While you may have heard of or traveled to Italy’s famed Cinque Terre— five colorful villages built into the steep hillsides on the Ligurian coast— you may have missed the lesser known sixth village of Porto Venere. Less crowded than the other villages, Porto Venere is charming and beautiful, with brightly painted villas, narrow streets, and steep stone staircases leading to sweeping views of churches, Roman walls, a castle, and the sea. I logged 13 miles climbing up and down over my two-day stay and bought a lemon to ward off a few apparent cold symptoms. Then I boarded a train for Florence and was ready to fly home.
That’s when a positive result on the required-to-fly Covid test at a local pharmacy threw a wrench in my plans. The following sketches and photos are from my brief stay in Porto Venere and the anxiety-ridden week that followed in an Airbnb in Florence. I allowed myself forays for food and visits to two gardens– as such, there are no grand sketches from that venerable city. After my Airbnb ran out, and not knowing when I would test negative, I booked four non-refundable nights at a boutique hotel outside the city. In the end, I tested negative and spent just one night there, thereby making my sketch of figs a rather expensive undertaking. I am thankful to be home.
Buon Giorno…It’s been a while. I didn’t mean to be away so long. But sometimes travel leads to the unexpected. After a lovely week of teaching in Umbria and several days hiking up and down the steep hillsides overlooking the sea in Porto Venere, my trip to Italy took a wrong turn when I tested positive for Covid in Florence and couldn’t come home. You may be thinking that spending an unexpected week in Florence is a dream…but not so much when you have to find a place to stay during the height of tourist season, spend a small fortune on hotels and rebooking flights, isolate, and wonder when you might test negative so that you can finally return home.
But let’s start with the best parts of the trip. My workshop for Winslow Art Center, Sketching the Nature of Italy in Watercolor, brought a wonderful group of painters to Castello di Petroia, a medieval castle in the hills of central Italy. Spring was blossoming on the steep slopes, with yellow rape covering the fields, wildflowers tucked alongside rugged paths, and the gray-green of olive trees a striking contrast against a backdrop of oaks and chestnut. We painted, ate impressive multi-course meals, drank good wine, took a day trip to the medieval hill town of Gubbio, and were treated to an amazing introduction to falconry. This set of sketches and photos reflects some of the workshop week. More to come on part 2 of my travels in the days ahead.
I don’t typically share photos, but it’s not every day that you get to visit a medieval castle and I thought you might enjoy these views.
So many lists. Still a lot to do. My trip to Italy is a week away and I am nearly ready…but not quite. There’s still paring down and packing and final workshop preparations, but what else can I manage to cram in? A bit of gardening? A few Italian language lessons? House cleaning? Another pre-trip journal page? Alas, this will be my last blog post for a few weeks as I like to unplug and immerse myself fully in a place while traveling and teaching. I’ll share my journey upon my return. A presto!
Tips and Techniques– I typically start a new journal when traveling, but I don’t want a big blank page staring at me when I arrive. Instead, I try to do some pre-trip pages to set the stage. This really helps me begin to think about letter styles, subject matter, color schemes, and materials. You can see that here on the opening page of place names. My initial idea for “Just the Essentials” was to sketch my shoes and my art supplies. But after struggling with the shoes, I decided to pull in the color grid element from the opening page and simply list the supplies. Who knows what will come next! Do you like to start ahead or do you wait until you are on location to begin your travel sketching?
Heads up: If you are near New York City and looking to celebrate spring, check out the New York Botanical Garden’s Colors of Spring and Plein-Air Invitational on May 14. I may be very jet-lagged, but I’ll be there.
Spring is just about to burst forth here in New York. It’s a time many of us eagerly await; the long winter months nearly behind us. Just a few things are blooming now, but the pace will accelerate in the coming days with a procession of spring ephemerals, migratory birds, flowering trees and shrubs, and colorful bulbs. I went looking for spring yesterday and was pleased to spend time with star magnolia and forsythia before the rain came and temperatures fell from 60-to 40-degrees. Here’s wishing you time to wonder and enjoy the coming of spring in the days ahead.
Tips and Techniques– When you start using a new sketchbook, it’s worth taking time to experiment with different materials and techniques to see what you like best and what works well on the paper. I am testing a Handbook Journal with 140 lb watercolor paper and finding that I really like it for watercolor. However, my go-to Micron 02 pen runs out quickly on it, so I experimented here with a Pilot Metropolitan fountain pen and black DeAtramentis Document Ink. The line is a bit thicker than I’m used to, giving this page a more graphic quality. I’m not unhappy with it, but I’ll continue to test it, and other drawing tools, in the coming weeks. If you happen to be using this sketchbook brand, I’d love to know what your go-to pen or pencil is for it.
I went to the New York Botanical Garden for the first time this weekend and it did not disappoint. A spectacular Orchid Show drew crowds to the historic conservatory, while thousands of visitors strolled the grounds on one of the first sunny days of spring. I could have spent hours painting orchids, but there simply wasn’t space. Instead, I wandered sunlight paths, soaking in the beauty of the place, and scoping out potential subjects for when I return in May to participate in this year’s Plein-Air Invitational.
In the Native Plant Garden, only a few bloodroot were in bloom, but I expect it will be putting on quite a show six weeks from now. At the margin of the garden’s large pool, I was drawn to a group of pitcher plants, still stunning despite being faded and dry. Later, a twisted and broken old willow tree at the edge of a wetland caught my eye. How ironic to find one of the few things on the grounds that had not been pampered or pruned, and yet, was uniquely beautiful all on its own.
Tips and Techniques– Pare down! When you are sketching on location, bringing less is often more. I brought a micron pen, a small set of watercolors, and a waterbrush, and I was glad to find a sepia pencil tucked in my bag. Not only is it easier to carry a smaller kit, but fewer choices may help you simplify when time if limited. If needed, you can always add details or finish later at home.
“If you are afflicted with melancholy at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk cabbage buds already advanced toward a New Year.”
– Henry David Thoreau, 1857
I walk to the swampy margin of a nearby stream every March. It’s still cold. Still brown and gray. But I know that I will find there the first blooms of the year. Tucked inside a cloak of mottled maroon and green the tiny yellow-green flowers hide. The first waking insects will find them on warmer days than this; they, too, heartened by the promise of a new season.
We couldn’t have picked a better weekend to visit Washington D.C. I didn’t realize when we chose the date that it would coincide with the blooming of the city’s cherry trees. After two years of social isolation, families, friends, and lovers strolled among the trees around the Tidal Basin, drinking in the beauty of pink and white blossoms in the sun. In a world with so much division and strife, what a gift to find the promise of hope and renewal still within our reach.
The planting of cherry trees in Washington DC originated in 1912 as a gift of friendship to the People of the United States from the People of Japan, where the tradition of celebrating the blooming of cherry trees is centuries old. Learn more >
Tips and Techniques– I painted a background wash of quin rose, cobalt blue, and touch of aureolin yellow before heading out to paint the cherry blossoms. This base wash gave the page some life before I started drawing. Once I had sketched the major groupings of blossoms, I painted behind them with more rose and cobalt. Later, I added additional blooms to the page, along with the greens. The trick here is keeping the looseness of the initial wash, while defining the blossoms and adding enough darks to get them to stand out.
A spot has opened up for Sketching the Nature of Italy in Watercolor, May 2-9, 2022. Immerse yourself in the beauty of the Italian countryside in Umbria, where nature and culture come together as your muse! Find details at Winslow Arts Center.
March is such a tease. One day it’s 50-F degrees and you’re outside with jacket unbuttoned. The next, there is seven inches of snow on the ground and you’re scraping ice off the windshield…again. Daylight lengthens, blackbirds reappear, but that’s pretty much it for evidence of a changing season. What really shifts in March is the anticipation. You’re closer to spring now. You know that soon salamanders will be moving to breeding ponds, that the woodcock will wing its way to the neighbor’s field, that you’ll find skunk cabbage opening along the stream when the snow melts. And it’s all worth the wait.
Tips & Techniques– This piece was inspired by Welsh explorer-artist Olivia Tonge (1858-1949). At age 50, Tonge set off alone on multiyear trips to explore India and Pakistan. She filled 16 sketchbooks with an assortment of birds, amphibians, reptiles, insects, and plants, juxtaposed with jewelry, food, people, and cultural objects. My takeaway is not to shy away from including a variety of subjects in your sketchbook. Paint what strikes you, especially if you are traveling! Push yourself to paint different textures and arrange different elements on a page. You’ll learn and improve your skills when you do and you’ll come away with an engaging record of your experiences.
Just a few quick bird sketches to wish you a good day and thank you for the many kind notes of condolences shared last week. Life is fleeting; capture what you can of it.
Tips and Techniques– When sketching birds, start with a line for the angle of the bird’s body and then hang the body shape on it. Do the same for the angle of the bill and head. One you have these lines, shapes, and proportions down check for accuracy and refine your sketch. Don’t add detail until the end. The hummingbird sketches here were done in 1-minute and I painted the rufous hummingbird and tufted titmouse in about 45 minutes.
My father-in-law died this week at the age of 88. A gentleman always and a stalwart family man, Roger lived for the last 10 months in a nursing home following a serious fall and head injury which left him with significant memory loss. On a recent visit, my husband encouraged me to bring along my sketchbook, hoping that it might spark conversation that had nothing to do with the past or the future. Indeed, it turned out to be one of the loveliest visits we shared together. The pages – whether butterflies, birds, ice, or dried up weeds – brought the outside world in. Roger understood that I was trying to capture the beauty of ordinary things, which, after all, is ours for the taking if only we look. It was to be my last visit. I’m so grateful for the gift of that simple insight and to have known an extraordinary man who understood it.