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I spent four days learning to paint portraits in Dunmore East and it was the best thing I’ve done for myself in ages


by Marlene Wessels
01st Dec 2018
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I still feel like I’m floating, drifting through a calm artist’s life of waking up every day to paint. This is all thanks to a four-day portrait painting workshop I’ve just finished at Artform School of Art in the seaside village of Dunmore East. It was a heavenly break from everyday life, days of submerging myself in my work, broken only by a few brisk sea walks and delicious meals at The Strand Inn.

It was initially hard to choose which course I’d do – there were so many different ones on offer. Some ran over the weekend, some weekdays, and so many different options: printmaking, life drawing, illustrations, photography, sculpture, watercolours, oils… I decided on portrait painting, something I only really have attempted from photographs. I was also attracted to teacher Tony Robinson’s style of painting, loose strokes, strong colour and dark shadows. He paints mostly on oils, wet-on-wet, also known as alla prima. 

I stayed in the nearby Strand Inn, located right next to the beach and around the corner from Artform (both owned by the local Foyle family, known for their love of art). The hotel is very welcoming and cosy and in winter, when the village quiets down, the perfect escape from city life. 

The Strand Inn. You couldn’t get any closer to the sea than this. 

Leaving Dublin early I arrived just in time for our first day of portrait painting. Our class started at 11am in the very bright, spacious modern building dedicated to the Artform classes. Martina, co-ordinator at Artform, was there to greet us and introduce us to each other and our teacher, Tony Robinson. Tony (who is one of the founding members of Art in the Open, an outdoor painting festival in Wexford), was such a gentleman, encouraging and softly spoken but also hugely talented. Our course covered proportion and the anatomy of the head, lighting, and composition. Day one started with charcoal and chalk sketching in the morning, lunch was a wholesome bowl of soup in the Strand Inn, during which we chatted and realised how mixed the group was in skill, some of us total novices and other with a few years practice under our belt.

Some of our charcoal sketches and limited palette portraits 

After our first full-on day of portraiture, I was exhausted and plonked myself down in the warm and cosy bar at The Strand Inn for a well-deserved glass of wine in front of the fire. This was followed by a meal in the same bar (the restaurant closes in the evening in winter). I had the best night’s sleep, drifting off with the sound of waves crashing. I woke fresh and early(ish) with the joyful sound of seagulls on the beach below and the most stunning view of the sunrise over the sea. Bliss. Before breakfast, I had a walk around the village, with traditional thatched cottages, dramatic cliffs, fishing trawlers and stunning views to Hook lighthouse. Breakfast was served in the dining room that overlooks the beach, from where you can admire the bravery of the early morning swimmers.

Beautiful scenery in Dunmore East

That day we began working on our first portraits in oils, with a limited palette that taught us to reflect on only light and shadow across the model’s face. The next two days we moved on to painting in full colour, completing a portrait in the morning and another one in the afternoon. We had a total of seven models over the four days and completed six paintings. Each session started with Tony giving us a quick demo – it was mesmerising to watch him, he made it look so easy. It was the first time since college, many years ago, that I painted from life and Tony’s approach was very different from the way I used to paint – the complete opposite in fact. He suggested we start with the shadows and leaving the features till last – like a face emerged from the dark. It was hard and challenging and I had some complete disasters, but I have come on leaps and bounds from the first day. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that you don’t become a portrait artist in four days, but it was a good start. 

Tony gave us a demo before each session. 

To anyone who is interested in art, it was a fantastic, exhausting, invigorating weekend and I’m already planning my next workshop. It is definitely the best thing I’ve done for myself in ages. 

Artform runs artist-led residential workshops and painting holidays, which run over the course of two to five days. They cover a wide variety of styles and media and caters for different levels of experience. Courses will run throughout 2019 with accommodation options in The Strand InnArtform is running their 2018 Annual Contemporary Art Fair at 44 The Quay, Waterford from Friday 30th November until Sunday 16th December 2018 daily 11am-6pm,  featuring works of established, as well as emerging artists from all over Ireland.

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