Walking and Painting the Camino de Santiago
Updated: Dec 13, 2022
On March 29, I left Oviedo, a small city in northern Spain, and embarked upon the Camino Primitivo. It's a 200-mile stretch of paths, dirt roads, and streets traversing the Spanish provinces of Asturias and Galicia to the historic town of Santiago de Compostela.
The journey is done on foot, with "pilgrims" walking from town to town each day, carrying just a backpack with minimal supplies. A pagan ritual turned catholic pilgrimage, the Camino is now walked by all types of people, from pious Catholics to nonreligious lovers of nature. Personally, I was drawn to the Camino as a way to "fill the well," helping replenish my creativity through the beauty of nature and the medicine of walking. I also hoped to make some paintings along the way, creating a visual diary of the hike.
I was excited to embark upon the Camino that cloudy March morning, along with my friend Amanda, another artist. It was strange to leave the city on foot. The car horns, tight spaces, and steep vertical lines of the city center gradually gave way to smaller houses and green pastures. Cows and horses dotted the hillside, their bells resounding brightly as they grazed. Scents of eucalyptus and fresh cheese wafted through the air, and birdsong followed us along the trail. Compared to my life in urban San Francisco, the countryside of Asturias was a pastoral paradise. The green vegetation was impossibly vibrant, saturated with the rain of early spring. I enjoyed a sense of serenity, my mind suddenly empty of my usual giant list of to-dos and appointments. Now, my task was simple: follow the trail until I reached my destination.
We trekked along, soaking in the beautiful landscape, stopping periodically to take photos of the countryside, the cows, the centuries old stone walls. Hours passed by in peaceful bliss. As we passed a deep ravine in the afternoon, we stopped briefly for lunch, then continued on to our hotel that night.
In the early evening we reached the town of Grado, our first stop. The weather was cold but not rainy, so we ventured outside with our paints and found a grassy hill with an expansive view. There I did my first painting of the Camino - the green hillside with our farmhouse hotel on top. It was wonderful to sit in the grass and take in the scenery after a long day of hiking.
The next days followed the same simple pattern: wake up, have coffee and journal, walk, have lunch, walk, paint, have dinner, sleep. Each day offered a visual feast. I felt as though there were paintings everywhere I looked. I loved the green hillsides with buildings speckled between them, arranged not according to a grid or suburban plan, but instead following the curves of the landscape. My body ached after long days of hiking. However, each evening as I sat down to paint, I felt the satisfying tiredness of a day well spent.
One morning, the temperature dropped sharply, and a sudden, heavy snowstorm began. Our hike had coincided with a cold front going through Europe, which would follow us for several days. It was shockingly cold, but the snow gave a soft beauty to the landscape. After an hour or so, the snow suddenly stopped, and we reached the ruins of a church, dating back to the year 800. Glowing from sunlight, its abandoned stone rooms now filled with plants, the old church was a beautiful, ethereal space. We spent a long time exploring its rooms, climbing over rubble, observing how the light bounced and illuminated the stone and plaster walls. I felt a strong desire to stay there and paint, to capture the beautiful feeling in that moment. Sadly, the sky darkened once more and a heavy snow began again, forcing us to continue on.
The landscape became dryer and more barren as we approached the edge of Asturias. I found this shift to be unwelcoming, feeling little inspiration as we hiked into Galicia. We walked with two other hikers from Germany, and the conversation lifted our spirits. Despite the bitter cold and my lack of inspiration, I wanted to take advantage of the first sunny days and paint outside. I settled on painting simple compositions and kept my expectations low, doing quick sketches of the countryside and the town of O Cadabo. My persistence paid off, leading to surprisingly beautiful paintings and a greater appreciation for my surroundings.
At this point our trip was coming to a premature end - Amanda's knee was not doing well, and her ankle had started to swell. We hoped it would get better with rest, but it had still not improved the following morning. Nevertheless, she was determined to try one more day, and we set off to hike 30km to our next destination. We hiked slowly, happy to see the landscape turn back to lush farmland and hear the sound of birds again. Gradually, we counted down the kilometers as we approached the medieval walled city of Lugo.
Reaching the city, it was strange to see apartment complexes towering over us once more. Lugo was crowded with buildings, cars, and people. We stayed in the old city, wrapped in a tall Roman wall, the same wall that promised safety to pilgrims in earlier times when the trek was much more dangerous. I soaked in the urban environment, finding new inspiration for my paintings.
The next day Amanda was still not doing well, and it became clear that it was time to end our hike. Defeated, we decided to spend the last few days exploring the cities of Galicia. The silver lining of this was it gave us much more time to paint, which we did in cafes while sipping coffee and munching on churros dipped in hot chocolate.
I found myself drawn to the eclectic collection of overlapping shapes and colors of city rooftops, so different from the gridded cities in the United States. I also loved how the white walls of the buildings reflected the blue sky while in shade. Simplifying the complex rooftops and windows presented an interesting challenge, and I experimented with different colors and styles to transmit the feeling of Lugo at dusk. The city, now the end of our hike, took on a greater significance as the finality sunk in.
Our last days were spent in Vigo and Santiago de Compostela. We took a bus to Vigo, expecting to find a cute beach town, but were instead greeted by a rainy, industrial port city. To combat the gray, urban environment, I painted several colorful abstracted compositions based on my photos from the trip. Amanda and I also challenged ourselves to simultaneously do portraits of each other, which was a lot of fun, and my first time in years drawing someone else's portrait from life.
After Vigo, we finally reached Santiago de Compostela, our final destination. The positive side of cutting our hike short was that it gave us two full days to relax and paint in the town. I was drawn to the shapes of the terracotta rooftops and narrow city streets of Compostela. I also took time to do some pencil sketches, including both a statue of a famous law professor and a beautiful, floppy tulip.
I left Compostela feeling some sadness that we were not able to complete the hike but also incredibly grateful for the serenity and inspiration I'd received. My own artistic voice and vision was emerging more and more with each painting. These works combined to create a visual diary of my trip, marking the sights that impacted me along the way.
Now back at home in San Francisco, I'm already missing our days walking the Camino. I long for the sights, sounds, and smells of Asturias, the simplicity of each day, the quiet, meditative walking, and the evenings of painting and rest. I feel the draw of the landscape, and I know I will do another trek like this in the not so distant future. In the meantime, you can find me in my studio, drawing inspiration from the photos from my trip and transforming visions of Spain onto canvas.
Several of my paintings from the Camino are available for purchase, you can find them on my Etsy shop here. To see some video clips from along the Camino, check out my vlog on my Youtube channel here.
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