When traveler and artist Karen started painting while seeing the world, she never guessed that her two passions would impact her so profoundly. From forming new friendships to building lasting confidence, she discovered that artwork and travel went hand-in-hand—and had the power to change her life.
I really do believe things come into your life when you need them most. I took a couple of painting classes with my mother when I was younger, but put the hobby off. I also traveled to Europe a few times in my teens and early twenties, but then I had kids and my friends and family were too busy or short on funds to travel with me. But I knew I would go to Europe again, and I knew I would be passionate about art once I picked it back up.
Both art and travel just seemed to come together. I was inspired by my daughter, who was about twenty when she decided to go on an EF College Study Tour. I was so proud of her for going by herself! Then, I discovered that the teacher who I wanted to take painting lessons from had gone to Paris by herself for the first time. It was interesting timing—both my daughter and painting instructor had the courage to travel to Europe alone. I thought, “Somebody’s trying to tell me something.”
I was most interested in painting European scenes; there was something calling me there. I needed to be inspired, so I booked the Go Ahead Tour to Lake Como, the Italian Riviera & Venice by myself.
The tour took me to Portovenere, Milan, and other cities I dreamed of painting, but one place I’d always wanted to visit was Santa Margherita. The tour didn’t stop there so I told my Tour Director, Nico, that I wanted to leave our hotel in Portovenere for a night and go. I was nervous about it, but Nico was so empowering—she’s the epitome of a fulfilled woman traveler. She calmly said “Karen, you can do it. You’ve got my number if there’s a problem.”
So, I ended up going by myself on the train, and that was a huge moment for me. When I came back I was totally changed. I grew up so much on that trip and gained a lifetime’s experience of independence and confidence. I wish more people would take that leap!
That first guided tour with Go Ahead gave me a taste of places I wanted to go back to. I now travel to Europe by myself about three times a year, and Venice is by far my favorite city. When I started painting, I wanted to paint en plein air in the streets of Venice because they’re so beautiful, but I didn’t have the guts to do it. You’re so vulnerable standing there with your easel, painting with the changing light. I like the comfort of the studio, my Italian music, and a glass of wine!
But, traveling and looking at things as an artist helps me see them in a different way, and painting outside allows me to uncover things I wouldn’t see in a photograph. So, I found an Italian artist who met me for three afternoons of lessons. She essentially held my hand as we painted on the street together; after that, I knew I could do it on my own. The next time I visited Venice I just went for it, and painting by myself outside for the first time was another life-changer.
I love to paint places that I’ve been to, but I also like to paint buildings that I dream about going to. I usually paint the hotel I’m going to stay in just for fun, and always think of one scene in the film Mary Poppins when the characters make a chalk drawing and jump into it. When I finally arrive at my hotel, I feel like Mary Poppins ready to jump into the painting. It’s as if I’ve already been there. That’s one of the most thrilling things for me.
I once painted a building in Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome, which is where the mayor’s office is, and contacted the office to say I’d love to give them the painting. The woman in public relations emailed me back and said we should get together the next time I visited. She invited me to the office when I returned six months later, and the mayor was there to give me a commemorative coin to the city! They also gave me a private tour; I was just beside myself. You never know where life is going to lead you, but you just have to be open to it.
I give away most of my paintings to places that mean something to me or I know I’ll return to. I once painted the facade of a Venetian restaurant called Al Busto and emailed a copy to the owner. When I visited a year later, I introduced myself. He didn’t speak a lot of English but took my hand and led me to the window facing the main street, where he’d hung a printout of my painting. I had the original to give him and he was absolutely thrilled.
It turned out that his grandparents were artists. He showed me some of their work and then we went outside, where he pointed up at what had been his great-grandmother’s bedroom window. He told me she had let artist Umberto Boccioni paint out of that window, and that’s the view you see in his famous painting The Grand Canal. I got chills and knew I had to paint the window.
I brought my painting the next time I went to Venice and when I gave it to the owner, he started crying. Then, while I was visiting with him and his girlfriend, he disappeared and came back with a velvet box. I opened it up to find a glass Murano necklace that he’d bought for me! Selling a painting could never give me as much satisfaction as an experience like that.
One of the best things people can do when they travel is to take advantage of their alone time. I was once dining alone at a cafe called Vino Vino in Venice and there was an elegant Italian woman sitting by herself across the patio. She looked at me and lifted up her wine glass as if to say “Here’s to you.” It was cool. Women are so often intimidated about being alone—don’t be! You observe things a lot differently and you meet people, too.
Traveling has allowed me to meet people I will have in my life forever; we’ll always have a connection. I met a Roman couple named Pino and Ada on one of my first solo trips. I wanted to have a cocktail at the Hotel Majestic so I stopped them to ask for directions. They didn’t speak a word of English but took my hand and walked me to the hotel, where Pino handed me his card.
When I got home I wrote them a thank-you letter. Their daughter translated it and emailed me to say that her parents were so touched by my card and wanted to get together the next time I was in Rome. When I returned I met them in Piazza Navona, and it’s a moment I will never forget. We all screamed and hugged like we were family.
That was three years ago, and since then they text me all the time and I’ve gone to stay with them at least six times. They always load my suitcase up with cheese and honey and send my husband and children gifts. Now, I have family in Rome. If you think you’re never going to find friends as close and as beautiful as friends you’ve had in the past, think again—that’s another thing that travel does.
There is a lot to be said for making things happen in your life instead of sitting back waiting for the right moment. People often hold themselves back from traveling because they don’t want to go alone. But, seeing the world on a guided tour is the best way to travel solo because you’re able to meet people. If you can get past the idea that you have to go with somebody, it will open up a world of experiences.
I’ve taken lessons from wonderful Italian artists and painted on the streets of Venice. I took a watercolor workshop in Giverny, France last June; I never dreamed I’d be painting in Monet’s garden. The whole world opens up to you if you’re not afraid to put yourself out there. I can’t imagine never painting in my life, and I can’t imagine never traveling. They do go hand-in-hand… traveling gives me the inspiration to paint.