Monday, May 22, 2017

Italy, Part 1: Positano

5/4/17 ink, water-soluble colored pencils, Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook (the view from our hotel room terrace)

The first time I traveled internationally with a sketchbook (to the Barcelona symposium and Germany in 2013), I learned right away that it’s impossible to be both a tourist and a sketcher and expect to do both well. If I visit sights, I feel frustrated that I’m not sketching. If I take time to sketch, I feel like I’m missing out on the long list of things I “must” see. Greg feels similarly about his photography – at major attractions, his photos are filled with crowds, not whatever we went there to experience, and he feels frustrated about both. Over the past several years as we’ve traveled more regularly, we’ve figured out what we really want from travel – an opportunity to see and experience unfamiliar places through my sketchbook and his camera – not a checklist of “musts.” We’ve been happier and more relaxed ever since. I feel no conflict about our choice – when I travel, I’m a sketcher, not a sightseer – but the sights I do see are observed closely, and the memories are preserved well in my sketchbook.
5/4/17 brush pen, colored pencil (painter on the beach)
When Greg and I visited Italy for the first time in 2006 (long before I began sketching), our itinerary was mostly the big spots – Rome, Florence, Venice (with a brief, much-needed rest in the Cinque Terre) – filled with all the usual high-attraction museums and other must-sees. As we started planning our trip this year, we crafted a very different tour – one focused on water, relaxation and plenty of time for sketching and photography. It was only natural to begin in Positano – a perfectly picturesque gem on the Amalfi Coast.

A friend who travels frequently says that her general happiness is directly proportional to the amount of time she spends in Italy, and her favorite place in Italy is the Amalfi Coast. As we explored the vertically built village of Positano, her words rang true for me. Turn your head one way to see the spectacular coastline; turn it the other way to see impossibly compact houses in sunny pastel hues clinging to the cliffside. It all made me happy. Climbing steep hills and stairways, you have to take in the view slowly – if only because you are pausing to catch your breath!
5/5/17 Church of Santa Maria Assunta
With my very first sketch, I realized I had no previous “vocabulary” for Positano’s (and that of much of southern Italy, it turns out) architecture. The buildings are simple in design, but each is placed on the hillscape however it is best supported, and that often means directly against another structure – and not necessarily at a right angle. Built-in wonkiness! A-ha – finally an architectural style for me! Given the impossibility of working out perspective, I adored sketching Positano’s landscape.

The more difficult question became how to simplify the incredible density of small buildings crammed together without drawing each and every one. The answer was remembering the principles I had learned in Sue Heston’s 10x10 workshop, “Simple Shapes Stronger Sketches,” only a month ago. By focusing on the edge where those many-angled rooftops met the sky, I could ignore the overwhelming details and cut straight to the main shapes. After that, it was easy to pull down vertical lines and put in shadows. Then it was all about fun as I colored the yellow, peach and pink buildings (yes, my research paid off – I had all the right colored pencil hues!)

Walking on the narrow, winding main roads through town, where pedestrians must negotiate with cars, trucks, bikes and mopeds, was somewhat challenging, as was finding safe spots to sketch. Still, I preferred walking to riding a bus – our initial entry into the city was a standing-room-only ride, hanging onto a stanchion for dear life. When I dared to peek out the window, I saw a plunge into the ocean only inches away!
5/6/17 Positano street scene
5/6/17 Positano cliffside

5/4/17 view from our hotel room terrace

Nerve-wracking roads notwithstanding, I found Positano to be a very relaxing start to our Italian holiday. I almost hated to leave, but the Cinque Terre was waiting. . . 

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


  1. You found a good way to sketch that hillside filled with buildings...not an easy task. It is usually a hard decision of what to keep in and what to leave out. It was a challenge to find safe spots to sit and sketch on the way down to the port as I remember. I don't think I sketched many spots between our hotel and the port...but I wish I had. Great job on these, Tina.

    1. Thank you, Joan! Those narrow streets were definitely a challenge to sketch from, but you know -- where there's a will (and a tiny stool), there's a way! ;-)

      - Tina

  2. Looking forward to your sketches done in Cinque Terre. James and I hiked through 3 towns, I think. I only liked the one with many many basil plants on the streets. I wasn't sketching at the time and perhaps missed out many interesting spots!

  3. Wonderful post. I enjoyed your sketches and understand the dilemma you faced as to whether to sketch more or "see" more. Glad to hear that you have reached a happy medium.

    1. Thank you, Shelley! We're both happier now that we're not conflicted, and we've never regretted our choice.

      - Tina

  4. Great post. I recognize almost all the sketches and photos as I was seeing them in person just 5 months ago. Already want to go back to Positano.


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