Brush-off in the bush

Katrina Lobley is inspired by the landscape and tuition at Wolgan Valley.

What stretches before us is a painter's dream. From the verandah of Wolgan Valley Resort's main homestead, the view takes in rugged sandstone escarpments towering above skirts of eucalypt scrub. In the foreground, the sharp lines of the resort's 40 villas contrast with the lawn-like valley floor originally cleared for cattle but these days kept trim by wombats, wallabies and wallaroos. Really, you couldn't ask for more inspiration for a beginners' watercolour class.

Instead, we're bewitched by the 16 blobs of colour we've just squeezed onto our palettes, grading them warm to cool, travelling left to right. The hues have exotic-sounding names - alizarin crimson, carbazole violet, quinacridone gold, piemontite genuine — which we barely know how to pronounce, let alone use. They sit there like shiny jewels, scaring us slightly, challenging us to mix them with water and splash them around on blank pages.

And so we do. Most of us ignore the dramatic landscape in front of us to paint imaginary flowers the colour of rainbows just as our teacher, Georgia Mansur, did when showing us how to get started. "If you're a control freak, then this is not the medium for you," Mansur says, as we watch the colours explode like fireworks on the papers when released into too much water.

Slowly we learn to vary the water and pigment loads on our brushes for different intensities, as well as the art of waiting patiently until a layer dries before applying another. "Timing is everything in watercolours," says Mansur, who has come from her Mudgee base to preview the watercolour classes she'll teach at the resort from November 2. She's a warm and friendly Californian expatriate who moved to Australia in 1984 when her husband had the notion to buy a cotton farm in north-west NSW. Painting helped her cope with the isolation; these days she travels the world helping others channel their artistic talent onto paper.

The surprising thing Mansur teaches me about watercolours is that, as with oil paints, you can take to your canvas with an arsenal of tools. Hers include an old credit card, hair comb and the pointy end of a paintbrush, using them to scrape and dig at the paint and paper to encourage pigments to travel a certain way. As the paints dry, textural effects can be added with a sponge, crumpled plastic wrap and whatever else takes your fancy. Or just flick a loaded brush to splatter paint. "This will create a bit of energy," Mansur says, flicking her brush vigorously.

I duly splatter my flowers and, if I squint hard, think the result has a touch of John Olsen about it. Filled with confidence and a few pointers on composition, I finally start my landscape but become unstuck. I'm rushing it, turning those pure colours into what Mansur calls "mud". It's dawning on me why watercolour is considered the most difficult medium of all.

As we pack up our artist kits, which we can take home, Mansur urges us to keep practising. If I had more time, I'd pop the kit in a backpack and use one of the resort's mountain bikes to reach a remote corner of the 1618-hectare property, and paint away there. Instead, I set off on a bike to simply explore, splashing through creeks, startling flocks of superb fairy wrens and enjoying the sight of grazing macropods. The Australian cricket captain, Michael Clarke, who could have chosen just about anywhere on Earth to marry, had his nuptials here in May, and I can see why.

First of all, there's a Jurassic Park-style park-and-ride entrance - guests leave their vehicles and are ferried by four-wheel-drive across creeks to the resort. It's all part of a carefully planned "narrative of emotion" that starts at the front gate, says the resort's general manager, Joost Heymeijer. Even though I know my emotions are being manipulated, it works to create a sense of arriving in an Australia I might not know existed.

I also expected the Australiana to be laid on thick for the benefit of overseas guests, but instead thoroughly enjoy the subtle touches - from the vertical, homestead-style timber boards lining villa interiors to the lamps fashioned by politician-turned-lighting designer Michael Yabsley from old water troughs, clothes wringers, oil cans and oilskins found on the property. The resort uses the Wollemi pine leaf as its motif and a dramatic glass sculpture of those leaves frames the transition between reception and restaurant.

The resort opened three years ago and there have been tweaks since then. Heymeijer, who has been involved with the project from the beginning, says it was envisaged that about half the guests would be from overseas and they'd arrive by helicopter from Sydney. Instead, it's turned out that most guests are domestic and prefer to drive.

Faced with the harsh Australian sun, big umbrellas were installed by the pool and dehumidifiers fitted in each villa's indoor pool area to stop them fogging up. All the better to frame and enjoy the view beyond.

Katrina Lobley travelled courtesy of Wolgan Valley Resort & Spa.

FAST FACTS

Emirates Wolgan Valley Resort & Spa is about three hours' drive from Sydney beyond Lithgow, between the Wollemi and Gardens of Stone national parks.

The artist-in-residence program includes up to three painting sessions with Georgia Mansur over weekends only from November 2 to December 3. It costs $300 a person and includes take-home artist's pack with sketch pads, brushes and paints.

Suites at Wolgan Valley Resort & Spa cost $1950 a double a night, including meals, drinks and activities such as guided twilight nature tours.

See wolganvalley.com.

The story Brush-off in the bush first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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