Kitchen sketching

After lots of travel this summer I’m happy to be back in my kitchen. Not only because I miss home cooking, but also because I like to paint stuff on my kitchen counter.

I’m getting around to trying some of the stuff that I received in the generous goodie bag at the Urban Sketchers Symposium in Amsterdam. My pears were sketched in a watercolour sketchbook made by SM•LT Art. I tried the book first in Amsterdam but I was so exhausted from the heat wave that I really didn’t give it a fair chance. It’s a fairly smooth paper, much like a Stillman & Birn Beta sheet, and it takes the colour really well. Perfect for quick sketches and light washes, although I’m not sure how well it would hold up with lots of layers. I’ll get back to you on that.

I’m also giving a new Italian brush a try. I love brushes that are a bit unpredictable. This one is a Tintoretto brush I picked up at an art store in Siena. I love its elongated shape and the calligraphic strokes I can make with it. Isn’t it a great shape? I can’t wait to try it out for tree branches and power lines.

Light in Winter: a profile in Watercolor Artist Magazine

A few months back I was interviewed by Austin K. Williams for Watercolor Artist magazine. It was a real honour for me to have my winter paintings featured in the publication, but the big surprise came when I saw my painting “Shovelling” on the cover. I remember so well the day I painted this. I was just finishing up my drawing (in my cold car) when the caretaker from the church shovelled his way into the scene and I added him in. That’s the wonderful thing about sketching on location, isn’t it? Our memories of the process stay with us for such a long time.

And I’m in great company in this issue of the magazine! Have a look at the profile of Stephanie Bower’s new book, which is part of the same Urban Sketching Handbook series as my book. The magazine is available in stores and online now.

Faced with the Duomo di Siena

The Duomo di Siena is one of Italy’s most famous — and most ornate — architectural icons. One might wonder why, instead of choosing to draw its many alternating layers of black and white marble, or its carved sculptures, rose window or carved bronze door, I would choose instead to draw the souvenir kiosk in front of it. There are two answers to this.

The first answer is the practical one. This was a workshop demo in a busy place on a rainy day. I could see black clouds approaching, so drawing the church in pen or pencil, or even a small detail on it, would have eaten up all the demo time, leaving no time for adding colour. I needed a subject that would lend itself to a quick teaching moment about simplification and values.

The second answer is the more honest one. After spending years drawing urban scenes with no people in them, I find myself attracted more and more to life on the streets. I spent the first few years of my sketching life pretending that cities had no people in them. Static scenes are a lot easier to draw, plus I had no confidence in my people drawing skills. But with time, and practice (and many good workshops about people sketching from artists I admire), I realize that I would rather try to add figures, even if they are badly drawn, than have no people at all. Who knows, maybe one of these days I’ll even get up the courage to offer a workshop of my own in people sketching. Wouldn’t that be a hoot?

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.