Compostela Ilustrada! Santiago de Compostela, Spain, 8th-10th November 2019

I have just returned from the beautiful medieval city of Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, where I attended the fabulous Compostela Ilustrada sketching event. (Warning: this may be an envy-inducing post, unless you cannot abide rain, in which case you will be very glad indeed that you did not attend.)

The old part of the city is truly gorgeous. The colours are just as I have painted them in this sketch – beige-brown sandstone masonry walls, white plastered walls and dark green paintwork (“The mayor clearly owns a dark green paint factory” said Marcel, my husband). It took me a day or two to pick up this aesthetic which is a bit bad for a person who sketches from life, and is supposed to be very observant. As well as this tight little palette of colour, there are heavy, romantic arches under many of the buildings (see my sketch) and lots of the streets slope steeply, or are accessed by flights of steps. On top of that, there are ornate churches and cathedrals that soar high into the sky, made of the same beige stone as the arches and streets. It’s not pedestrianised but there are very few cars to annoy you, and everyone shares the same nice big paving slabs. You just make yourself a little thinner to let them pass.

(Marcel also commented that the guy on his laptop on the right looked very Spanish. “He could have stepped right out of the pages of Cervantes,” he said, “all he’s missing is his ruffle.” He was right: that slicked-back hair, slightly curling around the ears is so Spanish, and so curiously timeless.)

I arrived last Wednesday 6th November, and after ONE little beer on the flight from Madrid to Santiago de Compostela I was giddy and slightly garrulous upon meeting Laurent, my fellow instructor from France, and Jorge, our driver in the airport. Our hotel was right in the middle of the old, attractive part town. This was fantastic until I was reminded that Spanish people don’t go to bed, ever, and do the whole singing, laughing and shouting thing all night long, and prefer to frequent the old, attractive part of town.

The noise outside my window that night sparked a memory of reading Asterix in Spain as a very young girl. In it, Asterix and Obelix are travelling around Spain with a small clan, the chief of whom’s son has been kidnapped by the Romans. The party dance and sing around the campfire late into the night, but a sound wakens them, and they all get up and resume dancing. Asterix goes nuts. That was me at bananas o’clock in the morning last week in Santiago de Compostela.

I had been invited to take part in the fifth Encuentro de Compostela Ilustrada, where people from all over the world, but mostly Spain and Portugal, get together for a few days in November and take part in sketching and illustration workshops, attend conferences and and sketch crawls and generally have a high old time of it. The numbers are small enough that the atmosphere is convivial and cosy, but big enough that the event was well structured, with guest teachers being invited from Spain, Portugal, France (Laurent) and Ireland (me). The conference was organised by Gemma Sesar of El Patito Editorial, and Maru Godas, a wonderful writer, illustrator and natural apothecary, and the two fabulous women pulled the whole thing off seemingly effortlessly, missing no detail.

It rains a lot in November in Santiago de Compostela, and indeed it didn’t stop for the entire time we were there, but I can only say in complete honesty that the rain added to the magical atmosphere, and the organisers had very thoughtfully provided everyone with a complimentary umbrella of the best quality.

The guest instructors were asked to contribute three sketches, sized A3, to the organisers of the event so that they could make their annual calendar of the city of Santiago in sketches. I knew the time would be tight – especially, as it turned out, with the deluge of rain we were to have over the following days, which hampered our sketching efforts rather a lot – so by Thursday morning I got to work after breakfast. It was hard to find somewhere dry enough to paint, and in the end I went to the market – Plaza de Abastos – where there were rows upon rows of charcuterias, carnicerias and pescaderias. When my friends in Santiago de Compostela send me a scan of the drawings I will update this post, but for now all I can give you is a slightly blurry screenshot from the video I took in the market.

Rows of counters selling fresh and cured meat lined long, covered corridors, and ornate wrought iron gates framed each entrance. The scallop shell motif, the symbol of the city, can be seen in the corner of the gate in my sketch. There were rails of hooks above each meat counter from which strings of chorizo and sides of pork hung. The colours were red, white, pinkish and yellow: red sausage, white coats, pinkish flesh, yellow fat and corn-fed plucked chickens. One young baker wore a red and white checked apron, with matching sleeves. She told me that she’d bought the fabric in Ikea for an apron, and added sleeves to protect herself from the continual onslaught of flour. I loved the idea and told her that I would do the same to protect my lovely woolly lambswool and cashmere jumpers from watercolour stains. Then I hobbled away, always worried that my frozen, numb fingers will have forgotten some vital piece of kit from my pencil case.

After lunch, the town went very quiet. The siesta is still very much in evidence in Santiago de Compostela, and the streets didn’t come back to life until 6pm. Meanwhile, I had to make my second sketch for the calendar, and settled on a group of young girls having a beer and a chat under one of the ubiquitous arches. They talked about sex, shared stuff on each other’s phones and laughed uproariously. I am missing most of the rude vocabulary in Spanish, I am happy to say, so all I know is that the conversation was raucous. Here are the girls:

Our impeccable hosts took us out on Thursday evening. First stop was the opening of an exhibition by an Oviedo artist named Federico Granell. Oviedo, near the coast of northern Spain, was where I spent six months on the Erasmus programme over twenty five years ago. It’s where my spoken Spanish took a leap forward, as I lived with a typical family (ie. they fought all the time) and I also found God in a most dramatic way, but that’s a story for another day. Thinking about it now, that zealous, if short-lived, puritanism was the reason I never learnt any rude words in Spain.

Here’s Federico, sketched very fast the following afternoon:

The reason Pink Panther is there is that Federico wore a beautiful shirt with Pink Panther on it, and I was inspired to include him next to the artist. I suggested to Federico that he make a shirt bearing this new design, but who am I to make sartorial suggestions to a fellow creative? Federico makes thoughtful, skilled pieces, painting on various surfaces and in various media, and I suggest you have a look at what he does.

After the exhibition we went to a concert by a group called Los Fabulosos Weekend. I know, they’re Spanish. They sing covers of all kinds of upbeat rock stuff, extremely well, it has to be said. Here they are:

After they finished, I wanted to be in a band. I’ve had that feeling before, but only in Spain, funnily enough. We were all drawing that evening, but sketchers are very good at (a) standing up while sketching (c) chatting while sketching and (c) dancing while sketching. Actually, not that last one, unless tapping your foot counts. But they were great. Only problem was that humour was a big part of their act and again my Spanish let me down, despite the (raucous) laughter of my colleagues. I am pretty sure Laurent (my Francophone colleague) didn’t get it either.

Next morning it was a nice early start (sarcastic comment: they were roaring in the street under my window again). I was to give a workshop on how to get watercolour to do what you want it to do, with the aim of letting it be the boss, in time. I was given my very own personal assistant-come-interpreter in the most capable and gentle form of Antonio, who is the brother of Gemma. Antonio speaks beautiful English, and not only did he escort me back from my workshop venue and carry my gear, but he was by my side at all times during the three hours of the workshop. On top of that, he was terrific company at a time when I might have been a bit overwhelmed. When I needed to ask a word, I would foolishly address the entire class, and I would have a cacophony in return. After asking twice, I felt I couldn’t ask again, so I still don’t know those words, and may never. I told my students many times the importance of not fiddling with watercolour once it’s down, but I’m still none the wiser as to how to translate “fiddle”: “manipular” and “jugar” just don’t feel right. There was another word beginning with T – anyone?

After a leisurely lunch with the group – we were never left alone, which was absolutely lovely – there were some excellent conferences, in which illustrators of various disciplines shared their working practices with the audience of students and fellow instructors. Each was an hour long, and I watched attentively, not least because my turn would come the following day.

Before dinner, I quickly painted two postcards for a charity exhibition that the city had on display. For just €20 you could buy one of these original pieces of art, and the proceeds would go to a children’s hospital. I am proud to say that I added the red beaks and legs of the postcard on the right whilst somewhat in my cups, after the following evening’s revelry. The exhibition is taking place in Galería Sargadelos, if you happen to be in Santiago de Compostela, but I know the red-beak one is sold. The other isn’t yet because as of today it’s still in my house! On its way this afternoon.

More workshops the following morning. By now everyone was well on the way to getting to know each other, and so I warned my class that if I saw any of them snoozing in my talk later on that afternoon, they’d be for the high jump. In the event I couldn’t see anyone in the dark auditorium, but people said very nice things afterwards, so maybe they were all paying attention nicely. My conference consisted of the story of how I was in dire straits before my sojourn in Mauritius in 2012, artistically speaking: how I been unable to find my mojo, despite huge efforts. I told them how I was tearing my hair out in frustration, and that it was only the chance discovery of a certain book while I lived on that tropical island that opened the door to this beautiful life I lead now (in so far as that’s possible).

That evening we raised a glass to a very successful Compostela Ilustrada…

My lovely new friends from Spain, Portugal and France.

…and over a most enjoyable dinner in our hotel I had the pleasure of talking the finer details of line and colour in the works of Asterix and Obelix with two of my colleagues, something that has eluded me until now. I staggered up to bed at silly o’clock in the morning, in no mood to be serenaded in the ungodly hours which, alas, didn’t deter them.

Next day was the final group sketchcrawl. We sat in a beautiful church and sketched cloisters and so on (I don’t know ecclesiastical terms in any language I’m sorry to say) and it was very convivial. I don’t normally join big group sketches because of the proverbial loneliness of crowds, but it’s not like that with a bunch of Spaniards…

Then everyone said goodbye and we all tottered off to our respective planes and cars. I was staying an extra day, so that night I joined Ana Luisa Frazao from Portugal for an evening sketching session. We sat side by side in companionable silence and sketched under the rain, but I’m afraid my nice neat paintwork fell victim to the very serious rain in which Santiago de Compostela takes such pride. That mayor with the dark green paint factory needs to come and do some fancy brushwork quick quick.

That’s the end! I had a super time, I was shown legendary Spanish hospitality and I learnt a few new words in Spanish, mostly to do with publishing, rather unexcitingly. But I can’t wait for my return. My aim is to make a nuisance of myself on Instagram with live broadcasts in Spanish once a week, so that my new friends in Santiago de Compostela don’t forget about me.

One last thing – many of my students at Compostela Ilustrada said they learned a lot from my workshops. That’s always very affirming, and very satisfying. But my favourite comment was from a woman who proudly showed me her sketch from inside the church on Sunday morning’s outing.

“Look!” she said. “Look at the difference! That’s down to you!”

Is not that the best feeling?

See you there next year…hasta luego!

Farewell from Santiago de Compostela Airport…still sketching, of course!


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