Provence Painting Sessions Capturing the Scenes on Canvas
As a painter in the South of France, you rarely feel alone. There are reminders everywhere of those who have gone before – of Cézanne in the countryside around Aix and of Gauguin and Van Gogh in Arles and Saint-Rémy. But not all these impressions are specific to a place. The sight of a long-skirted nun bent forward as she crossed an orchard near our home recently brought Van Gogh immediately to mind with all the vividness of a painting. Olives remind me of Derain, and the more I look at blue skies or open windows, the more I think of Dufy and Matisse.
Provence attracts artists for two reasons – its light and its challenge. The splendour of the landscape and the rustic perfection of the villages beg to be painted but, at the same time, are hard to do justice to. And how do you paint light with thick, opaque paint? I’ve learnt a lot by painting in and around my studio near Uzès and by teaching the visitors who come for painting days here. There’s a real sense in which you have to liberate yourself from the North and look at light and colour with a fresh eye.
We like to visit Roussillon, Lacoste and Les Baux-de-Provence, and I made some paintings of them over the winter of 2015. We were in Lourmarin on Christmas Day the same year, and I painted the scene where we sat and ate. I used the painting of Roussillon as the basis for a “how-to” article for amateur painters in Leisure Painter and both it and “Christmas Day in Lourmarin” are now in private collections in the United States.
“Café in Roussillon” was actually one of the hardest paintings to finish. I tend to keep planning to a minimum and work out the painting on the canvas, making changes in light, colour and even composition until the whole effect pleases me. It took a long time to balance the effect of Roussillon’s natural ochre colours along with the strength of the light and shadow and the shapes of the diners under the parasols.
“Street in Lacoste,” on the other hand, was one of the simplest pictures to complete. It’s unusual in that I painted it onto a cool blue background to let the colour of the sky through even though it’s not really visible through the vines. I was pleased by the contrast of the two yellows I used – side by side, the lemon yellow looks quite acid and the warmer yellow a definite orange. Purple in the shadows provided contrast and finished it off.
“Street in Les Baux-de-Provence” is in some ways more traditional than much of my work, both in composition and in technique, though even here there was plenty of scope to experiment with interesting blues and reds in the shadows of the buildings and in the loosely-painted figures of the visitors. The sense of the Mediterranean summer’s heat is hard to convey if you keep to just the yellows and greens that tend to predominate in photographs. I like to split light into colours and secondary colours (orange, green, purple) into primaries (red, yellow, blue) where I can to capture the vibrancy of the real experience of being here.
“Christmas Day in Lourmarin,” naturally, is more about light than it is about the heat. It also ended up being one of the more naïve of my townscapes in terms both of colour and technique. There’s an element of the Christmas card about it – though without the snow – and, I hope, a sense of the nature of the place, and of the crisp sunshine of the Provençal winter.
I’ll keep on painting Provence. Even when you’re doing a still life or something more conceptual, the quality of the light in the countryside and the studio can’t help but come through. It’s a challenge to get right, but a joy to do – and very well worth the time.
Duncan Barker works and welcomes visitors at his studio in La Bastide d’Engras, just north of Uzès. Join him there to see his latest work or for a morning or afternoon painting sessions, with refreshments and all materials included. Here are the details:
There is a self-catering apartment on site that may be made available to couples and small groups wishing to stay longer and make use of Duncan’s studio, tuition and art library.