An Artist Paints the Camino
Standing at the ‘End of the Earth’, artist Sharon Bamber looked out across the Atlantic Ocean. Overwhelmed with conflicting emotion, she carefully laid down her 200th painting and packed away her easel. She had done it.
The Camino Artist’s Journey
From September 2018 to March 2019, I walked 1000 miles (1600km) from le Puy en Velay in France, over the Pyrenees, across Spain to Santiago de Compostela and onwards to Finisterre, the ‘End of the Earth’.
Every 5 miles (8km) along the entire route, I set up my easel and painted en plein air. Each painting took 3 hours. The whole journey took 6 months.
Why Paint the Way of Saint James?
It has been said that when you hear the call of the Camino, you can’t refuse. I first became aware of this network of ancient pathways while visiting Limoges in France. I noticed bronze scallop shells set into the paths at regular intervals, leading through the city. Intrigued, I discovered that they marked the Way of Saint James.
Here was a route of enormous cultural significance, crying out to be painted. For me, it wasn’t about adventure, escaping, grieving, or any of those reasons for walking the Camino. This was, I believed, just about the Camino itself. An art project designed and undertaken specifically to document and honour the Way of Saint James.
It didn’t cross my mind that 1000 miles was actually quite a long way to walk, nor did I realise how affected I would be by the experience. The Camino had called to me and it was too important to ignore.
The journey took me on several well-known paths that make up the Way of St. James – the Via Podiensis, the Camino de Santiago (also known as the Camino Frances) and the Camino Fisterra. It led me up and over two mountain ranges, across high plateaus, through woodlands, along canals, through old stone villages and more. With each footfall and each painting, the hectic pace of contemporary life slowed down and the story of the land gradually unfolded.
Sharon Bamber’s Companions
I wasn’t alone. Alongside me was my husband, Simon, pulling 40kg (88 lb) of equipment. Dupon, my beautiful donkey, carried the softer, lighter load of clothes, sleeping bags and tent. A lovable 5-year-old, his donkey antics enlivened the journey in ways that I couldn’t have even begun to imagine.
This weight included only 25 painting boards at a time. 200 painting boards were impossibly heavy and bulky to carry.This meant that I had to box boards up into sets of 25 and drive the route before walking it, dropping the boxes of boards off at various points along the way. I then went back to the beginning and started to walk.
At the end of the walk, I drove back along the route to pick up each pack of 25 finished paintings that I stored in various places as I walked.
The Paintings of the Camino
Before I started walking, I divided the entire route into 5-mile sections on the map. On the journey, I created one painting within each section. In this way, I captured the essence of landscape as I moved slowly through it.
As I walked, my choice of subject within each section was based on my emotional response, that catch of excitement, a heart-leap, that told me that I had to paint: historic towns, dry stone walls, coppiced woods, the path worn smooth or deeper than the surrounding land by years of footsteps. The raw ruggedness of the Aubrac plateau, twisting olive groves.
Each painting I named with its exact GPS location – a specific place at a specific moment in time. Every one of them with its own small story that adds to the cultural narrative of this route.
We walked from the tail end of summer to the beginning of spring, through all types of landscape and weather. The scattering of pilgrims that passed us at the beginning thinned, replaced by a smattering of farmers, hunters and hounds until they too disappeared. For much of the autumn and winter, we walked through a landscape empty of people. Only traces of their presence remained, archives of millions of journeys and lives etched into the landscape.
Days were long and hard – excerpts from my diary:
A Typical Day:
“Up at 6am, wake Dupon, cuddle Dupon, pack tent, eat breakfast, groom Dupon, hoof-pick Dupon, saddle Dupon, pack and weigh saddle bags, leave (eventually!) at 8am, walk, find painting location, tie Dupon on short tether to offload, re-tie on long tether so he can graze, set up to paint, stand at easel and paint for 3 hours, take photos of painting, find Google location coordinates, take down art gear, have a snack, pack, tie Dupon on short tether to reload, groom Dupon, check hoofs, load, walk to the next painting location and go through everything again.
It is start in the dark, end in the dark. My feet are killing me, my legs don’t want to work properly, my back’s aching, my shoulders are sore and I’m so tired that it’s hard to keep my eyes open; but I just can’t seem to stop grinning!”
Cold and tired:
“Cumulative fatigue is brutal. I have to be incredibly disciplined to make sure I complete a painting within each section, even if I really didn’t feel like doing it. Many times I have to put a hot water bottle inside my clothes while I paint.
Today my hands froze and I couldn’t even hold the pastels. It is so hard to get warm and dry again – even when we don’t camp, the places we stay are unheated because we’re the only ones using them”.
At the End of the Journey
I said at the beginning that this journey was just about the Camino. It wasn’t about me. But in the end, the Camino worked its magic on me too. Every footfall, every moment I stood painting, every one of Dupon’s high jinks is etched into my memory. It has left me with a yearning. To feel that bond with the land as strongly as I did on the Camino, to travel slowly and say goodbye forever to the car.
I told myself that the expedition would be challenging and wonderful, but I don’t think I really knew what that meant. I certainly do now! It’s far more than I ever expected. More exhausting, exhilarating, painful, fulfilling and deeply, deeply satisfying.
I discovered that the Way of Saint James is many things: a line on a map, a physical route, a spiritual journey and a journey into thought. The Camino is a journey of discovery, self-discovery, shared stories, connections. It is layers of history and natural history, a story of the past, but also very much a story of the present and of being present.
The Camino is a story to which I feel joined now. Through those artists, writers, pilgrims that have walked before me and will walk in the future, I feel part of the legacy of the pilgrimage, and the land through which I walked will forever be part of me.
My Book – 1000 Miles: Walking & Painting the Way of Saint James
I share all 200 paintings and their stories in my newly released book 1000 Miles: Walking & Painting the Way of Saint James and you can see the paintings on my website.
Find out more about the book, or purchase the book here.
Purchase the book on Sharon’s website.
About Sharon Bamber
Sharon Bamber is an award-winning artist who is passionate about the natural world. She paints outside, capturing the ‘living landscape’ on location, in all weathers and conditions; a practice known as ‘en plein air’.
She is a Signature Member of the Artists for Conservation and of the Federation of Canadian Artists and an Associate Member of the Society of Animal Artists. She has exhibited widely in Canada and USA and has won numerous awards in international competitions.
Her paintings can be found in private and corporate collections throughout the world.
Thank you so much for sharing your story and your gorgeous images with us, Sharon! It is a delight to see how the paintings came to life as you walked.
Create your Own Camino Memories
For other artists out there, the Camino is a treasure trove of inspiration! Let us know what you are planning and we can help you to make it a reality. Painting the Way of Saint James is a wonderful way to dedicate time to your craft and reconnect with your creative side.
We can help with transfering all your Camino painting equipment too!
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Originally published on 5th May 2021