Painting in India

From the Arctic to India is a contrast to say the least, and colour-wise, there's a definite shift in the palette. From whites & blues for the Arctic, we swing towards yellows & reds for India!

Titanium white & Cerulean blue vs Cadium red & Cadium yellow. (paint from Michael Harding)

Titanium white & Cerulean blue vs Cadium red & Cadium yellow. (paint from Michael Harding)

A stop-over in Dubai, just enough to draw a couple of sketches in the oldest part of this oddly futuristic desert city.

Pencil sketch of Barges in Dubai.

On my flight to Delhi, I catch up with a bit of reading, to get into the atmosphere of India before I arrive. Of course, soon I realise there’s no amount of reading that can get you ready for India. The predicted chaos and crowd at the airport terminal exit is confirmed. Luckily I booked a driver ahead of time, and the 3 hour drive to Agra begins.

31 Oct - The first thing that hits me in Agra is the dust, noise and smells. I’ve smelt worse, but the noise level is astounding, simply from the incessant honking traffic. From the terrace of the hotel, it looks like a maze. To get my bearings, I decide to explore, but I avoid the noisy avenue, and head down the side street. Passing a chained up peeing buffalo, I head into the thick of it, as local’s turning heads seem to indicate that I’m not a common sight in this area.

Going old school, without GPS, I use “observation” to record my path. It works out, but the walk back later at night was a bit tricky.

These narrow streets become crowded, but are devoid of tourists; therefore no shop owners pulling you in, no hustlers, I feel anonymous. A nice change, but the trade-off is that I have to start dodging vans ploughing through the crowds, motorbike and scooters honking their way through like it was perfectly normal.

Pencil sketches. Left: Rooftop view of Taj Mahal. Right: Red Fort.

Ask for directions here, and all you get is “the Taj is that way”. It seems all roads lead to Rome, and also the Taj apparently. Like bursting out of a thick forest, I stumble out onto a proper road, at the east gate of the Taj. I walk to the Red Fort, another landmark that will help me get my bearings. 

1 Nov - It’s Sunday, so I decided to avoid the Taj crowds. It’s reconnaissance day, just sketchbook & pencil. After the 3rd invitation, I give in to the temptation of a tuktuk ride. I say I’m headed to Mehtab Bagh on the other side of the river, and he says "ok” and walks off. He passes the wheel (or rather handle bars) over to an older man who was sitting by a wall: The father, who is 70 yrs old, with 30 yrs experience, and is apparently the only one on the road who is not honking!

When travelling, I like to alternate between sketchbook drawing and painting. I enjoy both these processes for many different reasons. But essentially, drawing gives me the opportunity to explore the design and structure, and painting allows me to play with atmosphere and light.

Taj Mahal pencil sketch, from Mehtab Bahg.

2 Nov - 6 am rise to outrun the lazier tourist, I get to the Taj intent on sketching. The thorough security check-point confiscates pencil, charcoal, paper, and sketchbook, but leaves my camera! I pick it up on the way out, but the reason is to avoid people staying in one place for too long. I didn’t see that one coming.

However saturated we think we may be with pictures of this mausoleum, I wasn’t disappointed. It is a surprising sight, the symmetry, and simplicity of the overall design and floor plan. It is a monument to be seen from afar, as the full compositional impression of this grand design strikes you best when seeing the full picture, including the two mosques flanking it.

A bit of lunch and off to the gardens opposite the Taj again to paint.

Taj Mahal, from Mehtab Bahg.

Today’s ride included a last minute dodging of a napping cow in the middle of the road, in a blind corner. 

My driver shares the road with trucks, buses, vans, cars, tractors, motorbikes & scooters, bicycles, rickshaws, dromedaries, horses, donkeys, buffalo, cows, dogs and monkeys…. And pedestrians.

Managed 2 decent attempts, but scraped down my 3rd. Had some curious and chatty goat herding kids fascinated with what I was doing. So much so, that one of them sneakily turned over a wet painting, and got a load of sky colour all over his fingers!

Mosque next to the Taj Mahal, from Mehtab Bahg.

3 Nov - Early rise again, same gardens across the Yamuna river, to catch the Taj at morning light. The building is so bright, that it almost disappears in the misty morning glow.

Taj Mahal, from Mehtab Bahg.

In the afternoon, I visited other important sites, but that didn’t allow painting. So I decided to enjoy the wildlife that seems abundant in these parks. The monkeys always fascinate me, but the deer and the peacocks all over the place make this place quite unique. India has the largest number of deer species in the world.

4 Nov - Fateput sikri. Old abandoned city on the outskirts of Agra. An accessible cultural site where I can paint, and it's free. But this means a lot of locals are there too. The local kids were over excited around me, and as soon as I displayed a need for space, the elders stepped in to help dissipate them. But I wasn’t sure what was more distracting; noisy kids around me, or the sight of an old man chasing and beating kids with his stick.

This was not helping my concentration, and in fact I did not finish anything today.  

You can almost work out a predictable colour mix for the skies here. From top to bottom it goes as follows (mixed with white obviously: Cerulean, green, yellow cad, alizarin, alizarin + grey)

5th Nov - Another 6 am rise to catch my train to Jaipur. I get to my platform, for my 7:15 train. My next few hours are taken up getting announcement updates about how late my train is. The train is 4 hours late, for a trip that will take 6hrs. So I kill some time with a sketch of this handsome old train.

Train turns up, and I meet a couple of girls from Katmandu who were just travelling around on holiday. We shared our stories, and they were interested in my sketchbook. They knew of John Singer Sargent and said how my drawings reminded them of his travel sketches. Now that’s the sort of encouragement we all need!

I arrive at Jaipur at 17:00, and I dine at peacock rooftop restaurant. Yet more delicious curry, I can’t get enough.

6th Nov - Jaipur. A reconnaissance day, where I try to hit as many sites as possible in the day. This town is cleaner, and more modern than Agra. Skies are not as smoggy, and there’s actually some blue to these skies! I found myself a driver by the name of Ali, who was younger than my previous driver, honked more, and took way more risks. At this point I was numb to it all, thanks to my ear plugs.

Today, I meet the grey Langur; beautiful & elegant monkey, with its grey coat, black face and long tail. Twice the size of a Rhesus, it is definitely the dominant presence. The rhesus definitely loses the elegance contest here, due to its awkward and unfortunate pink “appendages”.

7th Nov - By early morning I get to the Monkey temple, named for obvious reasons. It is a place where men and women have separate pools, where it is a custom to bathe to wash away one’s sins. At this latitude, the sun moves fast, and the painter must work fast. And with yet another crowd staring at my face, I have difficulty getting into gear!

At the top pool, which is the source, I am away from the crowds. I have a slightly better chance to work. But I witness territorial monkey battles, who’s agility is enthralling. Such a shame we didn’t inherit some of these skills! Back at the tuktuk, Ali was not happy though. The seats had suspicious traces of monkey bites and tears on the back seat! My afternoon is taken up visiting a fort where I can't paint, but has some fun symmetry to play around with

8 Nov- Amber fort full day. I’m actually painting next to a funeral site. Ali tells me this is where bodies are burnt and the remains thrown into the lake. I conclude that we all end up being fish-food one day, and Ali laughs out loud. I don’t think he’s used to people being this irreverent towards rituals.

Lunch at rainbow restaurant, then back to Amber in the afternoon. Here I concentrated on the architecture up close, away from the crowds. 

Amber fort, evening light.

9 Nov - On my last day, I head up to the Jaigargh fort, and get there before the gate opens. We park near the Langur monkeys who are having "breakfast". Apparently too close for their liking, they start howling, and stare at Ali and I sitting in the tuktuk. One runs at us, jumps and bounces off the canvas roof, trying to knock us over. Not satisfied with that attempt, it pushes over a row of motorbikes instead.

Ali panics and we speed across to the other side of the parking lot, while the bikers run to pick up their bikes. The Langurs calm down, and the gates open. The view across the landscape is arid, with what looks like a great wall of China running off across the hills.

Pencil sketch. View from Jaigargh Fort.

Back down at the lake for lunch, the Jal mahal offers a unique view. A royal palace, still used today.

Pencil sketch of Jahl Mahal Palace.


Tomorrow I head to Delhi, and the Diwali festival is starting up. The god of light that brings prosperity is today honored mostly through fireworks. Tonight my hotel seems like it’s in a war zone, as I drop my fork at dinner yet again from the huge bang from the streets.

10th Nov - Flight Jaipur to Delhi. With my paintings packed up for the flight out, I do some sight seeing across town. I hope to come back and see more. This was a short trip for India, and a lot of it was getting used to the chaos. Next time I should be prepared. But at least I get to enjoy the extra chaos of the Diwali festival!

toby wright