Every trip is an opportunity to immerse yourself in a colorful universe. Some places have a very strong graphic or chromatic identity: Jodhpur in India is blue, Burano near Venice is flashy, Toulouse is pink. For designer Anne Élisabeth, Paris is grey and white-chalk; London is steel and grey blue; Lisbon is ocher.
Would knowing the color of the place change life? Probably not, but to look for it, to feel it, to qualify it, probably.
In my travels I look for beauty. I find it in nature, landscapes, the city, light.
Who better captures the essence of beauty than artists, whether they are local or not? From then on, my travels always take me to an Art Museum, an exhibition or a gallery. With a sketchbook, a camera or more recently a telephone or a graphic tablet, I soak up the atmosphere and note my impressions,… or those of others. For a long time I have collected these images in an annual pocket calendar. During various meetings, they were the starting point for an exchange.
This article is an invitation to travel in order to nourish one’s imagination, vary one’s palette and confront one’s vision with those of others.
Before going into my travels, let’s see how travel has been essential for some great painters.
I love to travel. As a child, my horizon was limited to Belgium, and for holidays, to a family hotel on the North Sea. But when it came to studying, we were entitled to the best, within the limits of the family budget: at the age of 14, I discovered England during a language course. In London, two revelations: Turner’s paintings and Japanese prints. But I have no memory of English lessons.
Every summer, William Turner (1775-1851) flew away for six or seven weeks. At first his travels took him close to home, to England, Wales and Cornwall, and even to Scotland. Then, fascinated by rivers, he traveled all over Europe, painting the landscapes of the Rhine, Meuse and Moselle. He traveled through Germany, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the Austrian Empire and of course Italy.
For the Romantic painter, these journeys are an opportunity to experience and transcribe strong emotions: dizzying chasms, storms, etc. All this material is recycled during his work in the studio, in winter, and will nourish his painting and his engravings. Following the example of the young European aristocrats of the time, he thus did his “grand tour“, but alone, his sketchbooks and watercolor sketches by hand. He will bequeath 300 of them at his death.
These few watercolors left by Turner will convince you of the tremendous source of inspiration that his travels provided.
The painter Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) is particularly marked by a trip to North Africa. He was fascinated by the landscapes, the architecture; he was interested in the people, their way of life, their costumes, their customs. The painter takes notes, makes drawings and watercolors, filling seven travel notebooks in which he describes what he discovers. He will not stop drawing on his memories to create his paintings. This journey will have been fundamental for his technique and style.
Vincent Van Gogh
Imagine the colors of the paintings of Van Gogh (1853-1890) if he had not undertaken a journey south. Would he have stayed in the dark, sad tones of those potato-eaters? In any case, the contrast between the two paintings below speaks better than I can of the influence that another light had on his painting. And this light he finds when he travels.
Leaving for Tahiti in 1891, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) was in search of a simple art and a life free from the influence of civilisation. He wrote in his diary “Noa Noa” that he found the ease of color choice again: “Coming from Europe, I was always unsure of a color, looking for a color between noon and two o’clock in the afternoon: it was however so simple to put a red and a blue on my canvas”. In Tahiti, he makes paintings of great beauty. He will also write that these faraway journeys enabled him to find himself.
Nicolas de Staël
From Sicily, Nicolas de Staël (1914-1955) returned transformed. Left with his family without any painting material, he takes notes, fills notebooks with drawings that he makes with felt pen. The following year he produced this series of paintings entitled “Agrigento”, named after the Sicilian region that had marked him so much. His style, on the borderline between figuration and abstraction, takes its source there.
And the others
I could also quote Henri Matisse (1869-1964) who, in 1898, discovered Turner’s works in London (so did I!) on his honeymoon. Other journeys between 1906 and 1913 would have a profound influence on him. From Andalusia, Morocco and Algeria, he captured the colors, remembered and brought back fabrics, and was inspired by arabesques and earthenware tiles. In the interiors he paints, his memories of his travels are more than decorative elements. His models, dressed with fabrics found during his travels, come from all over the world. That says a lot about his love of travel and their impact in his painting.
Do you know one or other painter whose new strength comes from a journey? Do not hesitate to share it as a comment below.
Has your own artistic sensibility been transformed by travel? In any case, mine has been and still is.
My first real trip
When I was 19, I put all my savings into a trip to Africa. There is nothing like it to rethink one’s system of values, lose one’s naivety and realize where the pleasure of daily comfort lies.
In Senegal, nature in its beauty and violence has left a deep impression on me.
The fluorescent foam of the waves at Malika beach on a full moon night is still present in my memory. So are the distant silhouettes of the village huts under the strobe light of the flashes of a violent thunderstorm. At the end of the evening, we had left to explore the nearby marshes. We avoided the stagnant waters populated by worms fond of bare feet. A thunderstorm suddenly plunged the landscape into deep darkness. From the sleeping village there was no light at all. Only the frequent storm lightning that drew its contours allowed us to estimate the distance still to be covered. The path through everything imposed itself, whether it was infested or not.
My skin also remembers the overwhelming heat. Immobilized on a pirogue whose engine had just died, we were waiting. Our guide was desperately shaking the mechanics in the hope of giving life back to the machine. How long did it take before I suggested breaking the dugout’s benches into oars? The island of our destination was visible, but it took us hours to reach it. Once on shore we threw ourselves into the arms of the sisters who were worried and waiting for us. Who would have said that a night in the convent would have been so saving, even for the most anti-religious among us?
A stay in the United States
More than a trip, it was a 16-month stay in the United States.
A scholarship to complete a master’s degree in Computer and Systems Engineering: the dream! Well, there was nothing charming about the city of Troy, located between New York and Montreal. The studies were demanding, especially given my background in physics, with no basic engineering or computer science courses.
But the contacts with students from all over the world, especially Indians, Turks, a Dutchman, Iranian women and a few Americans, all equally brilliant, were exciting. Also, forced to cohabit with others for economic reasons, one puts things into perspective. We accept to be woken up in the morning by a heavy smell of spicy rice and to see a roommate brushing his teeth in the living room. This is not the main thing.
During the school holidays, I enjoyed visits to the Art Museums of New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago and Boston. I was fascinated by the paintings of Edward Hoper (1882-1967) which I only knew in reproduction. Fascinated by the Ocean Park series by Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993), little known outside the USA at the time. And finally delighted to see “in real life” paintings by many painters I admired, including Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956).
And all the others
In my subsequent research career, I had many opportunities to travel. In the beginning, it was mainly to present my work, once or twice a year. Later, all kinds of meetings, seminars and study trips ended up filling my agenda. The result: several trips a month.
I always combined my annual holiday with these destinations. The conference hostess changed from a three-star hotel to a guest room with minimum comfort for broke backpackers.
As for the short trips, I couldn’t conceive of them without an afternoon, a day, or even a weekend to wander around. Always on the program is a stroll through the city, a visit to an exhibition or an art museum.
Like Alain de Botton in “The Art of Travel”, everything seems to me to be a source of poetry and wonder. Even advertisements and spaces in airports have a certain charm for me. You discover a mixture of local culture and globalization that is conducive to reflection.
Sometimes these business trips inspired me to plan an escapade for a holiday. Reading the “routard”, the “lonely planet” or the “rough guide” gave me new ideas. That’s how I discovered the Lofoten islands, off the coast of Norway.
The Lofoten Islands
In June the sun does not set on the Lofoten Islands. Mountains descend steeply down to the water’s edge and small fishing villages are dotted along little-used roads. For the first few days I had rented a “Robu”, a small hut on stilts which is occupied by fishermen in winter, when particularly abundant schools of fish follow the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. A bicycle was available to the tenant. Impossible to sleep in this idyllic place; unimaginable to stay still and simply enjoy the scenery. You have to see everything, ride everywhere, embrace all of it. After seven days on this diet I broke down, I think I slept twenty two hours straight at the small pension I had booked for the rest of the trip.
The small town of Svolvær has an Art Museum and several galleries. The woodcuts by Lars Lerin and Lars-Rik Karlsen particularly impressed me.
This trip was a revelation: photography is too close to reality and reality doesn’t interest me. I had a film camera because the digital was not yet of sufficient quality. The photos I had taken, which I discovered on my return, were true to reality. As for the engravings, they were much closer to my feelings. Klee says: “Art does not reproduce the visible, it makes visible”.
At the beginning of the school year, I enrolled in an engraving workshop.
Afterwards, I still took my camera back but with the awareness and the will not to get attached to reality.
What is the country of color par excellence? India, of course.
The conference took place in Calcutta, which I absolutely wanted to discover. I can’t remember how I managed to get out of the city without a map, with a rented bike, to go and discover a small village known for its decorative paintings. And even less to come back alive as these roads are so dangerous.
After a stage to the west of Calcutta, my journey continued towards Varanasi. The train journey of more than 10 hours is an experience in itself. The landscape is changing, the atmosphere is friendly. There are small vendors in the train carriage offering tasty food. In my compartment, a young man from the West, a great connoisseur of India, talks to me about his experience as a traveler. Varanasi, formerly Benares, is beginning to take shape in my imagination.
While I traveled alone most of the time, I never suffered from loneliness, except perhaps at meal times.
On a trip you always meet interesting people, and the meeting is all the easier when you travel alone. Of course, sometimes we have unpleasant surprises. But we laugh about them later on, if we have listened to our guts feeling to avoid bad plans.
All these trips were sources of wonder, as much for what I saw of reality as for the works I discovered there, because nothing beats the emotion in front of a real painting.
On your next trip, take notebooks to record your impressions. Don’t be afraid to leave with little material; as you’ve read here, constraints are a source of creativity.
Share below your experience of traveling in your search for colors, the traveling painters whose work you admire. And above all, set off to discover the beautiful, even if they tell you it’s old-fashioned. All the pleasure will be yours.