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Drawing Italy: (Part 1) Wherever You Go, There You Are

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Studies from inside and outside the room at Hotel Italia, Rome

After months of anticipation, the moment of departure finally arrived—I was jetting to Italy with the purpose of diving into its culture and drawing in my sketchbooks. During the long flight, arcing over Iceland toward Zurich and Rome, I pondered Robert Henri’s advice in his book The Art Spirit:

“The sketch hunter has delightful days of drifting about among people, in and out of the city, going anywhere, everywhere, stopping as long as he likes—no need to reach any point, moving in any direction following the call of interests. He moves through life as he finds it, not passing negligently the things he loves, but stopping to know them, and to note them down in the shorthand of his sketchbook.”

That would be me; a sketch hunter for a month-long adventure in Italy.

Taking in a delightful feast of angled roof lines, twisting cobblestone passageways, ancient textures, and rustic colors in Ripatransone, Italy
Taking in a delightful feast of angled roof lines, twisting cobblestone passageways, ancient textures, and rustic colors in Ripatransone, Italy

Sketching Anywhere, Everywhere

I didn’t know what to expect. People told me I’d love traveling in Italy—the food, the wine, the spectacular sights. But as a sketch hunter, how would I know what to draw in these daunting historical locations? Where would I start? How would my drawing skills prevail while navigating the birthplace of Western drawing?

Airport lounges are a great place to start honing sketch hunter instincts. But draw swiftly—you never know when the loud-speaker voice will interrupt, "Now boarding, at Gate 12..."
I discovered that airport lounges are a great place to start honing sketch hunter instincts. But draw swiftly—you never know when the loud-speaker voice will interrupt, “Now boarding, at Gate 12…”

Artist Robert Henri’s advice for sketching in public is to trust your drawing instincts and have fun making mistakes. “Like any hunter he hits or misses. He is looking for what he loves, he tries to capture it. It’s found anywhere, everywhere. Those who are not hunters do not see these things. The hunter is learning to see and to understand—to enjoy.”

When traveling by bus or train, always be on the prowl for sketching opportunities. Getting a good angle of view is sometimes the luck of the draw.
I was always on the prowl for sketching opportunities. Getting a good angle of view is sometimes the luck of the draw.
I was fortunate this woman relaxed into the same position for about 30 minutes during a bus ride from Rome. She became the focal point of the composition.
I was fortunate this woman relaxed into the same position for about 30 minutes during a bus ride from Rome. She became the focal point of the composition.

When In Rome…Draw!

Adjusting to the frenetic pace of Rome took a day or two. But I was able to stray off the tourist-beaten path to discover sanctuaries of pure sketching bliss.

There were all sorts of fascinating ancient ruins to sketch in Rome. It was like being a kid in a candy store. The trick was to get a drawing location early in the morning, before herds of tourists interupted the view.
There were all sorts of fascinating ancient ruins to sketch in Rome. It was like being a kid in a candy store. The trick was to get to a drawing location early in the morning, before herds of tourists interrupted the view.
I was beginning to find my rhythm in blocking compositions and sketching the characteristics of ancient architecture. Lower left page is a man at an Indian restaurant—because sometimes you just need a break from eating pasta in Italy.
I was beginning to find my rhythm in blocking compositions and sketching the characteristics of ancient architecture. Lower left of page is a man at an Indian restaurant (because sometimes you just need a break from eating pasta in Italy).
Eating and drawing my way across Italy for a month was extraordinary. Restaurants are an excellent way to practice sketching people. At Ristorante Goose, near the Vatican, I noticed a group of business men (shown in the sketch below) dining at a nearby table. The angle of view was excellent as I captured a nice 15-minute sketch without them noticing me—a top priority for stealthy sketch hunters.
Eating and drawing my way across Italy for a month was extraordinary. Restaurants are an excellent way to practice sketching people. At Ristorante Goose, near the Vatican, I noticed a group of businessmen (shown in the sketch below) dining at a nearby table. The angle of view was excellent as I captured a 15-minute sketch without them noticing me—a top priority for stealthy sketch hunters.
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Lower left corner of page: businessmen eating at Ristorante Goose, Rome. Also shown are Castel Sant Angel near St. Peter’s Square, and a courtyard at the Vatican Museums.
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Left page (not in chronological order because I accidentally skipped this page): a street in Siena, my favorite urban sketching city so far. Right page: interior and exterior studies of the Pantheon.
Drawing is respected in Italy. Artisians and merchants are usually delighted to talk with you about drawing, art, and culture. Paolo has been selling prints and engravings in Rome for over 35 years. I shared my sketchbooks and he shared exquisite engravings.
Drawing is respected in Italy. Artisians and merchants are usually delighted to talk with you about drawing, art, and culture. Paolo has been selling prints and engravings in Rome for over 35 years. I shared my sketchbooks and he shared exquisite engravings.

From Urban Rooftops to Rural Hilltops

A pleasant bus ride through the Italian countryside transported us back to a place in time when bell towers and fortress walls overlooked lush farm valleys. Ripatransone, in the Le Marche region, is an ancient town where you can imagine strolling with sketchbook in hand, chatting about drawing techniques with Michelangelo’s biographer, Ascanio Condivi (who was born there).

Bob and Gina are friends who have a wonderful vineyard in Ripatransone called Tutto Doppio (translates to Everything Twice). The moment we exchanged greetings began a cherished adventure in harvesting grapes and drawing to my heart’s content.

View of Ripatransone from Bob and Gina's garden terrace.
View of Ripatransone from Bob and Gina’s garden terrace.
In the shadow of Ripatransone stands the Tutto Doppio farm. Like columns of soldiers marching up a steep hill, the vineyard immediately caught my eye.
In the shadow of Ripatransone is Tutto Doppio. Like columns of soldiers marching up a steep hill, the vineyard immediately caught my eye.
Tutto Doppio grape vines standing at attention, waiting to be harvested; In doing this sketch I faced the challenges of depicting the steep angle of this hill; then using atmosspheric perspective to show depth of scale for farms on distant slopes.
Tutto Doppio grape vines standing at attention, waiting to be harvested. In doing this sketch I faced the challenges of depicting the steep angle of the hill; then using atmospheric perspective to show depth of scale for farms on distant slopes.
Rekindling my friendship with Bob Nease was a highlight of the trip. His passion for wine is inspiring. Caring for, and picking grapes (and olives) is strenuous, yet gratifying work. For a couple of enjoyable weeks I was sketch hunter turned farmer.
Rekindling my friendship with a pal from my twenties, Bob Nease, was a highlight of the trip. His passion for wine is inspiring. Caring for vineyards and harvesting grapes is strenuous, yet gratifying work. For a couple of enjoyable weeks I was sketch hunter turned farmer.
The ancient town of Ripatransone and vineyards spilling down the hilltop into fertile agrarian lands. During the trip I used 9B and 2B graphite for my pencil sketches
The ancient town of Ripatransone and vineyards spilling down the hilltop into fertile agrarian lands. During the trip I used 9B and 2B graphite for my pencil sketches
I had the memorable opportunity to pick grapes with a group of Italian anarchists. After a day in the fields I joined them at a rural commune for their annual harvest dinner—a festive night of traditional grape stomping, hearty regional food, and political conversation. Sitting around the large table were the perfect models for practicing portrait sketching. Drawing comfortably in social situations can be scary. Superb homemade wine quickly helps to relax the sketching hand.
I had the memorable opportunity to pick grapes with a group of Italian self-identified anarchists. After a day in the fields I joined them at a rural commune for their annual harvest dinner—a festive evening of traditional grape stomping, hearty regional food, and political conversation. Sitting around the large table were the perfect models for practicing portrait sketching. Drawing in social situations can be scary. Superb homemade wine quickly helps to relax the sketching hand.
Back to the streets of Ripatransone, where I worked at making sense of radical challenges in perspective drawing.
Back to the streets of Ripatransone, where I worked at making sense of radical challenges in perspective drawing.

Hunting for Composition

Searching for scenes that push my skills and train my eye are my fancy. Ripatransone offered up all sorts of new puzzles to solve—linear and atmospheric perspective, textures, colors, lighting. As I composed pages of sketches of this town, I established sketching strategies that would serve me well at future destinations on the trip.

View down the main street in Ripatransone; once in a while all the elements come together for a satisfying sketch.
View down the main street in Ripatransone; once in a while all the elements come together for a satisfying sketch.
Ripatransone compositions; putting the same tactica to work that I teach to students: block, sketch, draw
Ripatransone compositions; putting the same tactics to work that I teach to students: block, sketch, draw

As our stay in Ripatransone drew to a close, we started mapping our itinerary for Venice, Florence, and Siena. The rich cultural experiences and graciousness of our hosts in Ripatransone better prepared us for the journey ahead.

Water color sketch of Bob & Gina's home that I left as a 'thank you' note
Watercolor sketch of Bob & Gina’s home that I left as a ‘thank you’

As I board the train to Northern Italy, I continue to be the sketch hunter, searching for an alluring subject and trying to capture it. Robert Henri’s words echo in the railway tunnels, “It’s found anywhere, everywhere.”

Special thanks to Rhonda for taking pics and being the force that held this trip together.

Look for Drawing Italy (Part 2) coming soon!

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Walking Into a Sketch
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Rob Court

Founder and drawing coach at the Scribbles Institute, Rob helps adults and kids learn basic drawing skills for work, school, and enjoyment. He is the author of a number of how-to-draw books.

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