(More than…) Two Years in Torino

"Le cose belle sono lente." –Pane e Tulipani

Benvenuto!

We are an American family of three who moved to Torino, Italy in the fall of 2011. Our daughter Sarie was mostly raised in Manhattan.  Before that, we were from Georgia.

As for the blog title, it’s called that because my husband’s work contract was initially for two years. But the two-year mark came and went, and living in Italy is looking more like a long-term endeavor. I still think the blog title has a nice ring to it, though, so for now, I’m keeping it (in slightly modified form).

Sarie took this photo on the Monte dei Cappuccini overlooking Torino the first winter we lived here. In the background, you can see the Alps!

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They got married!

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Alberto and Sarie, photo credit Aldo Mattea

Sarie and Alberto met four-and-a-half years ago, at the conservatory. There’s been a whole lot of water under the bridge since then, but on Saturday they were married. Now they live in a nice house in a small town outside of Torino, with an apartment upstairs and their new English school downstairs, and family close by.

We had six relatives and a friend attend the wedding, which gave the whole experience an extra dimension in which people who really didn’t speak the other’s language well (if at all) somehow managed to communicate their happiness about the occasion. There was a cappella singing, trading of tongue twisters in the other language, a polaroid photo contest, and a silly dance. And then some of the Italians and Americans travelled around together for three days.

The honeymoon proper begins next week, and there will be a party for the newlyweds in Atlanta next weekend. I wish them many, many happy years together.

 

In which I buckle down and get to work

I’ve been sort of a hermit lately. Well, I did go to the Langhe wine region with friends last Sunday, and I’ve been chatting with people on the phone, and I’ve been to mass, and I’ve gone to various appointments. But in general I’ve been leading a very simple existence and using the time and headspace created to get some art done.

Scenes from the hermitage: Watching illustration tutorials while eating leftovers. The flowers are my overgrown chives. I also made pesto from my balcony basil. 

On Wednesday night I printed out over 50 pages of documents for a patronato appointment. Perhaps I can get my carta di soggiorno (long term immigration card) in time for my trip to the US in August. And unlike the permesso di soggiorno, it doesn’t have to be renewed. You have no idea how glad that makes me.

As part of the carta process, someone had to come to my apartment to make sure it was big enough for me to live in. Such an odd concept. Next I have to get a document that shows I’ve never been in jail. And then there was the three-month-long process of getting American documents officially translated and stamped by the uncommunicative Italian consulate in Miami. The carta di soggiorno has opened up new horizons in bureaucracy.

But mostly, I’m sitting at home with my new Cintiq (which I have never figured out how to get to run at 4K, by the way), lassoing my way through three iterations of Princess Carla of Spaniel. I set myself a deadline of today, which means I’ve had to let go of a good bit of perfectionism, but it does make me feel good that I have set a goal and accomplished it.

My first color comp is the scheme of the original painting. The second one was inspired by a Downton Abbey still. (I think I haven’t realized the potential of this scheme yet.) The third? Grand Budapest Hotel! I’ve discovered there’s a whole world of color study via film stills, which I’m pretty sure was part of the point of this assignment. That and learning to use the lasso and gradient tools. And I learned a third lesson as well: If you want to get something done and move on, don’t choose an iridescent Velasquez dress.

To muff or not to muff? That is the question…

There’s more to do on this project, for sure. But one thing at a time. Maybe soon I’ll even get around to posting some photos of the most famous wine region in the world outside the Loire Valley.

 

Cintiq review

In my last post, I promised to update either my progress on the color comps for Princess Carla of Spaniel or the new Cintiq Pro 16 (a draw-on-screen monitor).

I’ll start with the Cintiq. It’s revolutionary for me, even with its steep learning curve.

First I must list the difficulties, which are fairly well known by now to the digital art community: It has issues with Mac Sierra, with connections and drivers, and with getting the promised 4K screen resolution. For a complete list of problems and fixes, see the Wacom Reddit  board, though Wacom has its own discussion board as well.

I don’t have the Sierra problem because I never upgraded to it, preferring to preserve as much RAM as possible. I will probably have to eventually, but hopefully by then the compatibility issues will be ironed out.

I am, however, having the resolution problem. I’m stuck at 1440 resolution. I have a MacBook Retina Display, which should support 4K.  But I don’t have a USB-C port, and that’s what the Cintiq Pros are set up to use. The Wacom link, an adapter which was included in the box because Wacom knew how new USB-C ports are, doesn’t support 4K. At least not officially. Some people have been able to make it work by ordering special MiniDisplay cables, but I have had no success with that route. Wacom Reddit has more information if you’re trying to troubleshoot this issue, and meanwhile, if I am able to make mine work, I’ll post an update.

And I must say that the sleek Cintiq monitor does look rather silly with three long, bulky cables sticking out of it and sprawling all over the table, just to make it work. It looks very jury-rigged.

Those caveats aside, however, having a pen display is absolutely an enormous boost to a digital art setup.

Even at just 16″, the workspace feels much bigger than my 13″ laptop, and besides I don’t have to keep juggling apps around a tiny screen to look at reference material or watch tutorials. Now I have one maximized screen just for my artwork!

And even at 1440 resolution, I’m able to work quite well enough for a beginner.

The new pen works very well and even has an eraser on the other end. I have yet to figure out its relation to the eraser function in Photoshop, but I will discover it eventually. I have set my pen controls to display toggle (to switch quickly from the display to my computer monitor and back) and radial menu (a pop up on screen menu in which you can store your favorite shortcuts). Both of these have made the tablet much easier to use.

The first few days I was a bit disoriented because things kept popping up on the wrong monitor and I didn’t know how to toggle, but slowly I’m getting the hang of it.

And today I figured out how to make the font on the Cintiq big enough to read. The fix is not in Photoshop, but in the Mac display scaling preferences. I had been afraid to touch those because I thought it would decrease my display resolution even more, but apparently it doesn’t.

But the absolute best thing, and the reason I got this device to begin with, is that now I can draw, lasso, and use all the other precise tools included with Photoshop with the same precision I would a pencil and paper. If you’ve ever used an Intuos, the small black drawing tablet with no screen, you know what I’m talking about. It feels like you’re drawing with your non-dominant hand, or worse. I got better at drawing with it over the year that I used it, but there’s no comparison between an Intuos and a Cintiq if your drawing style is about manual dexterity.

So, now I’ve got the Cintiq setup and I’m back to working on color comps for Princess Carla of Spaniel. I’ll post an update when I’m a bit further along.

The new Cintiq Pro 16 with my first color comp for Princess Carla of Spaniel in progress. 

 

 

Spaniel drawing update

Here’s a short update on the fancy animal assignment from the last post: I’ve been working on it whenever I get a chance, and have now finished the tonal study. To do this, I scanned and combined my favorite two drawings and then worked out the values in Photoshop.

The awkward black lines in the study are drawing corrections done on an Intuos pro tablet. The point at this stage was never to have an elegant, finished drawing, but these lines are particularly rudimentary and I leave them in to emphasize that it’s really hard to draw accurately on a small tablet. But I’ve finally sprung for a Cintiq draw-on-screen monitor and it should arrive tomorrow. Yay!

Anyway, the tonal study showed me that I needed to further “flesh out” the dog’s paws, so to speak. That has been today’s work. When I used to paint oil portraits, back in the pre-digital era, I’d take a couple hundred photos and make sketches to think out various aspects of the painting. Illustration is by nature imaginary, but I still like my drawings to look correct and believable. That requires a ton of photo reference and detailed studies. Sometimes I wish I had an in home menagerie!

Another part of today’s work has been to start thinking about mother-of-the-bride’s dresses for July, but after trying on everything I own that might work, I must confess I much prefer drawing Velasquez dresses to shopping for one for myself.

Once I get the Cintiq up and running, or get to the color comps for this assignment (whichever comes first), I’ll post an update. And there are more steps to go after that. But I like the way this assignment is making me stretch.

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Princess Carla of Spaniel

It has been a while since I’ve posted. I’m working a lot on illustration and am now much more comfortable with Photoshop, but have little original work to show for all this study, so I recently joined a group that gives assignments. Here is the first:  Find an atmospheric portrait and combine it with an animal.

I immediately thought of Velasquez, and as I looked at his portraits, I thought, What do they remind me of? Why, King Charles Spaniels, obviously! (Perhaps that’s not so surprising considering that Velasquez painted at least one King Charles Spaniel into a royal family portrait. People do tend to look like their dogs.)

I started out this assignment thinking I’d use Las Meninas, but when I did a Google search I immediately found that someone had already done a few spoofs of that extremely famous image with a dog’s head, and besides the light is coming from a less conventional direction in that painting. So I decided on another image of the same princess, here:

Velasquez, The Infanta Margherita, Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna

I’m not sure I can post the main spaniel reference photo I used since it’s probably someone else’s intellectual property, but needless to say I had a ton of spaniel photos.

After various attempts, I finally settled on one main head pose and expression:

Princess Carla of Spaniel, by me

This is an interesting assignment because it forces you to think of such unconventional questions as, how much puppy belly is appropriate to show in a corseted dress? How do you make shoulders that look human enough to retain the main lines of the dress while looking doggy enough not to suggest a straight cut and paste? How do you put earrings on a dog? How much of the full length portrait should be incorporated into the assignment and what to do with that other paw? (Not to mention that I cut off the near one, which was part of the drawing, in the photo.) And how do you adapt the reference material in a way that maintains form over mere photographic realism? I must say I was quite pleased with the ready transitions from necklace to dog collar and spaniel ears to 17th c. Spanish hair, though.

The idea is to do a finished digital image in color. I should have a Cintiq (tablet that allows the user to draw directly on screen) soon, but as of now I still don’t have one, so doing this assignment on a tiny Intuos tablet is going to be a challenge. I’m going to try it nonetheless.

And obviously I’m posting here to hold myself accountable. If you like this sort of thing, stay tuned…

Illustration resources

This is the post I was going to write before I got sidetracked with Thanksgiving. Though Two Years in Torino is primarily about life as an American in Italy, I think it’s only natural that as I live in Torino longer and longer (way beyond two years, it looks like), not all of my life will be consciously expat. As such, most of these illustration resources are American, but if you’re just itching for some bureaucratic irony and humor from the bel paese, I have one more Accademia Albertina update to publish soon. Also, some day, I hope that my illustration interest and my interest in things Italian will truly intersect.

But for now I have a lot of technical information about art to digest, quickly, and so this year I am taking the efficient, if somewhat lonely route of art self-study online. Online schools seem to be a pronounced trend in the US, and while I might not recommend online study for an 18-year-old getting his or her first degree, as a middle-aged expat self-study has a lot to offer: for starters, convenience of time and place, choice of specialized syllabi, and prices that allow for experimentation. (Note: the link, which actually argues that not even young people should go to art school, leads to yet more online resources.)

I’m not even sure how I first found all these schools and resources that I am about to list (I think I may have begun with Will Terry’s channel on YouTube), but I will say that once you discover a couple of these artists, they tend to lead to one another in a serendipitous rabbit trail. Most of these artists are entrepreneurial in outlook, and therefore they are open to other streams of income than book illustration. For instance, Will has branched out from children’s book illustration to Comi-cons (comics conventions), and has just published a book of his own fan art.

Another thing these artists seem to have in common is an acquaintance with animated film studios. They may not all have worked for one, but the style of modern animation has at the very least contributed to their visual vocabulary. I say this because digital animation is more of a recent discovery for me, and it wasn’t until I saw such films as Up!, Brave and Big Hero Six that I was truly convinced of the potential of digital animation, particularly the lighting. (I watch a lot of animated films during those long flights to the US.)

When I got interested in children’s book illustration again, Comic-cons and Disney films were not exactly what I had in mind, and yet I do think it’s important to understand the trends. I can take in bits of this knowledge and inform my own art.

And lastly, I appreciate that all of these artists have been willing to share some of what they have learned. They do not operate under a scarcity mentality. Instead they assume that the more knowledge is available, the more new opportunities for artists will open up. More art for everyone, more jobs for artists!

So, here’s my list of resources:

First of all, Photoshop is the industry standard software for illustrators. (Ironically, Adobe Illustrator is more for logo design and other projects that require a vector format.) I found a Photoshop offer that allowed me to get just Photoshop and Lightroom (English version) for about $10/month. I don’t know how long it will be available, but even if you are the most traditional of artists, your illustration work has to be camera ready, and Photoshop offers editing tools. How far you take your editing, and their painting tools, is up to you.

Also, although for now I work on a small Wacom Intuos tablet, I want to eventually buy a Wacom Cintiq, which allows you to draw directly on the screen. Both of these devices plug into a regular computer and use a stylus, but since the Intuos requires you to look at a screen while drawing on a separate tablet, it produces certain hand/eye coordination problems that, although they do improve with practice, never quite go away. I spent 50 years developing my drawing hand, and a Cintiq would allow me to fully preserve it in digital form. One reason for my delay in buying a Cintiq, by the way, is that I am waiting to see if an updated version of the 22″ model is released soon.

Now that I’ve listed the materials needed, there is the matter of developing the specialized skills required to use them well. Though I only discovered it somewhat recently, there is at least one excellent, free site that will walk you through the basics of digital painting in Photoshop as well as the fundamentals of drawing and painting. Let’s face it, Photoshop is an overwhelming program when you first encounter it, and you can waste hours trying to resolve seemingly minuscule problems. Matt Kohr’s Ctrl + Paint is clear, concise, and while he doesn’t always still have the practice downloads mentioned in his videos (some videos are several years old and have been moved to the site from elsewhere), you can usually take a screenshot (cmd + shift + 3 on a Mac) and make one yourself. Ctrl + Paint is a great first stop. He also offers paid content, which I haven’t tried yet. And just a note: I usually use Safari, but I find his site works better on Firefox.

My paid instruction source of the moment is SVS Learn.com. The classes seem to be available every so often as real time courses with instructor feedback, and thereafter are preserved for download or streaming. The main instructors are Will Terry and Jake Parker (founder of Inktober). Will and Jake give digital instruction, but never emphasize digital tricks over fundamentals. In fact, most of their courses are just as helpful for traditional media. Their specialty is children’s books, and to some degree, comics and graphic novels. They and other artists present courses on such topics as Painting Color and Light, Developing Interesting Character Designs, Perspective, How to Make Money in Illustration, and many others. I currently have a streaming subscription for $15/month that allows me to watch anything on the site and download the workbooks and other digital aids that accompany the courses. I really have learned a lot. And another nice thing about their site is that they allow you to leave and come back with no hassle (haven’t tried it yet, but that’s what it says on the site). They seem to understand that artists are struggling enough just to stay afloat, so they let you pick and choose what you need.

Branching out from SVS, I have also discovered such sites as Noah Bradley’s Art Camp and Chris Oatley’s Oatley Academy. Yet another paid online art education site is Schoolism. I haven’t joined any of those yet, but they do look like they might be promising. If anyone has experience that they would like to share, or knows other sites of similar quality, I would love to hear from you.

And what 21st century artist’s resource list would be complete without Pinterest? Artists use all the social media sites–Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr being some of the more common ones–but the lure of Pinterest is the ability to make your own collections of other artists’ work and reference material, not just your own. When you’re starting out, Pinterest can be a helpful way to organize all the different sources of inspiration you want to keep track of. My account goes through periodic growth spurts and has now exploded to over 1000 pins. Oops!

For inspiration and general knowledge about the industry, I have enjoyed not only Will’s and Jake’s YouTube channels, but also Chris Oatley’s Artcast. Now that I am home alone a lot, I often listen to You Tube or podcasts while I do housework. Some of them are art-related and some have nothing to do with art, but that’s another blog post.

And finally, I have found some rather fun animation resources on TED and even Khan Academy.

 

My illustration adventure has only just started, and yet I’m really itching to get to the point where I can produce something that reflects not just technical art skills, but a mature vision. I think this may be a typical problem with starting a career in midlife. When you’re young, you have tons of energy and learn easily, but little life experience. At my age, you know your own interests and you have tons of experience you want to get out on paper or screen, but need to get your skills caught up quickly. I think a combination of humble and agile mind, and yet confidence about what you are trying to do, are optimal. But most of all, this job requires practice. So that’s what I am going to do now. Hope this helps someone, and thanks for reading!

Thanksgiving Monday

I was going to post about illustration today, but my drafts kept turning into Thanksgiving posts, so here goes:

I took last week off to catch up on errands and prepare Thanksgiving dinner. I find that studying illustration, like any other work, leaves me falling behind in the rest of life. So, for my week off I had such tasks in mind as doing a shopping run at one of the big suburban grocery stores, getting my Christmas tree from IKEA, and registering for my A2 level Italian language test for immigrants, in addition to food prep.

Unfortunately, it also turned out to be the rainiest week since we moved into this apartment five years ago. The rain started out as an inconvenience, but by Thursday it had become alarming and by Friday the rivers were so high that the tour boats came unmoored and wrecked themselves against the city’s main bridge across the Po. The  city’s trains were in such a snarl that the transit authority actually called off a planned strike, whether out of mercy or because they figured no one would notice it anyway, I don’t know. Sarie missed three days of work due to the flooding.

Against this chaotic backdrop, catching up on my postponed errands took a good bit of willpower, but I plowed through them anyway. The immigration process will eventually get a new post of it own, no doubt. I’ll just say that I had hoped that going to the patronato during a flood meant that it would be less crowded. I was wrong.

Meanwhile I had planned out an elaborate staging process for cooking Thanksgiving dinner–Making broth and pie crust on Thursday afternoon after the patronato; making egg bread for dressing, pie, corn pudding, preparing the table setting, transplanting the tree, brining the chicken, teaching my English student and making dinner for Sarie and Alberto on Friday;  baking the dressing, cooking the beans, preparing fruit and cheese, setting the table, and many other last minute tasks such as chilling the wine, reheating the other dishes, and making whipped cream for the pie, and decorating the tree, all on Saturday before 1 pm. Is it any wonder I didn’t sleep well on Friday night? I think I was too tired to sleep.

By Saturday I was beginning to think that perhaps Thanksgiving was an unhealthy expat obsession of mine and that perhaps I needed to let it go. But in the end, everything came out right and the dinner had other good fruits (so to speak) as well. But I did not take photos. After everyone left at around 6:00 pm, I lay down on the sofa for a little catnap before doing dishes and…woke again at 1:00 am.

A few take-aways from last week:

Carrefour LeGru carries Ocean Spray smooth cranberry sauce in their ethnic foods section! If you’ve ever read one of my Thanksgiving posts, you know how fixated I can get on cranberry sauce. But you can’t count on it being there when you need it, so if you’re an expat with a nostalgia for Ocean Spray, buy it when you see it. I bought mine during the summer.

There is no substitute for self-rising cornmeal. I don’t know why that is, but I have decided it’s worth smuggling a bag over every year in someone’s suitcase. There is no Italian substitute. I don’t know what kind of magic pixie dust they put in that stuff, but I’m not questioning it ever again.

I have finally made myself a list of all Thanksgiving dishes, ingredients needed, time required to do each task and on what day it needs to be done, with all measures and temperatures converted to metric, to make the job easier. It has taken five years to figure out Thanksgiving in Italy, but I think I’ve finally got it. The basic problem with Thanksgiving food is that it all has to go in the oven, one item at a time.

It’s much more fun explaining pilgrims and Native Americans, turkeys and dressing, Abraham Lincoln and the fourth Thursday in November, and why despite the fact that the pilgrims were giving thanks to God, Thanksgiving is considered a secular holiday, to Italians, than it is explaining the election. Anything is more fun than talking about this election.

And did you know that despite the fact that Italians don’t know when Thanksgiving is, they now have Black Friday? Thankfully, I didn’t see anyone charging any stores.

And now, back to the drawing board and my plate of Thanksgiving leftovers! It’s Advent!

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Signs of life in Italy

In keeping with my accountability posts, I’m checking in today to do a brief report.

I’m happily busy, motivated, and working on my art. I’m involved with family, housekeeping and volunteering as usual, but I’m also learning to paint in Photoshop, which is like opening up an entire bag of caramels and chewing furiously. The learning curve is straight up. So I don’t have much to show for it yet.

So, in the meantime, I offer these small (and one not so small) signs of life in Italy:

Top: The world’s largest elliptical dome, canvas for an extraordinarily Baroque fresco complete with wooden extensions of figures into the cupola, at Vicoforte. Bottom left: The sanctuary at Vicoforte as seen from above amidst the Alban hills (home of the white truffle and Barolo). Both of these photos are from a volunteer day trip with 85 soup kitchen guests–always entertaining!. Bottom center: Chancellery cursive using a medieval reed pen, from Thursday’s calligraphy lesson. Bottom right: today’s lunch, ribollita. Yes, I know, it’s Tuscan and not Piedmontese, but I like to make it whenever I find black kale (I actually forgot what you call this kind of kale in English).

And then there was Wednesday, in which I turned a year older and we had a dramatic election.

Stay tuned! More news soon.

 

The Feast of St. Francis of Assisi

The feast of St. Francis is almost over here in Italy, but here are three reasons to post about it anyway: In the first place, I attend a Franciscan church and I have a soft spot for the friars’ gentle ways and their love for the poor. In the second place, St. Francis is the patron saint of Italy (and animals). And in the third place, I recently found this lovely post card painted by Pauline Baynes, who is probably best known as the original illustrator of C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. As you can see, the post card emphasizes St. Francis’s relationship with animals and also that he was the first to popularize nativity scenes. He was a man who sought to imitate Christ in all he did.

And…it’s also my sister’s birthday today. Happy birthday, Leah!

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                                     St. Francis, by Pauline Baynes

New ideas

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One of today’s exercises, on old fashioned pencil and paper. What is going on with this fox’s other leg, anyway? And why can’t I get this photo to load at full resolution? If I thought too hard about these things, I’d never post it, so I won’t!

As perfectionism is a killjoy, I thought I’d post a half-baked update before I figure out how much I don’t know.

I have been looking for a new professional focus for about two years now, but the process is slow, and as usual, it is complicated by the fact that I live outside the only country where I understand how things work. But last year I decided that if I were ever to do art professionally again, it would be smarter to do it digitally. Italian shipping, insurance, bureaucracy and customs are all part of the short answer as to why.

And then last year someone approached me with the idea of illustrating a book. That didn’t work out, but the idea stuck. I had entered college with the idea of illustrating children’s books. I quickly switched to drawing and painting, but that was useful too and by now most of the techniques I would have learned in graphic design have changed anyway.

Finding a local course to learn the new techniques, however, proved difficult. I love the idea of going out daily and interacting with people, but in this case it just didn’t turn out to be practical. First, the Accademia discontinued all individual courses, so I got kicked out of the one I had been attending for the past two years and couldn’t sign up for the Photoshop course I was eyeing. The only other local digital art course I could find was expensive, with inconvenient class hours, and it wasn’t really geared to book illustration anyway.  So I found a course–nay several–online. I found an inexpensive Photoshop subscription. And now I’m studying furiously. I just have to remember to schedule exercise, listening to Italian, and going out with friends!

I know that this is a long shot. The publishing industry has completely turned on its head since I went to art school. Also, it can take ten years to learn all the skills needed, and I’m closer to grandma age than college age. It’s quite hard to break into the market, and for all but a few people, it doesn’t pay that well.

But I couldn’t be happier.  I wake up every morning looking forward to working. I’m not particularly concerned with comparing myself with the thousands of extremely skilled illustrators out there, but more with whether I can accomplish something I can be pleased with. And I can teach English when I have to have money.

One more thing: I’m starting to realize how similar children’s book illustration skills are to film direction skills. You have to know a little bit of everything, and I love that. I used to be quite the Luddite where movies were concerned (I think I watched a bit too much film noir in my 20s), and I still love old-fashioned illustration techniques and paper books, but I have come to appreciate the new overlap with animation, graphic novels, and interactive stories as well.

So, hopefully the learning curve will continue, the work will get better, and I’ll find opportunities to share what I’m doing. But for the moment, back to the drawing board. Have a good week!