Friday, June 24, 2011

Easels in Frederick

A week after getting back from Italy, I've been on the road again, this time in Frederick, Md., for the Easels in Frederick plein aire event. Here. courtesy of the Frederick News Post and AJ Messer, is a video of the event where I was interviewed. This is a national level event, and only 30 artists were selected to paint. We had a small geographic area in which we could work, but Frederick provided us with beautiful subject matter.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


Venice is a wonder. The entire town looks like a painting and nearly every photograph I took could become a painting. There are colorful characters everywhere, the graceful gondolas, the ever amusing gondoliers, and quirky little shops stuffed into every corner and crevice, bursting with unusual items: commedia dell’ arte masks, colorful glass, jewelry, wooden items, fine china, expensive designer clothing, the funkiest art, hand made papers and books, marvelous clothing, and hand crafted items of every color, sort and style.

It was a delight to wander through the Venetian streets, not knowing where I was, and somehow return right back to where I started.

It seems as though much of the gold in the world is either in Venice, Rome or Florence – in the churches. I’ve seen more reliquaries than you can shake a …. um, bone, at. Words cannot express the wonder of the art available for viewing in Italy. And, it seems to me that Venice must have been, at one time, the center of the entire world, from the looks of its great wealth and splendor.

Of all the places I’ve been, I’d like most to return to Burano to paint. It’s the little island outside of Venice that’s best known for its lace makers. It’s full of boats, and little buildings painted in all the pastel colors you have in a crayon box: lavender, pink, blue, yellow. The streets are wide and fairly quiet, the laundry is flapping in the breeze above the colorful window boxes, and the shops require a second glance. It’s my hope to return, sooner rather than later, and set up my easel and capture those colorful and watery landscapes on paper.

Watercolor Workshop en plein aire

I presented several demonstrations outdoors. The first one was on site in Radda. I wandered around the town to get a feel for where I’d like to paint; then I set up my equipment, took some photographs and penciled in a quick sketch. The students looked around the town for suitable spots where they might like to paint, and then we gathered around my easel for the demonstration, which took me about 45 minutes.

On the day we spent in Siena, several students met for lunch, and sketched at a little cafĂ© overlooking the valley. Eleanor and Bonnie then “went to the wall” to complete their pieces. Chris and Laila found a lovely little spot where the owner gave them permission to paint and even honored them with an umbrella for shade. Marcia, Mary and Susan completed their sketches, while Tess wandered around town to soak in some “Italian.”

A plein aire workshop is not only about painting; it’s also about experiences. It’s true that practice is an important component of learning how to compose a successful painting outdoors in the elements while tourists are distracting you, the wind is blowing and the paint is drying, but time spent in plein aire is a time of opportunity. The artist will take home some pretty pictures they created, many photographs of magical moments that may become work in the studio, sketches that will become masterpieces, and creative ideas that will provide artistic food for a lifetime.

The Workshop in Italy

Little did I know what I was headed for when I boarded the bus for the Tuscan Renaissance Center and the impending workshop.

The staff treated us graciously and with impeccable service, beginning with day one at the train station in Florence. We were most pleased with the facility: a restored monastery with tastefully luxurious Tuscan decor in every room. Our group had their first meeting in what was once the chapel and now serves as an extra large meeting room. A group appetizer night included olives, bruschetta, local breads, crackers and zucchini tartlets along with free flowing local wine. I set up my week long schedule with staff and we were off on an adventure of incredible meals, polite care, different sites daily, shopping and painting.

Meals were a real adventure: the local chef would bring up each dish and deliver a lengthy description of ingredients and any history that might be relevant. We had dishes such as a hearty peasant soup, a barbeque of ribs, chicken, Tuscan bacon and sausages, rissotto, pastas, fresh Tuscan lasagna, spinach tarts, local delmonico steaks,all sorts of local vegetables, including asparagus, broccoli, Italian beans, potatoes, eggplants, Italian breads, olives, figs, peaches, apricots, and nuts of all kinds. Each dessert was magnificent: an apple tart with an apple liqueur sauce, bread pudding with caramel sauce (made by our own magnificent Tess), chocolate souffle with braised peaches, an ice cream concoction that incorporated cherries, chocolate and tiny almond cookies, and another cake with a lemon curd topping. Each breakfast included fresh cake baked by the Renate, one of the owners of San Fedele, along with yogurts, local jams and honey, cereals, croissants, fresh local fruits, nuts, eggs, juices and lots of coffee. Because of the hearty meals, it become imperative that we get out and.....walk.

We set up easels in Radda, San Fedele and Monteriggione; we toured Siena and San Gimignano and the market stalls in local towns. Our group went to a dinner and wine tasting at a local winery. We took hundreds of pictures of stone towns, shadows, sunlight, laundry hanging from windows and wine fields. One day, Michael, who was always so helpful and gracious to us, diverted to a field where there was a cherry tree, weighed down with fruit. We took advantage of the situation.

During two of our meals, we were treated to music: two of our hosts, Linda and Michael, are professional singers.

Every evening, we enjoyed a critique of artwork on the back patio of San Fedele.

Vini, Vidi, Vici.

We came. We saw. We painted. We shopped.

Italy: Part Two

Sadly, our time came to leave Vernazza. Sniff, sniff. I must post one more picture of my view of Vernazza here. We boarded the local train to La Spezia, hauling our heavy luggage down the stairs, then up the stairs, then down again, to the platform. There we found: a lift! After that, we sought elevators wherever we could. In La Spezia, we boarded a Eurostar train to Florence. We found the train system in Italy to be generally good: they are usually punctual, relatively clean and comfortable. Naturally, a first class cabin in the Eurostar is steps above the local trains, which only offer second class cabins and are not always air conditioned, which can be critical in the summer.

Each Italian city or town I visited seemed to have an entirely different "flavor." It was a little bit like gelato: Vernazza was the most delicious flavor of local lemon - it was small, cozy, tart and deliciously home made. Florence is a huge tourist town, so you probably won't find organic gelato here and the concoctions will appeal to tourists: banana or chocolate with vanilla swirl; Venice is exotic, so one can expect the most expensive, most unusual and dramatic flavors here - cherries steeped in liqueurs, drizzled in chocolate and topped with creams and strange nuts; Tuscany offers organic, wholesome, fresh, local: the melons, the licorice, the pure vanillas. So, when I travel, I try not to have rigid expectations and just think "un assaggio, per favore?" (A taste, please....)

Also, whenever and wherever I travel, I indubitably stumble upon "international" personalities. In Florence, I ran into Snookie, JWow and crew (why the heck are they considered personalities...ugh). In California, I ate in a restaurant and saw Julia Roberts, and in Las Vegas, Little Richard was getting into his car. Go figure.

As for Florence, it's a big city, it's rich, it has lots of gold in the museums and churches, it has a multitude of expensive shops and more well heeled shoppers than I have seen in a while AND it reminds me of NYC. If you get off the tourist trails, you'll make better deals in the shops, and get more of the feeling of .... well, just a darn big city with regular people. Bargain in the shops; it's expected. My favorite thing to do in Florence is SHOP and my favorite sights in Florence are the Accademia, where I could stand in front of Michaelangelo's "David" statue forever AND the lesser known Museum of San Marco, which is the monastery where Fra Angelico lived and served as one of the world's lesser known interior decorators, since he painted frescoes on the walls of each and every monk's cubicle, along with the ceilings.

While in Florence, I met up with some of my students and we enjoyed several meals together. On Saturday, we gathered at the train station, boarded a special bus and drove off to the sun kissed mountain tops of San Fedele in Tuscany, Italy. The trip took about 1 1/2 hours and rolled through "S" curves of breathtaking scenery. Tuscany looks like it does in the movies: it's a star. It's filled with antique stone walled houses and villages, curvy roads without railguards, those beautiful, pointy cypress trees, field after field of patchwork color, poppies, wild flowers, and row after row after row and mountain after mountain of GRAPE VINES.....

Italy: Part One is Continued

During our last day in the Cinque Terre - this means "Five Villages" - we took the tiny local, local, local train that runs between the towns. The train system is rickety, very cheap and follows the steep and rocky cliffs along the sea. The views are breathtaking. Read the instructions carefully about taking the trains and be sure you have all the correct tickets that you need.

There are spectacular, scenic hiking trails that hug the cliffs along the coast and connect each of the five villages together. There were many serious hikers to be seen: most appeared to be German and they were heavily equipped with walking sticks, backpacks, and properly expensive clothing and shoes. These are the professional hikers. We three were only interested in walking the lower, "easier" trail, which was remarkable enough. This is the trail between Riomaggiore and Manarola. It lasts about one hour,is mostly flat and snakes along the mountain providing the walker with unbelievable panoramic views of the villages, the sea and the mountains. The fee one pays for access is well worth it, for it pays for maintenance and safety, along with the view.

The photographs here show a typical sunlit shop in a Cinque Terre village, as well as my view from the trail.

On my last day, I sunned on the rocks and dipped my feet into the refreshing water at the beach. There were many locals enjoying the sun and the water, too, and it was lovely to "melt" into the Mediterranean, and be as one with the sea, the sand and the people of the town. Ah.......

Italy: Part One

My travels to Italy in late May 2011 were a combination of business and pleasure. I had to teach a watercolor workshop at Il Chiostro in early June, so I decided to make my second trip to Italy more comprehensive. The first time I saw the country was as a chaperone for my daughter's Latin club trip during spring break; the teacher had an itinerary that would make a soldier quake in his boots. We saw a LOT of Italy in five days, but we marched from 6 am until midnite, swooping past towns like birds in flight, dropping a few Euros along the way. While the trip was grand, and the kids were fantastic (seriously, they were too tired to misbehave, but the teacher knew what he was doing), I was exhausted. This time, I decided, I would do Italy right and take my time to enjoy the scenery, the gelatto, the wine and the people.

I flew into Pisa with my husband, John, and my good friend, Eleanor. The Pisa airport is small, manageable, and easy to understand, plus, it's closest to the Cinque Terre,along the Italian Riviera, where I planned to go first to relax and wind down before my workshop. Like every other tourist, I had to save the leaning tower from falling into a crumbling pile. Here's an obligatory shot.....

After one morning in Pisa, which is all the traveler really needs, we boarded a local train to the Cinque Terre. I don't really want to expound upon this too much, because I'd like to return to these villages along the sea, and I don't want too many tourists to discover the magic beauty of the place. We rented an apartment at the top of the little village of Vernazza from Franco. The apartment was lovely, clean and....very high. Thank goodness Franco and his strong friend, Marco, helped get our luggage up to the top. After that, though, we were on our own. Up and down, and down and up and back again we climbed and climbed and climbed. At the end of the day, we would reward ourselves with the best gelatto around (it's at the Gelateria Stalin); we also enjoyed the food and entertainment at Il Pirata delle Cinque Terre, which is owned by twin brothers from Sicily who missed their true calling as stand up comedians. The food at Il Pirata is very good, and the Sicilian desserts are even better. The breakfast at their restaurant is supposed to be stellar, but since we were in Italy, trying to live "la vita dolce," we never found the energy to walk down from the top of Vernazza to the other end to try the morning menu out. A final night was spent at the very top of Vernazza, at the Ristorante Al Castello, enjoying wine with a view of the mountains dipping into the Mediterranean sea.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Still Living La Vita Dolce

I took photographs of wine in every setting I could: Siena, Florence, Venice, San Fedele....I love painting light and reflections and the wonderful distortions that occur in glass and, especially, in glass with liquids.

Here's a picture of my glass of locally made (and a bit dry and very delicious) white wine in Siena, Italy. We found a fantastic cafe' located along the outer wall of the town where we could eat, drink wine and sketch and paint. The bruschetta that was deliverd to Bonnie and Marcia was so large, it was daunting. The bread covered the entire plate, and it was topped with several inches of fresh tomato, buffalo mozzarella and olive oil. What a way to begin a day.

We spent several hours on this day in Siena; the town was too full of tourists to set up our easels, but we took many photographs and then returned to San Fedele to paint, or swim or just think about what sort of new adventure and experience dinner might bring.....

My workshop took place at the Tuscan Renaissance Center, a restored monastery in San Fedele, Italy, in the Tuscan mountains.

I thank the owners for their gracious hospitality and I thank our hosts for maintaining a spirit of conviviality and for taking such good care of us.

Here's a photograph of Michaelino, who drove us pretty much EVERYWHERE and diverted onto a dirt road one day where we picked, and ate, delicious Italian cherries, which were ripening during our time there.
I'm also posting a picture of some of the fine Tuscan wine we enjoyed. This is right outside my room.....

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Return to list of postsItaly and living "la vita dolce."

I'm back from teaching a workshop at the fabulous Tuscan Renaissance Center in San Fedele, Italy. My carefree life of eating incredible Italian meals nightly, drinking cheap but marvelous Italian wine and painting the sun kissed Tuscan hills is over. However, since I am a painter, my tour will live on through my paintings.....

Here are some highlights of the trip:
I saw Snooki and JWow, of the Jersey Shore, in Florence. The girls and their camera crew walked past my table (I was close enough to give them a good slap, which from Snooki's smirking face, appeared to be needed), giving us all a cheap (very cheap in person, I dare say) thrill.

We were waited on hand and foot during the workshop at the Tuscan Renaissance Center and treated to EXPERIENCES, not food, every night. We enjoyed wine and olive oil tastings and some excellent serenading by Linda and Michael, who perform as professional singers! Wow!

I now realize why there's not much gold left in the world: every bit of it is in the Catholic churches and museums in Italy, ensconced in the frescoes, artwork, altars and chalices.

It appears that being an artist during the Renaissance might have actually been profitable.

Venice is amazing and you cannot take a bad picture in the town or run into a bad shop.

Even the most meager outdoor market in Italy has better fashions than one can find in.....Virginia.

There is no bad food or bad wine in Italy. This thought leads me to another thought: I may not be able to drink Virginia wine again or eat American food. Ugh. Food in Italy is a three hour, five course experience, utilizing only the freshest ingredients while our food here...... oh, well.