You know you’re at a country art workshop when the worktable is set up outdoors. Dappled sunlight spills across the surface. It’s surrounded by a riot of colour in the overgrown garden, a perfect place for a picnic. But we’re at the Winterhoek Art Studio on a farm outside Tulbagh to learn the secrets of monoprinting from bubbly, local artist Rochelle Beresford.
Fun and informal
The landscape is dominated by the purple-hazed Winterhoek Mountains, part of a range that embraces the town. Steeped in history, Tulbagh is the third-oldest town in South Africa, named after Dutch Cape Colony Governor Ryk Tulbagh. To the north is the Groot Winterhoek Wilderness Area, a World Heritage Site with ancient rock paintings and protected fynbos like the Tulbagh powderpuff. It’s art, though, that’s becoming a big magnet, attracting artists like Rochelle to the Boland town, where the annual Arts Festival is getting national attention. But we are here on a more personal mission.
Our group of seven is a mixed bag of talent, from the professional (art teacher Anastasia Sarantinou) to the somewhat inexperienced (myself). We’re on a three-day art retreat of five sessions with different acclaimed artists – getting more of a tapas of experiences than in-depth lessons. And we’re staying in the charming little cottages on Raptor Rise farm, with splendid views of the Winterhoek Mountains.
It’s a pretty intensive workshop – the three-hour sessions are fun and informal but there’s a lot to pack in, with two sessions a day. There’s almost no time to explore the village or galleries, so booking a few extra days to do your own thing is a good idea.
Rochelle’s home studio is our first stop and it looks quite intimidating. Not the setting, mind you, which is a quaint farmhouse with rows of rusty garden tools hanging on a wall, a mountain backdrop, an outdoor work table. It’s the sight of a side table groaning under its load – piles of small lino blocks, another pile of wooden boards, a mound of cotton cloth, tins of gooey, black ink thick as treacle.
“It’s the same ink police use to take fingerprints,” says Rochelle. Which does little to sooth anxious nerves. But Rochelle quickly puts us at ease as we start with lino printing. “Your drawing doesn’t have to be perfect. For shading, you can even use your thumb to lift off ink.”
An impromptu art gallery
She gives a quick demo print, then it’s our turn. Small rollers are used to ink up the lino blocks. A square of white paper is then placed onto the block, and you draw, or doodle even, on the back of that. “You can use anything to print on,” says Rochelle, “Even old magazine pages, like William Kentridge does, then hand colour them. Just remember a print will be the reverse image of your drawing.”
Expect the unexpected. Monoprint takes on a life of its own. This is especially true of fabric monoprinting, which Rochelle demonstrates next, with some good news for beginners. “You don’t even have to draw at all with fabric printing. A popular technique is to use different leaves, like a geranium for instance. The leaves create lovely patterns.”
Some of us rush to the overgrown garden to pluck leaves that are laid flat on a wooden board and smeared with paint. A piece of cotton cloth is placed over this and we press it down with a clean roller to suck up the paint. Again, we have very little control of the outcome, so the results come as a (sometimes pleasant) surprise.
“It’s called ‘monoprinting’ because you can only make one individual print. If you do more of the same print, they’ll all be different,” Rochelle explains. “It’s important to number and date your prints so you can keep track of your work.” Once done, we hang our fabric prints on a nearby washing line to dry – an impromptu outdoor Tulbagh gallery.
It’s all part of the process
A few metres from Rochelle’s home is a converted barn, the studio of Vasek Matousek, his Czech accent still as thick as a hearty goulash. The studio is half art gallery, half workshop that also houses a framing guillotine and a pottery kiln – a one-stop art shop.
Vasek takes us through the intricacies of watercolour painting. Ah, easy-peasy I thought, did this at junior school. But it’s much trickier than it looks. “Perhaps the most difficult medium of all,” says the artist, who also works in oils and ceramic.
He shows us how to stick the paper down with gummed tape so it won’t buckle when it’s wet – just one of the essential little tricks. And again, control of the image seems an impossible task. The paint spreads as soon as it touches the wet paper. Vasek brushes off my frustrations, “It’s all part of the process. Have fun rather than trying to be perfect.” Still, I seem to remember having done a better job in my early school days.
A few houses up
Another day, another stop at an unlikely art venue – the Victorian Museum, one of the now-restored buildings in Church Street, Tulbagh that was destroyed in the 1969 earthquake. Here you’ll find possibly the largest number of Cape Dutch, Edwardian and Victorian buildings in one street.
Besides its collection of Victoriana, the museum is also a gallery with a range of modern artworks, including some of Susan Smuts. Today Susan is demonstrating still-life drawing with charcoal. Another outdoor class, but more conventional. We sit around a table on which objects – a sculptured ox, a statuette of a turbaned waiter – have been placed, and draw them.
It’s the little money-saving tips that make the lesson valuable. There’s no need to buy expensive ‘fixative’ to make sure your charcoal drawing won’t smudge. Susan uses an ordinary supermarket hairspray.
A few houses up is the destination of another workshop, the Christo Coetzee gallery where curator and artist Jan Barend Wolmarans has a surprise in store. There is no art equipment waiting. Instead, we’re getting a lesson with a difference. Jan explains how Christo Coetzee painted his masterpieces. “It need not be perfect. It need not be a composition. It must be the truth,” says Jan. “If you are angry, paint angry, if you are sad, paint sad. Address your problems in your art.”
Shed your inhibitions
The final workshop is on a plot near the railway station, at the studio of Ian Simons. Most of the other artists have dogs as pets.
Ian has a chicken that follows him everywhere. His studio is quite different too. It was a small country school, which he gutted to make one enormous room. It’s so vast, it easily accommodates his huge canopied bed, a piano, guitar, and drums, a gallery of his paintings and, of course, a work table where Ian shows us the basics of pottery. Another primary school memory that now proves to be more slippery than a snake. But by now we’re used to applying the mantra that it doesn’t have to be perfect. Most of our creations aren’t, but there is something quite therapeutic in getting your hands grubby with clay.
At the end of each day, we’re treated to a different art form – meals conjured up by facilitator and chef Esther Fourie. Think filet mignon, with mushroom and red-wine sauce, angelfish meunière, with caper, almond, garlic and lemon-butter sauce. Delicious. Also the perfect time for unwinding and getting to know each other.
Everything is supplied on the retreat. Other than your own booze (and a notebook), don’t bother to bring anything, especially not your inhibitions. Those too will soon be shed.
Tulbagh Art Retreat, Esther Fourie
071 491 5354, [email protected]