“An ex-voto is a kind of prayer,” José Luis says, as we stand, apron-clad and attentive in the cactus garden. “It’s offering thanks for something you’re grateful to have in your life. That could be anything — from a favourite teapot to a friendly chicken.”
The idea of today’s class is for each of us to paint an ex-voto, under José’s guidance. Easels are picked, palettes distributed and paints are carefully blended, before brushes caress canvas in the early morning sunshine.
Today’s class is a common sight across San Miguel de Allende, Mexico’s capital of creativity. While many larger cities are traditionally associated with art — Florence, Paris and Kyoto, for example — San Miguel de Allende is art. Known to Mexicans as ‘the magic place’, its tight, snaking stone streets, graceful steeples and vivid colonial homes — all mustard yellows, cornflower blues and lipstick reds — combine to form a vibrant fairytale whole. So dramatic is the effect that the entire city — all 64 colourful blocks of it — is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Against this dramatic backdrop is an animated, fiesta-filled foreground containing no fewer than 130 art galleries, two international art schools and one of the largest communities of expat painters on the planet. Hence daily art classes like this, held across the 16th-century city for as little as £60 per three-hour session.
José Luis floats across the sun-drenched patio in his denim dungarees and straw hat, offering softly spoken tips and encouragement to each of our English-speaking group, on everything from texture and tone to the correct blending of colours.
“Art has been the axis of this town for generations,” says José Luis, taking the brush from my hand and immediately improving the ‘clouds’ at the top of my painting with a flourish of his wrist. “Maybe it’s something about the light at this latitude. Maybe it’s the fact that the city is built on a bedrock of rose quartz, channelling positive energy. Or maybe it’s just the momentum of so many creatives coming to one place, and attracting so many more.”
Located in the Mexican state of Guanajuato (where Diego Rivera, the renowned muralist and future husband of Frida Karlo spent his formative years), San Miguel is only three hours’ drive north of Mexico City, but dramatically more affordable in terms of both living and studio space. Not to mention the fact that there are spirited pageants, festivals and exhibitions held here on a near-permanent basis.
Whatever the root cause, this city lives and breathes art. Many of the hotels, including the one where our lesson is held — the recently renovated Belmond Casa de Sierra Nevada — have an artist in residence, to teach guests and lead tours of the city’s key art sites. José Luis fulfils that role at Casa de Sierra Nevada, which is a work of art in itselt, spread across six exquisite colonial casonas, each centred on a lush, flower-fringed courtyard.
It’s remarkably peaceful out here in the hotel’s charming cactus garden; birds chirruping in the trees and paintbrushes tinkling in water jars. I swiftly become engrossed in my work — so much so that I very nearly dip my brush into the glass of ‘inspirational’ Casa Madero Chardonnay José Luis has ordered for me, rather than the jar of kaleidoscopic gloop next to it.
All too soon, José Luis claps his hands to signal the end of our class, and the beginning of lunch at the neighbouring Restaurant del Parque. It’s fascinating to see what the other five students have painted for their own ex-voto: everything from an avocado to family pets (sadly no chickens — friendly or otherwise). For my part, I’ve made a barely recognisable attempt at the skyline of my home city, Dallas (although, thanks to José Luis, at least the clouds above it look good).
As we’re leaving, someone asks José Luis for nightlife recommendations in San Miguel. He shoots them a withering look, as if they’ve learnt nothing at all during our creative, mindful morning behind the easels.
“Other places are about beer and dancing,” he says, wagging a paint-stained finger. “This place is about culture.”