Travel broadens the mind and it’s a good source of ideas for artists – not only the grand sights but also the humble ones. In Amsterdam last December, during a mild spell, we wandered round the canals in the early morning, in a wonderfully low, pearly light, looking for breakfast. We came across Koffiespot on the Ellengracht, which lives up to its name with the best coffee in the city. I liked the way they decorated the tables with berried twigs in a jar.
Earlier in the year I’d done a short course on painting at Guanghwa, the bookshop in London’s Chinatown. I’m a brushaholic and always visit Guanghwa after a Chinese meal for their amazingly cheap brushes, and last year I saw a card advertising lessons in painting, Chinese style. My style of decorating pottery depends on the type of one-stroke painting that the Chinese perfected, so I thought I might learn something.
On my first lesson I went into a little classroom in the basement and exchanged greetings with my teacher and fellow-students, all of whom were Chinese. To begin the lesson the teacher addressed me first. “Do you speak Mandarin?” “No.” “Oh, the teaching is in Mandarin.” I might have retired from the class if it hadn’t been for Kelvin, a very kind bilingual lawyer, who interpreted for me throughout the ten lessons.
Learning to paint in the Chinese style means learning rules and putting aside western Romantic ideas of freedom and self-expression. Bamboo leaves have to be combined in odd numbers, arranged asymmetrically and to be of different sizes and intensities of ink. There are styles for bamboo in the rain, bamboo under dew and bamboo in a light west wind. Don’t imagine you have anything personal to contribute. My teacher had a little English: as she inspected my work she would say, “Nice” or “Not nice.”
I do hope she thinks my humble rendering of the berried twigs in Koffiespot is “Nice”.