Thursday, May 25, 2017

Italy, Part 4: Venice

5/18/17 ink, water-soluble colored pencils (The canal and bridge outside our Venice flat)

I’m still ambivalent about Venice. On our visit in 2006, we spent too few days trying to see too many museums and other wildly popular attractions, so all I remember of it was fighting crowds, being lost and feeling frustrated. We wanted this year’s visit to be different, and it definitely was – except for San Marco Square, we avoided all high-traffic areas – and yet I can’t say I wholeheartedly love Venice. A sinking city of canals where boats serve as buses and stunning architecture is on every corner: It’s hard not to be fascinated by such a place, and I was. And yet I wanted it to be easier to appreciate all that old beauty and history. Maybe we just didn’t stay long enough to get past the confusion of vaporetto routes and mazes of narrow streets. Or maybe we were just getting tired at the end of our 18 days abroad.

One thing I did very much appreciate was staying in a flat in a quiet campo in the Dorsoduro neighborhood, which is off the beaten tourist path. A nearby art college brought lots of young people carrying portfolios back and forth through the campo, which gave the neighborhood a creative, youthful energy. Literally a few steps from our flat was a tiny art supply shop (I bought a small box of colored pencils there, just on principle)!

5/17/17 Santa Maria Della Salute and Grand Canal from the Accademia Bridge

5/17/17 Basilica di San Marco
One day we ventured out to San Marco Square, perhaps the single-most crowded spot in Venice at any given moment. Of course, I was ambivalent, but like an urban sketcher lemming, I was also driven to make the iconic sketch. Compared to the mobs seen at high summer, we experienced only the “shoulder” crowd – I actually found a space on the steps opposite Basilica di San Marco.

This is the scene I was trying to see (sketched above):


This is the scene I saw most of the time:


 Although I don’t regret going to San Marco and making the sketch, it was a relief to retreat to “our” ‘hood, and that’s where we both spent many happy hours sketching and photographing the quieter parts of Venice. In particular, I enjoyed going around to the back sides of buildings where all the wires and antennae were tucked away from the postcard views.

5/16/17 Dorsoduro neighborhood
5/18/17 Dorsoduro neighborhood

5/16/17 "Our" campo in the Dorsoduro neighborhood

A minor canal was just outside our flat, so I sketched it twice from different angles. One of my fondest memories of Venice was sketching the commuter traffic in and around the canal (sketch at top of post) in the cool, early-morning air, the sky a brilliant blue, all within sight of our flat’s kitchen window (in other words, not far enough away to get lost).

5/16/17 The canal outside our flat

5/17/17 chimney pots in Dorsoduro




In all the small towns we visited prior to Venice, my landscape-format Stillman & Birn sketchbook spent most of its time opened vertically to accommodate cliffside villages or narrow alley views. In Venice, I could finally turn the book horizontally to make two panoramic sketches of the Giudecca Canal with three iconic churches on the skyline. My intention was to put the whole panorama on one sketchbook spread, drawing from west to east, but halfway across my intended skyline, I ran out of space! I continued on a second spread, covering as much of the skyline as I could see. Someday if I ever learn to stitch images in Photoshop, I’ll put them together into a single image.

5/18/17 Guidecca Canal, part 1

5/18/17 Guidecca Canal, part 2

5/17/17 gondolier passing under a bridge

5/17/17 glass harp busker near San Marco


Bridge of Sighs


I can’t talk about Venice without mentioning Arcobaleno (“rainbow”), the art supply shop. When I say “art supply shop,” I’m not talking about your average Blick store! This shop’s main product is paint pigments for artists who want to make and mix their own paints. I’d seen Internet photos of its window of eye candy – a spectrum of powdered pigments – and I had to see it for myself! With Joan’s help, I was able to find the shop in the Dorsoduro neighborhood, where I bought a handmade leather pencil wrap and a tube of colored pencils covered in hand-marbled paper. As I was making my purchases, I asked the shopkeeper about the second Arcobaleno shop, which I knew was somewhere near San Marco. She gave me directions, and I found that one, too. (It’s slightly larger and offers crystals and other colorful, mystical materials in addition to art supplies.)

Eye candy at Arcobaleno


This is what I bought at the "candy" store: a leather pencil roll and a cylinder of
colored pencils covered with hand-marbled paper.

Speaking of eye candy, Venice’s retail streets are nothing but. I resisted buying, but I got more than my fill ogling the “candy” with my camera.

More Venice eye candy

And speaking of sweets, I can’t end my last post about Italy without mentioning gelato. I’ll spare you the daily Instagram postings of our flavors of the day and just give you a taste here. At least I’m not showing you all the pizza, pasta and salads we also consumed. All those steps we walked (Greg’s Fitbit hit 10,000 steps by mid-day each day) and stairs we climbed (an average of 315 flights per week) had to be fueled by something.



(For more photos and sketches from Italy, please see this album in my Flickr photostream.)


Stay tuned for my travel sketch kit review and my colored pencil breakthrough.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Italy, Part 3: Varenna and Lake Como

5/12/17 water-soluble colored pencils, Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook (Lake Como from Varenna)

Lake Como and the villages surrounding it, commonly referred to as the Lakes District, was our third itinerary stop, with the town of Varenna as our home base. We had initially talked about seeing more of the lake’s towns, but we loved Varenna so much that we ended up spending most of our time there (except for a short excursion to Bellagio, which turned out to be too commercial for our taste).

5/14/17 ink, colored pencils (Varenna alley)
Shortly before I left for Italy, I had been introduced to the secondary triad palette in my colored pencil class. Italy’s landscape seemed ideal for giving it a try, so I built my colored pencil selection for the trip around the palette. My first morning in Varenna, I walked out onto our hotel room’s terrace, looked out at the view of Lake Como, and knew that the palette had been made for this scene: blue-violet mountains, lush green trees and the terracotta rooftops of the surrounding villages. I’m going to talk more about the sketch above in a separate post, but for now I’ll just say that it was my colored pencil breakthrough.

Like Positano and the Cinque Terre towns, Varenna and Bellagio are filled with steep, narrow streets and alleys. By then I had gotten used to turning my landscape-format Stillman & Birn sketchbook vertically to sketch those street views so exotic to me. The most fun to draw were the ones with buildings on both sides of a long, steep stairway leading down to the water. We spent most of our time in Varenna simply exploring the nooks and crannies of the town. Wherever we walked, I looked down openings between buildings to peek at those fantastic views that ended at the lake.

5/13/17 ink, colored pencils (Varenna town square)
We also spent time just hanging out in the town square observing the locals taking la passeggiata, catching up with their neighbors. Because of the narrow streets, motorcycles and scooters were a practical mode of transportation, and we always found lots of them parked in the piazza.

5/14/17 brush pen, ink, colored pencils

5/12/17 ink, water-soluble colored pencils (town of Varenna and Lake Como)

5/14/17 Varenna

5/13/17 Varenna

5/13/17 Basilica in Bellagio
5/13/17 water feature on a Bellagio monument

Varenna is where I sketched my first busker of the whole trip – a man playing accordion in a pedestrian tunnel. (I sketched only one other busker later in Venice. I’m wondering if Italy has laws against busking; I was disappointed not to see more.)


On our last day at Lake Como, we visited Varenna’s cemetery. Although many of the old tombstones were tempting to sketch, I chose a large one with the Italian flag next to it.


5/14/17 Varenna cemetery
5/13/17 busker in Varenna

5/13/17 street in Bellagio

Lake Como from the ferry to Bellagio

Orange trees everywhere!

Varenna cemetery



Lake Como was difficult to leave; I kept wishing we had scheduled a few more days there. But our final destination was Venice, and that’s another Italian location I had been wanting to sketch for a long time . . .

(For more photos and sketches from Italy, please see this album in my Flickr photostream.)

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Italy, Part 2: Cinque Terre

5/10/17 brush pen, water-soluble colored pencils, ink (Manarola)

Eleven years ago when we first visited Italy, our itinerary included mostly major cities, with one exception – the Cinque Terre. This Rick Steves favorite is a cluster of “five towns” (as its name indicates) on the Ligurian Sea. Due to Rick’s promotions of these wonderfully quaint villages, they were already overtaken by American tourists even back then, and it was all the worse when we visited this time. Despite this disappointment, we still love the Cinque Terre, so we plugged our ears to all the American English being spoken everywhere we went and enjoyed the simple beauty of these small fishing towns.

5/9/17 ink, water-soluble colored pencils (Vernazza)
Back in 2006, I was making art, but the materials I used then were beads, fabric and other fibers. On first sight of the colorful pink, yellow, blue and coral buildings, I was completely smitten with Vernazza, Manarola and Riomaggiore (three of the more picturesque towns), and I took many photos that I’d hoped to someday express in fiber art. At that time, I was still convinced that I “couldn’t draw,” so I focused on abstract works. While I loved the pastel palette of the region and felt inspired, I never got around to finding a way to express that vibrancy. Afterwards, whenever I saw photos of the Cinque Terre, I felt regret; it was as if I were a writer with the thoughts and ideas but not the words.

In Manarola there’s a particularly popular spot for postcard photographers and painters, so it’s one of the most-often seen views of the town (and all of the Cinque Terre). I know that some sketchers shy away from iconic views, but I didn’t care that it had already been portrayed many, many times. Sitting at a shady picnic table high above the water, I felt as if I’d waited 11 years to make the sketch shown at the top of the post. Although I’d carried the feelings since 2006, I finally had both the inspiration and the vocabulary to express them.

Interestingly, it was the Cinque Terre’s color palette that had initially caught my attention in 2006, but after sketching Positano’s similar palette, I didn’t feel quite as much need to put in all the colors of Manarola. It was enough to be there, sketchbook in hand at last.

5/9/17 Riomaggiore

Riomaggiore, the town where we stayed, was equally inspiring but perhaps in a less showy way. Built high on a hill just like Positano, rows and rows of houses leaned askew. My “sky shape” practice in Positano was good training for Riomaggiore’s steep landscape.

5/9/17 il Pirata Cafe, Vernazza
Visiting Vernazza, the town where we stayed 11 years ago, we found the same cafĂ©, il Pirata, where we had enjoyed several meals back then. Still owned and operated by the same brothers, il Pirata doesn’t have much of a view compared to more expensive places facing the water, but the casual outdoor tables have a comfortable familiarity for both locals and tourists. We arrived late-morning when they were still serving pastries for breakfast. Since Greg can’t eat gluten, he watched me scarf down a chocolate-filled croissant and waited patiently until noon, when the lunch menu began. Our progressive meals allowed me plenty of time to make a sketch looking over Greg’s shoulder.

5/8/17 Riomaggiore
5/8/17 Laundry in Riomaggiore







Our next stop: Varenna on Lake Como.

(For more photos and sketches from Italy, please see this album in my Flickr photostream.)
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