Monday 27 December 2010

Back Home from Home

Clitheroe and Pendle Hill

A happy Christmas has been had in Brittany after six weeks away.
We painted over thirty shop windows in Clitheroe, a pretty Lancashire town nestling in the shadow of moody, infamous Pendle Hill.

AD Price at Clitheroe Dry Cleaners

It's a delight to be back among friendly folk and the cold days are pierced by plenty of hot drinks and " Do you want a bacon butty, Caroline, only we usually have summat round now?" ; "I made this flapjack last night" ; "would you like a mince pie?" ...well... yes, yes and yes!

Caroline Johnson at Revolve Gallery, Clitheroe

This time the weather's much kinder than last year's constant rain. We've rented a cosy cottage in a nearby village.. and what a treat! it's just a two-minute walk to see my daughter and her family, sit in their kitchen, repel the over-enthusiastic dog who eats my new hat, ("Bad Dog, Trevor!!" ) and do a drawing.

Mr.Price is chuffed, too, to be able to stroll to the shop for The Guardian or an actual pint of milk in a proper bottle.

Parking on the village street's a bit tight, though- feelings run high and an angry note "DO NOT PARK HERE AGAIN!" is left one morning on our windscreen .
Caroline Johnson: Roo's Kitchen #3

Window painting takes up a lot of our time but I manage to get a few sketches done. I'm pleased to get a couple of hours drawing the great view from the back bedroom window towards the church. Here is a delightful muddle of old stone walls, gardens and their clutter of sheds, coal-bunkers and a row of what must have been the old cottage toilets. I wouldn't fancy trailing out there and exposing myself to the season's cruel blasts, I muse, and think of Christina Rossetti's poem....
' In the bleak mid-winter, frosty wind made moan'.

Caroline Johnson: The Backs of the Cottages

Monday 8 November 2010

On the Road Again... Again!

Apologies are way overdue for my absence, my excuses sound like this- being away for most of August; producing new works of Birmingham for my agent ( sounds fancy but means I get even less cash) and five wee paintings of Manchester to do for the Colin Jellicoe Gallery. All this hasn't given me much time for writing.
Mr. Price and myself are once again itinerant artists now staying in a pretty village in the hills of Lancashire, on the edge of the Trough of Bowland, where Tolkein got his inspiration for The Shire.
Like last year, we're painting shop windows with a Yuletide theme in the market town of Clitheroe; to date we're eleven shops down and twenty-odd to go.
I've painted ten robins already and Mr. Price has had his 'baptism of fire' with- for an electrical shop- his depiction of Father Christmas emerging from a 3D television along with various desirable goods... radio, headphones, toaster.
A difficult one, that- but we aim to please! See us in action for the next couple of weeks, take us for a coffee break!!

Friday 3 September 2010

On the Road Again

Since the beginning of July I've been working hard, travelling and preparing for my daughter's August wedding.
On our travels in Britain Mr Price and I stopped for an hour in Chepstow, promising ourselves a bit of sight-seeing and ice-creams before crossing the Bristol channel by the Severn Bridge.
Chepstow's a pretty Welsh town with, disappointingly, no home-made ice-cream shops along its cobbled streets... frustrated, we opted instead to sit on the sunlit castle lawns to sulk and to sketch.
It's a beautiful ruined Norman castle, perched on a limestone cliff above the river Wye. Building started in 1067 and it's the oldest surviving stone castle in Britain.
In the second Civil War, the parliamentarians, led by Colonel Ewer, took the castle by storm and breached the walls with their cannon.
This was in a fit of pique after they discovered there were no ice creams to be had in town.....

Sunday 4 July 2010

Working On The Railway

Merdrignac is a pretty town on the inland road heading towards western Brittany. The highway runs by Loudeac, Rostrenen, the Daoulas Gorges and the Black Mountains- which aren't exactly vertiginous, but more like high moorland.
After a drive of two or three hours from here, you would reach Finistere of the shipping forecasts and the grimly beautiful Crozon Peninsula with its giddying cliffs and the furious sea thrashing on the reefs.
However, despite its charms, Merdrignac has nothing so spectacular to recommend it to the guide books. Even the trains have gone, but where the railway ran has been made into part of a 'voie verte'- an 18km hiking/cycle track .
Along the way, several old railway passenger shelters are being renovated, and we were asked to paint some reminders of the past inside the one at Merdrignac.
This is what Mr. Price has been doing for
the last week or so and on a searingly hot day I go along to have a look at his work.
He's painted a fifties-style stationmaster and he's added some clutter- a box of lettuces, a shopping bag, an umbrella, torn cinema posters of the era. There's a newspaper on the bench, too, and I see he's shown the article where some poor unfortunate was guillotined the previous morning.. featured later in 'Qui Detective No 552'!
While the artist applies some anti-graffiti varnish I go for a wander. The old station building's used as a council depot now and the yard's full of signs, compressors and other machines- a world that, thankfully, I know little about.
I'm somehow excited when I find a bit of the old railway track glinting through the surface of the 'voie verte', a souvenir of a gentler time when a journey was ruled by a train timetable.
There's a convenient bench further on where I sit and draw what must have been a railway workers' house.
Nearby is the town's swimming pool and, as I work, this provides a backdrop of childrens' cries- "Elise, Elise!!" " Venez les filles!!". It's a class of schoolchildren and the shouting stops only when someone misbehaves, the teacher blows his whistle and tells them off. There's a deathly silence, and even I feel guilty!
Back at the abris voyageur the varnishing's finished- how smelly it is, like nail varnish remover! "Amyl acetate", my Dad once told me, in the days when we could talk, when he wasn't so deaf.
Let's hope the naughty teenagers who hang out in this shelter, drinking beer, kicking the walls and spraying their tags will leave off out of respect for the artist's handiwork!

Sunday 13 June 2010

Armchair Football

Now, I'm not all that keen on football but I once saw an excellent World Cup Final on a TV in a bar in Chamonix in the French Alps. That was in 1966....back....back in time....... on one side of a long table were the English supporters, and opposite us were the... well you get the picture and I'm not one to gloat. Not here anyway.
It's England versus USA tonight, so to turn our evening into a more positive experience for several people at once I suggest to Mr. Price that we take beer round to an English neighbour, (a keen lady football fan, I assure you!) and watch the game there... thinking I can draw the two of them as they followed the match.
There's just one' jumping-up-and-down -and -shouting- YES!' incident from the pair when England score their only goal, so I can work quite solidly as they sit slumped in their armchairs.
And a convenient space on my picture means I can write down bits of commentary from the TV and from my companions.
Someone's got his jumper on his lap while I'm drawing him and complains bitterly that I've made him look like he has "a massive prolapse or something" so I slap on some white gouache to remedy the offending lump and go over that bit again.
Still not quite right, but it'll do and the match is over and we're off and away home with no other cars to be seen, only the flash of moths and a scurry of rabbits in the limbo of the twilight country lanes.

Saturday 12 June 2010

Dinard, Hitchcock and The Birds

Dinard's such a lively and pretty place! It's an old-fashioned Breton seaside town, nestling around white sea-strands and an emerald sea.
In the late 19th century American and British aristocrats popularised Dinard as a fashionable summer resort, and they built stunning villas on the cliff tops and exclusive hotels such as the 'Le Grand Hotel' on the seafront during the French "Belle Epoque".
It's rumoured that Alfred Hitchcock (who spent time here) based the house in 'Psycho' on one of these villas.
Dinard has a British Film Festival each October, and to acknowledge this, a statue of the film director- complete with birds- stands on the promenade by the Plage de l'Ecluse.
A well-placed bench overlooks this and, as I sit and draw, a flock of marauding seagulls sweep down to the beach and attack the belongings trustingly left on the beach by some unwary bather.
In a callous and uncaring way I'm secretly delighted as a plastic bag of, I presume, culinary delights for the returning swimmer, is mercilessly torn to shreds before a sunbathing 'neighbour' stops the destruction by shouting and flapping his arms.
As I continue with my sketch I wonder if Hitchcock ever witnessed something similar? Before me, his bronze statue looks out over the scene and his dead eyes glint in the hot sun, but he remains understandably impassive....

Tuesday 25 May 2010

Sunday Fun!

It's a long holiday weekend in Brittany, for a religious feast-called 'Consumption', 'Reprobation' or somesuch.
We're invited for lunch on the Sunday chez some English friends and the twenty-minute journey to Evran takes us through several villages.
Usually, all to be seen on the way (if you're lucky!) is perhaps an old woman bent double, painfully making her way down the road with a bucket. "Why?" is Mr. Price's usual comment.
Today's different, it's hot and sunny, there's a car-boot sale in one village and a cycle race in another; the village cafes have put out bright umbrellas and tables and people are sitting at them!
Folk are out for a stroll, or gardening and there's an elderly man in a vest sweeping the path by his garden wall, watched by his wife.
"Why?!" says Mr. Price, predictably, "Why go outside on the hottest day since records began- probably- and, in this searing heat, sweep up clouds of dust into your face?!!"
We eat lunch outside, in the shade, with views across the fields to farms and barns.

In our own village, too, when we get back, there's a bit of activity. There was a wedding here yesterday, and, as is traditional, some of the guests have got together for a midday meal the next day.
Plus there's a delight of delights for the artist starved of new and refreshing subject matter on her doorstep! A breakaway faction of Bretons has set up a game of 'palets' just across the road
and in full view of the upstairs studio window!
Flowering hawthorn trees makes a beautiful backdrop to this charming evening pageant, played out on the lawn by the church. I find a page in my sketchbook that I've already prepared with a green wash and I work on top of this with a conté pencil, watercolour and gouache.
While the men get on with their game the women sit and talk and small children play.
By the time I'm finished, the palet players are leaving, taking with them their wooden boards and their metal discs.
Soon, I think, the hedgehog who likes to snuffle about on this quiet patch will come out to look for worms and insects and will discover his daisied lawn trampled underfoot. He will notice the traces of man: here a sweet-wrapper, there a discarded cigarette butt, and, I fear, the taint of pipi by the hedge.

Images: Caroline Johnson 'Palet Players Under Flowering Hawthorns, Brittany' and ' Across the field, Evran'. The 16th Century version of palets.

Wednesday 5 May 2010

Out on the Town

At about eight pm on a Saturday, our friend from up the hill, The Only Intellectual in the Village calls round. Do we want to go to the theatre? Tonight? At ten-thirty? Well, no, not really, kind thought though it is, I'd already planned an evening full of activities: a bit of telly, glass of wine or two, chocolate. It might even involve a pair of pyjamas if I can find the energy to trail upstairs to put them on.
"But yes! How nice! That would make a lovely change, wouldn't it?" I force a smile towards Mr. Price.
The big road to Dinan's blocked, says our friend later, and he takes a detour through a hundred villages, driving furiously with a remix of Noir Desir blasting out from the speakers next to me in the back.
I'm convinced I'm going to die- but I don't, and I survive to see the 13th Century Theatre des Jacobins in all its beauty. We aren't in the main theatre but in a less formal, relaxed venue with chairs and tables set before a small stage.
I've brought my sketchbook , in case of boredom, and I do a quick study of the audience before the act comes on and the lights go off. They're called Lui et Moi (Him and Me), a comedic musical duo who are (my translation):

"at the crossroads 0f reality and wonderland, between poetry and madness... first and foremost they are Two Fools, who, between songs, are mainly silent, interacting with glances and few words. Between black humour and flights into popular and romantic music, these clown-poet-singers question our society, our bad habits and give us hope and joy, in all humility"

They're really rather good, and I'd enjoy it even more if I understood more than a fifth of the cultural references and the plays on language.
I can remember feeling lost and stupid like this when listening to Georges Brassens in the Sixties. The audience bursts into laughter and I think 'Eh?" and by the time I've vaguely worked something out it's no longer amusing and I've missed half the next verse. Now and again, though, I do catch something and that makes it worthwhile.

Wow! Seven years studying the language at school to A-Level standard; two summers spent wasting around with French friends; seventeen years over here speaking fluently, but I go to see something like this and I'm floundering!
I'm in the dark with my drawing, too, but scribble on and I'm quite pleased with the funny results: detached heads, weird guitars and stripy socks, there's somehow a visual Essence of Performance which nicely matches my distorted, reduced-down understanding of the whole event.
The two make a pleasant whole and I don't really regret the pyjamas!

Friday 30 April 2010

A La Recherche Du Thumb Perdu...

Mid-week last week and we go back to the Polyclinique 'with' Mr Price's injured thumb. "The twentieth was yesterday, monsieur" the receptionist informs him, but kindly arranges for the specialist to have a look at him.
We have a long wait in a small room, and- wouldn't you know it! the doctor comes in when I'm halfway through sketching a counterful of grim iodine bottles, lint and bandage boxes.
In town later we meet up with our nice neighbour who lives up the hill from us: he's The Only Intellectual in the Village and one of those foppish, rakish bachelors who seem to typify the French male to the British. Thankfully, today he isn't wearing his ridiculous shoes with the elongated and upturned chisel-toes.... I'd have pretended I hadn't noticed him!
He's whiling away the time until the film starts at the cinema opposite.

It's a lovely sunny day as we sit outside Le Café Noir. I draw while the other two talk or discutent, I'm unable to do both as they're different sides of the brain- well, that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it. They discuss world wars, books, music, art and film... and how that man who went by was staring so intently at that lady's bottom.
I'm sketching the bloke at the table just along from me who looks like he based himself on the Gallagher brothers- combat jacket, unshaved, a bit rough. He's sullen and silent and it's only when he gets up and mumbles that he's going to faire pipi that I realise he's with the young woman drinking Coca-Cola opposite .
As we leave we notice a customer with his arm in a sling and yet another in a wheelchair. Indicating his own poor bandaged hand, Mr Price quips "Café des Invalides!" .

Thursday 15 April 2010

Thumbs Down!!

From the Polyclinique, Léhon

Sunday afternoon.... and Mr.Price somehow manages to run the power drill bit with countersink attachment onto his thumb, while doing a bit of DIY.
Barry Bucknell, for those of us who remember, never told us how to tackle this sort of problem.
At les Urgences the examining doctor says the tendon's damaged and to come back tomorrow for his colleague to look at it "sur le bloc" and I have visions of a butcher scraping down his lump of wood, wearing one of those bloodied aprons with the bits of meat stuck to it.
There's nowhere to park the next morning when I deliver the grumbling Mr Price to his fate, so I dump him- without time for any fond goodbyes- outside the spanking-new clinic in Léhon.
By the afternoon he's sitting up in bed in a first-floor room wearing a fetchingly inadequate paper gown. "One size fits all!" the nurse had said "We'll see!" said he.
Having to visit the Polyclinique has the compensation of great views- from here you can see across to the ruined Norman castle on its mound, the ancient abbey, and to the nearby medieval town of Dinan with its clocktower .
Sitting down to sketch to while away the time, I'm unable to see quite so far, but I'm delighted to have the challenge of drawing some weird angles- looking down on the parked cars on a steep descending slope, then the distant road beyond, climbing upwards. Of course, as if pre-destined, any car I choose to draw will soon have a hurrying figure approach it with a set of keys.... how selfish and unthinking!
Footnote: Mr. P is now on the mend, but unable to wash up for at least three weeks.

The Norman castle ruins, Léhon

Saturday 10 April 2010

Le Jardin Anglais

from the Jardin Anglais, Dinan

Brittany has more than its fair share of medieval citadel towns and Dinan's one of them.
For those of you interested in a serious and academic history of the town, I can recommend the excellent French study (!) ' A Few History', which I newly discovered. Well worth a look, believe me!
I quote:

" the beginning of the XIIE century a defensive system outline exists, as testifies some Idrish historiengéograph Arab: <>
To this period spaces it closed comprise numerous prairies to feed the cattle and to provide to needs of the population in case of seat." "....During this disturbed period, English not cease to pester the city.."

On a wild and windy day last week, after calling in at the agents in the square to put the house up for sale Mr. Price and I go for a sketch.
From the Jardin Anglais you can look dizzily down onto the long sweep of the viaduct and the port below. Lovely though the vista might be, it's far too blustery to stand by the walls to draw, so we find a bench in the gardens with interesting houses close by.

Dinan in Summertime- moules frites, Place des Cordeliers.

There are tourists about, and schoolkids, and snatches of conversation float on the wind from the adolescent pupils from the college of Les Cordeliers- "I tell you, he wants to go out with you!"
"Well, I don't want!!"
And from two American ladies "... and then we go round the back of the church and then we..." "We already went there!"
After half an hour, it looks like rain, so we pack up and, nicely installed in a warm café in the Place St. Sauveur, wait to order. Then realise the parking ticket's about to time out. Visions of steaming cups of hot chocolate evaporate before us, but by way of compensation on the way home we decide to call in on a nice couple we know.
He makes a great cup of tea and she bakes wonderful cakes- what's not to like?!!

The viaduct and the port, Dinan, circa 1900

Thursday 25 March 2010

Poets, Pancakes and Pirates

A friend of ours is sailing to Portsmouth and needs a lift to the ferry port, so we take the opportunity to spend a morning in St Malo
It's a dull grey day which is reflected in the stonework of this citadel town.
St Malo's seen at its best when approached from the sea, when the tall houses with their steep roofs rise above the rampart walls.

It's all the more impressive to recall that during the Second World War this was a German stronghold and was virtually razed to the ground by Allied artillery and fire- then carefully rebuilt.
This event forms just one part of St Malo's colourful history, which includes cod-fishing, voyages of discovery (Jacques Cartier lived here) and slave-trading. Another activity, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, was preying on Dutch and British vessels- merci,messieurs! this gave the town its nickname of 'City of corsairs'.
Any Johnny-Depp-Alikes are conspicuous by their absence today, however- shame! and tracing the town walls are a small group of Japanese tourists, and a pair of joggers too intent on their task to return a friendly smile... the French take their pleasures seriously!

From here you can see across to the Emerald Coast and the seaside town of Dinard, and closer to are the islands of Cézembre and the inhabited Le Grand Bé, where Chateaubriand is buried. At the foot of the walls on the beach are lovely breakwaters, carved into strange presences by the wind and waves.

The town from the ramparts is a delightful mess of rooftops and chimneys... here are nimble couvreurs working high above a street, below, a bin-lorry creeps its way along the cobbles, here too are creperies, cafés and hotels...a house being renovated- and a tiny glimpse, a sliver between two buildings, of schoolchildren, more heard than seen.

Down in the street we turn our backs on the healthy joggers above and 'plump' for croissants aux amandes from a bakers' kiosque.

In summer these streets will be chocca with tourists, and bright with confectionery stalls selling those lovely sweets that look like pebbles and seagull's eggs, or chocolate sardines wrapped in tinfoil. A brisk trade will be done in stripey Breton tops and matelots' caps, model ships, carved Breton figurines, pancakes and waffles and I'll try my best only to come here outside the months of July and August, but will probably be lured here by visiting friends and family.

Saturday 6 March 2010

The Church Wall Has Eyes

As seen from my studio window.
It's the French local elections soon, and over the last week cars have been stopping opposite the house disgorging eager supporters of the various parties, busy with posters and paste.
This means that for a few weeks we have a disconcerting sea of faces staring at us from across the road .
Those living over here will -of course!- notice that I haven't included the National Front candidate in my sketch- and, anyway, someone's gouged the eyes out on that one....
quel dommage!

Wednesday 3 March 2010

Thoughts Turn to Warmer Climes

Living on a hill has its advantages, and not only the ability to coast down it to start a reluctant car. A car like a 2cv. Or any car with no oil in it.
We've had rain-la pluie- and wind -le vent and more then enough this week. Not as much as elsewhere, thankfully, but the flooded valley at the foot of our hillside village reminds me of the lovely English Lake District.
Despite my now being an official Urban Sketcher, it's no time to be about on the streets of the town. I'm opting to stay in the studio to paint, and I'm only venturing as far as friends' houses to draw in their kitchens and from their windows, with tea and cake, thank you!

Here's some shameless publicity, but my mind turns to the South... the sun-filled days and balmy evenings spent at Chateau L'age Baston. I'm to do my stint as tutor in July this year, nota bene; with some new and deliriously exciting projects in store for the holiday-students, I'm looking forward to a happy, productive fortnight.
This is is where, after a hard day's work and before dinner, there's time for a refreshing dip in the warm pool.. where I once swam while swallows rose and fell against the sky and drank beside me.

Images: The View from Antoinette's: The View from Chris's: Six Cows and a Donkey, Chateau L'Age Baston.

Sunday 14 February 2010

A Grand Day In

The kindly owners of 'Pharmacie Le Gouedic' in St Brieuc have said I'm welcome to come inside and sketch one day while Mr. Price does their window paintings.
I sit in the quiet Orthopaedic Department of the shop with its surgical supports, hoists and bits of strange furniture which I hope I'll never need. Monsieur has thoughtfully supplied me with a chair and one of those little adjustable tables on wheels for the bed-ridden, which is great for working at and I'm almost tempted to buy one!
I've forgotten my ink and walk into the centre of town to buy a tiny bottle at great expense from a stationer's. It's freezing and the cold air rasps in the lungs. Seagulls wheel and cry overhead... from here you could be unaware of the closeness of the sea, the nearby port and the lovely Bay of St. Brieuc..
At lunchtime pizzas are delivered, there's a bottle of rosé and we sit in the cramped kitchen with some of the workforce, surrounded by Childrens' Cough Mixtures and inhalers, drinking out of measuring glasses.
Two drawings done by mid-afternoon and I've exhausted the views from the windows, so I turn my artistic eye to the shop interior. I try, and fail, to draw the male mannequin with his neck-brace and corset, so I stick a bit of green paper over the offending scrawl and this does very nicely for a sketch with a Listerine display in the foreground. Never say die!!
Mr. Price finishes his painting just before closing time- he's done a charming parade of poultry along the length of the windows, with a few daffodils thrown in to give some hope of Spring to come... we pack up, walk the cold stone streets to the wind-blasted car park, and head for home.

Sunday 31 January 2010

Twisting the Truth

This month sees the Art Day folk wrestling with the world of Picasso. Now, I've heard a lot of people scoff at him down the years... you know the sort of remark "my five year old kid could do that!".
Not so, as we find out.
We start off by really looking hard at one of his still-lifes and discovering things... here's a skirting board, these are tiles, there's a staircase leading down. And what we thought was a pretty pair of bosoms is in fact fruit on a glass dish!
I've set up a fairly complex affair based on and around my Nanna's old 1930s Lloyd-loom table, which has wonderful curved legs; quick preliminary sketches are struggled over, the only rule really is to twist the reality into a good, dynamic design. At one point I wedge a couple of objects so they're leaning at weird angles... "You WILL draw it crooked!"
We work in pastel on coloured paper and I have to be constantly on the alert- students keep sliding back into the world of the real and the literal. For example, a plant automatically coloured in shades of green or a book that looks 'normal' and ordinary -reverse that perspective, please!
Also to be avoided is the importance of subject matter over 'background'- both are equally important in the Picasso we looked at, and sometimes it's difficult to distinguish between the two.
The choice of colour's important, too, and we begin with just two or three, remembering that the tone of the paper counts, then add more if needed.
The moans and groans of the first hour change to interest, concentration, decision and finally surprise and pleasure at what's been achieved.
Well done, ladies, we got there in the end!

Saturday 2 January 2010

Here Comes the Sun..... doopadoodah!

I've neglected my 'big painting' over the festive period's of the castle mound at Clitheroe and all will be revealed, hopefully, in my next blog, but, dear reader, don't hold your breath!
So I thought that, before tackling it again today, I'd sharpen up my eye with some sketching.

Yesterday evening it snowed, and with clear skies and a 'blue' full moon the village and the garden were revealed with a ghostly air of faerie about them.... pretty, but too cold and dark for the indolent artist!
Today, the sun was out - as I drew, the snow was slowly melting, and as I write only the shadows are holding on to their precious patches of white.

Snow outside the studio-dip pen, ink wash and watercolour.