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.

The road to here

Yesterday my first workshop group left to go back home or on to other travels. Today I am waiting for another group to come down this road. I had hoped to do a longer post and review on the blog today but the wifi is not cooperating. Fingers crossed that this one gets out.

Instead of leather

I’ve just finished a week of teaching with French Escapade in Tuscany, and before my next group arrives tomorrow, I have a bit of a break so what do I do? More sketching.

When I was with my group in Siena the other day, we found an art supply store with lots of interesting materials, some of which I had never seen in North America. Of course, for most of us this was a lot more interesting than the shoes and bags in the leather shops.

I walked out with some new Tintoretto brushes and a block of Magnani 1404 paper. I tried out both this morning, setting up my easel right at the agriturismo where we are staying in Chianti. The Magnani paper reminds me very much of Fluid CP paper. It has a soft texture that yields to pencil, and it maintains colour saturation just like Fluid does.

I’ll do some posts about the workshop soon, but for now I am just enjoying the views and catching up on laundry.

The Etruscan Coast

When I’m travelling, and of course have no access to a scanner, I love to take photos of my sketches right on location so that I can include a bit of what I was looking at.

I haven’t had much time to post from Italy because I was teaching in Volterra, but before that I spent a few vacation days exploring the Etruscan Coast. I wasn’t expecting to be on the beach so it was a delightful surprise to sketch some seaside scenes.

The beach at Marina de Bibonna at the end of the day. The wind picked up while I was sketching so I ended up with a very sandy palette, but it was worth it.
At Baratti Beach the sand is silver black from the remnants of Etruscan iron processing, so they say. I found a chair at a restaurant with a great view of the beach. The family returned from their lunch as I was sketching.
In between the beach and the road are miles of umbrella pines, and at the end of the day, the colours on the trunks are luminous. I took lots of reference photos of these trees which I hope to turn into a bigger painting when I get back to my studio.
We stayed with Simona and her amazing little dog Gilda. This sketch was a gift for allowing us to share her beautiful garden with a view of the Tuscan hills.

Colle di Val d’Elsa

After a long night and day of airline travel and then several hours of driving on windy roads, we finally made it to Montegemoli just as the sun was setting. I’m here for a few days of holiday before heading to Volterra to be a guest instructor in Majid Modir’s watercolour workshop, and then on to meet my own group of students for a week of sketching in Tuscany.

It’s great to be able to absorb the light and colours of the landscape before I start teaching. I spent a few hours in Colle di Val d’Elsa, a city also known as the City of Crystal because of its glass production. Instead of visiting the Crystal Museum, though, I spent some time doing a warm-up sketch at a café where I found the perfect espresso and a view of the Chiesa e Monastero di S. Francesco.

Airport drawings

I’m an anxious traveller so I always arrive at the airport way too early. When I was flying to Amsterdam this summer I got to draw an airplane, in detail, because I had about three hours to kill.

Airplanes are surprisingly hard to draw, which is probably why I don’t draw them often. I think I’ve tried and given up in the past, but I persevered with this one. And did lots of pencil drawing and erasing before I added any ink. It’s the nose of the plane that’s the hardest. And getting the wingspan right. And figuring out the foreshortening of the body of the aircraft. Well, all of it I guess.

I also like to draw people in the airport because as it turns out, they are easier than airplanes. I often use my iPad for this. On my way home from Amsterdam I caught a guy enjoying his last Heineken before getting on the plane.

I also had some time in Seattle to draw a guy who was enjoying a very good nap on the airport carpet. He was in a deep sleep when the alarm on his phone went off and he groggily shook himself awake, straightened out his rumpled shirt and trudged off to catch his flight.