Escape from Corsica

I’m writing the draft for this blogpost laying on a sun-bleached beach towel between blooming anemones and forget-me-nots, having a hard time not falling asleep, because that’s what always happens when I’m embraced by the sun. Though it feels like I’m still in the South of Europe, I’m really back in the North of the Netherlands, enjoying Mediterranean temperatures in my own back garden.
It has been quite a while since I shared my painting experiences in Corsica, even though I promised myself I would keep this blog up-to-date at all times. Truth is, I’ve always prided myself on my ability to focus, but now that I’ve entered the third trimester of pregnancy I feel unable to channel my thoughts in a clear direction and write a proper blogpost.
Being back in the comfort of my own home, having cancelled all the painting courses I was suppose to teach and the rent of my workshop, I’ve shaken off the working attitude and now I’m enjoying low pressure activities like decorating the nursery, knitting baby clothes and gardening. No stress here!
That I couldn’t say of my last week in Cap Corse, where at a certain point strict safety measures were installed to keep the coronavirus from spreading. Although that is a good thing, of course, my husband and I were worried about not being able to leave the island any more and we quickly booked a return to the Netherlands when we were advised to do so by the Dutch ministry of foreign affairs. Just to be clear to those who think us irresponsible: during our stay on Corsica we only went to the supermarket twice and when we did so we kept our distance. If we would get out of the house to paint en plein air, we would make sure not to meet anyone.
 
More than a week after our arrival on the island, our favourite painting spots between the rocks, where we had passed several days in utmost peace, listening to the bubbling sea, were being watched by the police. Moreover, leaving the house was only allowed in case of necessity and we could risk a fine if we would leave the apartment to go painting, which, I’m afraid, is not a necessity although many consider it to be so. 
Though we are sorry to have been denied the chance to capture all the beauty we were surrounded by, at the same time we can’t help feeling privileged having been able to discover even a small part of Corsica’s treasures in troubled times like these. 

One of those treasures was near our apartment and could only be reached by following a very steep path between whimsical oak trees and lentisk bushes, all the way from the main road to the sea where, on a high and mighty rock, were the ruins of an ancient monastery.
The architecture of the religious building had been quite impressive in its original state, I’m sure, but in my opinion it was really everything surrounding it that stole the show. From above we could see the crystalline, almost turquoise water from which emerged earthy-coloured rocks whose cobalt violet shadows formed a gorgeous colour contrast.

Because it was too difficult to carry two heavy easels with us all the way from the main road down to the shore, especially in my pregnant state, we had brought some lightweight materials with us to make some small sketches.
This was my opportunity to experiment with watercolours again, something I hadn’t done since I left the art academy in 2015.
When I started to paint in oils some years ago, I was very careful to colour within the lines of my drawing. My painting attempts lacked spontaneity, because of the terrible control freak I was. Thankfully, I was introduced to watercolours in my third year of art school and the unpredictable character of this material, especially when used in quick sketches, made me realize the beauty of the unexpected. Watercolours helped me to loosen’ up, for I learned how liberating it can feel when I don’t try to control every single brushstroke .
Although I consider my style of painting quite loose now, in some way I’m still the same control freak I always was and I noticed that during the painting holiday as I opened my watercolour palette for the first time in years.
Making my first watercolour of the coastline near Nonza was testing my patience: I had to wait for the first wash to dry, which of course I couldn’t, I had to accept the fact that the colours I applied would fade and would need another wash to get their true intensity, the water in the jar, which I used to clean my brush, was supposed to be changed quite often and my palette needed cleaning at least once during the painting session.
As I witnessed the shadows on the rocks change their shape at the turning of the sun, while I was waiting for my last wash to dry, I couldn’t help wishing I was there with my oils, capturing the subject in quick, efficient brushstrokes.
Reaching desperation, I threw my watercolour block aside and decided to do a new attempt at mastering this difficult material, this time immortalizing the crystalline sea water I described earlier.
It went way better than the first sketch, for I realized that painting with watercolours instead of oils was really a matter of changing my mindset. Usually, when I paint in oils, I filter all the useless details out of my composition as I go along. I ask myself what I want to leave out of my final painting.
With watercolours there is a subtle difference, for instead of focussing on the things I don’t want to paint, I ask myself only what I shall include. Which concretely translates itself in me painting only the most fundamental parts of the subject, deciding afterwards if I want to add more. Does it make any sense? Well, at least it does to me!

Some way north from the monastery there was another enchanting painting location, which fortunately was accessible by car, even though the road was in bad conditions and the many holes in the asphalt made us bounce in our seats!
Along the way our noses were treated to scents like mimosa, rosemary and, of course, salty sea air. The destination was a beautiful group of rocks at the end of the elongated green beech above Nonza and though I’ve seen many varieties of rocks in Sardinia, I was surprised observing these, which Meindert jokingly described as dinosaur skulls. Some of them were white, chalky and full of weird holes that resembled eye-sockets. However, there were also differently coloured ones, greenish and even purple. I knew as I saw all those complex forms, that I would never be able to finish a painting of them in only one session!


It was a peaceful place. The water rippled in gentle rings and the soothing sound of the wind blowing through the thorny bushes uphill, made it easy for us to get in a ‘working trance’. Every now and then we would be shaken out of it by the high sound of a black redstart. I’ve never seen such a fearless bird before, apart for the pigeons in the city centre, of course, or sea gulls near a fish stall. This little redstart came to visit us very frequently as we painted in what was surely her territory and she came so near to us that we could almost touch her. Once she even landed on top of my easel and looked at me with her tiny beady eyes as if she wanted to speak!

One of the hardest things about painting in such a beautiful scenery is choosing what to paint and what composition would best suit the subject. Fortunately we were looking forward to plenty of painting sessions in that particular spot, so we wouldn’t need to be too picky. At least, that’s what we thought.

Unfortunately the summer-like days made way to cold, rainy and even snowy ones and after that we were forced to avoid the road, because of the corona restrictions. However, there was one consolation…
From our holiday apartment we could take a rocky walking path all the way to Olmeta-di-Capocorso, a small village in the mountains. It wasn’t the final destination that interested us, but what we could find along the way: wild asparagus.
During my childhood in Sardinia I often went to look for them with my brother and my parents in the spring, but everybody in the area knew about the best spots to pick them, so we would have to be quick in order to get a good harvest.
As Meindert and walked along the mountain path to Olmeta, we saw many precious young asparagus shoots that had been cut off and we wondered whether we would find anything to pick at all! However, we discovered the local asparagus pickers to be quite lazy, for they had only looked in the most obvious places and not in the many abandoned old terrace gardens adjacent to the path or on the steep slopes. We felt like kids in a candy shop as we cut one juicy asparagus after the other and of course we brought some with us for my family too, who are very partial to them!

I hope that all the people who worried about us being abroad in the present times, are comforted by this blogpost. Meindert and I are doing well, as I hope are all my readers!

2 thoughts on “Escape from Corsica”

  1. Beautiful results from your balancing between loosening the reins and controlling them all the way. My favourite would be the one of the bright rock shining intensely upwards through the seawater, the one below the altar. But I do not quite understand the technique used where you speak of ‘wash’: “I had to accept the fact that the colours I applied would fade and would need another wash to get their true intensity”: here it must mean, not a dilution with water as I presumed that being the literal meaning of the word, but applying another layer of colour. Am I right? And could you tell more precisely how you do this, on a still wet underground of a dried one?

    1. Anna Maria Vargiu

      Thank you for commenting on my blogpost! I’m glad you liked the results and that your favourite one is the same as mine! There are different kinds of washes, I believe, and if I’m not mistaken it can both mean a layer of diluted paint that is applied on the whole painting and an undiluted layer that is applied only in a certain area. I use both. I’ll explain some of the stages of the sketch with the brightly shining rock, for it might give you a better idea of my process. I started with a strongly diluted ‘wash’ with ochre and lots of water, which I applied on the whole surface of my composition. In that way, I would get the right colour temperature of the the rock and the warmer shades in the sea. When that first wash was dry, I applied a second one with diluted paint in blue, but I made sure to leave the sunny side of the rocks open. That second layer was not just in one shade of blue, but I added some minor nuances while it was still wet. After that I would have to wait for everything to dry again and afterwards continue adding ochre patches in both the sunlight rock and the yellowish rocks under water. The violet shades are painted when the ochre patches were dry. Everything I did in the sea is painted on a dry underground and in order to get the “under water feeling” I finished the whole thing by connecting all the sharp colour patches with a diluted wash of greenish blue. I hope you get the idea. I almost never paint on a still wet underground with the exception of certain layers in the beginning of the painting process. When I apply a certain colour it might look right when it is still wet, but it will get much lighter when it is dry. That’s why I prefer to wait until it is dry and only then apply the next layer and it can be a heavily diluted one or an almost undiluted one, it all depends on what I want to achieve. I hope this answers your question. I might share a technical blogpost about my painting process in a while, to explain it better.

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