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Brush up on your painting: The pub in East Sussex that offers art courses for all talents

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I haven’t put brush on canvas since 1985. At that point, my long-suffering art teacher at school, Miss Miller, politely agreed that I shouldn’t do O-level art.

Fast-forward to 2021 and I’m tempted to make up for lost time — but what can a course in old master painting techniques do for a talentless, out-of-practice hack like me?

A lot, I discover. Painting is something that we come to appreciate more as we get older. Just as I wasn’t interested in gardening or birdsong when I was a teenager (and now love both), it’s middle age to appreciate the pleasure of soothing contemplation of the outside world. Even if your art is bullshit – like mine.

Fruits of their labors: Harry’s class presents their apple paintings with teacher Dani Humberstone (front center)

Pictured above is The Bell from East Sussex, which Harry describes as a 16th century 'palace of a pub'

Pictured above is The Bell from East Sussex, which Harry describes as a 16th century ‘palace of a pub’

Core Skills: Harry at work, finding the light and dark tones in a royal gala apple

Core Skills: Harry at work, finding the light and dark tones in a royal gala apple

During the lockdown, people went gardening, hiking and painting – pursuits that had been supplanted by work. How much more fun it is to practice the usually solitary art of painting in company.

So I went to The Bell, a 16th century palace pub in Ticehurst, East Sussex, for a one day course. Nine of us students occupied a huge, well-lit room there for a day.

Our teacher was artist Dani Humberstone, until recently Vice President of the Society of Women Artists. She gave me and my classmates an invigorating crash course in oil painting: eight kind ladies—all far better painters than me, though they were too charmingly modest to say so.

For those in the class who only painted in lockdown, this was their chance to take their artistic skills to the next level. Demand for Dani’s classes has skyrocketed since the restrictions were lifted.

First she taught us how to draw an outline of a Royal Gala apple on a canvas board. I divided my plate into four with a chalk pencil so I had a sense of scale.

Then I learned the technique perfected by the Baroque artist Caravaggio: chiaroscuro – Italian for ‘light-dark’ – where you produce strong contrasts between brightness and shadow.

You may not see much chiaroscuro in my apple. But Dani ingeniously showed us how to create a three-dimensional look by painting dark shadows on one side of the apple and adding dashes of white highlights on the other.

By making the center of the apple light and both sides darker, you ‘pull’ the fruit out of the canvas, bulging out at the viewer, to give the illusion of 3D reality.

Above is Harry's completed still life, which 'refused to jump into the third dimension'

Above is Harry’s completed still life, which ‘refused to jump into the third dimension’

Lunch is included in the price of each art course.  Pictured is the dining room of The Bell

Lunch is included in the price of each art course. Pictured is the dining room of The Bell

Dani has exhibited at the Royal Academy and the Florence Biennale. It must have been a bit of a comedown to address the shortcomings of my still life. But she was endlessly encouraging.

“There’s a lot to be said for looking naive,” she said, as my apple remained firmly flat, refusing to jump into the third dimension.

At other times, she encouraged the class by crying, “Remember Leonardo da Vinci – get your brushstrokes out!”

How much more fun it is to practice the usually lonely painting in company

And Dani didn’t mind when I asked what the ‘Tomato Technique’ was. She was actually talking about “sfumato” – from the Italian for smoky or hazy, where you soften the transition between colors by making them appear out of focus.

We were deeply immersed in paint – and not just the burnt umber (reddish brown) color I sprayed all over my shirt. Please wear old clothes for the course.

I was fixated on trying — and failing — to get my apple right. But I didn’t mind that it went wrong. For the first time in months, I was transported to another universe, where I never felt the need to look at my cursed phone once.

Jane McWilliam, an osteopath from Burgess Hill, West Sussex, agreed. A skilled artist – her glowing apple painting was a lesson in chiaroscuro – she enjoys the liberation that painting brings. “It’s an escape from shopping lists, working, getting somewhere on time, living intensely,” she said. “It’s a time-out from the diary routine.”

Rooms at The Bell, one of which is pictured above, are discounted for students, with prices starting from £115

Rooms at The Bell, one of which is pictured above, are discounted for students, with prices starting from £115

My fellow students were nice about my efforts. But, as you can see from the apple I painted from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., the art world can rest easy. I’m not a late blooming genius. That’s the point. The class is suitable for all talents.

My group included Denise Fisk, a professional artist from nearby Crowborough. “You don’t think about anything else when you’re painting,” she told me. “Your mind only thinks of color, shape and paint. You give your brain a rest from yourself.’

I totally agreed when I sat next to the fireplace of The Bell and admired my painting. Was that a glimpse of Caravaggio chiaroscuro I saw in my apple – or was it the effect of the pint of lager I’d just downed?

TRAVEL FACTS

Curious House Art courses (Curioushouse.net) at The Bell, Ticehurst, East Sussex, costs from £120 for a day (including lunch and painting materials). The next course is from September 27-28. Rooms in The Bell are discounted for students, from £115 (01580 200 300, thebellinticehurst.com).

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