Sunday, 20 July 2014

A week in Umbria, learning from Ann Swan, and other treats

The view of Precis from my bedroom window at Il Collaccio

June 2014
Text and pictures: Penny Mustart

My wildest, sweetest dream would have been to spend a week in Italy, learning from pencil colour botanical art guru, Ann Swan. A small windfall encouraged me to enquire about the possibility, and somehow all the arrangements fell in place. Thus, in early June this year I found myself flying via Istanbul to Rome where I spent the night to recover from the inevitable lack of sleep in the cramped seating arrangements of economy class.

The next morning I transferred back to the airport to meet up with Ann and the rest of the group who had flown in that day. After a quick coffee and introductions we sped northwards in the pre-arranged minibus. Despite coming from various countries – Slovenia, Australia, the UK, and South Africa – we soon became friends sharing a common interest. An hour later we drove through a long tunnel in the Apennines and arrived in the hilly Umbrian landscape on the other side.

Winding along narrow, winding roads in valleys at rapid speed was somewhat daunting for me at first, but the beauty of the surrounding wooded slopes in magnificent Umbrian countryside helped me to relax, and to realise that my dream was becoming real. This was just the beginning; it just got better each day!

On arrival at Il Collaccio, an Agriturismo (holiday farm) situated in the foothills of the Mount Sibillini National Park mountains, we were welcomed with a glass of Prosecco. After a late buffet lunch, we walked down to the Locanda, a small lodge with 11 rooms on the upper floor, and the studio occupying the ground floor. The rooms had their own balconies, and on opening the heavy wooden shutters of my room I saw a breath-taking view of the distant mountains and nearby wooded hillsides in which the village Precis (pronounced Praychee) was perched.

During the next six days we spent the mornings in the studio where Ann would give us instruction with demonstrations on many of her techniques of pencil colour art: how to do leaves (back and front views), hairy stems, underpainting, how to consider composition and anything else that we asked her to show us.

It was fascinating to see Ann work so confidently and with clear instructions to us as to what she was doing. Since she had the habit of referring to pencils that she was using by their numbers and not their names – for example FC 278 and PC 922 – we had to nimble up our minds to do the associations with them being Faber Castell Chrome Oxide Green and Prismacolor Poppy Red. After practising various techniques it would be coffee time, or lunch time, and so the mornings sped by.
Ann busy with her own work, with Margaret Matthews and her dog, Maisie, looking on. Margaret travelled from the UK in her camper van with Maisie
In the afternoons we were free to do as we wished, go for a walk, swim or just relax, but of course we spent them working in the studio while Ann sat on the veranda busy with her own work, though she was only too willing to be interrupted to help us. Ann is an amazingly talented and interesting person, very forthright and with a great sense of humour. I liked her immensely, and learned a lot from her.

To learn more about Ann, why not go to her well-developed website www.annswan.co.uk? Click on her blog to view her recently finished, awesome “Black Swan” irises. If you scroll further down to a post of 30 April, Ann gives a well-illustrated step-by-step demonstration for achieving a shiny green leaf.
Mealtimes are worth a mention: at the lodge’s restaurant Al Porcello Felice (The Happy Pig) we had wonderful Italian food including a great variety of vegetables, prosciutti, cingale (wild boar), dishes incorporating black truffles for which Umbria is famous, wonderful coffee and after lunch we regularly had a gelato (no shame here, we each had one, every day!). At our evening meals we would linger on to talk and laugh to a late hour.

On one of the days we went on an outing to a medieval, walled hilltop town, Montefalco. It was marvellous to have coffee in the central piazza, all to ourselves. Unlike neighbouring Tuscany, Umbria is not overridden with tourists.


We visited a church with wonderful frescos by Benozzo Gozzoli, and later travelled to a nearby wine and olive farm for tastings. On another afternoon we visited the nearby Mount Sibillini National Park, driving up a scenic, winding road to 1400 m altitude where a magnificent plain, the Piano Grande, opened up. The plain was ringed with high (>2000 m) snow- capped mountains.
photo by Debbie Lill
It abounded with flowers: wild peonies, gentians, many small orchids and other flowers unknown to me. Unusual for a National Park, but very beautiful, were fields of bright yellow canola interspersed with rows of tall wild grass, red poppies and cornflowers.
photo by Debbie Lill
On the last two days I worked in haste on a poppy composition in order to have something to show for the week, and on the last evening all our art works were put on display for Ann to critique – “be afraid, be very afraid” she warned, but this was in jest and she gave each of us valuable advice and generous encouragement.
Ann giving critique of our works
My efforts
On our departure for Rome and the flight home, I felt tearful to end such a wonderful time and to say goodbye, ciao, to new friends.

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