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From Gibsons to Tuscany: art that travels

Imagine learning how to paint in Tuscany, Italy, with guidance from the Sunshine Coast's popular art teacher Ursula Medley. Aaah the aroma of oil paints among the olive groves as you capture the spectacular scenery on canvas.

Imagine learning how to paint in Tuscany, Italy, with guidance from the Sunshine Coast's popular art teacher Ursula Medley. Aaah the aroma of oil paints among the olive groves as you capture the spectacular scenery on canvas. The little village with its marketplace of colourful vegetables and fresh-baked fruit bread. The two-storey villa with the country kitchen and the swimming pool. And Florence, city of art and architecture, just down the road. Obviously, Tuscany is a Mecca for artists and creative people. Does it sound great?

Now picture this: "Your classroom overlooks the island-studded waterways of Howe Sound and the towering Coast Mountain range. Your subjects may include shorebirds or other water life, outriggers or the colourful fishing fleet that coexist in the historic working harbour of Gibson's Landing, home of the Beachcombers." That paragraph was taken from a local brochure describing a one-day art class in Gibsons, also led by Medley. It also sounds great - a trip that could attract visitors from all over the world in the type of arts tourism that economic development fans hope to see flourish on the Coast. While Gibsons is not on par with Florence for displaying the works of the great masters, it certainly has both the scenery and the inspiration. Medley sees other similarities. She should know; she's painted at both locations.

On Friday, Feb. 6, she showed a class of students at a one-day workshop in Gibsons how to "see" the bluff and harbour that surround the wharfinger building and how to depict that view in paint. The weather co-operated, turning from a rainy morning into a sunny afternoon that scattered a dazzling play of light on the water. Of the six students, all were from off-Coast, places such as Campbell River or Steveston, and most were in town for the on-going Harbour Authority Association conference. Shannon Clohosey from Tobermory, Ont., travelled the farthest, and was honing her high school art skills. "I've never worked with oils before. You certainly learn to see things differently," she said.

Catherine Evans of Tours of Exploration (and Artesia Tours), a local company that specializes in art and culture adventures around the world, describes the Coast's art workshops as a really wonderful program.

"We just need to grow it," Evans said. About 95 per cent of Evans' clients come from off the Coast - from Ontario, the U.S. and other parts of B.C. In this case, the Harbour Association had asked for excursion suggestions during the conference. "This was one we came up with that they liked," Evans said.

The tour company organized the location and instructor, then provided a lunch and art supplies. It was a good deal at $98 for the day.

Medley was also a good choice. She loves to travel and paint, particularly en plein air, the term for painting out of doors on site. She'll be leading a class in Tuscany for two weeks from April 3 to 17 in which a small group will paint, sightsee, live in a villa, enjoy vino at the local trattorias and take day trips to Florence and Siena.

Medley loves Italy. She was there in 1997 as part of an Emily Carr Art College drawing class. While learning figure drawing in Florence, she met artists from Venice who invited her to stay and exhibit her egg tempera paintings of old growth forest from B.C.'s Cypress Park.

"People were moved by the paintings of trees," Medley says.

In turn, the country of Italy moved her. She loves the warm, sweet smell of Tuscany and the people's sense of life and expression. Students on her Tuscan Painting Workshop will likely be beginners; they will work every day either from the studio or out in nature with time for formal art demos and evaluation of their work. Other time will be spent on day trips to towns such as San Gimignano, a city of towers that tests the limits of perspective in painting.

Obviously, Medley is happy with the chance to teach painting in Tuscany, but she points out that the Gibsons art workshops have many similarities. "We have the landscape here, and the climate is just as agreeable," she adds.

This climate, even in February, supports those artists who like to work outdoors; it's cool enough to keep up the energy needed for concentration.

"I have to focus when I paint and connect with what I'm looking at," she says. "It's like a meditation. It's in the belly."

The Tuscan Painting Holiday takes place April 3 to 17 and again Sept. 25 to Oct. 9 with Grantham's Landing watercolour artist Jan Poynter. Information including cost and travel arrangements can be had through Tours of Exploration in Gibsons by calling 604-886-7300, toll free at 1-800-690-7887, or log on to and click on arts adventures.