Pleinair Painting as Slow Travel

I’ve been a professional artist most of my life. My studio work has primarily been landscape based, so wouldn’t it stand to reason I’d also enjoy pleinair (outdoor) painting? Well I do, but I didn’t…. Let me explain.

In my younger days I painted outdoors because I felt it was something I should do as an artist – an obligation of sorts. Plein air painting was supposed to be good for me, part of the landscape tradition, but truth be told, it was usually a huge disappointment. I’d return home with little more than some mediocre watercolors and the feeling I’d missed something. Plein air painting was not an activity I looked forward to. So what changed?

An early Italy pleinair painting from the early nineties

In a word, it was Italy. I loved every minute of my first visit back in the early nineties. I had never been to a place that thrilled me more, visually, emotionally – my senses were so alive. I felt connected even though I was a stranger who did not speak the language.

Pleinair painting was my introduction to slow travel. We stayed in that Tuscan town for three weeks – never bored for an instant. The act of painting enabled me to linger, to observe, to savor everything I saw, heard and smelled. It also afforded me the opportunity to meet locals – a few of whom have remained my friends to this day.

Back in 2001 we lived in Spello (Umbria) for a month. I much prefer the freedom and expression in this little watercolor.

One of my favorite pleinair paintings. This one went very quickly.

It would be most romantic to imagine I returned home from that first Italy trip with a stack of good paintings. That was not the case, however another profound thing happened that totally changed my outlook. I didn’t care whether the paintings  I made were any good or not! I stopped caring about the “product” and started  loving the “process.” Interestingly enough, that’s when my pleinair paintings began improving, as if the pleasure of the act had finally found its way into the work.

A photo taken in a hidden corner in Gubbio in Northern Umbria.

A simple pleinair painting of the same site. You can see many liberties are taken

I often use this analogy: if a fisherman simply likes to eat fish it would be much easier to go to the fish market and by one. But fishermen love to fish. Most will tell you there’s never a bad day out on the water. Of course it’s great if you land a big one, but it’s all about the experience, not hanging some trophy on the wall.

My wife Barbara frequently attracts a crowd of admirers when she draws outdoors.

I encourage our clients to go slow and savor. This applies to artists and non-artists alike.  If you’re a painter, quit trying to hit a home run and don’t worry about producing something “wall worthy.” Keep it simple. Even a basic sketchbook, scrapbook, or travel journal can be used as a visual diary – a means of locking in the senses. I purposely use the cheapest composition notebooks for my travel journaling – no beautiful leather-bound volumes for me. I don’t want to be intimidated or obligated to say something profound. No one needs to read what I’ve written. I’m not submitting my writing to the New Yorker. My journal is for me – as are my paintings.

My next post will cover a few of the practicalities for any readers looking to get started painting on your travels.

Matthew Daub is a professional artist and university professor with works in major public and private collections throughout the United States and Europe. He has been leading plein air painting workshops in Italy since 1994. In 1999, Matthew and his wife Barbara formed Arts Sojourn as “a vacation for artists and their friends.” The program is designed to appeal to artists of all levels as well as non-artists who enjoy the company of creative people in a slow travel format.

Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.

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Slow Travel – what a Scilly idea!

Steve and I have fallen in love with an area of Great Britain we have known about for a long time and at last, fulfilled our wish to visit – the Isles of Scilly which are off the furthest point of the west coast of England, aptly called ‘Land’s End’. This small archipelago of islands is 28 miles from this westerly point and visible on a clear day from the mainland.

Looking from St Marys, largest of the Isles of Scilly, over to Samson

The largest island is St Mary’s which can be reached by light aircraft or ferry – and soon, by a re-introduced helicopter service. Some of the islands are inhabited, others not and equally, some can be visited, but not all, sometimes for conservation reasons.

The Isles of Scilly, 28 miles off Lands’ End, the most westerly point in Great Britain.

Why do we say “Slow Travel – a Scilly idea”? Because the pace of life is slow and leisurely – perhaps not so much for the locals, but certainly for visitors. Having left the car behind at Penzance, we were driven to Land’s End airport from where we were transported by an 8 seater light aircraft (an experience in itself – we’ve not been weighed before getting on a flight before! It’s because the weight loading is critical – you are told where to sit so the trim is correct). The day we arrived in late April was rainy and grey so we didn’t get the hoped for magnificent view of the islands set in a blue sea, but fortunately the weather quickly cleared up and we had a fabulous 10 days exploring the islands – the slow way using the local ferry boats that ply between the various islands and then it’s all down to ‘Shanks’ pony’ as they say in England ie on foot! It is a delight to leave the car behind for a while and with it, all the hassle of driving and parking.

Ferries range from large to small – this was our arrival on St Helens!

Dr Katharine Sawyer shows an example of a kelp pit and explains the process

Another reason for wanting to visit this archipelago is to explore the archaeology – there are something like 80 Bronze Age chambered tombs.  We were fortunate in joining local archaeologist, Dr Katherine Sawyer on a couple of her guided walks including one around St Helen’s where there is an now disused Royal Navy plague house. This was used in the 18th century to isolate travellers arriving on the islands suspected of carrying disease to avoid it spreading. It also features in a book by the very popular author, Michael Morpurgo ‘Listen to the Moon’ – he is best known for his book ‘Warhorse’ which also became a major theatre production initially in London, but then the provinces and further afield; also a film. Several of his books are set on these islands and are well worth reading, in our opinion, although primarily intended for children.

One of the many Bronze Age chambered tombs on Scilly

Another island is Tresco, best known for its gardens, although we were early in the season so didn’t see them at their best. Nevertheless, the design and painstaking construction of these gardens can only be admired, similarly the care that is currently put in to maintaining them – by May they would be a blaze of colour with Mediterranean plants thriving in the mild climate. The mosaic shell house is one of its finest features.

The mosaiced Shell House set in Tresco Abbey Gardens

Having enjoyed our time on Scilly, we departed by ferry boat – the Scillonian III – to give us several extra hours to enjoy on our departure day and really make the best of every minute possible.

Another great thing is that we didn’t get to see and do all we wanted to – Bryher and St Agnes, for example – what a perfect excuse (if one is needed) to go back for more Slow Travel Scilly style!

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Gone Fishin’

Sant’Antioco is a small island off the southwest coast of the large island of Sardinia, an island squared you might say. Sant’Antioco is afflicted by two winds: the maestrale from the northwest and the levante from the east. One or the other blows nearly every day, but since they take turns, there’s always a calm sea for fishermen on the leeward side of the island.

Blowing from the northwest

On a bright spring morning the fishing boats are tied up to the quay, squeezed in side by side. Too many fishermen chasing too few fish.

A fisherman patiently removes fish from his net while waiting for customers to arrive and buy them.

Many of them augment their income by offering pescaturismo, fishing excursions for tourists. I’m excited. For years I’ve wanted to learn about fishing in the Mediterranean, but it took a long time to find the right place and fisherman.

A fishing boat doubling as a tourist attraction.

We arrive at our boat the ‘Alessandro P.’ and the live Alessandro, son of fisherman Mauro Pintus with whom we’re going fishing. Soon Mauro, his wife Roberta and their 14-year-old daughter arrive all lugging groceries. We climb aboard from the stern onto the working deck.

Mauro checks out the engine.

We proceed along a narrow corridor past the engine room and the galley and climb out onto the prow and onto the upper deck where lounge chairs await the non-fishermen in the group.

With Mauro at the helm we chug out into the lagoon to find the nets Mauro and Alessandro set last night. This must be travel at its slowest, apart from crawling. The distance we covered by mini-van in five minutes takes at least thirty in the boat. I thought it might be boring, but at this speed there’s an infinite variety of detail to observe: birds overhead, features on the shore and especially the changing colour of the sea.

19th-century tower

Green, aquamarine, purple…

After a while we stop seemingly at a random spot in the sea, and the action begins on the working deck. We’ve reached one end of Mauro’s net which he laid the night before. He marks the end by tying an empty plastic container to it which floats on the surface of the sea. Now we learn what the strange wheel on the port side of the boat is for.

Pulley to reel in the net

Mauro begins to reel in the net.

Alessandro is still learning from his dad, who shouts instructions to stop or go, always following the line of the net.

The net isn’t anything like I’d imagined. I guess I’d been thinking about illustrations in children’s books of a large square net that gets filled with fish and you pull it up from the four corners. Instead this is a very long, narrow net, about a metre in width and a kilometre long with a thick rope running along each side.

It takes a long time to reel in a kilometre of net.

At first there aren’t any fish. Then a couple of sea cucumbers. Not edible, says Mauro. He uses them as bait.

Finally a seppia (cuttle fish) looking very cross at having got himself into this predicament

I feel sorry for this creature, but I’m also a carnivore and am sure our ecosystem wouldn’t work if we all lived as herbivores at the bottom of the food chain with no one at the top eating meat. But I also want to be aware of what is being killed and how.

A pretty verdolino. He’s edible.

A razza (ray), also good to eat

Mauro invites us to help take the fish from the net as he continues to reel it in.

Claudia attempts to untangle a fish from the net.

This fish is bigger than the holes in the net and its fins keep getting caught.

Even though we follow Mauro’s instructions to extract the fish head first, it’s not easy. If lunch relied on us, we might starve.

Still reeling. It’s beginning to seem as if it’s an infinity net.

Claudia still working on that fish.

Roberta comes to see what fish she’ll have to cook for lunch. We’ve managed to free a couple of seppie.

Finally we come to the end of the net which is piled in a heap on the working deck. Mauro joins us at the task of untangling fish from the net. We soon tire and go look at the scenery from the upper deck.

Isola della Vacca (Cow Island) and the tiny Isola del Tauro (Bull Island) in the distance. Surely too far away to have produced the rock called Vitello (calf).

Good smells waft up from the galley.

Roberta is working on several dishes at once. There’s no fishy smell from fish straight from the sea.

When we’re called to lunch, we find the working deck transformed into a cheerful dining room.

Marilyn is wondering what’s on the menu?

Tuna salad

I ask Mauro about tuna. We all believe that tuna is fished out. I’ve been avoiding eating tuna for several years, but will have to be polite. Mauro states that there are too many tuna. That’s why the catch is so small. Tuna are at the top of the food chain, and if there are too many, like the wolves eating my shepherd friends’ lambs, they decimate the populations of smaller fish. So why are we always hearing that there are no tuna left? He says it’s mainly due to the politics of fishing. Who’s allowed to fish where and how much. He presents it as a war between fishermen and politicians with marine scientists and environmentalists somewhere in between. Clearly some more research is in order.

He and Roberta and two other fisher families have formed a cooperative to bottle tuna and two fish salads, octopus and mixed seafood. The men fish and the wives work in the bottling plant which we visit when we’re back in Sant’Antioco.

Roberta explains how they do the processing.

Whatever the truth about tuna, this is the best tuna salad I’ve ever eaten.

Marilyn dishes up the next course which is a zuppetta.

The zuppetta is a rich tomatoey fish broth ladled over toasted bread.

A stunning spaghetti in seppie ink with gamberi (prawns) comes next.

Finally a frittura: deep-fried fish.

By now we were struggling, but the fried fish is light and not at all greasy. A joy to eat. But this isn’t the end after all.

Some biscuits appear along with a bottle of mirto, the typical Sardinian digestivo.

Mauro disappears for a moment and returns with his guitar. We hadn’t been expecting entertainment. It turns out Neil Young is one of his favourites, and he’s delighted that Claudia knows a few songs.

We won’t win the Eurovision Song Contest, but it’s a lot of fun.

With the sun setting we head back to Sant’Antioco.

The end of a perfect day at sea.

Come fishing with us next April

Erica Jarman invites you on inspiring culinary tours of life behind the scenes that you won’t find in any guidebook — get to know the food artisans and craftspeople of Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Piedmont and Liguria. Come join me and my Italian friends and dip into a lifestyle where lunch is more important than business. Find out more at Sapori e Saperi Adventures and follow Erica’s own adventures on her blog.

Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.


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