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Benvenuti!

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This blog started out as a series of observations when our family moved to Italy from Manhattan in 2011. The part about staying two years turned out to be famous last words. I still write observations about Italy when the mood strikes, but since I spend a lot of time doing illustration now, that gets posted here as well.

I recently updated my blog theme so if some of the media are in weird formats, I ask your patience as get seven years worth of posts adjusted. The archive, categories, and a follow button are at the bottom of the page. Instagram is just under the blog title.

Please do not distribute or use artworks or photos without permission.

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Ars in Fabula summer school

In late July, I drove with two friends to Macerata, on the other side of Italy from Torino, to take a weeklong illustration course. It’s been a while now, but I thought I’d write about it anyway, both as a help for anyone looking for illustration courses in Italy, and because one of my favorite things about living in Italy is getting to do a little tourism now and then without too much fuss.

The program was Ars in Fabula’s Summer School. Each July, Ars in Fabula holds four weeks’ worth of five-day intensives, with a choice of two different courses each week. I chose Marco Somà’s course because it was digital, but I really had no idea what to expect. I just wanted to see what Italian illustration courses were like and meet some other illustrators.

Italy does have a different illustration style than the US. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what the difference is, since of course there are many styles in each place, but when I think of Italian illustration, I imagine a style that is graphically sophisticated, often highly rendered, and yet somewhat surrealistic, with more static figures than what one typically sees in the US (where illustration is more influenced by animation). If you want to see some examples, including those of my teacher, click the link above.

The school itself is just a few rooms in an old building in the historic center of a typical Italian hill town. The center of Macerata has narrow streets, few cars, and a population that seems to come into the city mostly for work. My friends and I rented an apartment on the other side of the center and set up household for the week. They took the other course with Anna Forlati. Most of the students in my course were university age, but I got to know and like them. That’s the nice thing about artists–all you need is something in common.

Marco gave us an introduction to book illustration, introduced us to his own technique, and then gave us a story, The Musicians of Bremen, to work on. The technique he gave us wasn’t entirely digital, as I had been doing before, but more a combination of scanned drawings with scanned textures. He described the Photoshop part as “digital glue.” He draws roughs and then works out finals with mechanical pencil on tracing paper over the roughs. Then he scans the finished drawings and starts to add color. Marco puts the colored textures together in very subtle ways, with varying levels of opacity and erasing parts of some layers to create shadows. I was floored to see that some of his illustrations had well into 200 layers, perhaps more. Needless to say, he uses a high-powered scanner.

Since we had only five days to digest everything and I hadn’t been able to create high quality texture scans at home, I had a lot of work to do. It was hot with no air-conditioning, but I worked to maximum capacity every day, powered by caffè macchiato and aqua frizzante.

Marco told us to pick a particular place and period in which to set our version of the Musicians of Bremen. For some perverse reason, I choose the Southern US during the Depression–even though I was in the middle of an Italian hill town in 2018. The only thing is that my drawing mentality was almost the exact opposite of most of the people there. While they drew meticulously in mechanical pencils, I generated 50 quick sketches of the characters using a very thick graphite pencil. Think first grade crayons! The pencil was so greasy that I couldn’t erase it until it got to the digital stage, so each spontaneous sketch had to come out more or less right as it was–thus the high number of sketches.

Towards the end of the week I finally realized I was going to have to create a composition and get started with the layering. I had collected a few textures by then, and I worked out an appropriate house for the characters to live in and started arranging the scene. It didn’t take me long after reading to realize that the story had a rather humorous flaw: The donkey says he’s going to play the violin, and tells the dog he can play the drums. But donkeys don’t have fingers. So I decided to depict a moment which I imagined occurring at the end of the story, in which the dog realizes that the donkey can’t play strings and here he is, a dog, stuck with the drums!

Since I set my story in the 1930s South, I changed the instruments to a banjo and a sort of huge jazz bongo drum. And for variety, I made the donkey and the cat female. There was also the question of how much to anthropomorphize the animals. Save for the rooster, I went for “a lot.”

I finished up my illustration after I got home, and I think I still have a lot to learn to be able to use this technique well (for starters I don’t like how sharp the cat became once I shrank her and she needs to be better integrated into the scene), but it was a start.

Musicians of Bremen definitive

As for the tourism aspect, Macerata is near the Adriatic coast in Le Marche. We got a glimpse of the sea from the car, saw Loreto on the other side of the highway, and enjoyed the almost Tuscan landscape of hills and yellow brick buildings. The fields were full of sunflowers in July, and we sang American gospel music (from Italian recordings) in the car. I discovered that Neapolitans are so hospitable that they will buy coffee for people they just met, and I found out that since illustrators’ advances are based on the number of books they expect to sell, Italian advances are painfully low. Most Italian illustrators hope to have their books translated into other languages so they can make a living. But mostly they teach.

Like most everything in Italy, the artist’s life seems tenuous, but lovely nonetheless.

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Countryside near Recanati, Le Marche

SVS Fall contest

Autumn reflection

Lately I have been trying my hand at the SVS monthly competitions. Every month the good people at Society of Visual Storytelling post a topic and participants post an artwork for consideration by the end of the month. Anyone can register and participate for free. Better yet, you can post your work in progress and people will critique your sketches, value study, color, etc. It’s a nice group, and for the September contest, “Fall,” I got an honorable mention! It was nice being recognized, but my favorite part is the teacher critique.

My piece wasn’t typically children’s book fare, I admit. It was a little darker. But I really liked the idea of an old man reminiscing about his childhood via his reflection in a pond. Participating in the contests forces me to come up with a good concept and finish the piece. And I was able to put the collage technique I learned at Ars in Fabula to work as well. All in all, the contests are a nice opportunity, and I recommend them to illustrators who want to finish pieces for their portfolios.

This month instead of participating I’m working further on one of my other ideas for the September contest. It’s another Nina piece and hopefully I’ll get around to posting it eventually. Meanwhile, back to work!

Castle Summer

Italy closes for vacation in August. With no air-conditioning, it’s impossible to do anything, so most everyone goes to the beach. I prefer the mountains, so when I get back from the US I escape to the Valle d’Aosta, near the French and Swiss borders, whenever I have the chance. So now, in late September, here’s all this year’s Aostan castle posts rolled into one.

Valle d’Aosta is mountains, slate roofs, wood carving, polenta, fontina cheese, and castles. Its French town names, such as Quart and Nus, were originally names of Roman military outposts that morphed during the centuries in which Aosta looked more towards France than Italy. Today most people speak Italian as their first language. But the region is officially bilingual and there are a lot of French tourists. Valle d’Aosta also has its own dialect, Valdotaîn.

The Valle d’Aosta regional website lists 22 towers or castles, and truly they do seem to dot every hill along the valley. They range from pillaged ruins to fully restored manors with some original furniture. Some are open all year, but many are only open for a limited period during the summer. Most of them originate from the first millennium or shortly thereafter and have undergone many modifications. One, Forte di Bard, was featured in the opening scene of The Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Most of these castles were originally built by various members or relatives of the Challant family, who were vassals of the Savoys (the future Italian royal family). They were almost like a system of toll booths, providing safe passage for people, goods and news across the Alps and into the Piedmont region and beyond. And that mattered a lot in those days, so perhaps it helps to think of them as the Mark Zuckerbergs of an analog information highway.

The castles I visited this summer were Fénis, Issogné, Verrès, Sarre, and Cly. Giving a detailed history of each castle would take way too long, though, so instead I want to write briefly about what interested me in each place.

You can click on these photos to enlarge or read the captions.

I’ll start with Cly, because it is a ruin, little modified by later additions. It sits on its hill looking like something out of a Wordsworth poem, its internal walls now almost indistinguishable from the outer ones. Upon entering, you see a lot of grass and large piles of stone, because the last owner used the castle for scrap. But slowly the outlines of a typical medieval castle appear. The donjon, from where we get the English word dungeon, was not a basement prison but a tower one, and it’s still standing. It could only be accessed by a removable ladder, but it had open windows, so people sometimes escaped. Nearby is a small chapel with a rounded apse, with traces of frescoes remaining, and up against the south wall of the castle (for warmth) was a series of rooms used as living quarters by the lords of the manor. Now only outer walls, punctuated by large fireplaces, remain. Other areas included a judicial hall, stables, and on the north side for coolness, food and wine storage. Far to the west side of the castle was the cistern, also very important during a siege. Cly is only visitable in short guided tours (only during August, I think).

Unfortunately I didn’t take pictures of the fireplace or furniture inside Fénis.

Fénis also looks typically medieval, and is perhaps the best furnished of the castles.   One of my favorite features of Fénis is an enormous fireplace, so big you can stand in it and look way up to a tiny opening at the top. At one time this fireplace was furnished with wooden beams used for smoking meat. The courtyard is also famous, with its elaborate Jacquerian frescoes comparing the lord of the manor to St. George, and a giant St. Christopher (patron saint of travelers) saluting guests as they left the premises. The crenelated walls were reconstructed in the 19th century and aren’t entirely accurate, but the effect is charming.

Verrès, by contrast, is austere. It’s a box fort that anticipates later Renaissance forms, built high on an imposing, windswept outcropping, and almost devoid of decoration. There is no furniture in the castle today, but I love the medieval technological adaptations that remain. Next to the main dining room on the first floor (second floor by American reckoning) there is a kitchen with a pass-through window, two huge fireplaces for cooking, and cabinets built into the stone walls that could be used as warming drawers or ovens. In an extension of the kitchen on the other side of the dining hall, servants congregated around another fireplace and a door opens to yet a another cabinet, this time built into an outside wall–it was a refrigerator, or maybe a freezer, depending on the weather!

The main bedroom on that floor has small toilet closets on the outside walls, with exposed holes that empty straight down into the yard below. The presence of more than one toilet suggests that several people slept in this room, but all I could think about was how cold it must have been inside those closets! In fact, the guide kept emphasizing the cold and discomfort, adding that the owner applied all lessons learned in constructing a more welcoming castle at Issogné down in the valley. Certainly Verrès was a barren and imposing place, and given its location I would imagine it was isolated as well. I can only guess that people must have gotten on each other’s nerves during the winter!

Issogné is the prettiest of the castles and like Fénis, well-furnished. I have a hard time imagining it as a siege-type castle, but inside the courtyard are lovely porticoes with frescoes depicting all the aspects of medieval life that the Challant family presided over in the nearby town. The table is set for dining and there is a large chapel furnished with frescoes and an altar. There is also a small frescoed chapel off one of the bedrooms, because apparently the bedroom was occupied at one point by a clerical member of the family. The beds have draperies, the walls have warm patterned designs or frescoes and the ceilings are coffered and painted.

Sarre was, I thought, an anomaly. It began as a medieval castle, but its history is obscured because it was bought by the Savoys in the mid-19th century for use as a hunting lodge. The main halls are decorated in ornate frescoes adorned with real mountain goat skulls and horns–hundreds of thems. The castle was at that moment exhibiting clothing worn by the last Savoy Queen, Margherita, a beauty whose husband, the king, designed her wedding dress. The clothing displayed is elegant, but combined with the skulls and the royal couple’s complicity with Mussolini, the effect is disquieting. I also got a feeling we were looking at the royal family’s bric-a-brac. My favorite part of the tour was the anecdote that the person who bought the castle was originally instructed to buy the fairy-tale castle of Aymavilles across the river, but got his directions mixed up and bought Sarre instead.

There are other aspects of Valle d’Aosta that are well-worth recounting, and other castles closer to home that certainly merit a post, but I’ll save them for another day. Meanwhile, September has come and almost gone, and the temperatures still haven’t gone down to my satisfaction yet, but it’s back to work! A presto!

Pose redux

Nina pouting social 2

Just thought I’d show what I did with the pose. I think I’ll keep working on Nina drawings until I get a good idea how she looks and acts and then I’ll add some surroundings. I’m thinking that perhaps, like me, she is fond of Jack Russells. (Vicarious dog ownership strikes again.)

Meanwhile, the traveling part of the summer is fast approaching, and I’ll be starting things off with an illustration course here in Italy. I’ll try to check in with an update about the course!

Pose poll!

Ever spend so long working out a pose that you can’t see things straight anymore? Well, that’s what’s going on with me today. So I’m inviting you all to vote for your favorite pose!

The main criterion is the pose itself. I’m aware that there are two different moods going on here, but that can be part of your choice. Also, if you like the legs better in one pose and the arms or face better in another, feel free to comment below. If you have a second place favorite, feel free to comment below. And if you see mistakes or generally weird things going on, comment below. Some of these versions are previous versions in which I was working out mistakes that I’m already aware of, but I still want to hear from you.

The only thing I’m not measuring here is line quality, as I’m going to paint over it anyway. They are all preliminary studies.

Thank you for your help!

Magic Poser

My computer is in the shop, but I am happily occupied. I just discovered the Magic Poser app and I’m busy re-sketching my last drawing of Nina, in Conté crayon in my sketchpad, from every imaginable angle. It is really helping me to understand the pose (and others) in 3D. But what’s even better is that it will help me to find the best pose for any illustration.

The app is free in a basic version that includes an adult male model (who looks really funny when posed like a pouting four-year-old), and with the paid version (about €5), you can download other models, including a not-so sophisticated child with an enormous head. That’s what I used to construct these sketches. Of course, you still have to know enough about basic anatomy to add your own details, but it’s sort of like having a very cooperative, if a bit rubbery, model. You can also adjust the light. And it’s much less distracting to the artist than learning a complex 3D program like Blender or Zbrush.

This is also my first post using the WordPress app. It may not be beautiful, but I hope it gets the idea across.

I’ll be back once my computer is working again. But meanwhile this is just the impetus I needed to go art analogue again for a while. Except for the model, that is. When I don’t use pencil and paper for a while, I miss it! Back soon…

Imago Christi premiere!

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After four years of filming, Sarie and Alberto’s film Imago Christi is finished! It took four years because they had extremely little money and relied entirely on volunteers. During those four years they also finished school, got married, and opened an English school, just to hit a few highlights. Naturally they developed all kinds of abilities related to filmmaking as well.

The story is about a band of men who are hired to transport a secret cargo from Chambéry in France over the mountains to Turin in 1578. One man in particular, Leonardo, is good with a sword, but he has dark past. Can he be trusted? I won’t say more for now, but the film is based on historic events that took place in and near the Valli di Lanzo, where they live.

If you want to see lots more photos and updates from all throughout the making of the film, you can see them and follow the film on Facebook. I’ve also posted the trailer below, and remember that you can turn on English subtitles at the bottom right. The first screening will be on July 14 in the town of Lanzo, where much of the filming was done. I hope they find many more opportunities for it!

Nina comes to life…

Nina pushing
Basta con questi sfondi bianchi! Sono noiosi!

The past couple of weeks have included a lot of my own “life,” which though fun and even important at times, meant I didn’t draw as much as I would have liked. I’ve been doing some experiments in traditional mixed media, but…nah. So on Saturday, just for fun I developed a quick digital sketch that I had started months ago with the same character from a previous post. This time I used the Gouache a Go Go brush.

In many ways, this drawing was a lesson in how not to work efficiently! I wanted to play around with puppet warp and adjustment layers, but I applied them too soon, so afterwards it was hard to make corrections without ruining the effect. Then the character looked too old, so I enlarged her head after the fact. All throughout I found myself coloring willy nilly over my black outline drawing. I thought I wanted outlines, but maybe not! And then, even though I think figure drawing is one of my stronger points, in this drawing everything came down to whether I could invent convincing anatomy on the spot, because I didn’t want to be too dependent on reference. I’m sure I’ll see all the mistakes tomorrow…

But I like that this drawing fits my character. I imagine this girl, whom I call Nina, as energetic and full of mischief but still empathetic, so while sometimes she might find herself in trouble out of sheer exuberance, she doesn’t mean to cause any harm. I got this pose from a stick figure, but I think that now that I’ve made it into a full drawing, it fits her.* She’s neither a doll-like little girl nor a super heroine, but a real child. She is based on many different little girls that I see in my neighborhood. Whether she’s about four like in the last drawing, or a bit older like in this one, remains to be seen.

I’m also pretty sure she has other clothes than an origami dress and day-glo green plastic rain boots, but that can wait. For now, I’m working on brushes and poses. But next I’d like to try an environment and a bit of back story. Wish me luck!

*I added a caption. Want to guess what it means? Or better yet, make up one of your own?

Coraggio!

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“Courage: The ability to face difficult, dangerous, distressing situations with all the force of one’s soul, to decide to face a situation head on.” –Graffiti on a postal relay box in my neighborhood.

Coraggio isn’t just the Italian word for courage. It’s also a common exhortation among Italians, akin to “You can do it!” It pretty much sums up my attitude at the moment.

This week I am doing studies of illustrators I admire. The works I am copying aren’t my intellectual property, so I don’t like to post them, but I do learn from them.

A lot of these illustrators work in traditional media, and it isn’t always easy to duplicate their styles digitally, which at times makes me wonder why I don’t switch back to traditional. But for now I am continuing with digital, because part of my purpose is to see how traditional I can make digital look!

I have also signed up for a “brick and mortar” workshop in Italy in July. I have to travel across the country to attend, but I think it will be worth it to have face to face interaction with other illustrators. If you have the ability to network where you live, make the most of it.

The trick, as always, is to keep up momentum and keep learning efficiently alone, without a specific structure to push me. This is especially true as summer looms, with its hot weather, no air-conditioning, people starting to go to the seaside, and a US trip coming up.

Along those lines, I’d like to thank all the people who have followed this blog in the past few weeks. You’re helping me to stay accountable, so I hope to have something to share with you soon. In the meanwhile, coraggio!

Taking a brush trial to finish

Brush trial oil

I’ve now taken one of the brush trials (Old Faithful Oil) to finish–or provisional finish, at least. I’m still figuring out what finish looks like for me. And I’m not excluding the idea of a rough, abstract finish at all, but this one came out pretty solidified.

I couldn’t resist a texture overlay on the dress, and I didn’t mind leaving the dress wispy, but there’s really nothing like a good set of rubber rain boots in an early 1970s color of green.