An Artist’s Pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago
Walking in Watercolor
Book excerpts and paintings by Jennifer Lawson.
Any text or images may only be used with permission.
In the Spring of 2014, my longtime friend Patti and I went on a really long walk … We decided to walk the Camino de Santiago and I decided to put my art to the test. I would sketch every day — watercolors over ink — quick and loose, to capture gesture, form, light, and color — and I hope on this journey — meaning.
A pilgrimage is seeking in its purest form. It is a progression toward something more. For each of us, it is our own personal journey. So, with packs on our backs that for five weeks would be our dressers, closets, medicine cabinet, pantries, and for me my art studio, we would walk 500 miles following scallop shells and yellow arrows to Santiago de Compostela.
I am an artist. I am a hiker. And now I was in a line of pilgrims waiting to get our required passports to walk the Camino. These passports would be stamped daily at albergues (hostels), cafés, bars, and churches during the route to Santiago and serve as proof of our pilgrimage, where we would receive an official Pilgrims Certificate, or compostela, for completing the walk.
Our journey started on a cool misty spring day in St Jean Pied de Port, France, at the base of the Pyrenees Mountains.
Every day pilgrims leave this village and begin their journey to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Some of the pilgrims who started their walk the same day as we did became welcome faces along the way. We shared the same path, the same weather, the same pain, and the same joy. One of the great pleasures of the Camino is the spontaneous friendships that happen when walking—like old friends, we would fall into step, exchange stories, stop for a break at a roadside café, or share a bunk in a room at an albergue. There is clearly a strong sense of belonging on the Camino.
We have now walked 100 miles and are one-fifth of the way to Santiago. When we stopped to take a break for water and food, I was thankful to be able to take my pack off and give my shoulders a much-needed break. Too tired to eat, I rested my head on my pack, knowing that I would be carrying it again soon for the last 5 miles into Logroño, Spain.
Much of the day’s walk was on earthen paths in the open countryside before a long 15km/9.3mi uphill climb. Then we walked through woodlands of oak and pine forest before dropping back down into the town of Agés — population sixty.
We checked into our albergue and set out to explore the town’s one charming street. We walked up to see the church perched at the top of the hill. With the setting sun and beautiful light, I sketched the church complete with storks, while Patti explored the cluster of old stone buildings.
With only a few places to choose for dinner, we were drawn to the café tables with the bouquets of fresh cut lilacs. We sat outside in the warm evening air and enjoyed our dinner.
We crossed a deep valley before climbing a rather steep hill. At the top, we could see our future. Speechless, we gaped…all we could see was the Camino winding on for miles and miles and finally disappearing on the horizon. There were no mountains and no trees. Just field after field of wheat as far as the eye could see. I looked a Patti and said, “Where will we pee?”
We were now in the middle third of the Camino known as the Meseta. It is a part of Spain known for its wide cloudless skies, unbearable heat, and endless flat lands. As we walked, we could hear the elusive cuckoo birds mocking us from the trees with their “cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo.”
It was the beginning of spring, and as we walked, flowers unfurled their colorful displays—lilacs, roses, rolling hills of lavender, and fields of bright red poppies. All your senses are heightened on the Camino. You get into the daily rhythm of a pilgrim’s life.
We were grateful for the pilgrims we met on the trail and for the wonderful people of Spain, who live in the villages and towns that welcomed us with a hearty meal and a place to sleep.
We left Astorga heading into the mountains toward the highest point of our route. We decided to stay in Foncebadón, a semi-abandoned village that was originally the home of a 12th century hermit who lived in this isolated mountain hamlet.
When we arrived, the albergue was packed with pilgrims looking for a place to sleep. We managed to squeeze our way to the check-in desk and claim our two reserved beds. The pilgrims at the end of the line slept on yoga mats in one of the out buildings near the goats.
That night we had the most delicious pilgrim’s dinner of our entire walk. We all marveled at the flavorful vegetarian paella, fresh tossed salad made with vegetables from their garden, their homemade bread, and their fresh goat milk yogurt. Over bottles of wine, we told stories of who we were and shared Camino experiences.
We all laughed as Chris, a handsome young Brit, told of discovering one of the goats eating his favorite pair of underwear that was hanging out to dry on the shrubbery.
Later in the bunkroom, it was warm, and the air was thick, as we were packed in with beds pushed together to make room for more pilgrims. I finally made it through the line to the shared bath, slipped into my sleeping bag, and stared right into the face of the guy in the next bed…
We arrived in Sarria cold and wet from our wind and rain-soaked walk. We climbed steep steps, wending our way through the streets of this lively Celtic city in search of our albergue. After checking in, we organized our packs and sleeping quarters and hung our wet clothes out to dry. We headed out to explore Sarria and find a pulperia for the regional favorite Pulpo a la Gallega — grilled octopus Galicia style. Delicioso!
After a meal and drinks with some of our favorite pilgrim friends, I set out to buy ponchos. Weather forecast for the next week…Rain…Rain…Rain…
In front of a crackling fire back at the albergue, we shared Camino stories with other pilgrims while I sketched several of them and then took a photo of them holding their portraits. We handed out the portraits as gifts as the clock struck 10:00 and albergue rules kicked in … lights out!
Grateful to arrive in Santiago de Compostela
We stepped into the Cathedral in awe of what was before us. The famous Botafumeiro is a huge incense burner filled with frankincense used in ancient times for arriving tired and unwashed pilgrims. It was believed that incense smoke could help clean the air in the time of plagues and epidemics. The tradition continues today. At the end of the pilgrim’s mass, an enormous incense pendulum swings through the center of the cathedral, leaving behind a trail of smoke and strong fragrance.
At the end of the long center aisle was a blazing gold altar with the giant statue of St James. Here, in his gilded splendor, is the mystical man we had been hearing and talking about for 32 days and 500 miles.
We climbed the stairs that lead to an area behind the altar, where we were told we could touch and embrace this amazing statue. We stood in a long slow-moving line walking up a tiny narrow staircase. Overwhelmed, I wrapped my arms around St. James and gave him a big hug. Later over a glass of champagne, I confessed to having gone back several times for a few more hugs.
About the Two Pilgrims
Illustrator, author and creative design director, Jennifer Lawson, has sketched and painted her way throughout the United States, Paris, Barcelona, Lisbon, over the Inca Trail to the ruins of Machu Picchu, the island of Bali in Indonesia, climbing to the top of Mt Kilimanjaro, and most recently while walking on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage across Spain. Jennifer finds the inspiration to draw from even the simplest of surroundings. Email: email@example.com.
Following a 25-year career in product development and sales, Patricia Lennon now manages her own consulting firm. Walking the Camino de Santiago gave her the time to fine-tune the essence of being present, gain a fresh perspective, and apply the lessons she learned about the human condition to her own life.
Walking in Watercolor
An Artist’s Pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago
By Jennifer Lawson with Patricia Lennon, www.jlawsonart.com
SoPo Press (April 2017), US$18.95 + shipping and handling, paperback, 90 color pages.
ISBN-10: 0692860614; ISBN-13: 978-0692860618
Join Jennifer as she and her friend Patricia walk from the French/Spanish Pyrenees 500 miles across northern Spain along the iconic Camino de Santiago. The book is filled with their daily adventures and over 200 original watercolors of landscapes, food and the people and animals they met along the way. The book also includes infographics of everything Jennifer and Patricia carried in their packs for 32 days.
Within the U.S. only, the book may be purchased directly from the artist’s website (US$18.95 + $6.95 shipping to anywhere in the U.S.), signed and with a personal message as requested to the recipient. Or it may be purchased from Amazon U.S., Amazon UK/EU, and Amazon Canada in local currencies.
Amazon purchaser review: “Artist Jennifer Lawson captures the small delights along this 500-mile journey, with her elegant, lively watercolor-over-ink depictions of landscapes, street scenes, fellow pilgrims, contented locals, gardens and animals. Detailed renderings of elegant churches are mixed with charming sketches of flowers, tapas, sheep and laundry on the line. The narrative of Jennifer and Patricia’s experiences is a good read.”