Spanish Notes Final part (III)

If the route up the Tejeda Parque’s mountain fizzled out after 50 yards, going from path to single goat track to multiple goats tracks to indiscernible scrapings which would have confused Kemosabe’s sidekick Tonto, the route back down was completely invisible. [Tonto in Spanish means ‘stupid’, so in the Spanish version of The Lone Ranger, Tonto became Toro (bull), and kemosabe sounds a lot like the Spanish phrase quien no sabe, “he who doesn’t understand”.] Already I digress, but since I’m not unused to being ‘he who doesn’t understand’ this title seems quite appropriate. Not for the first time, I’ve heard myself say confidently, “This way” only to realise that not only have I lost myself but also my unfortunate companions. Yes, I did once lead field courses so Mij should really have known better than to follow me. If there’s a hot sierra equivalent term for off-piste, that’s what we found. If you look at the photo below, the area top left is very similar to our downward route.

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Mij and Robin revisiting the Parque Natural (in inappropriate footwear)

We had gravity on our side and we were roughly going in the right direction so it was only a matter of time before we reached the bottom. Three-quarters of the way down, we met three goats, which danced off giggling on tip-toe.

It was extremely hot (ca.35oC) but at least we’d been sensible enough to take water with us. He who doesn’t understand was not always so sensible: one sweltering afternoon, I wandered off to do some drawing on a parched hillside. Not going far nor intending being away for more than a couple of hours, I didn’t want to be carrying water other than a small amount needed for watercolours, but soon became aware of how easy it would be to become debilitated and disorientated. I also thought what a pleasant place it would be to die (you ponder such things when alone in a wild places). Ever since working with vultures many years ago, I’ve had a deep respect for these beautiful disposers of waste, and it seems to me a fitting end for one’s mortal remains, soaring hundreds of feet above the earth, as close to heaven as I’m ever likely to get. It was the King vulture in particular I liked; this species doesn’t come from Europe but Spain has its own vultures, and towards the end of our stay we saw flocks of hundreds wheeling and soaring, carrying away others’ mortal remains.

The hottest day of all we experienced was in Granada at L’alhambra – one of just two conventional sight-seeing days. Such a well-known and easily researchable site needs no introduction from me but I liked the car park which put most British tourist car parks into the shade. And it was the shade that impressed most: the entire massive car park was virtually entirely covered by a shady leafy roof – the spaces between each space planted with low flat canopied trees (I couldn’t identify the type). They were certainly needed for the temperature was over 42oC.

It was interesting to see old Granada laid out from the heights of the fortress walls.

Overlooking Granada 4 rightGranada

Along some ancient walls covered mainly with blue Morning glory (Ipomoea sp.) large Violet carpenter bees (Xylocopa violacea) were busily foraging. That evening Josie found a dead one in the pool (Josie did spend the majority of her time at the villa rescuing insects from the pool); I took the chance to draw it before the ants and wasps consumed it; they were impressive insects…

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… as were the ants and wasps, fearsomely voracious scavengers.

Apart from innumerable wasps the most interesting and spectacular rescued insects were Praying mantises (Mantidae).

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The twittering of Red-rumped swallows (Cecropis daurica) and European bee-eaters (Merops apiaster) were a constant reminder of their swirling presence around the villa, sometimes sweeping so low you felt you could reach out and catch one. What we had, I confess, initially thought to be interference from overhead electricity cables – which were everywhere – turned out to be countless cicadas which we could never see. One day, searching a tree near the villa – from where the chainsaw-like noise was coming – as we might, we could see nothing.

Our other ‘day out’ was in Malaga – the birthplace of Picasso. It has a lovely pedestrianised city centre and there is a Roman theatre which is being renovated.

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A pedestrianised street in Malaga

Malaga (me as tourist) (2)Me as tourist in Malaga

The Picasso Museum was well worth the queue to get in. The staff were friendly, and a lovely lady insisted on seeing my ID to confirm my age (warranting an old geezer concessionary price). When I pointed out my grey beard she said, “Ah, no, you look too young.” One can fall in love disastrously easily.

The breadth and inventiveness of Picasso’s art never fails. He would try anything and generally succeed, but I think what I like most about him is his sense of humour; great artists often seem to lack this but Picasso has the ability to be both funny and ultimately deadly serious simultaneously.

Back in Sedella solitude, I took myself off into the groves of almond and olive trees (an almond plucked off an Andalucian tree is juicy and nutty in a way unknown to me in the UK). I felt the need to take every chance of immersion in this ancient landscape and impress on vestiges of a retinal memory its essence so that on return to the verdancy of England I could try to recall the dull parched dusty greens of Spain, and the watercolours helped.

Before leaving Spain, I continued to experiment with some basic water-colour enhanced drawing, using for motifs whatever was at hand: prickly pears, agaves and other vegetation in the garden of the villa.

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Whether or not I’ll continue seriously with watercolours remains to be seen. A lot, I suspect, will depend on time; I already seem to have too much to do (what is all this nonsense about “retirement”?), especially right now, with a forthcoming exhibition in July/August to prepare for. So it’s back to oils, and on my return from Spain, whilst the retinal memory was still vivid, I got quickly on to two medium sized canvases of an almond grove.

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If you’ve made it this far, you have my admiration and thanks.

© Richard Meyer, February 2015.


Spanish Notes, part II

The drive from the airport in Malaga to the villa took 1.5 hours, the last third was up a succession of tortuous mountain hairpins with humungous drops on the right hand side going up – the side of course nearest the car. There were barriers of various kinds but some of us were not convinced of their reliability. The villa at a height of about 700m had stunning views all round even with the villas, including ours of course, which sprinkled the hillsides. Why are houses in the countryside so often painted white? Those painted grey or off-white blended in so much better. One sees the same but worse in Cornwall where (second home) owners want to believe they really are in the Riviera. Houses in rural locations and painted white only work, I think, in real sun-scorched coastal towns.

It was no holiday for me because I went to get some work done; no hardship because to do what one most wants is what others call ‘fun’.  Here was an opportunity to familiarise myself with a technique I’d never seriously used before: watercolour. I found manipulating it frustrating at first because I was trying to make it do something it didn’t want to do. I tried what I thought were traditional methods but this old dog was finding new tricks very tricky.  Some might be thinking, “Why didn’t the idiot learn before he went. He’s got enough books.”  You’re joking, start doing something I’ve never done in my life before – follow instructions? No way to my credit for it’s made life hard for me at times but there are many well-trained dogs which in the training seem to have lost their natural character.

I’ll admit to uncertainty about the validity of what I ended up doing. Whether they were 100% watercolours, but does it matter? I think towards the end – about Day 12 – I was using pure watercolour. The first Sunday morning some locals were beating almond branches to bring down the nuts, and this dull thwack echoed round the otherwise silent hills at other times too. Otherwise the silence was occasionally only broken by motocross bikes (I was a little envious because there were some great rough tracks hereabouts with no mud).

It was that Sunday the cat turned up. Thereafter he stayed with us. Apparently people come for a while, get cats then leave abandoning them. This one was black, and the caretaker told us that black cats are more often abandoned than others because they don’t show up well in ‘selfies’. This surely can’t be right?  I’m not rreaslly a cat person, but one day, when I was abandoned, I enjoyed ‘Blackie’s’ company. Unlike a dog, he didn’t demand entertainment, walks or any other such nonsense; neither did he follow me about in that irritating way that some dogs do. Content just to be there stretched out in the shade, blissfully happy.

As mentioned, there were other habitations but many were unoccupied; second-homers and residents often go to cooler northern climes in high summer. Nevertheless I felt inhibited from wandering about; everywhere was evidently owned by somebody and I found no ‘public footpaths’ as such. To find wilderness one day Mij and I went to the Parque Natural. After being dropped off we set off to explore and climb high. The footpath quickly degenerated into a rough steep goat track.  It was good to be in wild Andalucia.

Parque Natural 15 + 2 wild goatsSpot the wild goats: there are two taking a break from sneering at our climbing skills

We climbed and climbed, scrambling up scree until we reached a small solar powered pumping station where we again hit regular footpaths following contours thus making much easier walking just below the tree line…

Parque Natural 20 + Mij a bit nearerFor me this was best part and I could have happily camped and worked here. It was not without its dangers however, for leading off in the other direction from the pumping station there was a promising footpath overlooking a stunning gorge.Parque Natural 02

However, just ‘round the bend’ the path had collapsed and was suspended only by the twisted “safety rails”.

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The pipe, suspended by a rope and old car tyre, is an aqueduct. A smashed concrete culvert had been replaced by ceramic pipes buried (but not deep enough) beside the footpath. This too had been broken by walkers’ feet and finally replaced with the ugly alkathene pipe which trailed alongside the footpath and was just dying to trip you up. The whole thing appealed to my sense of danger but the absence of warning signs was surprising to say the least; it is inconceivable that in the UK this would be allowed. Not only was there no barriers, there was not even any warning tape.

This was the wildest bit of Andalucia we saw; it lived up to all my old romantic expectations (at least those to do with landscape). Elsewhere, round the villa, I felt as though I was trespassing but this was probably due to not knowing local customs, but there aren’t public footpaths as we know them in the UK – or if there are, I didn’t find any but since all the groves of Olives and Almonds were deserted it was not a problem for me. In fact I met nobody except an elderly Scottish gentleman (we chatted about Glasgow) who told me that his son-in-law owned lots of the hillside near his villa and I was free to wander about as I wished. So I spent some time drawing here but didn’t see him again or his family.

Almond & Olive trees near villa 4One day I walked some distance from the road until finding a place which felt right and where the trees afforded some shade from the scorching sun, and where olive trees looked like olive trees should.

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My main company was ants, which appear as from nowhere. There are tiny little red-headed ones which have quite a bite so the girls said, but I think my skin must have been too tough for them. Even so, ants in general were quite distracting; they seemed particularly to like my sketching bag. Wasps were among the insects you would expect but were not in the least aggressive.

Actually , there were enough motifs near the villa to keep me busy and I didn’t often feel the need to wander farther. And before I got to this grove of olives I practised a lot around the villa, making copious notes…

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These were my first impressions, and feeling my way with difficulty into the use of a completely new medium for me.

Not good but as someone wiser than me once said, “Every day’s a school day” so I learn and carry on. Unlike school, no-one is telling me what to do or how to do it. This has good and bad consequences of course but I will take the good. I hope I never stop learning, not just about technique but about my responses to the world out there.

I’m left with the uncomfortable feeling that I could have done so much more. Perhaps that is always the way. In the next episode, I’ll try and show some progress but it might only be me who is possible to see it.!

Before leaving I’d rashly promised to send out some hand-drawn postcards. This didn’t work out the way I’d intended but after some abysmal efforts solved the problem by concentrating on just one motif and doing a series of twelve postcards from this sketch…


These were the first twelve postcards I did from it (later doing a few more)…


The next instalment will deal with watercolour progress (I’m sure you can’t wait for that) and some wildlife (other than ants) murmurations.  An account of our hilarious (and somewhat rapid) descent of the mountain (which is what really caused the goats merriment) I’ll leave till next time.

Spanish Notes, Part I

Since all difficulties these days are called ‘challenges’ (which, incidentally, is rubbish because life is full of colossal Difficulties in my experience, but, never mind, let’s call them Challenges), I decided, when thinking about how I might survive two weeks, half way up the Andalucian sierra, in the company of five children, that I needed a new challenge – a really Difficult one.

The challenge I decided to set myself was to ‘master’ (i.e. become reasonably competent at) the art of watercolours by the time I came home. How hard could it be? Even Ladies-who-lunch and Prince Charles do watercolours. However, I reckoned it would keep me out of mischief and give my poor tired brain something to tussle with (when I say, “keep me out of mischief” what I really mean is keep me away from children because I had expected Spain to be populated by swarthy dangerous toreadors and women who looked and behaved like Carmen.)

Why watercolours? My system for working in oils has become studio-bound – if you could see it in action you’d know why, and my sketching/drawing technique has, since the 1980s, involved oil pastels and a special shiny silky-coated paper; so the only challenge would be varying a long-standing practice. No, I needed a greater Challenge: something that would keep me engaged and, as I say, away from the children (as much for their benefit as mine it has to be said): so watercolours it was. My only previous attempts had been futile and derisory.

Since I hate being encumbered in the countryside – I’d had enough of that for 4 years when tramping around the cliffs of Wales and Cornwall festooned with a walking laboratory plus binoculars, tripod and telescope – and I’d fondly imagined I’d be spending my days in the high sierra with only lizards, snakes, toreadors and dusky señoritas for company, I didn’t want to be lugging trays of paint, palettes, water bottles and a variety of brushes about.

It so happens that a couple of years ago, I’d been given an “Art-Kure”™ watercolour brush pen – a lovely sepia coloured one. I confess I hadn’t used it much because I like scratchy methods and this was too much like watercolours (see last sentence a couple of paragraphs ago). But now, seeing I was going to enter upon a challenge, perhaps this was the moment the brush had been waiting for.

Cautiously I tried it out. Yes, if I approached the thing this way rather than trying to draw per se with it, suddenly there were possibilities. To the art store then for more colours. Predictably, the line had been discontinued: all they had left, hidden away in a cabinet at ground level, were a few examples of colours no-one else wanted. So, since I love a challenge, I chose a bilious yellow (of a shade which any 1950s teddy boy would have wanted socks in), a brown – much darker and more sombre than my nice sepia one, and a rather depressing blue – somewhere between Prussian and Black.

Well, there are challenges and there are stupid quests that even a Hobbit with Gandalf by his side wouldn’t take on, and this is my first attempt to use these colours.

Gunnera leaves

Is a pen & ink drawing washed with colour really truly a “Watercolour”? I have no idea. Either way, not a very auspicious start to this new new career, I needed more colours if my challenge wasn’t going to end up like a donkey confronting Beecher’s Brook for the first time.

Those old-fashioned colouring pencils, of the Derwent™ variety had always been around, and suddenly here was my salvation – my one ring to rule them all (perhaps I shouldn’t continue this Tolkein theme) – of course, watercolour pencils! So I bought a tin of 12 – my daughter had a tin of 24 she was prepared to give me, but a tin on its own minus the pencils would have been a challenge too far. However, if Titian could work with a very limited palette, then 12 colours plus my 4 watercolour brush pens would surely suffice. As a safety net, I also took a bundle of ordinary colouring pencils and my tin of scruffy oil pastel stubs with sketchbook of shiny paper, just in case I really was the feared donkey.

Years ago I’d been given a stack of lovely watercolour paper by artist and tutor John Weston’s widow. I’d given most of it away but since I always make up my own sketchbooks (unaware there’d ever be a need) I had nevertheless kept some back on the off chance that one day I might feel the need for a challenge such as this, so I made up two sketchbooks: one to fit in my bag, and a much larger one, which I could carry under my arm like a proper artist. I know you are supposed to soak and stretch paper for watercolour to prevent it cockling but this seemed far too technical for me and one helluva fag. Moreover, certain my efforts would not warrant such investment, I tried the paper first and found the quality to be so good that lengthy messy soaking and stretching was unnecessary. All it needed to prevent curling was a generous water laden brushed diagonal cross on the reverse side.

Trying out the paper first was also a sensible precaution in establishing I wasn’t going to suffer two weeks of mind-numbing frustration. My faltering efforts, poor, as they were, at least gave me enough confidence to carry on. My next post will be about the Andalucian adventure, and I’ll tell you how I got on.