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Holiday With a Difference
Text and photos by John Harrison

If you are a frustrated artist, one who needs to brush up on your skills, or just simply somebody who wants to have a go at art, you might try going on an art summer school next year organized by art colleges all over the world. This July and August I went on such a course with my 16-year-old daughter who is keen on art. We attended courses at the Edinburgh College of Art (eca), and caught a bit of the yearly Fringe Festival towards the end of our stay.


Not wishing to spend, or having a lot of money to spend on accommodation, we booked into the eca halls of residence, conveniently located right across the street from the college. Each room comes complete with a one and a half size bed, large tables, internet connection and an in-suite loo and shower. Although the large kitchen was shared, it was clean and functional, and everything worked. The place is central; you can see the castle from the windows.

For both of us, the two weeks of courses were challenging and interesting for different reasons. My daughter, used to traditional painting and drawing classes in a children’s art school back in Moscow was not familiar with drawing with rollers or trying new non-traditional drawing methods. I thought that the courses for her might be real disaster; I was wrong, she loved them. For older students like me it was challenging being told by Robbie Bushe, the ‘Lifelong Learning Coordinator’ in his introduction on the first Monday morning, words to the effect that the week can be a roller coaster, and students can feel a sinking feeling early on if they have not made a breakthrough. Personally, I experienced such a sinking feeling by the end of the second day. Monday morning started fine with a bold large charcoal drawing, one of my best ever, of which I was mighty proud. Having displayed this proudly on the wall, and having even achieved a nod of recognition from the charming tutor, I knew that the course was going to be a piece of cake. The only thing was that there were another four and a half days to go. I took my tutor’s advice, to try something new: acrylics. Deep fear set in when it dawned on me what I had committed myself to. Acrylics dry quickly, in a couple of minutes. This means that you can’t get away with mixing the colors on the canvas like you can with oils, and you can’t re-work areas after you have painted them. In short, if you can’t find a way of working with acrylics, you hate them. With horror I tried to apply these paints to my first portrait of Kevin, one of the super-models who didn’t seem to move a single muscle move at all for his 20 minute stints.

eca lecturer Joan Smith teaching drawing

Portrait painting class

Summer school coordinator Robbie Bushe and director of the Center of Continuing Studies Geraldine Prince

Student Dominica Harrison’s work made during illustration class

Fortunately, some of the other students seemed to be going through the same thing. A couple of failed paintings and much frayed nerves a day or two later, I eventually seemed to get the hang of these plastic-based paints, at which point my tutor, who was far too nice to ever disagree with, suggested painting another portrait from across the other side of the room, at the same time as painting the one I had just started and was totally engrossed in. I looked at her quizzically. She nodded, charmingly. That was when the painting really took off. Released from the chains of trying to make sure that each brush stroke work in the traditional sense (there was no time for that), I was forced to hack away with household brushes. The result was quite amazing, for me at least. I broke free! Freedom it seems comes at a price. Suddenly flashes of inspiration; Lucian Freud stand aside, here I come! But how on earth do you handle that kind of realization? The tutor seemed to be able to push students just far enough to enable us to realize things we never thought we could do, at the same time didn’t push us too far, which is no mean task if you consider that each student comes from a completely different background, and has completely different expectations. The guidance in eca’s handbook about beginners and intermediate level classes can be read as: how far do you want to go in one week?

Certainly the show each Friday evening displaying student’s best work for the week confirmed Robbie Bushe’s words that “it is truly amazing what can be done in one week”. Here were expressive paintings, drawings, photographs, woodworks, hats, graphic designs, all truly imaginative and of a surprisingly high standard. To learn in the space of a week completely new techniques is in itself money well spent.

Clay figure modelling and wood carving

Edinburgh at this time of the year comes alive with an explosion of cultural activity. Personally I was too tired after art classes to wander around the score of the many theater and happening venues which appeared magically in the first few days of August. Not so my daughter who delighted in just about everything from comedy shows such as: Dustin Demri- Burns and Seb Carinal’s ‘Cardinal Burns’, which exploits funny foreigners, which I for one have now almost become, to concerts which featured samples of just about any musical style you could possibly want; from rain music created by water coming out of a an upside down plastic bottle to Scottish and English jazz bands to church music. It all depends how much money you want to spend and how energetic you are. You can easily spend two or three hundred pounds per person on tickets alone, or you can pay nothing at all by going to ‘free fringe’ shows, where paradoxically some of the best performers can be found. Eating out in Edinburgh is good, with hundreds of decent restaurants; however there is also a healthy supply of cheap and middle-priced eateries for the likes of budget travelers like me.

The city, like all British cities these days erupts into a loud sea of drunkenness, not all of it ‘nice’ on a Friday and Saturday night. In contrast to all that, Edinburgh is full of charming, leafy middle- class residential areas, shows like the highly successful ‘military tattoo’ which befit an anglicized capital city, in contrast to Glasgow which sometimes spouts anti-English vibes, but which some say surpasses Edinburgh as a cultural center and goes further than Edinburgh on the avant guard arts front.

In short, this arts study holiday was a tremendous learning experience for both myself and my daughter and I recommend it to anybody with a true inclination to develop their talents.

For further information on courses at eca contact: 

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