A Scottish seascape - done in oils
Painting the places we visit is a whole new way of seeing them - and of getting to know fellow travelers
CARSAIG, ISLE OF MULL, SCOTLAND — I arrived in Scotland with plenty of burnt umber, a couple of No. 4 sable brushes, and an art career that was barely eight weeks old.
My wife, Storey, and I had booked a week of painting instruction in the face of my complete lack of artistic ability. All I knew was that I wanted to paint like the masters. I was hoping that the mere sight of pastoral landscapes and ancient castles would somehow unleash the Van Gogh in me.
A search on the Internet turned up the Inniemore School of Painting, located on the Isle of Mull, off the western Highlands. A 40-minute ferry ride and a 45-minute single-lane winding drive brought us to a very un-schoollike 19th-century stone castle, overlooking the expansive Firth of Lorne.
Inniemore teachers havebeen instructing vacationing artists of all levels since 1967. Courses include watercolor, walk and draw, and wood engraving - though guests are always free to do their own thing. Our instructors were Julia Wroughton, the school's founder, and her husband, Bruce Killeen. Both have had long careers in the English and Scottish art scenes.
I began the week and my "career" with a (for me) complex still life of bottles, while Storey dove into a seascape.
Joining us in the studio were Ian Melville and Bette Hunter, both of Glasgow. Ian, a retired physician, was quiet and focused, using gouache (an opaque watercolor) to carve raw sienna cliffs above his ultramarine sea.
An energetic tour guide, Bette kept up a running monologue, as she laid the foundation of her giant French chateau, using acrylics for the first time. The quick-drying medium let her easily move what she always referred to as her "wee" plant or "wee" tree if it didn't look quite right.
Long silences were broken with sighs and fidgeting. Thursa and Pebbles, the stable cats, would wander in and find a comfortable place to ignore the creative process. I imagined this was what it was like when the Impressionists got together.
Of the six student-guests in our class, all were return visitors to Inniemore but my wife and me. "Mull and Inniemore have a magnetism to them," says Ian, who first came with his wife in 1983 and has returned every year since.
Not to be outdone was Gillian Ballance of St. Albans, England, who has been making the trip for 30 years. "Most of my friends tell me how lucky I am to be coming here," she says, adding with her dry English wit: "I say 'Oh no, it's awful. It's the worst two weeks of the year.' " It's so "awful" that she spent a month here after retiring.
"It's the tranquility," says Bette. "You have to walk 300 yards to use the telephone," she adds, referring to the classic British red phone box picturesquely poised beside a waterfall on the approach to the house. It looks as though it should be in a movie (which it actually was).
Each day began with breakfast in the grand dining room, enough traditional Scottish fare to feed the entire post-modernist movement: fried eggs with bacon and sausage, stewed tomatoes with cilantro, smoked haddock, or baked beans with fried bread.
After breakfast we'd grab box lunches and head to our desired painting destinations. A 300-foot descent to the boathouse or a quiet corner of the 25-acre grounds provided abundant subjects, as did Carsaig's rugged cliffs or the misty islands of Jura and Colonsay.
The gong at 4 p.m. called us back to the lodge for tea, followed at 5 by the daily "crit" - a critique of the day's work. We gathered in the studio, where Bruce and Julia gave advice and spoke frankly about what was working and what could be improved.
"Sometimes the only remedy is to take a match to it," Bruce would say later that week (with a wink) about paintings that were beyond help. I would have liked that advice after my Tuesday effort, an interior attempt at soft light coming through a window. How did Giotto and Sargent handle their first crits, I wondered.
After the critique, it was back to the drawing board until dinner at 7:30. The three-star meal might begin with polenta in a red sauce, Tuscan bean soup, or cheese souffle. Entree highlights were rack of lamb with couscous, salmon with garlic mashed potatoes, and spareribs with curried rice.
After a rhubarb crème brûlée or chocolate mousse cake, we would retire to the study for a board game or lively conversation - perhaps about Scotland's role in the African slave trade, or less controversial topics such as the rules of cricket.
Mull is home to more sheep and highland cattle than people, but it does draw its share of sightseers. My wife and I joined them on Wednesday, an off-day for the class.
The main attraction is Iona, a small island off Mull's west coast and the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland. After a 35-minute winding drive, a 10-minute ferry ride takes you to the beautifully reconstructed abbey where St. Columba brought the gospels in 763.
Even more spectacular is Staffa, a half-hour choppy boat ride from Mull or Iona. The small uninhabited island is home to some of the most unusual rock formations in the world. Ancient volcanic activity formed hexagonal pillars of basalt, which guard the edges of the island.
After a white-knuckled walk - ending at a two-foot-wide ledge with nothing between you and the white foam below - you're in Fingal's Cave, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling geologic geometry.
It was back to the studio Thursday,where I tried my first landscape from a sketch I had done earlier. Bette's French château was going through beaucoupde changes, and Ian's steady hand was fitting rocks in his virtual jetty.
Bette enlightened me on the amorous travails of Scottish poet Robert Burns and gave an impromptu rendition of his sweet song, "Ae Fond Kiss."
Friday was the big day: my first exhibition. Julia and Bruce turned one of the two studios into an upscale gallery. We snacked on crisps and marinated olives provided by the staff, who also doubled as the gallery's "patrons."
Our prolific group of six had turned out over 30 paintings and sketches; my entries hung among them, right alongside those of the veterans.
Looking at them realistically, I asked myself: How many self-portraits (my final effort of the week) did Rembrandt have to do before they started resembling him?
Two-and-a-half months after I picked up a No. 3B graphite for the first time, I was hooked. My wife and I agreed this wouldn't be the last time we'd include art as part of our travels. Attending an art class was a different way to see the world, and make new friends with shared interests in the process.
I just don't know what I'm going to do in the meantime. Now that we're home, it's not quite the same view out of our back window.
Weekly summer courses begin May 4. Call 011-44 (0)1681 704 282 or e-mail innimor@btinternet. com for more information.
What should the wannabe artist do before going on an art trip? If you're like me, first panic. Then get a good book.
Although I've worked in the graphic-design field, I had no experience painting or drawing. A friend recommended Betty Edwards's "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" (Penguin Putnam, $16.95). This got me past the panic.
"A person can learn to draw within a reasonably short time," says Ms. Edwards, in the latest revision of her 1979 book. That was good news - because I was scheduled to be painting in Scotland within two months.
Ms. Edwards explains how at an early age we get locked into certain drawing patterns and symbols, and become frustrated when our ability doesn't evolve much past stick figures. While other skills - such as speech or handwriting - grow and improve, drawing seems to defy progress. At this point, most people become convinced that drawing is only for the chosen few.
Through a few simple exercises, Edwards's book takes you out of old ways of thinking and teaches you to see things the way artists "see." Once this shift takes place, she believes, anyone can draw.
If I'm any indication, she's right. In two months, I went from scribbles to a self-portrait that actually looks like me!