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.)

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.)

Sunday, May 21, 2017

A Personal Celebration at Seattle Chinese Garden

5/21/17 inks, water-soluble colored pencils
As the international Urban Sketchers organization gears up to celebrate its 10th anniversary this year, I celebrated my own personal anniversary today: My fifth year since joining USk Seattle!

Almost exactly five years ago, I had to force myself out the door on a cold, rainy Sunday to join USk Seattle at my first sketch outing (at Magnuson Park). Joining any kind of group is difficult for an introvert like me, but I was motivated to participate fully in this “urban sketching” activity that I had recently become so passionate about. Once I got past that initial hesitation, met people and realized how much fun it was to share in our common passion, continuing to attend became natural. I’ve hardly missed any outings since, and I think of USk Seattle as my “tribe.”

Still a little jet-lagged, I wasn’t sure I’d make it to the outing at Seattle Chinese Garden this morning, but I really wanted to as a way of commemorating my personal anniversary. Unlike five years ago, it was a warm and sunny morning, and although I was quite late, I was happy to join my tribe there. In fact, I spent so much time chatting that I hardly had time to sketch! Maybe I’ve become less introverted over the years. In any case, thank you, USk Seattle, for five fun years, and I look forward to all of our sketching years to come! 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Returning to Spring

5/20/17 ink, water-soluble colored pencils
Jetlagged, inspired, and my sketchbook full of memories, I’m back from 18 days of the beauty and wonder of Italy. I know I say this every time I return from international travel, but I have to say it again: As much as I love seeing the world, I love returning home even more.

The day I left, the sky was overcast and promised rain. Today it’s 65 71 (!) degrees, and the sky is as blue as any we saw over Positano or Varenna. Despite piles of dirty laundry and accumulated mail, I took a short break this afternoon to celebrate spring, at last, at Maple Leaf Park. Home is sweet indeed.

(Full Italy report coming soon, including my usual sketch kit review and a colored pencil breakthrough!)

Monday, May 1, 2017

Gelato Awaits!

4/21/17 ink, water-soluble colored pencils

Almost exactly 11 years ago, Greg and I took our first European trip ever (and it was only the second time we’d ever used our passports) – to Italy. As vivid as much of those two weeks remain in my mind, I know many sights have faded from memory because I didn’t sketch them. (I suppose I took photos, but that was before I got a digital camera – I’m not even sure where those envelopes of photos are.) Ever since I took up sketching, I’ve been wanting to return to that romantic and magical country to see it properly –with a sketchbook. We are finally on our way back to the land of pastel-colored houses, sparkling blue water and a different flavor of gelato every day!

I won’t be blogging while I’m gone, but you can keep up with my adventures on Instagram and Flickr. Ciao!

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Breaking for Lunch

4/27/17 ink, water-soluble colored pencils
Rain was heading my way, so I figured I’d better not venture too far for a sketch. Just a couple blocks away is Seattle City Light’s North Substation. I had sketched this Erector Set-like eyesore a few years ago, so I thought I’d do it again from a different view. Just as I approached, a few workers were packing up their utility vehicle to break for lunch, and I liked the scale they gave to the nearby tower.

How about that sky? I used a technique similar to the one I had described last week, except I skipped the ink-filled waterbrush and used only water-soluble colored pencils for the blue sky as well as the gray clouds. Pencils don’t granulate beautifully the way paints do, but for their ease and versatility, I’m sure happy with colored pencils.

I wish I could say the same for the Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbook I’ve been using this week. Since I just finished binding a sketchbook, and since I’ll be starting a fresh signature when I begin my travels, I didn’t want to start a new one this week. I decided to use this Alpha softcover, which I had abandoned after a few sketches last summer. As soon as I sprayed the page to prep for the sky, I remembered why I had abandoned it. I’m too spoiled by Canson XL and Beta papers when I use any kind of water.
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