Postcard From Provence No. 2 – A-Painting We Will Go

Plein-air painting is not for sissies, let’s just get that straight right now.

Why sit in a comfortable, climate-controlled studio, with actual furniture and an actual bathroom, when you can freeze, burn-up, blow away, be swarmed by Japanese tourists,  trip on a tree root trying to get away, sprain your ankle, and drop your painting face-down on the grass?

It’s a reasonable question – and one I tried to answer recently during a weeklong workshop with the marvelous Jill Steenhuis. Jill is an American (and family friend) married to an Italian Frenchman she met while pursuing post-graduate art studies in France. Italian Frenchmen are an important part of post-graduate studies in France. Twenty-some years later they’ve raised three handsome boys in their wonderful restored farmhouse outside Aix-en-Provence, and life is good.

L’Abeille, the Provencal farmhouse and home of the Steenhuis-Ruffato family outside Aix-en-Provence.

Off the subject of painting but I have to tell you that Jill – an accomplished horsewoman, show-jumper, foxhunter – has also raised a magnificent Selle Francais named Danilo Sauvage. I mean this is a serious horse, but he acts like a dog. She leaves the gate open and he wanders over to the neighbors, whose little girl writes notes  and weaves them into his tail to bring back home to Jill. Damnedest thing I’ve ever seen.

Danilo pays a visit

Some of you know I paint a little, but I am a novice. Between writing and, you know, LIFE, there’s not a lot of time to paint. This workshop is a huge luxury, and I am grateful, grateful to be here. 

 Jill discusses, and we make, our palettes. All these colors are exciting, some mixed and some from the tube. My teacher in California doesn’t let me have more than four, and I mix as I go. (She also does not let me run with scissors.)

Freshly made palette

Next, Jill does a demo. She has chosen a “motif” to paint by the terrace of her house, a frequent setting for her work.

 On the blank canvas she begins a dance of color, light and shade. I have no effing idea what she is doing, but apparently she got it from Cezanne. I posted a video of Jill in action here on Instagram. It’s fun to watch.

Jill Steenhuis painting in the garden of L’Abeille

 She gets it almost-finished and does the final touches later in the studio.

Irises at L’Abeille, by Jill Steenhuis

Then it is time for us students to scout for a motif. I choose a small broccoli protruding from purple smudges resembling bird droppings.

Olive-Broccoli tree in irises, Frances Schultz

Try again. Slightly less broccolish.

Olives and Irises, Frances Schultz

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, but that doesn’t really apply to artists, who are crazy for other reasons – namely plein-air painting (more on that soon). Many good ones painted the same subject repeatedly and with fascinatingly different results. Andy Warhol of Jackie Kennedy, for example, and Cezanne of Mont Ste. Victoire, in whose environs we are this week.

Mont Ste Victoire, photo by Frances Schultz
Mont Ste Victoire, photo Frances Schultz

Cezanne painted the daylights out of that mountain, and it was different every time.
Here are two:

Mont Ste. Victoire, by Paul Cezanne
Mont Ste Victoire, by Paul Cezanne
Mont Ste Victoire, by Paul Cezanne

He makes it look so easy.

I make it look so … pink. Here is mine, from a different perspective, hence the different shape. I cannot explain the color. Clearly I have confused the rocks with the rosé.

Mont Ste Victoire, by Frances Schultz
Mont Ste Victoire, by Frances Schultz

It is dark the night we finish painting the mountain, but darkness isn’t the half of it. There are all sorts of things to contend with when plein-air painting.

A cloudy, windy, rainy day in wheat and poppy fields in Provence

Like wishing you had gone to the bathroom before you left, like keeping your easel from falling down, your palette from blowing away, your canvas from getting wet, your canvas from getting dry, your seat from collapsing, your ankles from being eaten, your hair from your eyes, your hat on your head, your iced tea from falling over (or maybe that’s just me). By the time you figure all that out, it is time to stop. Provided of course you got even that far

Fields of clouds, poppies and wheat, by Frances Schultz

Because before all  that, you load up like 12 carloads of stuff into two cars. Then you get to where you are going, you unload the 12 carloads of stuff, you walk all over hell and back trying to figure out what to paint, then set up your easel having first earned engineering degree in easel-setting-up, then haul out palette, brushes, turpentine, rubbish bag, umbrella, iced tea even though it is cold as anything, etc. etc.

Transporting the palettes in a specially made box fitted with dowels that create shelves for the palettes. An ingenius design that is the work of Jill’s husband, Sergio Ruffato.

By then days have passed and you are naturally too exhausted to paint.

But it’s all very exhilarating…. I think.

Same view, same field, by teacher Jill:

Poppies by Jill Steenhuis


The palettes after painting are as beautiful as the canvasses. Hers anyway.

Painting palette, after painting.

If the elements overwhelm,  you can paint in the studio. Preferably a welcoming and atmospheric space like this, modeled after Cezanne’s own, here built by Jill’s own – husband, that is – the sculptor and Renaissance man Sergio Ruffato.

Jill Steenhuis studio, Aix-en-Provence

Jill loves her art books, and every single one looks like it has been dragged behind a truck on the way to a Post-It party.

Jill Steenhuis Studio, Aix-en-Provence
Art works and art books in Jill Steenhuis Studio, Aix-en-Provence. At bottom left is the freezer where the palettes are stored at night.

Sergio goes to the fish market, and Jill sets up a still life.

Set-up for fish still life, Jill Steenhuis studio
Still life with fish and lemons, by Frances Schultz

You think you are safe inside the house, but there are dangers there as well… 

The Steenhuis-Ruffato family feline

The answer to the question in paragraph 2? Because it’s fun, it puts you in nature and therefore next to the divine, and you love that.

To read more about Jill Steenhuis, her work, her book Art, Soul and Destiny, click HERE..

Coming soon… painting by the sea, and a close call with a boat trailer. A bientôt.

PS, The workshop was in May. It’s just taking me a while to report. Here is Postcard No 1, in case you missed… Anyway I am back home now 🙂


  1. Hi Frances,

    Reading about your adventures in painting always makes me laugh! Your art work is so happy and and unrestrained. I love love love the fish still life!

    Thanks for sharing!
    Donna in Marietta

      1. She’s right, you are too modest! I’ve seen Ste Victoire that color at sunset.
        I hope you’ll find the time to paint, but please, don’t stop writing!!! ;0)

  2. your description of this extraordinary experience is wonderful. Envy your talent and this trip. thanks for sharing.

    1. This is kind of you, Nancy, thank you. And you know, the older I get, the more important I think it is to have fun – whatever that means to us (and to some it is their work) – but God didn’t put us here to grit our teeth through life. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. Is there anything you can’t do??!! Your paintings are gorgeous and yes, even the palettes create their own beauty. Jill’s life sounds so lovely and romantic…American artist in France meets and marries Italian Frenchman, marries and lives life in a restored farmhouse…your trip looks fabulous!

    1. Dear precious Design Chic, I might ask the same of you! But yes there are lots of things I cannot do. Iron, for one. I absolutely suck at ironing. 😮 … Thank you for writing and for your always wonderful Love, Frances

  4. OMG! Are you serious, Frances?????????????????????? Stop whatever you are doing right now and KEEP PAINTING!! You have such a talent! Thanks for sharing your lovely and charming art. I feel like I am right there among the irises with you (poor you). Seriously, what the hell…!

  5. Wow I knew (of) you before as a clever Southern history and culture of the South gal, never knew you were also an artist, and a witty woman to boot! Thanks so much for sharing – I hope to go one day myself – and pet that kitty!

    1. Susan, so kind of you, thank you for your kind words and for taking the time to write. I’m flattered to have you as a reader.
      Warmly, Frances

  6. Hi oh hi oh a painting we will go
    With Frances in tow
    Jewels, stripes, painting apron
    Not to be out done
    With Edwina, Carol, Ann-Katrine, Grace
    It’s a steady pace
    We are contemplating Cezanne space
    His mountain we paint
    To become one with the Saint
    Art exists to make one taste
    The eternal, our solace
    Hi ho hi ho a painting we will go

    1. Cannot believe you wrote a POEM with all you have going on… You are TOO ADORABLE for words or pictures. Thank you and can’t wait to go again. Love, F

  7. Hi,
    I am Jill’s youngest sister Nancy. That is the greatest thing I have ever read. Very
    True and very amusing. Only the ones of us who have been there can truly appreciate
    Where you are coming from.

  8. Really have enjoyed your photos on Instagram and your always wonderful art here…thank you for including us on your travels !! XO Becky

  9. Am so entertained by the lovely postcards from France. Your paintings are beautiful and charming and show great talent! What is there not to love about France?
    keep us posted and happy summer!
    xo, Lynn

  10. Jill is so talented. I met her years ago at a Sweet Briar reception in Paris and was devastated when I was too sick to attend a reception in her honor this spring in Chicago. Your paintings are beautiful too!

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