That settled it. Studio Paradiso had my vote. Hopping over to Pisa with Ryanair, Kathryn met myself and the rest of the group and drove us up to the medieval hilltop hamlet of Caugliano. There Casa Unicorno awaited, with its rambling gardens, vines and swimming pool, and grand panoramic view of snowy peaks and sweeping valleys dotted with villages.
In the dappled shade of a fig tree, over a lunch of antipasti, salad, and plenty of local wine, I absorbed the calm surroundings and met my fellow painting enthusiasts. There were Bob and Karen, a trendy couple who seemed too young to have sent a kid off to university already and were serious about wanting to make the most of the week; Peter, a smiley, energetic former PE teacher; Liz and Nuala, two 70-year-old Northern Irish ladies, who each came on their own and looked as if they might well be the life and soul of the group; and Linda and Joanne, two glamorous sisters, who were travelling with their mother Margaret.
Last but not least there was Ivan, our venerable teacher with a twinkle in his eye, who put everyone at ease instantly.
The first day of painting was a challenge. After three solid hours of concentration, I realised that a) I had been overly ambitious to attempt a hugely detailed architectural landscape scene on day one, b) concentrating on one thing was tiring (and such a rarity in our multi-tasking lives), and c) it makes you absolutely starving!
We gratefully devoured another delicious lunch and bonded by discussing the morning’s progress. That afternoon, I chose another view of vines and mountains, but abandoned that for a particularly glassy looking bunch of grapes, which I subsequently ate. After washing away the day’s hard work with a dip in the pool, there was just time for a quick freshenup before a tasty three-course Italian feast on the terrace under the stars. This was how a painting holiday should be – good food, calm atmosphere and inspirational subject matter.
Over the week, my artistic output peaked and troughed, and I grew either more or less enthusiastic about applying myself. On one occasion I joined a few others who were temporarily disgruntled by their efforts and had sought solace by the pool.
However, Ivan was patient and calm, and walked around making gentle suggestions, and pointed out where we could push ourselves or try something new.
Jaunts of the week included a trip to Lucca, a beautiful pink-walled Tuscan city with terrific shopping, and a visit to the Ligurian coast. At the town of Tellaro – whose typical candy-coloured houses were stacked vertiginously around a small alcove beach – we were encouraged to wander off, set up our chairs and get to work.
I found a quiet spot, high up, with a staggering view of rooftops, glittering sea, and the majestic arc of the “Bay of Poets”. After a contemplative hour of dabbling, a bronzed Italian man of about 60 appeared out of nowhere, making appreciative noises about my rather ropey watercolour sketch.
“Quanto è?” he asked.
“Err, its not for sale,” I said, presuming he was joking, or possibly cracking on to me.
But it seemed the man, who introduced himself as Francesco, was serious. “Fifty euros!” he pronounced, scurrying off. Only to return with his wife, Paola, who was dutifully waving a €50 note. I protested momentarily but realised this would make a fun story to tell the group at lunch, so accepted his offer.
Feeling pleased with my new status as a professional artist, I was about to set off, when he reappeared, this time asking me to sign the sketch. I obliged and he walked away, and came back with a giant bottle of sticky liquid, which he decanted onto a huge spoon and stuck in the direction of my mouth.
“Prova, prova,” (taste, taste) he urged. Before I knew it, I was swallowing almost a glassful of syrupy balsamic vinegar, and Francesco was decanting it further into a mini bottle for me. “You come stay in Modena, and I show you my vinegar factory! Grazie Rebecca, grazie.”
By the last day, we were all feeling sad about leaving the calm, laid-back atmosphere of Casa Unicorno. But everyone was also going to miss Kathryn and Dermot’s fantastic cuisine, the magically bottomless carafes of wine, and a bunch of new friends of all ages.
That final night turned into a jolly knees-up and, although not unlike the other evenings, this one began with champagne and ended with a three-hour singsong. Plus there was a drunken, enthusiastic exchange of addresses and emails. I haven’t framed any of my Studio Paradiso masterpieces as, frankly, none of them are as good as what I produced when I was 15. But I am now researching next year’s painting holiday destination and, from now on, the more spirited, independent older travellers in the group, the better. Rebecca Rose is The Financial Times Magazine’s Deputy Books Editor
STUDIO PARADISO RUNS TUSCAN PAINTING COURSES DURING MAY, JUNE AND SEPTEMBER. WWW.STUDIO-PARADISO.COM