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The Well-Travelled Mural: Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces in Longsheng, in southern China

This series of Well-Travelled Paintings is designed to share my progress re-learning to paint, draw out the memories of the places and travel destinations I paint, and also keep myself accountable to my goal to paint more often. Each painting featured comes accompanied by a mini-guide to the place depicted – a taster to whet your appetite for when we can travel once again. Other paintings in the series so far feature include Hampshire, Cefalu and Palermo in Sicily, the French Alps and French coast, Greek Islands, and all paintings can be found here.

Although the rest of this series of Well-Travelled Paintings is focused on re-learning to paint and capture my more recent travels, today’s painting is slightly older. It’s a mural I painted aged 19-20 over many months, on my bedroom wall in my mother’s previous house, based on this photo I’d taken at the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces in Longsheng, China.

What does this mural depict?

Aged 18 I spent 6 weeks backpacking around China, at the start of a 4-month trip around Asia, in the company of a boyfriend who was a skilled photographer. His DSLR camera always produced better photos than my little compact digital camera, but I learned so much from him in terms of selecting a subject, composition, framing, and the artistic side to photography. My Art studies at school hadn’t included anything on photography and his was the first DSLR I ever played around with. Had I invested in a DSLR myself at the start of that trip, I probably would have learned a great deal more about exposure, focus, aperture and shutter speed, but at least I did learn about composition. That trip around China was so eye-opening and educational for so many reasons – it was my first experience of Asia, an enormous culture shock, an exercise in overcoming cultural and linguistic barriers that I simply hadn’t experienced elsewhere at that point, and my first trip with a boyfriend. I look back now and feel proud that we took the road less travelled by visiting China, not just sticking to the well-trodden paths of South East Asia, which were 10x easier to explore and navigate after the maze of China!

This photo is of the rice terraces that you see all over China. Train journeys in China cover vast distances and the predominant view from our many carriage windows was of endless flat plains of non-descript, hazy rice paddies, interspersed now and then with mammoth concrete metropolises. In the hillier south of the country though, the locals have been more resourceful in adapting the land for rice cultivation, and the dramatic hills of Longsheng have been painstakingly converted into steps of rice paddies, which give it the jagged impression of a dragon’s backbone. The mist on the day we visited produced this blue scene, that I captured and like so much, that I chose it as the base for the mural.

What about the mural itself?

Back in the UK, my mother had just re-built a house and it was a blank canvas to be played with. I’d completed an interior design evening class the year beforehand and chose to decorate the rest of my bedroom in my signature colours (blue, black and white). For the main feature wall, I embarked on a posterised mural project in seven shades of blue, converting this photo into a giant ‘paint-by-numbers’. It’s actually incredibly easy to do and requires almost zero artistic skill. The basic ingredients are: a decent image, the ability to scale up and pencil the lines onto your wall, a variety of pre-mixed paint colours, a lot of time and patience! Despite it being quite simple, it took me forever. You forget that your back will hurt after a number of hours stood up or crouching down, and for that reason you need all your paints to be pre-mixed so that you never risk losing a colour because your progress is too slow. The overall effect is fairly striking, but it’s essentially a really easy project to do, given enough time.

In the 2021 lockdown I contemplated embarking on a similar mural in my London flat too, to while away the time. Ultimately though I’m wary of investing that much time and energy in one project, when time seems so fleeting and I have so many other personal goals to pursue. The difference in Hampshire in 2008-9 was that it felt like there were minimal distractions there, fewer online courses, fewer personal development projects and a hell of a lot less life admin. It’s been suggested to me that I should instead paint a mural on large panels, that I can then transport with me from house to house, as I don’t envisage living in this flat for my whole life.

Would you like a mural such as this in your home, or would you embark on a project like this? There are various professional mural painters but I believe they cost a small fortune for projects of this size. If so what kind of mural, which colours or images would you depict? And which room in your house? I’ve read that murals are best placed in communal places such as dining rooms, halls and bathrooms as a talking point, instead of hidden away in bedrooms where they’re hidden like secrets. Looking back on this mural, I can see that the richness of the colours is a bit over-powering, the lines are blunt and it looks amateur. But the alternative was a plain wall with a framed picture or two, and that didn’t grab me either.

I obviously can’t sell that mural and am not a professional mural painter, but I am open to selling some of my other paintings. The places I paint hold memories for me but also no doubt for others who have visited or have a special connection to a place. If you’d like to discuss purchasing any of the other Well-Travelled Paintings, then email me and I’ll be in touch.

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