Painting in Arles: Starry Night
Provence is windy. I didn’t know this going in. Just as the Inuits have over two hundred names for snow, Provence has over thirty names to describe its winds and the most notable is “Le Mistral.” I’ve never been to Antarctica and I probably never will because of the leopard seals but I’ve heard of their Katabatic Winds that whip down through the ice valleys and cast the penguins out to sea only to be eaten by these leopard seals, orcas and what have you. Well in Provence, if it weren’t for my “always be prepared” scout motto, my canvas’s would’ve been those penguins.
My first real run in with Le Mistral occurred on my second morning in Arles. I was eating my bread, jam and olives on the outdoor patio of my hostel cafe. This was a safe zone because the servers already knew I know four verbs and ten nouns and we had an unspoken agreement of me pointing to the Orangina and Croque Monsieur and sincerely thanking them with “merci beaucoup beaucoup beaucoup!” I think you only need to say it once. TANGENT. Anyways, I’m sitting outside and a gust of wind blows in and brings with it the street dust that knocked over my gina (short for Orangina), covered my bread in dirt, and sent my olives rolling away like frightened rolly pollies. It’s ok, I have some a peach in my backpack.
After the introduction to this atmospheric menace I knew painting that day would be interesting. I was to paint Langlois Bridge, an old draw bridge two miles south of town which Vincent painted several times. Walking out through the sprawl of Arles (Europe DOES have sprawl! It is human after all) french dogs were were hopelessly trying to jump their fences and attack the American. The French love guard dogs and these dogs only respond to French commands. Getting out of the sprawl and into the country the winds no longer hampered by the buildings, whipped in and continued for the next three days. I found the bridge while following the canal out of town.
The view from which it seems Van Gogh painted was now filled in with a thicket of thistles. I setup on the opposite unprotected side getting blasted by the sun and wind. NBD I brought my hat and tent stakes for anchoring my easel. As much as I hate the white euro/panama/cowboy hats the tourists buy and wear for two weeks until they come back to America and realize there’s no way they will pull that off, I need to protect my neck and ears so I might buy one. The stakes were in, the screen was on, its go time. The painting started out great. I’d lined everything up and the scene was coming together. I’ve been trying to paint loose and with my canvas’s sporadic vibrations caused by the wind it seemed I had no choice. Once it got to the details this became a problem. The smooth lines I tried to lay down swerved off while my easel became airborne and then settled back down again. There were lots of curses yelled which frightened the international tourists as I was kind of hidden in the bush screaming. Somehow the painting came out great. All packed up I walked across the bridge feeling proud when the Mistral kicked back up and blew my canvas from my hand. By some grace of the universe it did not land in the river but floated like the Forrest Gump leaf and settled on the bank. That’s all I have to say about that.
Feeling ambitious that day, I decided I would paint Van Gogh’s Starry Night over the Rhône. This was his first Starry Night. More so than any other of the paintings I’ve walked through, this one is the most surreal. The scene is exactly as it is depicted in the painting. The walkway along the Rhône still has the street lamps that cast their reflections onto the water right as the night sets in. It seems to me that the shimmering yellow reflections on the river must have inspired him to paint something as majestic in the black sky above.
Of course the Mistral was still ripping, and perhaps more so along the river which acts as a confluence of all other airstreams converging into one. I knew my stakes would be useless on the cobble stones but I knew I could find a way to anchor this easel somehow. I got to the river at 8:30, an hour before sunset. There was a dumpster very near to the place Vincent stood that I thought I might hide behind. This was a hangout for the homeless and there were smelly puddles around it which I tried to avoid although my shoelaces definitely took a swim. I found one hole on the dumpster I could loop my cord through and cinch with a bowline. I also found a nice crack in the wall that I could wedge a rock in to loop my other chord around and cinch up with a truckers hitch. Thank you NOLS. I tied my last easel leg off to a bag with my nalgene in it. For the second time that day I was ready to go.
This seemed like a fairly straightforward painting. It’s a lot of sky and a lot of water with a strip of land right in the middle. Yet somehow it was much harder than it looked. I couldn’t figure out the colors and my easel was nearly sucked away into space like Helen Hunt’s dad in Twister. I was determined to complete this painting. It was looking more like a bad Monet than a Van Gogh replica but I wouldn’t stop. Wine bottles from the overflowing dumpster were flying off and shattering all around me. When the going gets tough the tough get going. However as it got dark I started considering throwing in the towel. Major league games have rain delays, I felt like a wind delay could be warranted.
A little down cast that I couldn’t finish, I went to an outdoor bar in the main square where I could watch the World Cup. Honestly I have no idea who’s winning right now but it felt like I was doing something. That night I wrote my last soliloquy blog post and into the next day I went.
My mission today was to find a sunflower field to paint. Obviously I don’t have a car so I had to walk out of town again to find some fields turning over. Sunflowers are an inbetweener plant that exist to help restore the soil for the next year. I went north this time away from the bridge and walked through lots more sprawl this direction. While walking along these crumbling sidewalks, passing defunct strip malls and Macdonalds I forgot I was in another country, until someone didn’t respond to my wave. There’s some subconscious part of me that identifies with our concrete country and I started to think about home.
I walked out of the Arles city limits and the first field I passed had sunflowers! I decided I’d walk further on to this 1,000 year old monastery down the road. The lady behind the counter spoke broken English and I spoke broken French. I told her I was an artist and she gave me a discount to enter. I didn’t paint when I was in there. The place was truly empty. I had it all to myself. Here were all the accoutrements of a monastery. I walked through the crypts, small passages and the cloister.
From my point of view, the life of a monk was bleak. Their bedrooms were dark and they weren’t allowed to have posters on the wall. They ate minimally and their fare was some type of gruel. They did go outside and work the fields, and always they were silent. However, the cloister to me brings comfort. The monks would spend hours a day walking around these elegant courtyards with their heads bowed in silence contemplating life. Walking is a the way for making sense of things. I’ve walked all through Arles, as I’m sure I will in many other french towns, getting to do a lot of thinking. Life back home is so busy. It has been good to step away. I walked into the large Roman chapel and was by myself. I love Gregorian chants and I imagined they must have echoed in this church long ago. I wanted to test the acoustics. Seeing as this might be the only time I will ever be in a monastery chapel alone again I began to whistle. The Home Alone theme began to fill the hall. Banking around the arched ceilings down the far walls traveling into the nave and side chapels it all merged together into one. If only I had my recorder.
Finding no better sunflowers, I headed back to the first field. I wasn’t sure if I was trespassing so I walked into the head high plants and cleared a spot. It was a nice couple hours. When finished I ran back across the highway and down the rundown outskirts back to my hostel room where I found my new roommate’s bag. This person could’ve been anyone so I did some scouting to see if I could get any info on him. I did not go into his things. I just looked at the stickers on his water bottle and peaked in his already open bag a little. There was a french book and that was as far as I delved. Turned out he was a nice man from China whose name I have forgotten.
I was leaving the next day so this was my last night. I had to finish Starry Night. I went out at 8 o’clock to the same spot and got back to it. It was less windy now but still a factor. I could not figure this painting out. Why was it so hard? Fueled by the discouraging drive-by glances of walkers as well as my frustration turning to anger, I pushed it into overdrive. The sun was setting and the light was fading. “Why the hell did I paint the buildings orange? It looks stupid. The sidewalk might as well be a white worm crawling across my canvas.” I was forgetting to look up. Not looking out at the scene creates inaccuracies. I must look out and ask “What am I looking at? What is it in and of itself? The trees!” The trees are the backbone of the entire scene. I painted the trees and it all fell into place. The street lamps were on and shimmering in the water. The night was here. I couldn’t see my canvas so I had to move under one of these street lamps that I was painting further down. The lights on the water are actual straight lines coming from the lamp, down to the water and straight at me. The yellow in the water must be reflected in the sky. Thus came the stars. With any yellow there’s blue and with blue comes green and purple. I had got it! The stars began to shimmer. The whisking wind was shown by the swirls of dim color connecting star to star. It was done. I signed it as Vincent did, with my first name.
This was my last painting I would complete in Arles. I don’t know if I will ever come back. I took the long way back, wandering through the narrow streets where the french cats go scurrying by. I stumbled into the square with the Night Cafe, a scene I scribbled the night before. “Oh well, can’t paint it all.” I board the train to Lourdes tomorrow and then up into the mountains. I don’t really have a plan. I’ll just go up there and paint something cool. Don’t worry Brad, I promise it won’t be too heady. Good bye magical Arles! I best leave before I cut my ear off.