I do like to paint beside the seaside

Where better to improve your artistic skills than in Suffolk? Fiona Macleod discovers wild landscapes, fine coastlines and great teaching

Suffolk seemed an ideal place for a painting course. Though within easy reach of the Midlands and South-East it retains a wild, unspoilt landscape of inland water meadows and salt marshes contrasting with fine stretches of coastline.

Not only that, but the county has a long-established history of painting and of artistic communities that are intriguing to any aspiring artist. Philip Wilson Steer painted his Impressionistic images set on the beaches at Walberswick and Southwold, as did Sir Stanley Spencer, producing affectionate, but less idealised images of seaside holidaymakers.

The tradition continues today with a great number of successful artists living in the county. One of these is Hugo Grenville, a regular exhibitor with the David Messum gallery in London, who lives at The Red House in Mendham. Four years ago he and his wife Sophie started Red House Studios, a summer painting school with a clearly defined ambition. Hugo had observed that many of the art schools had stopped teaching the fundamental skills of painting and that this was leaving a void for those who had found paint to be their chosen medium. "Painting and drawing have fallen out of favour in the art schools, very few of them even have life-drawing classes any more," explained Hugo. To fill what he saw as a gap in the market the Grenvilles started a series of courses taking place principally in the summer months.

The Red House is an inspirational setting. It's a miniature, red brick Georgian manor and stands outside Mendham village surrounded by the water meadows of the Waveney Valley. At the back of the house is a studio that was created from tumbledown outhouses shortly after the Grenvilles bought the house seven years ago. The studios look out over an orchard and duck pond.

I had chosen a course entitled "Colour versus Tone: exploring the conflict between colour and tone", one of the three taken by Hugo which relate to his areas of focus. Red House Studios currently runs six courses between March and October. Christopher Baker and Anthony Oakshott, both established painters with a talent and love for teaching, run the other courses.

The courses at Red House Studios are not residential. The Grenvilles provide a selection of places to stay. I was staying with some friends nearby. The first meeting with my fellow students was over coffee in the studio on the first morning of the course. The atmosphere was tinged with excitement and some apprehension, soon to be dispelled by the outgoing and welcoming personalities of the Grenvilles. To start off the morning we each gave a brief description of ourselves, our experience of painting and aims for the week. This seemed to loosen us up and started to create a sense of group endeavour.

After coffee there was a slide show which illustrated the work of both tonal and colourist painters. Hugo explained: "Tonal painting is what a black and white camera would do with a subject. It reads the different levels of light and darkness. Claude Lorraine was the first major proponent of tonal painting and formulated the idea that you can have 30 gradations of light intensity in a picture. Colourist painting, on the other hand, is atonal; colour is used to express feeling and emotion and the rational observation of relative lightness and darkness is ignored. It is vital to understand these opposite poles if you want to express yourself successfully in a painting."

Back in the studio, our first practical exercise in tonal painting was to paint 12 blocks of colour graduating from black to white, a surprisingly difficult task. Next we had to match each of these tones with a colour of the same tonal intensity using 12 different colours.

By this time we were ready for lunch. An organic vegetable garden at The Red House provides much of the ingredients for inventive recipes and Sophie has a great talent for making the food taste delicious and look beautiful.

In the afternoon we were back in the studio painting a still life, first tonally using only black, white and cadmium orange then in the colourist manner with three colours plus black and white. "For this colourist exercise we are using poster paint because it is impossible to get different tones with this type of paint, it goes on very flat and so helps you to concentrate on shape and line," Hugo explained.

Over the next two days we repeated these exercises using tonal and colourist principles in a range of outdoor settings. We were taught to first prepare a postcard-sized pencil sketch of the scene we had chosen which we then worked up into a larger oil study. We spent a morning in the pretty walled garden of The Red House, with its pleached limes, rectangular stone pool and arched trellises tumbling with roses. Later we moved to the grounds of Mendham Mill, birthplace of the horse-painter Alfred Munnings, where the river Waveney curled past us and ducks inspected the clutter of our paintboxes lying in the grass. We drove to the coast to paint and picnic at Southwold harbour among the mongrel collection of boats, scruffy black-tarred fishermen's huts and rows of wooden jetties.

Our final day back in the studio was one of intense concentration as we did quick-fire sketches of models in a series of poses. To finish off there was one long pose when, for the first time, we painted without colour restriction, applying the knowledge that we had acquired during the week.

This is a course best suited for those who really want to be stretched. Students have a wide variety of experiences; some having done art degrees while others are recent initiates. The age range is wide. On my week we spanned about four decades with the youngest in her late twenties. This is fairly representative, except there is often a scattering of students in their late teens and early twenties. Hugo is equally encouraging to all but he expects everyone to push themselves. He has immense enthusiasm for his subject and speaks eloquently about it, interspersing his dialogue with anecdote and interesting nuggets of information. The fact that most of his students have returned for subsequent courses speaks for itself and what's more, The Red House in that Suffolk landscape is uplifting.

Red House Studios, The Red House, Mendham, near Harleston, Suffolk, IP20 OJD (01379 586224; www.redhousestudios.com).

Hugo's next exhibition is at David Messum Fine Art, 8 Cork Street, London W1 (020-7437 5545), 15 October-1 November

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