Siena in Umber

I’m just back from Italy with lots of sketches to scan. I had hoped to post more during my three weeks away, but during my free moments when I wasn’t teaching, the wifi was either down or very slow. In the coming days, I’ll certainly post some photos from all the workshops, but I thought I’d start with a few sketches that I did in my free time, and the stories that go with them.

I’m still enjoying working in direct watercolour using Burnt Umber pigment from Sennelier. These sketches were all done in a small handmade Fabriano sketchbook using a Rosemary travel rigger. An economy of materials that works well for quick sketches.

When I’m on my own, I try to capture small slices of local life. The first one was done in Volterra where I spent a few days visiting the walled Etruscan city and teaching for a day with watercolour artist Majid Modir. While waiting for some of his students to arrive, I sketched on the piazza. The big white umbrellas provided a great light shape against the stone buildings and narrow, dark streets.

I repeated the same motif another day in San Gimignano. That day I sat on the stairs in front of the Duomo, looking down at the patrons seated in the sun at the café. I love using this method of value sketching to build up the layers of darks.

A few hours earlier, I had also sketched the white van and the couple preparing thick sandwiches of Porchetta Toscana. I can never resist sketching a good food truck, and at this one there was a long line of hungry patrons. Shortly after I started my sketch, the patrons disappeared and the couple began packing up to go. Luckily this method of direct watercolour is really quick because ten minutes later everything was back in the van and they were gone.

There’s a perfect description of sandwich shop Dal Bertelli in the Lonely Planet Tuscany guide. “The Bertelli family has lived in San Gimignano since 1779, and its current patriarch is fiercely proud of both his heritage and his sandwiches. Salami, cheese, bread and wine are sourced from local artisan-producers and sold in generous portions in a determinedly un-gentrified space with marble work surfaces and curious agricultural implements dangling from stone walls.” Yes, I ate the generous sandwich and I sketched the patriarch and the curious agricultural implements.

I also sketched a café behind the Duomo in Siena. I had eaten there the week before but had an unpleasant experience when I was overcharged for my lunch and I confronted the cashier. He argued with me until I showed him I was right, at which point he added up the bill again and threw my money back at me across the counter. I think it’s the end of the tourist season and locals must be fed up of dealing with the crowds. Still, there’s no excuse for that kind of poor behaviour. This time I ate elsewhere and drew the people from a distance away.

My last story from Siena comes, sadly, with no drawing. It happened when I was sketching a beautiful fruit store on the main street in Siena. Even though I was standing on the street, the owner of the store was clearly upset that I was drawing the window display. He gestured and then yelled at me to move on but since I was on public property, I smiled, showed him my drawing and continued to draw. This was done with good intentions and not meant to taunt him but he must have perceived it as such. He stormed up to me and punched my sketchbook. It’s hard to describe the aggression on his face and the force of the punch, but it shook me up enough to stop drawing. It’s the first time I’ve experienced a violent response to sketching. And the reason there is no finished drawing to go with the story. The memory was so unpleasant that I couldn’t complete the sketch.

Next up, sketches and stories from my two workshops in Tuscany. Only good memories from now on, I promise.

49 Comments on “Siena in Umber”

  1. Thomas says:

    Wow, great technique!!


  2. Crowther Pat says:

    Love the images


  3. Dan Killebrew says:

    Shari, I am enjoying your monochromatic sketches, but am sorry to hear about your bad experiences. Bad behavior is indeed an unfortunate and exclusively human trait. But please never quit.


    • Thanks for writing Dan. These bad experiences won’t ever make me stop sketching, but I guess I will be a little more wary when sketching in crowded tourist spots. You never know when someone will get unhinged like this.


  4. Rita Palazzo says:

    So sorry to hear about your unpleasant experience….there are bad apples everywhere
    I love your skeches

    Liked by 1 person

  5. M Cirfi Walton says:

    Dear Shari, I am distressed hearing of your horrible experience in Siena. Saddened, angered and in disbelief at the vile treatment you encountered. Unheard of in my 40+ years of going there! That man at the beautifully displayed fruit store on Via della Citta’ has always had a wonderful display and clearly has a sign stating ‘No Photos’ but I would not think that this would include artists! He is a disgrace to what Siena represents and to her history of producing some of the most gifted and innovative artists of our history.

    I am so sorry for how two selfish proprietors have treated you.


    Sent from Mail for Windows 10


    • HI Mercedes, You know where this was. Wow. How did you figure this out? It is because it was across from the art store? I clearly did not see the sign that said no photos, but I was on the street, at least two feet back from the store, which in my books is still a public area. Other than that, everyone else in the city was fine and polite, so it won’t stop me from visiting again, and certainly not from sketching. Just left a bit of a bad aftertaste. Thanks for writing.


  6. Denise Gowan says:

    Thank you for sharing your direct watercolor sketches with us! They are beautiful!! Also just wanted to say how sad/upset I felt when I read your note about the store owner punching your sketchbook – – – of all things to happen to a sketcher who brings such beauty into the world. :/ With courage and heart, we’ll keep doing our part for beauty and delight!
    With care, Denise


    • Thanks so much for writing Denise. Yes, usually when I show my sketchbook, it elicits a better response than this. First time for a punch, but I guess after thousands of sketches, I can add that to my list of sketching stories.


  7. loisajay says:

    I so enjoyed the sketches and the accompanying stories until I came to the last two. My goodness–such unacceptable behavior. I hope someone saw the punch and came up to help you. I’m glad to hear you have better memories to share. Your sketches really are wonderful.


    • Lois, I local woman walked by and caught my eye. She threw up her hands in disgrace, as if to say “I saw and do not approve, but what can you do?”
      I did feel a bit better knowing someone else had witnessed the punch.


  8. Maggie says:

    Wonderful sketches and such a good color choice for Siena.


  9. Chris Rusk says:

    Your street scenes are so beautiful. I am very sorry to hear about the fruit stand guy – I am so relieved that your sketch book absorbed the brunt of his contrary behaviour. Sharing this experience with us is important, it’ll keep us on our toes to possible interference when we are drawing in public. I can only hope, that someone he knows, saw his actions that day and set him straight. Sorry it happened at your expense, but when I see these drawings – well worth it!
    Well done, as always.


    • Thanks Chris. I really don’t think this man cares to be set straight. There was an ugliness that I saw in his face, and usually that is accompanied by stubbornness and an unwillingness to change. Just my opinion. In any case, it is a good warning for sketchers, which is why I posted the story.


  10. Jeff Gold says:

    So sorry that you had to endure such brutish behavior. The sketches are wonderful, as always. Welcome back. I hope you have much fall foliage to greet you.


    • HI Jeff, We are happy to be back but it’s a little bit colder than we expected in Montreal. We were parachuted right into sweater weather. Yikes, I was wearing sandals and shorts on Monday. But it’s a nice change to see the fall foliage.


  11. Leslie Blackwell says:

    What a disgrace for Italian tourism! So upsetting to have such an experience when you were only paying homage to their place. Keep us supplied with your gorgeous work!


    • Thanks for writing Leslie. I think these experiences happen to people all the time in tourist areas. Our guide had a similar experience at a cafe in Siena. She was charged twice the price of a local man for a cappuccino. When she asked for her money back, the waiter laughed at her. The price of being a tourist, I guess.


  12. Judy Sopher says:

    These sketches are wonderful. I envy your grasp of values. (I know-must practice)

    I think what happened to you by the miserable storeowner is the nightmare of those of us who are shy about painting on location. So sorry for you and your notebook. and so glad you and notebook survived..


    • Gudrun Hommel says:

      Oh, so sketches are wonderful. I am quite new at sketching, and very new to you and your blog. What an inspiration! Thanks, also, for sharing the negative experiences you had. It’s healthy to be realistic and share not only the good. Sorry you had those experiences.


    • Judy, don’t be discouraged by my one bad experience. The great people I have met by drawing in public more than make up for this one bad example.


  13. Bernadette says:

    As always, thank you for your wonderful art work and accompanying story. The sad, humiliating and insulting experiences must have touched you deeply. First, I thank you for sharing this and second, I am sorry for such a negative encounter. If only the store owner would know you as we do, his response would be welcoming.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Bernadette. The experience did shake me up because I saw hatred in this man. That’s not the usual when sharing my sketches. It was quite shocking, actually! But I moved on and did actually sketch again later that day.


  14. Donna says:

    Wonderful sketches using Burnt umber! Dealing with values and not worrying about color! Thanks for the info on the bad experience. It is a wake-up for all of us to be careful when a situation looks like it’s going wrong. Pats and rubs to Alice.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I’ll never understand this kind of person who has the “no photos” sign and the terrible attitude. Actual aggression is over the top tho. It makes me think he’s mentally ill. But you have a beautiful series here. A real travelog in one day! I like to think we get thousands of sketches for every bad experience. What a sad guy. I hope he doesn’t have kids!


    • I don’t know if he has any kids but he has a wife who showed the same brutish behaviour as him. Clearly a match made in heaven for this couple. The violence was surprising and unexpected, though.
      As for the sketches, I have finally found a way to make direct watercolour work for me, after watching you all these years. The secret for me was in the brush.


  16. I love all the value and details you can capture using just one color.


  17. Jean says:

    I am sorry to hear about the paranoid-seeming shopkeeper. I enjoyed your sketches.


  18. I think the sketches are wonderful! Maybe some of your best street scenes yet. I can imagine how upset you were with the two negative experiences… I hope it doesn’t have a lasting effect on you. We tend to remember the bad stuff more easily than the good stuff. It is good to share these stories to get them out of your mind and heart… we can share the load.


  19. Rita says:

    Shari…shocking story of the man who punched your sketchbook.That is SO not the typical Italian man. I too had a most unpleasant experience last week at a concert. I had been watching the first act standing three rows back from the stage. In between acts, my friend needed a drink, which meant pushing thru the crowd trying to get back to where we had been after she got the drink. We almost made it…we’ll actually, SHE did…but as I was following right behind her, this woman throws her arm across me, calls me a bitch for pushing her, & yelling at me that I was NOT getting any further. I honestly thought she was going to clock me! I apologiized to her, but she kept it up. About 5 minutes later, one of her friends looks at me and asks “are you on Twitter?”. Yes, I am I said. She recognized me! Turns out we’re all fans if the same artist. After that, the woman who had been so nasty says to me “I realize you’re short, but I don’t like when people are rude”…and then she starts grabbing my hand and twirling me around as we listened to the guy on stage. I have NEVER been that close to a physical altercation. My husband & I are going on a country music cruise next month and guess what? These women are going too! Lucky me.


  20. TonyU says:

    Wonderful sketches, beautiful places Shari. And Marc is so right about the odd bad experience (scary though it was) being massively outweighed by all the happy ones. Looking forward to more catch up posts!


    • Thanks Tony. Yes, I posted this because it is a good warning to sketchers, but as I said in one of my previous responses, this should not discourage from people from sketching in public. I have met so many amazing people while drawing in different cities, and I am sure you have too.


  21. Carol Balabanow says:


    You were probably mistaken for an American. I’ve never been more ashamed to be one.

    I’ve never heard of any artist being treated in such a manner and I’m so sorry you had such a terrible experience.


    Sent from my iPhone



    • Carol, it was a rainy day so I was wearing a baseball cap and a rain jacket. I don’t know what that made me look like but it was clear that I wasn’t an Italian. Still no excuse for the poor behaviour. I had originally intended to go into the store after sketching to buy some fruit. So I was a potential customer, like anyone else.


  22. joantav says:

    I love this collection of direct monochrome sketches using burnt sienna! They are wonderful!

    I am sorry to hear about your last two experiences. I guess in today’s world we all need to be a little more concerned about other people, whether they are cheating us or reacting violently for no reason. Like you, I am so used to people being so open, friendly and appreciative when I sketch their business. I have been brought into restaurants for a glass of prosecco and treated to a meal by one trattoria owner when he noticed what I was doing. Thankfully the man you encountered is not the norm, but I am sure it was scary and upsetting. Thank you for making us a bit more aware.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Suzanne says:

    It’s jarring! I guess like you, when reading your words I didn’t see that coming. What a vicious man! It gives me the heebie-jeebies to read this and I wasn’t even there.


  24. chantal henault says:

    Always so inspiring to follow you and see your beautiful art. I am curious to know the brand of your scanner. Mine is not doing a good job when scanning a watercolor.


  25. Beautiful pics of Italy!

    Liked by 1 person

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