Plein air painting trips
“Street of Bougainvillea,” my favorite painting from the trip

by Diana Madaras

In 1993, I went to Greece to paint en plein air, and it changed my life. Three years after that trip, I sold my marketing company to become a full-time artist and opened a gallery a few years later. So why return to Greece 25 years after that first fateful trip, and what happened this time? Here’s the inside story . . .

Our group of 16 painters is housed in different villas around town on the small island of Kalymnos. Ours is a spacious room with a view to die for. The room has been closed up all day and is at least 90 degrees. We search for the thermostat, but wait, there is none. No air conditioning! A lone fan will have to get us through the heat wave Greece is experiencing.

On the first day, we all paint a scene overlooking the harbor after our instructor, Australian artist Herman Pekel, does a demo. I am not used to plein air painting, nor do I paint this type of subject. Herman paints quite differently than I, and following his lead will be an adjustment. And every once in a while, he spits on his painting to add spray texture to the drying watercolor paint. I won’t be spitting on my painting today, nor any time in the foreseeable future!

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Plein air painting trips
Herman spits on his watercolor painting to add texture

And so, the routine begins. Alarm goes off at 6:30 a.m., but I wake at 3 a.m. every morning and stand in front of the fan to dry off and can’t go back to sleep. I pack my bag for the day (I’ve made a checklist of 16 items), strap on the 20-pound backpack and walk along the rocky beach to our headquarters. We then travel by ferry, bus, or taxi to a location to paint. Herman scopes out a site for his demo, then we watch as he makes magic. We then paint the same scene or choose one of our own, and Herman walks from student to student offering advice and help.

Plein air painting trips
Hard at work

I feel so fortunate to experience these beautiful settings and am so happy to paint every day, but plein air for a studio artist is a challenge. You have to draw the scene quickly, paint relatively fast as the shadows change, and then the wind blows dirt or leaves in your palette. Sometimes Greek men, boys, or cats stand around and watch. After we finish on location at 3 p.m., we pack up and head back for another three or four hours of painting at our own villas. Some nights there is a critique followed by a group dinner, but most nights we are on our own.

Plein air painting trips
This cat wants to see what Chuck is doing, and Andy looks on

By Day 5, I have had only three or four hours of sleep a night, and now I have a cold. I am not happy with my paintings and begin to wonder why I came on the trip. I am having difficulty incorporating Herman’s style with mine. It’s not that I want to change my style, but I do want to ever evolve, and that process can be quite frustrating. He has many valuable lessons to impart, but I am struggling. He paints with almost no color! And I love color.

So why am I here?

Then I remember that it is the anniversary of the painting trip I took to Greece with Professor Chuck Albanese and his wife, Claire, 25 years ago. That painting trip changed my life and set me on the path to becoming a professional artist. I experienced euphoria when I painted in Greece on that trip. My black and white world became color and the desire to paint was so strong, it almost wasn’t a choice to change careers.

Every year since, Chuck returns to Greece to paint, and begs me to come along, but I’ve said no. So why this time? I do not yet know. I await that revelation.

After eight days, I have settled into the routine and now sleep better, and my cold has subsided. I now eat fish served on the plate with the head attached without cringing, and give the scraps to hungry Greek cats waiting by my feet.

I am feeling a painting rhythm develop and can’t get enough. With a few suggestions from Herman, I am thrilled with the painting of bougainvillea hanging over the walkway at the little taverna where we spend the day. Herman stresses the importance of light and dark and the focal point. These are things I already incorporate, but Herman encourages me to push them even further.

Plein air painting trips
Diana Madaras, “Bougainvillea at the Bay”
Plein air painting trips
Painting en plein air, all day at a cafe

I try to balance the knowledge and technique I learn from Herman with my own style. I like his use of wet into wet, and his dry brush technique. I start to redo paintings I don’t like once we get home from the daily outing, and many nights I paint until midnight or 1 a.m. I am more than determined. Some nights, I go to bed with a knot in my stomach and don’t sleep as my mind tries to sort out what I can do differently to make the painting a success. That, combined with all the mental stimulation from the day, and the Greek coffee at the break, have me sleep-deprived.

Plein air painting trips
“Boat in Gray Light,” a painting finished at 1:30 a.m.

I realize then I need to let go of my self-imposed pressure to bring home 10 good paintings and just have some fun. It is a revelation!

Once I let go, everything changes. The paintings start to flow, and I look forward to the new adventure of every day . . . good painting or not. After all, I am on an amazing Greek island! I stop watching Herman’s daily demos and also choose my own subjects to paint rather than emulating his. When the class paints boats in the harbor, I paint colorful florals. When the class paints a street scene, I paint a boat.

Our rooms on the next island (Leros) are tiny, but we are right on the bay. A Greek band plays in the garden below my balcony until midnight, but it doesn’t matter. I’m up painting, anyway (or dancing in the garden).

Plein air painting trips

I forget any quirks at the hotel when I throw open the shutters in the morning and see the most beautiful sunrise as a red ball of fire rises from the sea. What a magnificent way to begin the day.

Plein air painting trips

Herman gathers the painters on the porch of our hotel and gives a final critique. It will be sad to see our little painting family disburse after three weeks.

Epilogue

I still love to paint as much today as when I traveled to Greece with Chuck 25 years ago. Nothing is quite as exciting as a blank canvas — the possibilities endless.

And 25 years later, for better or worse, I am still as driven. I did appreciate the trip more this time — the food, the culture, the rich experiences, the other painters. I love all that I learned, and I understand that the soul-searching and “bad painting misery” help me continue to evolve. I LOVED three weeks of immersion in the process, focusing only on painting. When painting plein air, sometimes an unexpected freshness and spontaneity occur. Some days I wanted to stay in Greece and paint for another three weeks. Other days, I missed home and was ready for the trip to be over.

It took me three years after I returned from the first trip to fully comprehend its impact. So what impact will this trip have? I know how fortunate I am to have spent three weeks painting in Greece, and I will savor every moment for a lifetime. As for the long-term ramifications? Ask me in three years.

Plein air painting trips

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