A Visit With Snow White Painting Freedom In France

By George Dirkers M.D.
Photos courtesy of George Dirkers M.D.
“Why did you paint those boots black, George?,” he asked as he reviewed my first painting of the week-long art course in a chateau in South West France.

I looked at the old army boots on the table in front of me. Black, worn, dusty. The leather scuffed and the shoelace tips long since frayed. I answered Mike’s question with a question, “A painter should paint what he sees, no?”

“A painter should paint what he feels.” Mike paused, preparing the advice that he had given to many tight, inhibited students in his previous classes, and delivered the lines with the sincerity of someone who really knew of what he spoke: “Paint what you want, when you want, how you want.” He continued, “Don’t be afraid to break boundaries. Use whatever colors strike you. Have some fun. Just let your mind go.”

I looked at my painting. Representational style, they call it. Looked like a photo of the boots. But Mike was right without saying it: My boots might look like the boots on the table, but they were boring. Hmmm….

I cautiously picked up the tubes of ultramarine blue and magenta, the cadmium yellow and the viridian green, the naphthol red, and squirted out small dollops onto my palette. I took a deep breath and blindly stabbed my brush into the colors, held up my full brush, and stared at the canvas. A small voice in the back of my head told me that army boots are not these colors. Use brown and black and tan, a hint of white, the voice said. I ignored the voice.

The colors flew. I went outside the lines. A smear of magenta here, a reflection of yellow there. Purple made it onto my palette and onto the painting. Soon the drab boots were pulsing with life – the life my hand and brush had given them. I felt suddenly released from an unseen binding. I stood back from the easel. The black boots were now electric blue! And green. And magenta! Maybe the colors didn’t go together. Maybe I violated the old “Now students, we only use three basic colors to make a good painting” rule. But painting these boots had become fun! The boots were coming to life. I was starting to let go. It felt good!

Mike’s painting studio, with a high timber ceiling and a flood of sunlight, is the heart of this seventeenth century chateau, tucked away in Saussignac in southwestern France, not far from the larger town of Bergerac and an hour by train east of Bordeaux. The studio’s tile floor is splattered with old paint – some thrown at a canvas and missed, some undoubtedly dropped, and with some of the dried paint, only the hint of footprints gives away how it got there. The sparse walls are of ancient fitted stone, with Mike’s larger-than-life portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat, a Brooklyn graffiti artist of Haitian descent turned painter, sitting pensively in dreadlocks and a paint-splattered Armani suit, overlooking those who are painting in Mike’s studio.

In addition to being a painter, Mike Snow had been an engineer. He had his own successful business for many years, but one day decided to sell it all. He retired at a reasonably young age to Hawaii, where he met his partner, a photography guru and gourmet chef who happened to be named White – thereby forming the epic duo of Snow-White! Was as
following a dream (and good sense, I say), they settled in 2006 in the small French village of Saussignac.

“We could have settled in other parts of France,” Mike told me. “Each part has its own identity. Some areas manufacture Toyota parts, other areas make wine. We chose wine. And we chose wisely. They know how to live here.”

The studio, nestled in this old French chateau, is a place of creation, a place to simply let go. With Mike’s guidance, I was soon painting with freedom and with a large sense of enjoyment. My own work surprised me.

One of Mike’s tricks is to have his students use their leftover paint remaining on their palette – maybe the same paint that was agonizingly placed on a small canvas just an hour before- and simply “paint it out”, putting all the leftover paint onto a large blank canvas that was tall as I could reach.

“Just get that paint on the canvas – this isn’t a great work of art – it’s just a way to get rid of your paint,” Mike instructs. So I brushed and smeared and brushed some more. After each morning and each afternoon session, after my future “museum works of art” were finishedand the canvases were signed, I splattered and smeared and zigged and zagged and crossed and dotted with all my leftover colors, painted secret codes and letters and part of an old poem I had written and straight lines of red and curved lines of blue and circles of magenta and a number here and a symbol there and maybe a dragon’s face or was it a schoolbus? – I never even thought about what was growing on the gigantic canvas. After a full week of such mindless painting, I had created a large abstract piece of freedom – something created not from heavy thought and nervous selection of colors – but a work created from somewhere deep inside me that I could not and would not want to identify.

Mike explains that this exercise gives students the permission to let go – to just paint, without the constraints of the mind. It was my best piece.

You can find the Snow-Whites on www.snowwhite.fr if you ever want to paint yourself free in the South West of France.