Closing the door of my holiday accommodation for the last time felt like leaving my fantasy life behind. For a week I’d been a bohemian artist, drawing and painting daily, mixing with colourful arty types, surrounded by remote and inspiring Black Mountains scenery.
I had just been on my first learning holiday – a five-day course with the Welsh Academy of Art in Cwmdu, a hamlet in the hills a few miles north of Crickhowell, staying in a converted barn next to the tutor’s home in the neighbouring valley. Though I’d been mad keen on art as a teenager, I’d put away my pencils to pursue an academic university course and forgotten about art for decades. Recently I’d had the urge to create again – and though the first picture I’d produced was rubbish, the process was so enjoyable I wanted more.
I fancied a break in a pretty place – but wanted to make up for lost time by learning as much as possible, too. Glamorous (and expensive) art holidays in pretty Tuscan mills and Provençal farms seemed to sell out months in advance. And I avoided places where the art on the websites looked worse than mine or where the focus appeared to be more on food, drink and days by the pool.
The Welsh Academy, run by Lucy Corbett and offering a choice of short courses with its own tutors and visiting artists, looked impressive: student artworks shown on the website were far in advance of anything I’d done, so I signed up for the slightly intimidating-sounding Painting the Portrait in Oils course (exactly what’s on offer differs each year).
The Academy itself is a rambling Victorian school on a wooded hillside. The former playground still has the old hopscotch markings. Inside it’s a labyrinth of high-ceilinged schoolrooms smelling of oil paint, where models try to sit still on stools next to deep sash windows, and half-finished canvases lie propped against panelled walls.
There were only two others on my particular course – an elegant retired doctor who was even more of a beginner than me, and an energetic younger woman who divided her time between Australia and Wales and was doing up a house in Cardiff. The place was abuzz, however, with artists doing day classes or studio sessions.
I loved being in this dreamy bohemian environment every day from 9.30am to 4pm, being shown techniques by Lucy, a top British portrait artist who trained in Florence. I learned to draw with charcoal, to use a full-size easel and to look at what I was trying to draw in a more thoughtful way. Lucy is my sort of teacher. There are no fluffy compliments, but lots of critical feedback and practical tips.
Our days involved a mix of Lucy demonstrating, helping and teaching, and then sessions of specific drawing tasks. It was casual, with music playing in the background, but felt like a dedicated learning environment.
Breaks were spent chatting around a kitchen table littered with open art books and pots of brushes. Artists, models and friends stood round the woodburner drinking tea from chipped, mismatched mugs. Sometimes we went to a local pub when our day’s art was done.
When there was time between concentrated art sessions I headed out to explore scenery that must be inspiring for Lucy’s landscape courses (in good weather, painting outside would be glorious). Crickhowell’s great foodie shops and gastro pubs are a short drive away, too. Even closer are little-known discoveries such as Tretower, a mile or two south, dominated by a huge Norman circular castle, and Llangynidr to the west, where drivers politely take turns to cross an ancient narrow bridge over the Usk.
There’s no accommodation at the Academy; guests book their own. There’s a campsite right next door (tent pitch £8.50pp, glamping pods for two £55), as well as holiday cottages nearby. But staying in the barn next to Lucy’s farmhouse seemed the best option. The barn has its own kitchen, but Lucy’s husband Bertie is a fabulous cook and there’s an option to book full-board and dine with them in the evening. A wall of windows along one side of the converted farmhouse provides amazing views of the valley and deep into the Brecon Beacons, and Lucy’s paintings hang on the walls. Over delicious meals, we’d chat about our families and art.
In my new-found artist’s life, the days passed quickly, and over the week I definitely saw my work improve. My final piece was easily the best thing I’d ever drawn. I posted it proudly on social media, then took it home, where it hangs on the wall. The skills I learned have stayed with me, but perhaps the best experience of all was the priceless feeling of actually being an artist for the week, and letting my boho alter ego loose in such inspiring surrounds.
• The trip was provided by the Welsh Tourist Board. This year’s Welsh Academy of Art short courses are Materials on 26-27 Feb, £150; Painting the Portrait in Oils on 1-3 April, £275; and Landscape Painting on 29 June-1 July, £300 (accommodation, materials and food extra). Accommodation at Lucy’s converted barn costs £85pppn self-catering or £130 full board
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