the cottage.
Day three was a trip to the seaside. A beautiful little bay on the north Cornish coast, just east of Tintagel. It was about 1/2 and hours drive from the cottage. We got there about 10:00 and I could not resist starting the day with a paddle in the water. The tide was out when we arrived, and we set up camp on the cliffs overlooking the bay. Out to sea was this shark finned shaped rock, jutting out of the water all alone. I likes this rock and also the line of the cliff so decided to spend most of the day on a charcoal sketch.
The tide came in quite quickly so I had to make a decision about when I was going to freeze the frame and put the tide line. I marked this in near the start of the sketch and built it up from there. By the time I finished that beach you can see in my sketch was entirely underwater.
In the mid afternoon, I had time to do just a quick acrylic sketch. The idea really was to have some colour notes form which I could work up an oil painting of the scene once I got home. As you can see by this time the tide has come right in. The sketch is a bit basic but I was pleased with the sea colour. I have yet to work it up but I will do at some point.
The plan for day four was to go out and do a painting of Ben Tor. Rain and a mist that completely obscured the view meant that plan had to be abandoned so we adjourned back to the studio and instead worked from a photo of the scene to produce our paintings. Thumbnail sketches, something I don't often do, were a theme of this retreat and actually I found them very useful and will probably do them more. This time Janet, who was teaching me on this one, focused on getting us to see the shapes within the scene, so how the filed just beyond the field is a sort of fish shape, and also again on seeing the differences is tone. One very useful piece of advice is that the colours don't have to match the picture but if you get the same variations in tone, it will look the same (I am of course simplifying).
I paint quickly, so I finished about 15:00 so spent the last hour doing an acrylic sketch of Jupiter the do. I painted deliberately quickly and with lots of energy and tried to capture the look and feel of his fur and his playful personality. It came out quite well. Later the original had snuck into my room and gone to sleep on my bed (above right).
All two quickly we came to the last day. I don't often paint in watercolour. Janet is a watercolour expert so I decided to take this opportunity to learn from her. She talked us through how to paint a vase of flowers. Watercolour you have to think differently and much more tactically than oils or acrylic because you can’t really over paint. Once something is down you are more or less stuck with it. She showed us how to see the tones and chose the right paints. How to pick out the main structures, put them in and build from there. One good tip was how you can use wax to block out an area as white as the paint won't then stick. The white areas in my painting (above, and of which I am absurdly proud) are just the paper, covered in wax. This is certainly a technique I shall be trying to use again.
I am very glad I went to Brambles. I am definitely going to go back. I would highly recommend you go too.
William John Mackenzie
I am an artist with a specialism in landscapes and still life. My contact details are here.