Julian’s painting workshops in Provence

Julian at homeWhen English painter Julian Merrow-Smith moved to Provence 15 years ago, he was looking not only for artistic fulfillment but personal happiness as well. Although he now looks content in this photo (above), back then he didn’t realise how hard it would be for one man to build a future and face a blank canvas – even in paradise.
Three of Julian's paintingsHe started producing an oil painting a day in 2004 and built a living from it by auctioning them online on his site Postcard from Provence. Today Julian sends out 30,000 emails a week. He’s sold over 2,000 paintings this way. Art is a growing online shopping industry. As the south of France is one of my favourite destinations, I subscribed too.
Julian Merrow-Smith
Each day I get an email containing Julian’s latest work –  richly-toned still life paintings inspired by objets trouvés, pottery and seasonal produce from the local markets while many of his landscape paintings picture scenes within walking distance of his studio called Shifting Light.
Artist at work at Julian's workshop in Provence
He and his wife Ruth slowly renovated a farmhouse in the Vaucluse region, which he still describes as “ramshackle” and they have three highly-strung cats in residence. An adopted son, Louis, is now part of the family (pictured below). Julian runs several week-long painting workshops in Provence each year. I talked to him about the workshops, which attract budding artists from as far away as Australia and New Zealand.
Ruth and Julian with adopted son Louis

Q & A with artist Julian Merrow-Smith

After 15 years in the same location, do you ever find yourself running out of ideas for paintings? I try to deal with only the week ahead so I may go out to one of the Sunday/Monday markets to see what’s in season  that week and see if anything unusual is around and use that as a base theme for the week. I usually get two or three paintings out of a subject in a week. Weather permitting I’ll get out and paint plein air as well  or collect photos and sketch ideas in the morning for a studio painting in the afternoon. I keep to the flow of the seasons which helps. It’s a little like eating seasonally, there was always a point in spring when I was growing up, when I was be tired of new potatoes and would want mash or roast potatoes and visa versa in autumn!

Are your painting workshops in Provence are best suited for oil painters with experience?  Workshoppers have been of a wide variety of experience, mostly people who paint but have never painted outdoors or who might have experience in say, watercolour, but never used oils. It helps that we provide all materials so those with less experience can also learn from those with more. Basically, I don’t want to be dealing with people who are starting from scratch and it would be a long way to come for people to find they don’t like painting after all! Enthusiasm and a willingness to work are the most important elements. A little experience is a good idea.

Do you host painters who prefer mixed media, watercolor, acrylic or gouache, for example? We provide the materials and these are strictly oil painting plein air workshops.

How many paintings have you done since 2004? I have done 2,080-odd daily posts, plus I complete a few commissions and several larger pieces each year.

Has your interest in subjects changed over time?  Subjects come and go but I certainly go through periods of refining a technique and often it might only apply to a particular subject so yes, I’m frequently drawn back to a subject when I have a new approach to painting it.  This is frequently because I’ve seen a work or a subject handled differently  by someone else in a way that I admire.

Can you tell me a little about the community in which you live?  I’m an artist so I don’t get out much, but  we are in a community that is on the edge of a wilder region but also close to major arterial autoroutes, international airports and the extraordinary French rail system. It’s the south, so it attracts lots of people from the north and has a caché that brings foreigners too, so it is somewhat a mixture of cosmopolitan with real peasant culture where people work on their own land (peasant or paisan is not a derogatory term here but has a dignity).

What nationalities are your workshop students?  The first workshop was the most varied with a Dane, a Swede, a New Zealander, two English and the other seven Americans  – mostly US citizens, with perhaps 20% Canadian/ English or other. We’ve only had one course that was all American and only one that was all female!

Do any return for follow-up workshops?  Yes. Almost every workshop of the six we’re holding this year has at least one returnee from 2013, in fact two of the groups wanted to come back as a group though the logistics for all concerned may prove too difficult in the end.

La Madelene
Interior of the splendid La Madelene

*The summer 2014 painting workshops in Provence are full, but places are available May 18-25; Oct 4-11; Oct 15-22. Cost: $US2725—shared, $US3185—single. Most painting is done outdoors. All meals included. Workshops are limited to 12 on a first in, first served basis. Accommodation is at La Madelene, a nearby priory renovated by Philip and Jude Reddaway, which gets rave reviews on Trip Advisor, Lonely Planet and Michelin guides to Provence. Ruth has written a book about their life in Provence, titled Cherries from Chauvet’s Orchard. More about that in a future post.

**Images of Julian Merrow-Smith and his workshops courtesy of the artist.

2 thoughts on “Julian’s painting workshops in Provence

  1. Hi Heather,

    Rarely have I been so moved by the story and paintings of an artist! I love Julian’s classic still lifes and loose style. So beautiful!

    It has been 10 years since I picked up a paint brush, but I feel like signing up for a workshop now. Very inspiring Julian!

    I signed up on his website and look forward to some daily inspiration. One painting a day, huh? That’s amazing!



    1. Hi Josie. I was also quite moved, and inspired. What a coincidence – I recently picked up a paintbrush again after 12 years of doing absolutely nothing. I subscribed to his Shifting Light some time ago, but the daily surprise of a beautiful little painting popping into my Inbox never gets old. A painting a day takes a lot of stamina. I take my hat off to him! I will be writing more about Ruth and Julian in a future post.


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