Painting under the Puglian sun


last summer we took a road trip...

...from London to southern Italy.  The main purpose was for a holiday, the other was to paint in my favourite place in the whole world.

The first morning in Italy was dark - I woke up to the sound of thunder and heavy rain. My husband and two sons still slept, wiped out from the three day drive from London.  I crept around the tiny basic kitchen slowly assembling the espresso-maker and peering through the tiny square window at the colours outside. We had arrived in Puglia, Southern Italy, our spiritual home, the night before.  We had packed our twelve year-old Volvo to its capacity with two guitars, blank canvases, paints and all the usual holiday paraphernalia.  We had stopped in Freiburg, a fairytale town in the beautiful Black Forest in Germany, and then at an Agriturismo in Emilia Romagna the following night, driving through the Alps, past the Apennines, around Lakes and over rolling hills.  

The sun was just setting as we drove through the gates of our destination - a tiny rented Trullo in the Valle d'Itria. In the dusk I had just been able to make out the purple figs on the tree by the gate, and the other fig tree heavy with its ripe green fruit in the corner of the garden by the low dry stone wall. Beyond it the beautifully tended olive grove disappeared down into the valley, reappearing the other side, the trees dark, silent and completely still. 

On this first morning the deep slate sky and occasional bursts of sunshine through the rain meant that the light was heavy with atmosphere and drama. I sat on the stone floor with my coffee, pen and paper, and felt joyous to be alive, and to be here, in my spiritual home. 

Martina Franca

Martina Franca

We've been staying in Puglia every year bar one, for ten years now.  Once we had found it, we couldn't resist its draw. There's a simplicity to our holidays there that we yearn for most of the year.  No washing machine, no dishwasher, a plunge pool to cool off in, or the beach not far away, and days spent soaking up the air, the peace, the warmth, the people and food. And for me, particularly, continuing my love affair with the colours of the landscape. 

The Leccese stone, from the romantic Baroque town of Lecce, of the Salento peninsular, is warm and light.  It's like honey and cream.  It's everywhere in Puglia. The dry stone walls are made from it; Trulli, the typical Pugliese houses of the region, are built from it; and it's what gives the interior walls and floors their welcoming honey-coloured glow. The texture of the stone is varied and veined, giving it a kind of ancient depth. The room we slept in was built entirely of it, walls and floor, and we would find faces in the stone as we lay chatting in the dawn or dusk. 

In the shadows the stone is moody and grey, in the sunlight it's optimistic and white; and when the sun warms it, to walk barefoot across it is a simple therapeutic pleasure.  It's possibly the single biggest influence in the colour palette I used in the three canvasses I painted this summer whilst looking out over the scrubby, brown dry grass over a valley of olive, almond and pomegranate trees.  I asked my family one day if they had to choose five colours to describe Puglia, which would they choose.  A common one was grey, the light grey of the Limestone on rooftops, the other was white of the whitewashed towns and villages. Blue, blue, blue of the sky and sea was also in the top three.  Then we all discussed green.  Grey/green of the olive trees, not really the grass in the summer which is more scorched than lush.  A kind of sandy brown definitely features, as part of the Leccese stone patina.  And then, the colour I associate so strongly with that region is the deep red earth around the olive trees in the groves and fields. The three canvasses painted whilst I was there were the result of  limiting my palette to five of the six we discussed: Ivory Black, Zinc White, Naples Yellow, Raw Sienna and Cerulean Blue.  I used two glazes - Cerulean Blue and Raw Sienna.  

My outdoor 'studio'.

My outdoor 'studio'.

Barefoot on the warm stone, coffee at my side and light in front of my eyes, in my head and heart, I played with my paints on those early mornings and quiet afternoons in Italy. I played with colour, with line, shape, speed. I didn't judge, I didn't criticise, that's not my job.  My job is to stay as free, as truthfully expressive as I can be, without hindrance, or 'shoulds', rules or judgements.  My goal is always to try and access that freedom when I work: to stay alive to the moment, to absorb the air around me, the song in my heart whether it's joyous or sad, and to let it be, not try and stifle it, or change it. I let my impulse with the brush or the palette knife find what it is that wants to come into being and I honour it, accept it, allow it.  As I paint, I go into a sort of meditative state, and the only way to describe it is elemental, eternal.  And all the while I feel the warmth in the stone, the nourishing, warm ground beneath my feet.