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Workshops: Painting in the South of France

Overseas Workshops

Have you ever thought about organizing painting trips in exotic locations so you can do what you love and write off the travel expenses?

Scottish figurative artist Julie Snyder has been leading art retreats to Provence in the south of France for many years and can tell you a thing or two about what it takes to run such an event.

Why do art retreats in France?

“I remember being in France with my sister and mother and our tribe of collective children. I really wanted to paint the landscape but had the usual responsibilities of caring for children and scheduling the day around them. But, my family insisted that I paint. So, while the kids were watched over by their aunt and grandmother, I painted about nine paintings in five days. It was fantastic.

"I remember a sudden shower in a field, and I ran to find shelter. I ended up in a sort of shed with one wall and a tin roof that served as a studio while I painted the changing sky, all the time being serenaded by the drumming rain. I knew then that I should do this again and bring artists from the U.S. in particular to share the experience. It was back then that the seed was planted.

"I love France - the farms and the light, and the characters that live in the villages. Everywhere you look there's something to paint.

"It took another 5 years before my kids were old enough to look after themselves without Mom for a few weeks.”

How do art retreats fit into the bigger picture of your art business goals?

“The workshops have taken on a life of their own. They are highly creative and working with artists is highly rewarding.

"The retreat for artists was born out of a desire to paint in France myself - quite a self-serving goal initially. The first was a pilot to work out the logistics and responsibilities involved. It was such a pleasure to do, and the feedback was remarkable.

"The artwork artists produced was beautiful. We inspired each other. So another goal was achieved - to bring artists together to share in the camaraderie and inspiration that happens when artists live and work side-by-side. It really is a strong purpose of mine - to help artists make more art and achieve their goals. The retreat in France is very special that way.

"Business-wise it made sense - although it is hard work with months of research and planning - I get to go to France, and I found a way to supplement my life as an artist.”

Who is in the typical art retreat?

“We have artists of all levels and all ages with more in the 40-70 year old range. Some paint in oils, others watercolor and pastel. We have photographers and this year a glass artist. Some come alone and some come with a friend or spouse. We seem to attract more women than men."

How did you select the retreat location?

"The first retreat was in the Loire Valley, but we settled on the south of France as a better location for weather, variety of landscape and higher activity level. The Loire was perfect for painters but for their non-painting partners there wasn’t much to do. Provence has it all - lots to do and see, places to visit, historical landmarks, villages, markets and plenty of activities.

"We make sure that when we paint, we don't have to drag our equipment for miles; there's shade and a cafe not to far away if we need to use their services or to buy a drink.

"The chateau's owner will come over for 'les aperitifs' and spend time with the guests sharing the history of the estate. When the artists come up and tell me that they loved the day or it was the best location to paint or how wonderful it is to meet French people, I feel very grateful to share the experience with my fellow artists." 

How did you pick the time of year for the retreat?

"September is a great month to travel in Southern Europe. There are fewer cars; fewer tourists and the flights are lower in price.

"And it's the perfect painting season, while still warm and sunny the days are cooler with golden sunsets."

What do guests gain from the art retreat?

"The artists who come do not want or need a class atmosphere with an instructor telling them what to paint. These are not ‘teaching workshops.' There is no instructor. Instead we share tips and encouragement.

"We have an ongoing 'mentor' environment. We troubleshoot; we share information, opinions and sometimes recipes. The guests are surprised how much they learn from each other and how much they like to share information. If you pose a question - you'll get multiple answers. This year we are also having painting demo sessions and art discussions after dinner.

"Everyone comes away with great pieces and, with all the references and sketches, we have enough visual material to paint for another year, at least.”

What is your role as retreat leader?

"I teach regularly and prepare a lot of classes where I keep my attention on the students. In these retreats, it's an honor to mentor.

"I'm constantly making sure the guests have what they need today, while planning the next day's event. I keep my eye out for guests who might need help and work with them to make sure they are not overwhelmed.

"The atmosphere is very relaxed and the guests are there to enjoy the whole experience. When I look around and see smiles and the obvious pleasure my guests are having, it's highly satisfying."

What was the most poignant event in these workshops?

"There are many, usually filled with laughter and smiles, but the one that comes to mind was when we went to the Mausoleum de St. Paul where Vincent Van Gogh lived and painted at the asylum.

"As you approach the building, through a long avenue of magnificent plane trees with olive groves extending on both sides, you become aware that this is where he lived, this is where he painted and that you are standing where he stood. There are signs showing his paintings. And when you look up, you realize this is where he stood to paint that same painting.

"Everybody became very quiet as they looked around. For half an hour hardly a word was spoken as each of us felt the connection to him and his work. It was very contemplative and spiritual. Then we went and got our painting gear and within no time we were painting these same views."

"Overseas events are not for beginners, so you’ll first need to skilled in the design, delivery, marketing and follow-up at home.

"Doing workshops overseas is more challenging than running them in your studio or a local space. Aside from designing and delivering a great learning experience, you also become a tour guide and concierge for your entourage.

"Art retreats and workshops can either be marvelous or miserable. There are lots of logistics and a million small details that make the difference.  

"Here a few tips to start your preparation:

  • Before you organize an international retreat of your own, take one with an experienced artist. You’ll be able to experience what works, what doesn’t work and what you would do differently.
  • Visit the location personally before you book and go at the time of year you plan to have your event.
  • Ship your materials ahead of time to a secure location and make sure to follow all the customs rules and regulations.
  • The mix of people is sometimes magic and other times high maintenance.  The better you know your guests, the easier it will be to arrange any shared lodgings.
  • Send guests a packing list and a clear description of what your role is and what they need to take care of themselves.

"What else would you add from your experience as a guest or organizer?"

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