New art on ancient shores

19th January 1996 at 00:00
Seeking inspiration? Diana Constance joined a watercolour painting holiday on a Greek island. Painting holidays are becoming fashionable. It is nothing new of course; sketching in watercolours was always an essential part of the Grand Tour and British dilettanti of the 18th and early 19th centuries brought back exquisite watercolours from their travels.

I decided to see how successfully a serious commitment to painting might be combined with a holiday. As I well know, good intentions and firm resolution easily succumb and very few devotees left on their own come back with more than a suntan.

Muriel Owen, the leader of the group I joined, is an experienced traveller as well as teacher. For the past 12 years she has explored the Aegean and Mediterranean seas for secluded and inspiring landscapes. A recent discovery is Castellorizo, a Greek island 40 minutes' boat ride from Kos.

The island is a massive rocky plateau, with a few terraces for olives on the fringe of its lower flanks and the ruins of the red castle - "castello rosso" - on the top, reached by a zig-zag of steep steps cut into the rock. Rebuilt in 1306 by the Knights of St John, it was destroyed in 1440 by the Sultan of Egypt, Dejmal ed Din, leaving only fragments of the defences.

We began the first day of our painting holiday by exploring the town of Castellorizo. Before the Second World War, the town's 300-strong schooner fleet supported a population of 15,000.

Today, behind the white shops and tavern on the harbour, live only the remains of this prosperous marine community - having been bombed by the Luftwaffe and deported, most of the islanders emigrated to Australia. Nowadays expatriate owners are slowly reclaiming the bombed-out mansions from their coverings of flowering jasmine, convolvulus and geraniums.

Painting en plein air can be daunting: the artist is faced with problems of selection and synthesis. Watercolour is akin to poetry; a literal description is not so suited to the medium as careful suggestion. Muriel helps her students "frame the view".

Practice helps clarify the complications of perspective: eye level and vanishing points come alive as they are used in structure. The sun, too, can spread confusion and frustration as it moves overhead: we remembered too late Muriel's caution to note the position of shadows at the beginning of our work.

During the morning's work, Muriel was at hand to advise and, as groups of students fan out from the village, she may walk miles to check on progress. After lunch and a swim or snorkel in the clear blue waters of the bay, students' work was discussed and Muriel gave a demonstration of drawing in perspective or watercolour technique.

As painting groups usually number less than 16, tuition can be varied to suit individual need. Some of our group were veterans who exhibited work with societies during the year; the beginners among us benefited from the encouragement of the more experienced. At night on the balconies paintings were shared and enjoyed along with duty-free drink.

Though children are not catered for, non-painting partners are encouraged and they tended to form their own group, who instead of "waiting for paint to dry" explored cliff walks, the local museum with its Greek and Byzantine remains and reconstructed frescos and a boat trip to the local blue grotto.

We painters had no shortage of subjects, from the main square at St George's Bay and the cathedral with white columns taken from the Temple of Apollo on the Turkish shore to the celebration of a traditional Orthodox wedding by a family specially returned from Australia.

On the other side of the headland red earth contrasts with dark green cypresses; prickly pear and cacti tumble over stone walls, sunlight plays on a crumbling villa. We would return in the evening to see yachts tying up in harbour, and sniff cafe-smells of ouzo and grilling meat and sea-fish.

On the last day of the fortnight at our show at a local taverna our group was full of life and sparkle, aware that we had accomplished something as well as having had a holiday - in contrast to the bored look of other holiday-makers.

I shall miss the morning walk along the harbour, the fisherman mending his nets to the sound of bazouki music from his ghetto-blaster and morning coffee under the white umbrellas.

Muriel Owen is vice president of the Society of Women Artists. Venues she will be exploring this year include: Castellorizo, Symi, Alonissos, Skopelos, Halki, as well as Hammamet in Tunisia. For Greek dates, tel: Laskarina Holidays, 01629 8222034; for Tunisia, tel: Panorama Holidays, 01273 206531

Diana Constance's latest book, Painting from Photographs, is published by Harper Collins.

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