One of the effects of moving to a new country is that you find yourself doing things you might not have done had you stayed put. For me, it was getting into drawing and painting.
I started off drawing simple objects, tables, chairs and drinking glasses. Then I got into drawing from photographs. The weekend Le Figaro contains a number of supplements including that treasure trove of high-quality photographs, Madame Figaro. The lighting, composition and all-round technical brilliance of the photographs helped me immeasurably in improving my drawing skills.
I started drawing during idle moments in TV programmes. In the early 2000s there were a lot of programmes on French TV that were improved if you engaged in a supplementary activity whilst watching them. I found myself drawing things whilst I was on the phone. I would have also started drawing during meal-times had I not been advised otherwise. It’s absolutely obvious, I know, but if you want to learn to draw you have to practise. I also discovered something else about being arty. You need time. A simple drawing of one figure in a photograph took me at least six hours. I’ve always been a slow artist. This explains why after ten years of art classes I’ve only produced about twenty paintings.
When something like art grips you, you start to get as far as you can into the minutiae of the technical characteristics of the materials. I learnt things about paper, canvas, board, pencils, pens, felt-tips, brushes and paint that few people know.
Finding a French art class
I had got to the stage where I needed treatment for my addiction. I needed to find an art class. Fortunately, it is pretty easy to find an art class in France. In most places there are organisations devoted to encouraging people to engage in cultural and sporting activities. These offer a range of courses on everything from flower arranging to krav maga (this is, apparently, a form of martial art not a form of comic book).
I went to an open day at my local cultural centre and I found Bertrand. He looked like the lead singer of a 70s hard-rock band. He had long hair and a beard. He looked rather aggressive but in reality, he was quite the opposite.
Going into an art class is also a good way to meet people. Something essential for integration into a new culture. During the course of my decade with Bertrand a lot of people joined and left the class. Some of this floating population would not last a term. There was, however, a hard core of art enthusiasts who stayed the course.
Kirsten was a diminutive woman who worked for an accounting firm. She produced an astonishing range of work from portraits to landscapes based on her foreign travels. She had a strong personality. If Bertrand approached her and offered advice she didn’t like she’d say:
“File, toi ! A ta place!” This is how you tell a dog to go back to its basket.
No one would speak a word of English to me even though I knew from their conversations that some of the class spoke English. This was a really important aspect of the class for me because you can’t really learn a new language until you interact with native speakers.
Armelle was a partial exception to this practice. She was one of the younger artists and liked to show that she knew a few words of English. Unfortunately all the words she knew were swear words. If a line on a drawing wasn’t working for her or the paint wasn’t mixing the way she wanted she would swear loudly in English. When I told her, in French, that this was not how Anglophones normally converse, she replied in English with a sentence that contained only two words.
One of the hazards of speaking French with a foreign accent is that sometimes people mock you. One of these people was Marianne. She was a woman of roughly my age and, to be fair to her, she had the habit of mocking everybody in the class. I happened to be talking to her about a painting I was working on and I said something about a layer of paint. The word in French is ‘couche’.
“Ah”, she said, “ une koooosh de peinture, c’est Anglais?” It seemed to me that from that moment she would insert the word ‘koooosh’ into a sentence whenever I was in earshot.
One of my early oeuvres was my version of Velazquez’s The Water Seller of Seville which was painted by the Spanish master in about 1620. It was heading for disaster until it was rescued by Bertrand. I learnt a lot from that painting. One of the things I learnt was that I didn’t really like painting with acrylic paint. I’m a very slow painter and acrylic has the tendency to dry too quickly. Straight after the Velazquez I moved on to oil paint. This was when I discovered how relaxing it was to actually watch paint dry.
You have to understand that my day job meant that I had to spend long periods of time in the centre of a scrum of young adults whilst I bawled out the principles of double-entry bookkeeping. Watching paint dry on canvas was therapy.
The most complex and time consuming of my oeuvres was my take on the Rubens Bacchus. The naked Bacchus sits on a wine barrel. He’s as drunk as a skunk. The wine god’s right foot is resting on the prostrate form of a tiger-like creature who has been rendered powerless by booze. Moving to the right, a cherub is straining his head back, desperately trying to gulp down drops of wine that are dripping from Bacchus’s goblet. A woman with an exposed right breast is filling up the wine god’s goblet. To the right of Bacchus is the standing figure of a man with devil’s horns who is drinking without moderation from an upturned wine jar. On the far right another cherub is urinating on the barrel
My first commission
Bacchus was originally hung up in the lounge but over time my wife found it a bit embarrassing when we had visitors. She also argued that if she wanted to look at an overweight drunk in the lounge she could look at me so, she commissioned something more tasteful. I agreed to do a landscape of the beach at Saint Malo looking towards the walled city. I based it on a photograph I’d taken with an old Nokia mobile phone.
Needless to say I had no difficulty in getting the painting accepted for installation in the lounge.
End of an era
I got a lot out of my decade of art classes. Even if you’re only an amateur painter there’s nothing like looking at a painting that you’ve had a hand in creating. I met a lot of nice people and I also improved my French, even if I still say ‘koooosh’ from time to time.
Philip Cahill is a retired accounting academic living in Caen, Normandy. In 2020 he published his first novel ‘Noystria’, an account of life in 26th century Normandy.