Artist on a Bicycle - Paintings of Sardinia.
How a cycling holiday inspired a series of watercolours
Some years ago a friend and I set forth on a month's cycling holiday to Sardinia and Corsica. We took a small tent, cooking stuff and the bare essentials as all of it would be carried on our bikes. The freedom this gave us and the wild beauty of the island combined to make it an unforgettable experience.
I kept a diary and took masses of photographs which I used to produce a collection of paintings on returning to my studio. The whole experience was very inspiring and resulted in my “Artist on a Bicycle” exhibition back in 2000.
Here are some short diary excerpts, photographs and paintings which I hope may inspire you on such a venture, home or abroad. Keeping a diary-notebook was a useful memory-jog and meant I could re-visit the whole experience years afterwards. It also served as a sketch book, language notebook and receptacle for tickets, dried flowers and other souvenirs.
Flowers of many colours...
Diary - Day 1 – Arrival in Sardinia:
“We had arrived in Alghero. Hot flower scents gusted on storm-laden winds brushing the dusty old harbour houses and flaking terracotta walls. Drank lemonade, feet dangling above colourful fishing boats. Mounted our loaded, heavy bikes to begin our journey. Battling against headwinds, south along the coast road, we were twice waved to stop, and advised against continuing on this road. Having only a tenuous grasp of Italian, gleaned from our sadly inadequate 1950s phrasebook, we smiled our thanks and continued on our way....
Flowers of many colours scattered the roadside and spread into the grass that swooped down into an azure sea far below. We toiled past strange outcrops of rock that looked like bubbling mud solidified. We had heard stories of Sardinian bandits and people being kidnapped, so the bullet-riddled sign posts were a worry...and may have accounted for the advice to turn back, but soon the sodden sky falling on us took all thoughts away as we pushed through the rain and, a couple of hours later, over a headland to look down on the rosy pink houses of Bosa, where we found pizza and a bottle of rose, and beds and hot showers in a little pensione."
The painting above - “Cactus and Myrtle” - was painted on Fine Grain, 300g/m2 Watercolour Paper, using Winsor and Newton Cotman watercolours, Derwent Watercolour pencils and Gallery oil pastels. Here I have used oil pastels in the foreground for blocks of dense colour in the bushes and on the ground, in order to increase the sense of distance by contrasting it with the hazy background.
Diary - Day 2.
A substantial loaf of chewy bread and cheesy butter on the balcony next morning as we consulted the map. We set off early for Suni, Flussio and Tresnuraghes in the mountains. Hilly and very beautiful with groves of myrtle and olive trees, terraced fields and soft pink, blue and white thistles wafting in the breeze. A long gradual climb found us pushing slowly through sleepy, hot and dusty villages in the midday sun. An occasional moped buzzed past and black-enshrouded figures disappeared into shaded doorways. Stopped to eat, drink and fill bottles of cool water at a village tap.
The joy of coasting for miles down the straight, flower-lined road to the sea and a cafe bar on the beach in tiny Santa Catarina di Pittinuri....unbelievably beautiful. Pitched the tent within earshot of lapping waves amongst the intoxicating sap scent of little pine trees."
This painting, “Sardinian Beach” was painted on Fabriano Artistico Fine Grain, 300g/m2 Watercolour Paper, using Winsor and Newton Cotman watercolours and Derwent Watercolour pencils. I use watercolour for the early stages of a painting, then bring out finer details and enhance the watercolour marks with the pencils.
Diary - Day 3
Burnt, blistered and bitten, we are not a pretty sight! Today we are going to look for flamingos on the coastal lagoons near Oristano. We left the panniers behind with the tent and cycled past fields of red and yellow flowers and cacti, enjoying the lightness of the bikes without their loads. Searched in vain for flamingoes but saw lizards, Shrikes, Bee-eaters and flocks of Goldfinches. Turning back we stopped in Riola and ate creamy gelati in a cafe under palm trees. Sunday has brought the world out to chatter and stroll. Children on bicycles, families dressed up in their finest, frilled and powdered babies, polka dot dresses and stiff white collars. Found an amazing patisserie – in the cool tiled interior,rows of glass cabinets held tray upon tray of tiny, very beautiful cakes in an infinite variety of pastel colours and shapes. Bought pastries bulging with cream to satisfy our massive cyclists' appetites and ate them by one of the lagoons, distant goat bells tinkling in the quiet haze of the late afternoon."
The painting shown here, “Lunch in a Cool Courtyard” was painted on a more grainy 300g/m2 Watercolour Paper, in order to use the texture of the paper to reproduce the texture of the rough walls and cobbles. I used Winsor and Newton Cotman watercolours and Derwent Watercolour pencils.
Diary - Day 4
We camped in an olive grove last night. Discovered a lovely town late yesterday and decided to return and explore in the morning. We had been travelling slowly up a craggy valley following the faint sound of a river, hidden deep down, beneath trees and ferns. Santu Lussurgiu appeared round a bend in the road. Narrow cobbled streets twisted steeply. Bright rugs were thrown over little wrought iron balconies, flourishing pots of red geraniums. An old woman in black astride a tiny brown donkey passed by windows, shuttered, paint-peeling, sun-shattered plaster on faded walls. Stopped for a long lunch in a leafy, dappled courtyard. Lounging on a cool stone bench by an old pump, we feasted on tuna and beans and salad in plastic camping dishes and watched children playing and laughing in the street."
I start a painting with a loose wash of watercolour, being careful not to cover parts that need to remain white. Sometimes Masking fluid is useful to prevent this happening. This way the paper itself provides the white. This painting, “Busachi, festival time” was painted on Hot Pressed, 300g/m2 Watercolour Paper, using Winsor and Newton Cotman watercolours and Derwent and Caran D'Ache Watercolour pencils.
Diary - Day 7
The next day we awoke to find little furry caterpillars everywhere, covering the tent and the ground under the olive trees. Yesterday we had been invited back to the house of a local sheep farmer to meet his family. It was like stepping back a century...we entered the house through a small door in a massive gate, to walk into a shaded passage and then a sunny courtyard with cobbles and grass and a washing line. Goats and chickens ran around, in and out of the kitchen, where Salvatore lived with his large family. Legs of meat and cheeses hung from the ceiling and flies buzzed as bread was carved for us on the big wooden table which dominated the room. Tiny glasses of beer were kept topped up as children played with a kitten and chased a lamb around the room and out into the sun.”
We've been here over a week now. Blisters have healed, skin browned and insects no longer seem to find us quite so appetising. Cycled to Lago Omodeo, round Boroneddu, Tadasuni, and up into the hills to Ula Tirso. Stopping for a drink in a cool bar we found out about a folklore festival in a nearby village, Busachi, where we headed as soon as the heat allowed us to move.
The village streets were laced with bright bunting, fluttering against a backdrop of hazy green hills. The older residents sat in the streets in chairs outside their houses, or chatted in small groups, dressed in their traditional costume, the women in black trimmed with dazzling white lace. Night fell and we became entranced by the festival. Doll-like dancers glided slowly on fast precise feet, under long black skirts, arms stiff by sides, to trace invisible patterns to the hypnotic drone of a chanter. Later two old men faced a hushed audience to stand in turn and chant dialectic verse punctuated by a chorus of harmonius voices, filling the soft black night."
The painting "Busachi" was painted on a smooth 300gm/m2 watercolour paper, using Winsor and Newton Cotman (tube) watercolours and Derwent and Caran D'Ache watercolour pencils. The smoothness of the paper allows for details to be added with pencil.
"It is early evening in Sorgono, a thousand metres up in the mountains and resembling a town in the Alps. The hotel that we tried was closed for spring-cleaning, but the owners let us pitch our tent in their garden, overlooking massive views across terraced hills. Their son made us a rare cup of tea which we drank from china cups whilst helping him with his English Literature studies."
"A few days later saw us climbing slowly through thick, still air up into the Gennargentu mountains, then an hour of free-wheeling down breath-taking mountain roads found us, early evening, lying on a beach near Lotzorai, tent pitched nearby on a bed of soft sand and pine needles. Lilac mountains swept down to the coast in the distance. Behind us were reedy lagoons and, further inland, scattered ramshackle dwellings draped in purple and crimson Bougainvillea."
This painting of Bonifacio was painted on a smooth 300gm/m2 watercolour paper, using Winsor and Newton Cotman (tube) watercolours and Derwent and Caran D'Ache watercolour pencils. When I need texture in a painting, for example the crumbling plaster and cobbled streets of Bonifacio, I often use salt which pulls in the pigment as it dries, then dust it off when completely dry.
"We caught the ferry from Santa Theresa di Gallura to Corsica, docking in Bonifacio. Houses cling to the side of a natural harbour scooped out of sandstone. Stripy-canopied restaurants line up their tables along the quayside by palm trees and clinking boats. The old town rises above us, ancient battlements enclosing steep, narrow, cobbled streets. Houses lean together, buttressed, balconied, shuttered and exhaling the past, echoing the boots of Napoleon's army.
Next day, a hard hot climb north-west into the mountains to reach L'Ospedale in the evening, tired and scruffy. We ate late, in a restaurant with a view right to the distant sea. Played cards and drank cognac with members of the co-operative that ran the restaurant, before returning to the tent, pitched in tall pines, only slightly worried about the wild boars living in the forest!
Next day we shook off the little spotted feral pigs that were keenly interested in the contents of our panniers, and sailed along through tall tall pine trees, strewn with big boulders that looked like they had been dropped, molten from the sky."
"L'Ospedale" is a small drawing on maroon mountboard, using Derwent watercolour pencils. Using a mid-tone support is such a different experience from starting with a white sheet of paper and working from light to dark as you do in watercolour. The board colour here contributes a lot of the mid-tones, with most of the work being done to add shadow and highlights.
Café up in the hills at Serra
"We are looking down on the terracotta roofs of Zonza, Quenza and Serra in the Corsican hills. Puffing up into the village of Serra, we were welcomed by a cheerful gang of Italians in a roadside cafe, who shared their wine and food with us and sang Italian songs. Later the cafe owner came and sat with us, a bustling sociable old man who talked about the island and gave us flowers from his garden and Corsican schnapps with sugar cubes. That night we pitched the tent on a football pitch surrounded by distant mountains and little spotty pigs with tufty backs. Pasta, olives, tomatoes and camembert washed down with red wine!"
"The drone of cicadas fills the hot air as we reach the town of Sartene. I could live in this place with the greatest of ease. Perched up in the hills, we watch swifts dipping and diving over terracotta roofs, higgledy- piggledy balconies and colourful roof gardens. Sipping cappuccinos we sit in wicker cafe armchairs beneath palm trees in the town square and watch the world go by."
"La dolce vita, back in Bonifacio, sitting at a harbourside cafe listening to a jazz quartet and sipping martinis. One of the musicians joined us at our table later and offered us a lift back to Sardinia on his boat. I also discovered that, on being asked my occupation, I had been telling people that I was a painting! The next day we strapped our bicycles to a small motor launch and teetered on board. Puttered along the coast to float in the deep turquoise water of the Grotto of the Dragon, before taking off very fast, bumping along the water alongside leaping dolphins, back to Sardinia, and soon after, home to Wales."
To be continued...
This trip inspired me to paint the landscapes of Sardinia and Corsica - the cycling experience and the beauty of the islands combined to make this an unforgetable experience. It was the start of many such "working holidays" to Italy, India and Ireland as well as the UK
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