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Many people I’ve spoken to – okay, women – would love to paint outdoors – painting in the field, but feel daunted to do so. I understand this feeling, as I was the same when I went out for the first time. I felt so self-conscious, and fearful of some unidentified threat. I was in Mauritius at the time, and I didn’t know the people – for all I knew they were a bunch of raving lunatics.
I set out one morning to paint the sea near the house I stayed at. I didn’t even have a chair or stool – that’s how little I knew about on-location sketching. Eventually I found a concrete bench and table, and I sat down to draw.
As it turned out, the experience was really positive. Only one person spoke to me as I painted, a lady sweeping the path next to the beach. “Ah!” she said in French, “you’re painting the sea! Isn’t it beautiful?” And that was it. I cannot think of a gentler, more benign comment.
The experience gave me confidence to go out and paint again. The next time I painted was on the beach outside my husband’s aunt’s house. I sat just on the public side of her fence, on the sand, so I wasn’t exactly taking my life in my hands. This time, a few more people chatted to me – a stout but very tiny Italian gentleman in swimming trunks in the colours of the Italian flag; a honeymooning couple; and an older couple. To my surprise it was fun to talk to them – the vibe seemed very relaxed, as the focus was shifted away from the personal interaction between us, and onto the painting. Also, the person talking to you can see that you are concentrating, so generally they are very respectful.
The next time I was a bit braver. I went to Triolet, the next town to us, and determined to draw a vegetable stall. I was back to feeling self-conscious again. Where would I put my car? Would it be clamped? If I parked down a side street, would I be murdered before I got to the road?
It turns out that people are really sweet. First, the samosa seller next to me put a No Parking sign in front of me so that no one would obstruct my view. Then he insisted that I try a couple of samosas. As the drawing progressed, passers-by stopped for a chat – there must have been fifty in the two mornings I painted. They were nearly all lovely and very polite. There was only one group of young men who annoyed me – they had a very animated discussion amongst themselves about my drawing, and NEARLY TOUCHED THE PAGE. One guy’s thumb hovered extremely close to the page and I was so annoyed I was about to snap, “Don’t touch!” He moved away just in time. Another man talked and talked, until I told him I had to concentrate, to which he replied that he, personally, was never very good at concentration…and on and on.
I had a few tricks to protect myself: earphones calmed my nerves, and a big sunhat and sunglasses meant that I could swivel my eyes to check out a man without seeming to stare or challenge him directly. I had a kind of rule – if the feet looked okay (clean toes, no funny toenails) then the man probably had self-respect and was therefore okay. Is that a good rule? No, but it seemed to work – clean feet always belonged to clean-looking, polite gentlemen.
Eventually I got really blasé about painting anywhere. Repetition does that. There were a few strange places, nonetheless: the main mosque in Port Louis; alone on a hill in the rain at Grand Bassin, with only one male stranger for company; at the side of a lake, a site of pilgrimage for Hindus, which had terrifying monkeys roaming around (you should see them get cross). I’m always a bit scared, but I’m always delighted I went out to draw.
Take last night: I painted in an old ruin. I was alone, and it was getting dark. At first I was freaking out a bit, and pictured turning around to see a man silently creeping in behind me with a huge knife or cudgel. In the end I relaxed. I became conscious of the cawing of the crows, who eventually settled down to sleep, the strong sweet smell of the wildflowers at dusk, and the gentle sunset creeping over the sky.
As I walked home along the quiet country road, I was so thankful for this funny hobby I have, that brings me so much peace, serenity and happiness.