Painting on the Island of Ischia

I’ve just got back from the most amazing week on the Island of Ischia in Italy. I went with my Mum on a music holiday organised by the company Kirker.

The holiday was based around a series of evening concerts (six in total) at the garden La Mortella which was home to 20th Century British composer William Walton and his Argentinian wife Susanna who was a talented horticulturist.

Performing during the week were the Doric String Quartet, baritone Benjamin Appl, pianist Gary Matthewman along with viola player and composer Simon Rowland-Jones who also designs Kirker’s music programmes.

We were all staying at the San Montano Resort a few miles from the garden. The hotel is on a hill above Lacco Ameno, a small town that was brought into the limelight by publisher Rizzoli in the 1950s when he brought many famous names to the town.

Nowadays it seems a more down to earth place, albeit with 5 star San Montano Resort perched on the hill above with its beautiful views of the Mediterranean, warm spa pools and attentive staff. To me the resort was as close to heaven as it seemed possible to be (apart from the inexplicable lack of loose leaf tea!)

I’d decided to take a painting kit as there’s nothing worse than being in an inspiring place with no means to paint.

The equipment took some careful planning. I based it around a Guerilla Pochade box that takes 10x8 inch boards. This slotted into a medium sized suitcase, alongside a dozen boards, tripod easel, brushes etc. In fact, the painting equipment fitted into one half of the case which had a cover that conveniently zipped up and separated it from the other side of the case that contained my clothes and other stuff.

The kit meant I was limited to 8x10 boards, perhaps a little small, but it had the advantage of being portable and could all fit into a day back pack.

After the first day or two, I looked at the dozen or so 60ml tubes of paint that I was carrying around and compared the amount of paint that they contained to the two 10x8 boards I could transport in the box and asked myself the question “how much paint do I actually need to have with me?” Thereafter, I took only a tube of white, with all the colours already laid out on the palette along its edges. This meant much less to carry and also encouraged me to be disciplined about my use of paint.

My painting apron was useful to slip over my clothes. I wasn’t going to be walking around a 5 star resort in my studio jeans. Even so, one of the guests commented on seeing me in the grounds of the hotel on the first day, in my grubby paint spattered apron and cap, and being a little concerned that I was a member of the hotel spa staff.

My paints were water mixable oils, which I don’t normally use, however they were a good compromise for a situation involving air travel and having to clean up in a hotel room. The paints could be packed in my luggage and all was easily cleaned in water. In fact, I even rinsed out my painting rags and could re-use them the next day.

One slight disadvantage of the water mixable oils was that they took longer to dry than my regular oil paints. I wasn’t able to pack any solvent-based medium (solvents not permitted on planes) that would speed drying.

So I made trays for the boards from mount board and 1cm foam board from which I made rims with angled edges. When a painting was slid into one of these trays, the angled edges meant it would be held in place with a gap between its surface and the next tray in the pack. All was easily taped together in a block for transporting home in my luggage.

The trays were also useful for storing the paintings in the hotel. The room wasn’t very large and I was sharing the space with my mum. There was a small terrace with a table that was useful for when I was setting up the palette in preparation, or sorting through my kit when I got back to the room.

Regrettably we didn’t have a room with a sea view. Mind you, this encouraged me to get out more.

I took my painting kit just about everywhere.

By the end of the week I’d had 4 sessions painting from the hotel grounds: 3 sessions in Lacco Ameno (one in a gale!) and finally got to the end of my supply of boards during the late afternoon on our last day as the sun was setting in La Mortella.

Here are the studies along with brief notes about what was going on when I painted them.

 Above Lacco Ameno

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From the hotel grounds high above Lacco Ameno with the Mediterranean in the distance. The view feels impossible to paint – a jumble of houses, roads and trees. In the end I give up representation and hope to capture some essence of the place. 


The view from our room

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Beautiful when the sunlight lights up the pine trees which have tall, majestic trunks and canopies like open parasols. The poolside parasols are also visible over the wall, most of them closed. The hillside on the other side of the valley makes an enticing shadow.


The square in Lacco Ameno

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My first attempt is aborted when a mini van parks right in front of me. So I have to move to the other side of it. I’m interested in the warmth of the restaurant walls and the shadow under the awning but feel quite self conscious painting in such a public space.


The square in Lacco Ameno (day 2)

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The next day is very windy and I carry my painting kit on a trip to Ravino which is a wonderful cactus garden and then to famous Chiesa del Soccorso church in Forio. However no spot strikes me as a good place to paint especially with wind unbelievably gusty in exposed places. I decide to try again in the square of Lacco Ameno. It’s a bit touch and go and bits of tree are getting blown onto the palette.  The tree in the painting is thrashing around.  


Back Streets of Lacco Ameno

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We try to find the archaeological museum in Lacco Ameno, but it turns out to be closed. However in the attempt, we discover the back streets that are very narrow and shaded and I decide to go back there to paint. I choose a view with the dome of the church in the distance. Not long after I start painting the children are returning home from school. One of them emerges from one of the houses I’m painting and he shows me some English adverts on his mobile device. I can hear Thomas the Tank music in the background. An elderly man who looks to be a granddad chats to me, possibly offering lunch and wanders back into his house when I don’t understand Italian. It feels like I am actually in peoples’ homes hearing their radios, TVs, conversations in Italian and smelling the cooking. I have a go at two pictures then pack up and wander back to the square where I can get a lift back up the hill to the hotel. The hotel feels cloistered and distant from humanity after spending time in the local streets below.


 The Bay

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Later that afternoon I decide to have a go at painting the bay from the grounds of the hotel. It doesn’t feel successful but there’s something about its gawkiness that in the end I find quite satisfying.


The view from the roof

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This is painted from a high point in the hotel grounds where I am looking down towards Lacco Ameno through the pine trees. I had to go up onto the hotel roof to get to this position and it is deserted which feels much more comfortable than being in a public space. Although there are other distractions: when I roll up my trouser legs because of the heat, my calves are quickly covered in flies!


Hotel Gardens 

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Another deserted part of the hotel grounds near the vegetable and fruit gardens. There is an olive tree in the right of the picture and it is roasting hot. There’s another view that catches my eye but I decide not to risk getting heat stroke and have a break and cool off in the pool.


La Mortella garden

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This was painted on the last afternoon in La Mortella garden. The lower shady areas of the garden are impossibly busy with visitors so I whizz up the many steps to the marginally quieter areas up above. I have to find shade, as it’s impossibly hot in the sun, and then attempt the view towards Forio. The light on the sea is blinding. Forio faces West across the Mediterranean and is famous for its sunsets including a phenomenon called the green flash.


Near William Walton’s memorial stone

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The sun is almost setting and the sky is tinted with orange. As the sun goes down the light is spectacular and extraordinarily subtle. I would love to return to make further studies having only just started. This is not far from William Walton’s memorial stone where his ashes rest. He has the most beautiful view.