When I'm not at home in Philadelphia I'm often in a lovely town in the Loire Valley in the center of France. The region is rich with natural beauty and history, all centered around the great Loire river, the longest river in France. But France has many rivers, and nearby is the Vienne, where the fascinating town of Chinon stretches along the banks and then climbs a steep hill to the great fortress castle on the heights.
Finished scene: Chinon: River, Town, Castle
The drawing for this scene was done across the river looking back at the panorama of the town with the castle. It shows the bridge and guardhouse leading to the castle buildings (a 2nd sketch continues the line of the castle and may be completed at some point.)
I wanted to convey the majesty of the 'forteresse' (distinguished from a 'chateau' by its serious defensive history) looming above the long undulation of white stone houses of the riverside town. In my work I seek a balance of several factors: the spontaneity and light touch of my sketch, the truth of color and place, and a sense of the particular site at a given moment. I'm happy with the pattern of this scene: the bands of color marking river, grassy bank, houses, green hillside, fortress, and sky.
Chinon, a familiar name in the wine world, is also one of those places where time can seem to stand still. On the windswept hilltop, surrounded by very old stones and with the French countryside stretching out for miles, it might be any moment in a 1000 year history, but one date stands out. In early 1429, during the Hundred Year's War, Joan of Arc marched into Chinon and confronted the French Dauphin, the uncrowned heir to the throne. She gained his confidence, then led him through a series of obstacles to be crowned in Reims, thus turning the tide of the war and giving France back to the French. The room where it happened is (almost) still there - three walls are gone, but one with a great fireplace remains, marked by a plaque to note the importance of the site.
I've included the original sketch, a photo of the meeting room, 2 images of the scene in progress, and the finished scene. I'd love to know what you think!
I've always liked the color gray. My latest finished scene, a view of St Malo in Brittany, France, is a study in grays, like the place itself, especially in winter. If you like gray, St Malo is a great place to be. The buildings of local stone are a testament to the power of gray, the weather is moody and often damp, the walls of the old city are high and strong, limiting daylight in the narrow streets. In winter twilight comes early and the sun makes a late appearance.
I clearly have enough northern blood to feel at home with the gray weather and the moody atmosphere, because I find St Malo to be magical. Before going this time I reread the novel, All the Light We Cannot See, which is set there amid the terrible human grayness of World War II when lives - in this case, those of 2 young children - were torn apart by the idiocy of war. St Malo was heavily bombed by American forces as part of the late push to rid Europe of the Nazis. Very little was left standing, but in a supreme act of human will and courage, the old city was rebuilt, stone by gray stone.
My scene, drawn from the ramparts, shows the wall of the old city that bravely fronts the harbor, daring the winds, the sea, and the weather to make a dent in its busy prosperous facade. For centuries St Malo was a rich treasure of a town, home to daring privateers with a thirst for wealth and adventure. Statues of the most famous of these pirates figure prominently around the city. Down below, rows of shop signs and awnings tell a story of simpler lives then and now.
Gray gets overlooked, shunted aside as a default, a watered down idea of something stronger and more forceful: a cup of tea instead of a hearty ale. But really it's a philosopher's color - subtle, always slightly on the edge of where you think it might be, a bit cool, a bit warm, a bit elusive.
Here are several stages in my scene, from the raw sketch through the process of adding a wide range of color and value, until the final moment when I clean it all up and add my signature.
It doesn't show in this scene, but one of the gifts of gray northern weather is that it can suddenly disappear, swept away by the wind. A day that started out with pouring rain became, in a few marvelous moments, glorious and golden, a thing to behold.