Tom Hoffmann Melaque Workshop 2017 - Part 1 : The place and the people

It has been a week now since I returned from the workshop, but the glow hasn't faded yet. Admittedly, I had never been to Mexico before and never taken an on-location workshop before, this is my first such experience and nothing to compare it against ... but it is without doubt the most magical one week of painting for me since I started this journey three years ago (more on that a bit later).

In this post I will write about the wonderful place that is Melaque, and the people that make it so. Thanks to Laurie for most of the pictures in this post.

The place - Melaque, Mexico

Melaque is a combination of three beach front villages - San Patricio, Melaque and Villa Obregon, the entire area commonly referred to as Melaque. As far as I could tell tourism is the most important component of the economy of the area. Apparently Melaque is a popular beach vacation destination for Mexicans. The area has some ex-pat population (mainly from Canada surprisingly), some tourists from US and Canada but not too many. It is most definitely not a resort town like Cancun or Cabo. Here are a few pictures of what the town looked like. One thing you will notice in all the pictures are the wonderful shadows! This place is a painter's paradise.

The beach

The place is small enough that you can walk the entire stretch on foot. There is an unbroken stretch of walkable beach that goes all the way from Melaque, via San Patricio to Barra de Navidad. Along the way you will find the beach front dotted with shacks, restaurants and bars (that didn't seem to have walls on the front and back, except for the two walls on the sides to hold up the roof of the shack).

I am told that the water in most of the stretch is too rough for good swimming, but apparently great for surfing!

La Paloma

Most of us stayed at the lovely oceanfront boutique resort in San Patricio, La Paloma. It is located right on the beach with amazing views of the ocean from most rooms. The place really is as beautiful as in the pictures. 

View of the ocean from Room 10 of La Paloma. You can see the pool on the left and Albatros Bar on the right. Also, palm trees everywhere!

View of the beach from La Paloma. Man feeding his catch to the birds.

The resort is gated, and once you are inside it feels like a sanctuary (high-walled hacienda!). It is beautifully designed, lovely landscaping throughout and is always cool because of the breeze from the ocean. The guests are welcome to enjoy the entire property, and there are lots of little nooks everywhere for us to gather.

The food

There were tons of options to eat out, and every meal was absolutely delicious. There are restaurants and eateries all over the place, ranging from tiny pop-up shacks to restaurants catering to the ex-pat community featuring hamburgers and salsbury steaks. My favorite meals are the ones we ate in the tiny pop-up restaurants with street seating. 

As evening rolled-in it seemed like every other home turned into a pop-up restaurant, serving tacos, sopes, pazole etc.

You really didn't have to spend much money to eat a great meal in Melaque. At this place above, dinner for a group of 8 came to 235 pesos, which is equal to less than $15. The restaurants varied widely in pricing, and there were places where we spent as much as $10 per head for dinner and drinks but these were really lavish and luxurious restaurants. So yeah, things don't cost much here.

This is a small town and all they have is Food. They don't have vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, kosher etc. etc. If you have special dietary needs, best make your own arrangements.

The People

I spent a week in Melaque but still I couldn't quite get a pulse on the rhythm of the town. You could never been certain that the place you ate at the night before will be open the day after. Some places closed for a few days at once. "Maybe I will go visit uncle so-and-so today." and so they decided to close down the shop or the restaurant for the day? I just don't know :-) Children seem to be out in the streets playing at random times of the day, when do they go to school? (some said the school was in the late afternoon). There was a carnival in town and there'd be families out at night with their children on weekdays. Weekdays? On school-nights? Such a thing wouldn't be dreamt of in the bay area :-)

One thing for sure is that there is a certain sense of freeness that we have come to forget here in the US. Children play freely in the streets, stop and talk to strangers, watch us paint, all the while there is no parent helicoptering and monitoring the child. People stop and chat with you (if you speak the language anyway) in a leisurely manner with no sense of hurry. It is like when you are there you just forget to hurry. Everything is leisurely and laid-back. Everything closed down in the afternoon, the streets desolate, most storefronts shut and the town came back to life in the evening with music (music was everywhere!), children playing in the streets, pop-up restaurants outside every home it seemed like, people set their chairs out on the sidewalk and watched the passers-by and chatted with their neighbors.

Upon my return, when I was telling a colleague at work about this experience they said, "You didn't go to another place, you went to another time!". And that is absolutely true. It really was more like time travel. There were no smartphone-people walking on streets like zombies, there was little hurry about places to be and things to do. It was a therapeutic experience, a glimpse of enjoying life and finding happiness outside of "stuff" and "success".

I left my heart in Melaque

What a place! I almost do not want to post this, lest more people start going there and it ceases to be the hidden gem :-)

Michael Reardon Workshop at SCVWS

Last week I was privileged to attend the highly popular watercolor workshop by Michael Reardon. The workshop had filled up in a day, but I got on the waiting list and was lucky enough to finally find a spot at the workshop. This was my very first watercolor class/workshop, so I was quite nervous about it, but just a couple of hours with Michael Reardon put everyone at ease and we were all painting happily along for the next few days.

A bit about the instructor

Michael is a architecture illustrator turned fine artist, who works exclusively in watercolor and has a very distinct style. Check out his website and his book to see his paintings. He paints mostly landscapes, cityscapes and statues in urbanscape, and his style is spontaneous, working wet-in-wet from top to bottom. HIs choice of pigments is unusual, and so is his use of color. He is a self-proclaimed tonalist, and his use of color is as a support to a painting whose composition depends on a backbone of value. And about him as an instructor, if I had only one word to describe him I would say 'kind'. And as a beginner artist, that was important to me.

The unusual palette

DS Ultramarine blue
Holbein Cobalt Blue
DS Cerulean Chromium
DS Cobalt Turquoise
DS Viridian
DS Phthalo Green (Yellow Shade)
DS Quinacridone Burnt Orange
DS Quinacridone Burnt Scarlet
DS Organic Vermillion
DS Carmine
DS Permanent Orange

DS : Daniel Smith

As you can see he doesn't have a yellow in his palette. The closest to yellow in his palette is Permanent Orange. (Actually, I lie. He does have Quin Gold in his palette, but I have not seen him use it in any of the paintings during the workshop). His saying is that yellow almost never exists in its pure form in nature, so he doesn't need it.

One of the paintings that Micheal demo'ed in the workshop


There was a ton of good information through out the workshop, and I learned as much from watching Michael help others, as I did from his help on my own paintings. The day always started with a demo, which took anywhere between 1-2 hours depending on the complexity of the painting. Michael had a thumbnail sketch and line drawing ready to go before the day began. 

To him, the most important thing was getting the idea down in a thumbnail sketch. After he has the sketch, he doesn't look at the reference anymore. He works directly from the sketch, working top to bottom (with the watercolor paper at a slight angle, allowing the water to flow down and form a bead), manipulating the bead, taking advantage of it to keep certain areas wet, while he worked on others. He arrives at the values mapped out in the sketch in first pass, and does not go back into painted areas once the area is complete. Someone at the workshop joked that he is like a 'printer'. It is an unusual way to paint, but it keeps the painting spontaneous and fresh, and the simple statement is emphasized. 

He encouraged us to make a thumbnail sketch of our reference, and worked with us to find the most interesting composition. His emphasis throughout the workshop was on composition, and not so much on watercolor technique (transparent vs. opaque, wet-in-wet vs wet on dry etc.), which I appreciated a lot. 

If there were only five things I took away from the workshop, these five would be it :

  1. Framing is important. Just because the quarter sheet is 11x15 doesn't mean you have to use all of it. The 4 walls of the painting are the most important compositional lines in the painting, and use them effectively. A long and tall painting creates drama, vs a square painting is calm. Think about this when you plan the painting.
  2. SImplify the scene into 5-6 shapes. When you do the thumbnail sketch, you should be able to break the scene into 5-6 simple shapes. Make these shapes as interesting as possible, and pay attention to the negative shapes and corners created at the intersection of the shapes with each other or against the edges. If you are not convinced that these shapes work, then move on to another design.
  3. Think about your focal point. Find the most interesting part of your painting, the part where you want the viewer's eye to rest first, and make sure that area is only area where is pure white next to pure black. There can be value changes in other parts of painting, but the focal point is where there should be the most difference in value.
  4. Break the scene into foreground, middle ground and background. A landscape or cityscape has the most clarity when there is a sense of foreground, middle ground and background. Try to find this clarity when you do the thumbnail sketch. 
  5. Make the corners interesting. The corners are as important as the edges. If possible, make all four corners different. 

It was great to have all this drummed into us for 4 days, it meant a ton of practice and clearly some of it got through :-) Here are some of my paintings from the workshop.