Mexico's True Colors

Eight Virginia-based artists traveled to the Mexican town of San Miguel, a 16th century town that draws artists from around the world intent on capturing its light, landscape and architecture.
Eight Virginia-based artists traveled to the Mexican town of San Miguel, a 16th century town that draws artists from around the world intent on capturing its light, landscape and architecture.

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By Susan Harb
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 22, 2006

Tangerine. Pumpkin. Butternut squash. Dreamsicle. Apricot. Mango.

We were walking single-file down the narrow sidewalk of Calle de San Francisco in the heart of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico -- eight Virginia artists, each weighing in on the precise color of the adobe walls of the colonial buildings that skirt the cobblestone thoroughfare.

Sweet potato puree. Cantaloupe. Peach chutney.

Not an orange in the bunch.

For two weeks last February, our small band of plein-air (open-air) painters skipped out on cold fingers and frozen tubes of acrylics for the vibrant warmth and visual charm of the 16th-century town, an established haven for American and Canadian expatriates about 170 miles north of Mexico City. We ranged in age from 42 to 70, and most of us lived in the Charlottesville area; some had met in art classes, some on other painting excursions. Our merry cortege joined the Sunday painters, degree-seeking students and established artists who pour into San Miguel for its luminous light -- often compared to that of Tuscany and the Hamptons -- and its plethora of art classes, tours and exhibitions.

"Somebody pinch me," said Anne War ren Holland, 60, from St. George, Va. The morning after our midnight arrival, she woke up in a 300-year-old villa, stepped out on the rooftop terrace and was nearly nose-to-nose with the baroque steeple of the Parroquia, the grand pink sandstone church that anchors El Jardin, San Miguel's main square.

Moments of elation occurred throughout our visit as we let the colors, textures and architecture of old Mexico embrace us. We were ourselves the blank canvases eager to be filled.

"I want to see it all, taste it all, paint it all," said Gray Dodson, 66, a landscape artist from Lovingston, Va., overwhelmed after her first walk to the market. "Where to start?"

We started early, getting up before 7 each day to peer at the sky and gulp coffee. Grabbing easels, paints, cameras, hats, water bottles, sunscreen and street maps, we headed out to catch the sun the moment it broke through the morning cloud cover and cast its rosy glow. Make that a midrange magenta glow.

We went back to the villa for breakfast at midmorning, then set out again, sometimes painting through lunch and siesta if the scene were seductive enough. If not, brushes were set aside for shopping and sightseeing.

We were major buyers in the artisan market that meanders for blocks -- pantry-size booths spilling over with tinware, piñatas, pottery, bark paintings, weavings, crude handmade toys and fancy leather tooling. We were mainly browsers in the chichi Santa Fe-style clothing and home furnishings boutiques that proliferate behind handsome wooden doors and fashionably faded facades throughout the historic area.

By 5, it was back to business. Backpacks on wheels rolled down the street in a convoy, strategic viewpoints were established, paints uncapped, brushes poised before the azure, indigo, sapphire, denim, lapis, cobalt sky turned into a crimson sunset.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company


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