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Painting on Top of the World: How to Travel and Paint the French Alps

Imagine sitting and painting in the high, bright sunshine amid the many faces of the Alpine mountains in Europe. . . or if you have the chance, don’t just imagine it. Go there! I can tell you that it’s worth the effort!

Each mountain face and peak calls for your attention: the way the sun hits the different mountainsides as it moves east to west; the way the snow fills the crags and covers the peaks; the little villages nestled in the valleys and the rising forests on the mountain sides. Every viewpoint offers an atmosphere of excitement. And they all beckon you to lay their breathtaking beauty on paper or canvas.

I learned a lot from my painting trip to the Alps. My first mistake was to try and fit the whole panorama on my small Arches watercolor pad. Soon I realized that I was unable to reproduce even a hint of the magnificence surrounding me. From my vantage point, some 4000 feet up, I had a panorama of several mountain peaks of different shapes and sizes. I quickly found that concentrating on one part of the panorama at a time worked better for me.

french-alps-painting

If you’re in a similar situation, you’ll notice that the scenery can change very rapidly. Rising mists can make a landscape disappear completely in a very short time. And then there is nothing to do but wait for the mist to lift.

Of course, while this is happening, there is a fresh panorama in front of you, with its own opportunities. But you need to act fast as the mists have a mood of their own and they move and change quickly.

Take a camera! Even if you’re all set to paint en plein air, a camera is a useful tool to preserve some more lasting images for studio work later. My visit was during the fall, but we did have a snowfall of some 6 inches, and I also found myself taking pictures throug the windows so I wouldn’t miss the beautiful new white carpet in the surrounding area.

Rain was also a hazard in more ways than one. After a few days of rain the ground became very soft and we found that our car was unable to move up from where we were. The wheels spun round, churning mud in our faces as we tried to push it up the hill. These things happen—luckily, in the Alps, inspiration is all around.

Before you go on a painting vacation, think about your medium. I find that watercolors are more suitable for sketching while traveling. It is easy and safe to carry in your luggage, and you can take paper rather than canvas. Because of space limitations, I carry a relatively small pad of Arches water color paper. I usually return with a good number of sketches that later evolve into larger studio paintings.

For those of you traveling to the mountains, as I was, you will experience the effects of the rarified oxygen supply. A rest stop is a useful excuse for a quick sketch in pen and ink or pencil. A sketching pad and pen were therefore always part of my equipment.

When you travel to paint, how you get there (and where you stay!) matters.

I first flew to London and then drove to Dover, where I took the Channel steamer across to Calais, via the large and elegant Seafrance boat, the “Rodin.”

Gas is expensive in France but I was fortunate to drive a diesel engine Citroen. The best gas and diesel prices were at the local supermarkets which had gas pumps at the exits.

For overnight stays we (there were four of us) alternated between the chain of motels of the Campanile group (they run some 395 motels and restaurants in Europe) and hotels from the Logis de France chain of 3,500 hotels and restaurants throughout France. We carried information booklets with addresses and phone numbers and were able to book on the same day or the night before.

The Campanile motels all have a bell tower which can be seen from the motorways just outside the town. They provide comfortable rooms with buffet style breakfast and an evening meal at affordable prices. The logo of the Logis de France is a chimney and they are categorized between 1 to 3 chimneys. The average cost for a stay for two rooms (four adults), breakfast and evening meal was 225 Euros, although prices may vary by season and location.

For lunch we often picnicked with baguette, local cheese and wine. Our ultimate painting destination was a mountainside chalet near the village of Manigod in the Haute Savioe area of the French Alps. Rentals there are available at a range of different prices to suit all travelers.

If what you have read appeals to you, I encourate you to plan a trip, and visit the French Alps yourself! Bon voyage and happy painting!

Special thanks to Edward Abela for sharing his experience painting in the Alps. To see his artwork or learn more, please visit his website!

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