Ille-et-Vilaine

A view of the coast outside of Cancale.

is one of four departments of Brittany. It is the eastern most, which makes it the closest to our house. We can drive here in the amount of time it takes us to get to Paris. Everyone seems to have their favorite parts of Brittany. Many clients we have go every year to southern Brittany, Morbihan, making that department one of the most touristic regions of Brittany. It certainly is lovely, with such places as Pont-Aven, Concarneau and The Golfe de Morbihan, all stunning. The north, the Côtes d’Armour is more rugged and wild and suits many people for its sense of remoteness. The far west, Finistère, literally “the end of the earth”, has its charms and fans as well. We have visited each corner, but for me, Ille-et-Vilaine is my preferred location, probably because of its convenience for us, but also for its towns and beaches which I find very attractive.

Emily on the cliff

La Pointe du Grouin, outside Cancale, is a gorgeous spot where you can take a walk along cliffs and view the water from all directions. The day we went with the family, the sky was blue and the water was turquoise. Emily and Co. had never been to this location, so it was exciting for us to share it with them. We had discovered it on one of our travels some years ago and I have never gotten over how beautiful it is. I was pleased to revisit it.

Little stone islands and a lighthouse in the distance.

Cancale is a town we first visited many years ago with some friends from California. It is the town of Olivier Roellinger, a renowned French chef, who has a shop there where he sells his famous spice mixes. We stayed in town that evening and were able to eat dinner at one of his restaurants, Le Coquillage. It stands out in my memory as the best meal I’ve ever had.

While we were walking along the cliffs we were able to watch a school of dolphins playing near shore. We also saw a fishermen set his traps as the dolphins came towards his little boat to investigate. There were speed boats and sail boats to observe from afar as well.

As we drove along the coast from Cancale towards St. Malo, where we intended to sit on the beach together, we passed another beach called Plage du Guesclin which was practically deserted. It looked so inviting, that we parked here and walked down to the sandy beach and spent a couple of hours swimming and sun bathing, avoiding the inevitable crowds at St. Malo.

The kids had a kite, which didn’t work so well and a boogie board which was also only of limited success, but of course there are always sand castles to be constructed.

We carried on to St. Malo for dinner. The city of St. Malo is actually quite large, but we only really know the historic (and touristic) walled city section, which is quite small and untouched by modern architecture of any kind.

St. Malo, as I have written about before on this blog, is one of our favorite destinations. The walled town, surrounded on all sides by water, with a narrow spit of land leading to it, is full of shops and restaurants. We had a fabulous dinner at a place that serves Japanese-themed Breton crepes. A strange, but, as it turns out, excellent combination.

At this time of year it stays light until about 11PM. so after dinner we were able to walk all along the walls which surround the town and enjoy the views, the breeze and the end of a very special day.

The sun was setting on the Rance as we drove back to our gite in St. Suliac.

On another day we drove south to the very end of the river, where the Rance is narrow, to the town of Dinan, a lovely historic town with an old port. From here you can take a ride all the way to St. Malo.

Port of Dinan

There is a street leading from the port, at the bottom of town, to the center, which is on the hill above. It is quite long and steep but worth the climb just to see all the lovely old buildings. There are several artists’ ateliers located here. Dinan has some of the most beautiful and old buildings in Brittany.

On our last day on the coast, we briefly visited Dinard which is across the water from St. Malo. It is a very up-scale resort town with fabulous 19th century mansions lining the cliffs. It is known as “The Cannes of the North,” and has been a playground of the rich and famous for a couple of centuries.

For me the best part of Dinard is the view back to St. Malo.

Saint-Suliac

View from our gite, onto the Rance.

When in late May the government announced that travel restrictions within France were lifted, I immediately booked a week’s holiday on the Brittany coast. I chose a gite in St. Suliac, a plus beau village (a label indicating one of the most beautiful villages in the country) on the Rance River.

Map created by Daniel Derveaux. The red star, added by me, shows the location of our gite.

This is one of my favorite areas in France as St. Malo, Dinard, Cancale, Dinan and Mont St. Michel are all at hand. The 100 kilometer Rance tidal river flows into the Channel. All along its banks are historic fishing villages and picturesque old ports, St. Suliac being the best of all, in our opinion.

The village nestles into a curve in the river’s course. From the hilltops you are able to look both north and south down the Rance as it meanders through the valley on its way to the sea.

Surprisingly, at least to me, the village was calm and not overrun by fatigued Parisians looking for a weekend out of doors. One got the idea that we were some of the first tourists to visit the town after its long confinement. On the evening of our arrival we were lucky enough to have dinner at a local restaurant that was opening for it’s first service since March. We happened to be walking by as the fishermen were delivering their catch to the restaurant owner so we were inspired to book a table to experience the local fish fresh from the sea. Our meal was very memorable. The fish was turbot, and it was deliciously cooked and beautifully presented.

The village itself is charming, with twisting alleyways, effulgent vegetation, ancient stone buildings and lovely views of the river. It has a nice épicerie, boulangerie and several restaurants. We had been here once before a few years ago when we stumbled upon it by chance. It happened to be in July when they were celebrating their annual boating festival. There were thousands of people in town that day so we hadn’t gotten the true flavor of the place.

The tides are relatively dramatic here. We had a great deal of pleasure watching the water change levels and colors depending upon the time of day. Our gite was on the hill behind the beach. The monument you can see on the distant cliff in the photo above was a short, level walk from where we stayed.

Quinn and Zinnie hadn’t been to the sea since our last adventure there together in February.

The gite I choose, which was ideally located but modest, just happened to have space for six people to sleep. Since we hadn’t seen Emily and her family for a few months, except virtually, we invited them to join us. The kids attend physical school only two days of the week (the other days study is done at home), so they were actually free to stay five out of the seven nights we were there. They arrived in the afternoon after a 4ish hour drive from Paris. We were all very happy to be together and to be in such a wonderful location.

Even if the weather wasn’t as warm as it had been in May, the kids were in the water several times a day. The bay is not at all deep, so they were able to walk far out even during high tides.

On the weekend the bay was absolutely full of wind surfers and sailors. We longed to rent a boat to get out onto the water, but unfortunately the rental shop was closed the whole week we were there. You can also take chartered boat trips up and down the Rance, all the way from Dinan to St. Malo, but we were never able to organize ourselves to take advantage of that.

Near our gite was a little wooded trail that leads to a monument built in honor of the Virgin Mary in 1894, using local materials. During the nineteenth century fishermen from St. Suliac would fish for cod off the coast of Newfoundland from March to November. Many sailors were lost at sea and never returned. One of the worst disasters occurred during one fishing season in the 1880s when a large number of locals went down with their ship. The next year, before leaving for their dangerous voyage, the fishermen prayed to the Virgin and promised her that if they all came back home alive, they would build her a monument. They kept their promise. The site provides a panoramic view of the area.

All along the Brittany coast you can find wonderful trails that were created for custom agents to patrol for smugglers. They are called les sentiers des douaniers. Descending from the monument and heading north, away from St. Suliac is such a trail which we walked for about a half mile, through woods and over rocks, but always with the the water to our left.

At one point there is a very steep and I must say rather rickety stairway that lead down to a beach. From there one could walk on, although we did not. The little beach disappears at high tide but at the moment we arrived, it was completely deserted and provided a narrow strip of sand and stone to enjoy, which we certainly did.

I have many more photos of our week on the coast. Next Sunday I will post some more of nearby locations we visited. Although you might not believe it by looking at the map, St. Suliac is about 20 minutes from Dinard, St. Malo, Cancale and Dinan, all wonderful places.

Learning to Fly

Baby swifts are just about as big as their parents

This week the baby swifts are leaving their nests. They perch on the gutter right outside our kitchen window and wait in a row until the adults swoop in and stuff something in their beaks. They seem very innocent, as they sit outside our open window and stare up at us without fear. We could reach out and grab one if we were so inclined…which we are not. The terrace creates a kind of cavern which the swifts love, especially in the evening, to navigate at high speed. As Rick pointed out, the gnats are also in high season at the moment and since this is what the birds eat, they are able to catch them easily in the enclosed space. They just open their beaks, and scoop them up. The babies, however, until they are independent, seem to require something more substantial than a mouth full of gnats. I haven’t been able to observe what the parents are feeding the “little” ones.

The third floor perch is also an excellent platform for the baby birds to try out their wings. Their bodies are such a perfectly aerodynamic design that flying seems to be cake to them.

Sparrows also use our top floor gutter to survey their nests, which they make in our honeysuckle

This week I spent most of the time in my atelier working on an unusual piece. It is unusual in the sense that I have never done anything like it, either on paper or as a “painting.” I don’t know why I decided to pursue it, but the idea came into my head and I just followed it to its conclusion. I started out with one of those failed abstract paintings on masonite that I created in early spring. In this case it was mostly reds, yellow and oranges, with a touch of green. I had envisioned a dark purple background for my image, so I put some blue acrylic in two corners and some red and green in the other two corners and started mixing them together right on the board. I had the whole thing covered when I thought better of making it just flat color, so I took a sponge and wiped off some of the purple to allow the under colors to come through. I liked it like that. I then began to draw a kind of vine pattern all over the board. I have never really made patterns before, but I liked the way it turned out well enough.

The vine is drawn with a white pen

I painted all the leaves green and then got the idea to put some silver leaf on all of them. Part of the way through that step, I decided to leave some green leaves to have the contrast. Gluing down the fragile thin silver leaf is quite tricky. I didn’t do an expert job, but I wasn’t entirely dissatisfied with the results. I decided it was more folk art than refined. The gold leaf in the middle of the flowers was much easier to handle. For some reason the gold is not as flimsy.

Gold and silver leaf
It looks best from the side with the light reflecting off the gold and silver leaf

I happen to have a whole collection of gold, silver, copper and aluminum leaf as I have always loved their luminescence. I’ve used it on various projects over many years.

Flight,” a deep-bite etching with gold leaf and surface drawing.

In the Abstract

As mentioned before on this blog, I love abstract painting and I have it in my mind to some day make some enormous abstract artworks to cover our walls. The only trouble is, I don’t really understand how to do it. Early in our lock down, I dragged out some masonite boards and started experimenting. I have done a little research into contemporary artists whose work I admire and most say that when they start a painting they have no idea what they are after. While that seems like fun, it also seems a bit intimidating. How do you judge your own work when you have no image in mind? It’s like being blind. I did paint four or five canvases this way, all quite different, and enjoyed the process a lot, but had no sense of where I should go with it or when I was finished, so I put them all away in a stack. I have started painting over them lately. I pulled out the one above to gesso over it and begin something else, but I paused. I sort of liked the painting. It has a landscape feeling and it reminds me a little of a painting I grew up with in our family house, so while I’m not sure what I will do with it, I did decide to allow it to live.

Tea and a Good Book

This week I also did a little collage work, incorporating some of my old drawings. I have so many beautiful old papers and stacks of drawings, so I tried to see if I could put them together in an interesting way. I like this technique and I will continue to explore it. Rick is less enthusiastic about it, as it is something of a technical challenge to line up all the little collages correctly and roll them through the press to adhere them to the moist printing paper. One mistake and the whole thing has to be trashed.

Country Roads

This week we stayed home, but the phone has started to ring again and the world is getting back on the road over here. This weekend all our rooms are taken. Meanwhile the sun is making it’s own ornate paintings on the terrace…

and in the hallway. Summer weather is upon us.

The spring flowers, my favorites, have passed, but we’re still left with a carpet of campanula in the terrace beds…

and star jasmine growing up on the fence. As to the delicious scent, as you stand by our gate, I will have to leave that to your imagination.

The Big Adventure

Last Sunday we took a long drive in the countryside around our village. For the first phase of the opening up here in France, we are permitted to travel 100km, as the crow flies, from home. We packed up a lunch and chose a direction, which happened to be south, and just started driving down little roads that are innumerable in our corner of the world. The day was perfect, the sky deep blue, the temperature warm but not hot and the roads sparsely populated. We had a vague idea of finding a trail and taking a walk, but the main object was just to see the world beyond town. I had not sat in our car since February. It all seemed very daring.

The first thing I noticed was how fecund the world is at the moment. How many shades of green are there? From the intense yellow green of the newly sprouted corn fields, to the deep forest green of the oak trees, I couldn’t begin to count. I have never had allergies, but my eyes began to water as we made our way along. It was as if the air was swirling with new life.

Just about the time we began to feel a bit hungry, we passed a sign for The Château de Courtanvaux. Although the castle itself was closed, the grounds were open and we headed down the forested drive to the parking lot. We had been here several times before but never fully explored the grounds. It made a perfect place for our picnic. We found a bench in the shade of some trees and enjoyed the serenity with a few other families who were also there.

The 168 acre grounds are open all year, free of charge, for walking and picnicking. There are forested hiking trails, formal and informal gardens and a lake with a path all the way around.

Enjoy the sound of the French countryside!

A pleasant water course leads from the château itself to the lake and beyond. The water tumbles down in steps.

In other times we have seen wedding parties taking photographs here. The grounds are very photogenic, as you can see. The bridge is a favorite spot for the bride, in her flowing white gown to pose with her new husband, dressed in black. I could picture them there.

The formal rose garden is on the castle level, which we didn’t visit this time. Instead we enjoyed the field of wild flowers and native grasses.

We took a nice long walk all through the grounds of Courtanvaux before traveling on.

A few iconic sights greeted us as we zoomed past, including this two layered ghost sign on the side of a building and these incredible stupa-like structures built by an artist outside a town we pass through from time to time. We have never seen the artist at work, but each time, they multiply and change. They are located right on the roadside and visitors are welcome to stroll among them.

We were gone from home for less than five hours, and our walk was more a stroll than a hike. Even so, at the end of the day I was so exhausted that I could hardly keep upright. I suppose I was just a bit overstimulated!

The View From Here

This week the village has come back to life. Our phone has been ringing and we’ve hosted our first guest. The Place in front of the maison is now full of cars. People are coming and going. For myself, I haven’t yet ventured outside our gates and haven’t felt desperate to do so. I have my nice chaise longue on the terrace and a beautiful view from our apartment windows. These make me feel much less restricted. Tomorrow, however, we intend to take a nice long drive and stop for a walk in the countryside. I haven’t been in the car since March.

I did some oil painting this week. I really wanted to do some abstract work but I find I don’t know how. I push the paint around and never have any idea what to do with it. I decided that I would try to make some abstract figurative images, which are popular at the moment and I have seen some fabulous examples, loose and expressive. However when I started painting I didn’t feel quite confident enough. Instead I came up with something semi-realistic. I decided to try using a limited palette, just four colors (two sets of compliments) and white. I don’t think I’m quite done, but for the moment I am putting it aside.

I also got back to finishing a couple of etchings which I began weeks ago. The first version of this one was a plain line etching. It improved when I added a little texture, with little etched marks, although I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the result.

I decided to add some aquatint, which is a technique a lot like half-tone, used in old photography. Resin is adhered to the plate and when put into the acid, allows grays to be added to an etched image. It brings it to life.

Creative Distraction

Quinn and Zinnie’s reenactment of American Gothic, an iconic painting from the 1930s.

My daughter Emily and her family are finding clever ways to endure the lockdown. They have had their spa days, their dinner parties with the neighbors over the fence (passing dishes back and forth with a basket rigged up on a pulley) and some photography fun. Still, the kids are getting a little tired of being so far away from their classmates. They start school next week, although it certainly won’t be the same as before. They will be required to stay inside their little prescribed space, marked out on the floor, all day long.

I don’t feel the limitations too keenly. I have my own creative activities to keep occupied and days go past so quickly that I rarely have a moment to wonder what to do with myself.

I start my day with a bowl of fresh fruit and orange juice, pretty as well as delicious. At the moment, blood oranges are in season, making the juice extra special. After some aerobics via YouTube, I head down to the atelier where various projects await my attention.

Seasonal fruit is a perfect way to start the day.

In the garden the bee balm is in bloom. I got out my eco-dyeing supplies the other day, which had been untouched all winter. But bee balm makes such a predictably nice blue image, so before they bloomed out, I printed up a few.

Eco-dyed image on paper of wild bergamot, also known as bee balm.

Meanwhile I am back working on some relief printing. Instead of the reduction printing technique I have been experimenting with recently, I decided to work on a woodblock print with separate plates for each color. The nice thing about reduction printing is that everything naturally registers because you only have the one plate. The problem I found with it, however, is that the ink gets so thick on the paper. I wanted to try the more traditional multi-plate technique, but find a reliable way to register all the colors. I discovered a nice system that utilizes wooden pegs. The paper is per-punched with holes which can be put in the wooden pegs on each plate to guarantee the same placement for each color on the paper. The key block plate is printed first on paper and then transferred to each additional plate so that the blocks are also registered with one another. Rick kindly made up a nice rig for me. He is also carving the blocks, which I appreciate very much!

Transferring the key block image from paper to plate to ensure accurate registration.

We got this first color printed this weekend. The registration is pretty good. We still have a lot to learn. Since I seem to be so promiscuous with my art techniques, I am always in the learning stage. But I suppose I must prefer that. Mastery seems out of reach. For this one, there are still three colors to go. It isn’t turning out as I had imagined and hoped, but we will keep working on it.

First color (after the key block).

I am quite spoiled by having Rick available so much of the time. I am taking advantage of his good nature and requesting all kinds of upgrades to the atelier. This week he built me a fabulous new easel contraption in about an hour and it is just marvelous to work on.

Easel with two shelves for watercolor as well as oil painting.

Twice a week I meet with the grandchildren on FaceTime to do art class. We have made a color wheel. some simple shading exercises, cartoon characters and various other drawing projects.

Some pages from the kid’s expanding sketchbooks.

Weather this week has been a little less warm but the flowers continue to burst into bloom both on the terrace and in the garden.

Two rose varieties blooming on the terrace.
Peony bouquet from the garden.

Finding Beauty in Confinement

We take our afternoon tea on the terrace.

For me, this week has passed much like the week before and no doubt similar to the week ahead. Still the natural world outside our gates is not standing still or waiting for us to rejoin it. The pace there has accelerated. I don’t think nature misses us much. It actually gives me great pleasure to hear about how the animals are returning to reclaim empty streets of cities, how the air and water are recovering, how it is noted that even bird songs are louder this year as the avian population is not so stressed by human activity. What have we done to our world that our absence is not only not regretted, but actually celebrated? Less than a hundred years ago the earth was 66% wilderness. Today it is barely 25% and shrinking yearly. Every environmentalist that I have heard speak about this pandemic points out that it is the natural consequence of the way we are using our world. These few weeks of human pause seem very precious to me. It is far from certain that we will abandon our unsustainable ways as a result of being temporarily stopped in our tracks, but some things will change. Nature has a point of view and is perhaps trying to send us a powerful message. It makes sense to try to hear it.

In the thirteen years we’ve lived here, we have never actually had our house to ourselves except during the darkest days of winter. What a pleasure it has been to have these wonderful warm days and spend our time as we choose, without having guests to accommodate. Rick has time in his schedule, which is rare. He decided he wanted to start doing some woodblock cutting, I was really thrilled. I am working on a new print of a clematis branch and I was certainly happy to allow him to do the carving for it. He is really a much better craftsman than I am, more patient and meticulous.

The weeds have gone wild both inside and outside our gate. But if you’re an attractive weed, we give you free rein.

At the big garden the bee balm and brunnera are in glorious bloom. These plants too are volunteers, but I welcome them both wholeheartedly.

A friend from California sent us California poppy seeds a few years ago. They seem quite happy in our garden, they come back each year and in ever greater numbers.

The last tulips are enjoying their final days in the garden, playing their part in the cycle of life.

The side of the shed, weathered by years of sun and rain, makes a beautiful natural abstract painting.

In our large garden irises came and went a couple of weeks ago, but in the terrace, they are just beginning.

In the fields around the village, horses and other farm creatures are romping about in the sunshine.

Our entry which has always served our clients has been made more cozy by removing one of the two couches we had there. We had a difficult time deciding where to put the extra one until we came up with the idea of having it just outside the atelier, in a little hallway that has served as a storage area.

It has turned out to be a very pleasant place to sit, as long as we remember to take off our inky smocks first.

Inside the atelier itself, I am always moving things around to find better arrangements. Birds and boxes feature prominently on one of the storage cupboards.

Last but not least, this week, I have a simple recipe to share with you. We have begun to make a Chinese style vegetable fritter which is quite delicious and super easy to make. You cut a leek, a zucchini, a carrot, an onion, some scallions, a hot pepper and a mushrooms to make 1/2 match stick sized pieces. Put 2 1/2 cups of the sliced vegetables in a bowl, add 3/4 cup flour, 1t salt and 3/4 water. Still together. Cook in a generous amount of oil until browned and loose on one side (a few minutes), flip and brown the second side. Serve with a dipping sauce of 1T soya sauce mixed with 2t rice wine vinegar. Float a few sesame seeds and red pepper flakes on top of the sauce.

The safflower fields are all bloomed out, but the view is still a pleasant alternative to television.

Flower Power

While I am making prints of late summer flowers in the studio, outside spring flowers are coming into glorious bloom. At our garden, a few minutes walk from home, the cherry blossoms are promising an abundance of fruit in a couple of months.

Although we both long for a car trip, or a visit to the sea, in the meantime it is not so bad to have such an expansive view from our living room windows, especially now. I look forward every year to the all too temporary safflower, electric yellow.

In our terrace garden, life has returned and with it, an embarrassment of flower glory. The wisteria is not only beautiful to behold, but it scents the air with a subtle sweetness.

At the same moment our clematis is carpeted with attractive pink blooms.

And as if that were not enough, the yellow rose, below the wisteria is popping into bloom as well. The weather has been exceptionally warm and the songbirds have returned to the village. The sparrows are busy making nests in our honeysuckle vines as the swallows swoop through the air. The blackbird, with his clever repertoire of songs, sits on the wall outside our window and entertains us from early to late. We continue in place until the middle of May, as required here, all the while enjoying these pleasant days together.