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.


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!

Imago locandina A2

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?



“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.

Brush trials

The simple original sketch

This week in illustration, I’ve been doing trials with digital brushes.

The main goal of pretty much all my art activity these days is to develop a working method/style that feels natural and can express whatever I most want to say. And since expression depends a lot on the kind of mark you make, I’m trying to get as familiar as I can with digital mark making. You might call this building a style from the ground up.

Inspired by one of Kyle Webster’s demo videos, I made a sheet of 16 copies of a character I draw a lot. (She has a name and a certain personality, but that’s a story for another day.) Duplicating is easy enough to do on Photoshop. I drew a sketch in digital pencil, copied and duplicated it, copied the two of them and duplicated, and so on until I had a full page. Then I created a mask for each figure in the same way, so I didn’t have to waste too much time cleaning up edges.

Then I got to work applying color. I wasn’t perfectionistic about either the sketch or the coloring. The whole point here was to discover the properties of a few of the hundreds (!) of digital brushes now available on Photoshop CC and figure out which ones were best suited to my working style. I wanted to concentrate particularly on dry media (charcoals, pastels) and opaque paint media (gouache, oil). And I was also interested in grainy effects. In the end, some of these brushes worked quite well for my purposes, and some obviously didn’t!

These trials that worked more or less like I expected, because they allow for a fair amount of control and also I am used to working in traditional oils.

Here are some of the things I was thinking about brushes while I worked:

  • How tilt sensitive is each brush?
  • Which brushes can handle the whole job and which will have to be supplemented with other brushes? (It turns out that some of the more porous ones really need to be used with another brush or a fill layer to render all the details legible.)
  • At what size does each brush make the nicest stroke?
  • With each brush, is it better to use different values of paint to put in highlights and shadows, or is it more effective to just vary the density and let the white of the “paper” show through?
  • Does this brush require extra layers just to keep the marks from getting muddy too fast? (The mixer brushes, such as oils, usually do require extra layers that can then be merged.)
  • The non-“mixer” brushes allow you to change the brush mode (upper left of the screen) to clear, which makes a sort of eraser with the same texture. Which brushes have the most workable “clear mode” erasers? (Remember to change the mode back to normal before continuing!)
  • How can I use the brush stroke and either a “hard” or “soft” eraser to control lost and found edges?
  • How do the brushes affect color intensity? (More than you’d think!)
  • How might changing my tablet/pen sensitivity affect the marks? (I suspect I have a light touch, but it varies with the brush.)

Some trials that were somewhat pleasantly surprising even if I didn’t develop them as far as the others.

A side benefit of all this practice was that drawing my character over and over helped me think more about how she should look, even if I didn’t take her to full finish. Some things I was thinking about while I worked:

  • Which subtle variations of features, and which brushes, are best suited to the character?
  • How much modeling is even needed?
  • How spontaneous can I be?

In search of grainy effects. Some of them I was pleased enough with that I might use them again some time. Others definitely not, but at least I found out!

This is definitely (Photo)shop talk But it does have a more organic significance. About 99% of drawing, and probably any other art, is being so familiar with your own processes that you feel confident in what you’re doing and thus comfortable improvising. Muscle memory plays a big part, of course, and for that, you just have to draw a lot. But there are plenty of other skills you can develop, from creative imagination to visual awareness to intellectual knowledge and theory to simply knowing your tools. All of them (in some form) are important to anyone who wants to be good at what they do.

Also, it helps me to see my own drawings published on my blog, because I see things more objectively that way. It’s like giving myself a mini-critique.

Which versions do you like best, or not? And why? If you don’t know why, feel free to state your opinion anyway. Sometimes intuition has some pretty good reasons of its own!

Keeping focused

It was only natural that after the end of the SVS Turbocharging Your Creativity course, the Bologna Book Fair, and Easter, I would have to deal with a bit of reality.

First there are American taxes. As an expat, I do get a bit of an extension, but it’s only because documents come out so late in some countries (like Italy). And those who owe, still owe in April. But the requirements–oh my! My days using simple filing software are over. I’m getting somewhat used to the routine, but still, the US is the only country in the world with a citizenship-based tax requirement, and nothing is simple about expat taxes. I have to file in both countries each year, and to keep all the requirements straight I have to hire an accountant (in reality a tax lawyer) versed in international taxation. Don’t get me started…

And then there’s the Indagine ISTAT. Funny, everyone’s reaction when I told them about it has been, “Are you sure that’s not a hoax?” If only it were! Basically I’ve been chosen at random to fill out a 45-question (plus subsections) survey from the Italian government for myself and another for my husband, based on everything from what we eat for breakfast to our opinions on the rail system–which everyone knows depends on whether you take the lovely but expensive Frecce or the cheap and dirty regional trains. Supposedly the survey data is kept secret, but it looks pretty identifiable to me. And there’s a hefty fine if you don’t turn it in. Bleh.

And there are the usual teaching, housework and errands, some personal matters, and another one of those week-long, pouring-down rainy spells. When it rains here, it rains.

But I am determined not to let annoyances plow me under where illustration is concerned. I’m reviewing all my course materials, my Bologna notes, and trying to keep drawing at least something. It’s bound to happen, even for successful professionals, that sometimes between all the things one has to do to keep afloat, it’s hard to keep focused. That’s when motivation, a routine, and incremental progress are more important than ever.

So here’s one of today’s exercises (below)–turning figures. My default is something akin to realism–must be my portraiture background. It’s not perfect, but that’s not the point. Happy drawing everyone! Or cooking (I’m making lentil soup for dinner), or working, or whatever you’re doing today…

The Bologna Book Fair–an illustrator’s glimpse


Bologna at night. (Apparently I needed to clean my phone lens.)

I got back from my first trip to Bologna and the Bologna Children’s Book Fair on Thursday afternoon. Even my initial impressions on the book fair are lengthy, but I will try to be as concise as possible. Just to be clear, this was my first children’s book fair ever and I purposely didn’t take a portfolio with me. Instead I went to get an idea what it was about so that when I was fully ready, I would be more effective in presenting my work. And even on the other side of the fair, I don’t regret this.

Since I always like to get the big picture first, that’s what I’m going to try to concentrate on, and then give a few specifics only where I think I can do so briefly. Because the Book Fair is overwhelming. I saw thousands of people there each day and in most cases I wouldn’t even know whether they were even the same thousands of people or different ones!

Also, a caveat: Everything I know about the fair is strictly from a beginning illustrator’s point of view.


There’s an illustrator’s wall around the periphery of the main hall where artists can tape up their work for others to come and see. It’s chaotic, and by the second day people were leaving things on the floor. I was told that publishers do actually come look at the wall, but it doesn’t seem to me that it would put any artist’s work in the best light, or at least it would be hard to get noticed. Again, that’s just a first impression, and I’m one of those people who even avoids large outlet stores, so that might explain my reaction in part.

The central hall includes the juried art show, a book shop, some exhibits, and a stage called the Illustrators’ Café for prize and other presentations. In general, I liked the Illustrators’ Café because even if you couldn’t get close, you could still back up to see and hear what was going on. Surrounding the central hall were several huge exhibition corridors (think airport terminal-size) with booths for every major publishing company, artists’ and writers’ associations, and art schools from many countries.

Services for Illustrators–portfolio review

The Illustrators’ Survival Corner is where the masterclasses, workshops and portfolio reviews for illustrators take place. Masterclasses are talks by publishers, associations and illustrators for anyone who wants to just show up and listen, if you can squeeze in. Workshops require sign up first thing each morning because one creates artwork, and that naturally limits space. Portfolio reviews are highly coveted spots for illustrators to get professional feedback. In the end, I did not participate in any of the activities that required sign up, but got a good bit from the masterclasses. Here’s why:

The portfolio review and workshop signup is positively Darwinian. When you arrive in the morning, well before the opening at 9:00 am, there are already hundreds of people outside waiting. The people from orderly countries are waiting in line. The ones from furbo (an Italian term for people who know how to get what they want) countries are finding a way to sneak up to the front. At any rate, on the one occasion I tried to sign up for a workshop, I was in the front part of the crowd at the door, and even so, when I got upstairs to the sign-up desk the line was already long, and the spots few. Someone told me that somehow people were getting in before 9:00 am, and I also saw a video taken from the sign up desk, proudly posted on the Bologna Facebook group, no less, of people sprinting for the desk at opening! It seems that you not only have to be an excellent artist to use this system well, but fairly athletic and also a bit aggressive.

There are some open portfolio reviews each day as well, but a friend waited in line at one for two hours (with a massive headache) only to be told that it was closing and they wouldn’t be seeing anyone else. She was able to get a scheduled spot on a different day, but the reviewer didn’t give any feedback. But other people got feedback, and the feedback varied with who gave it, so apparently some of it just depends on who looks at your portfolio. To give some idea of why these reviews are so coveted, some of the reviewers are from big publishing houses or are famous illustrators such as Laura Carlin. With opportunities like that, if I had felt really ready with my portfolio, I would probably have run to the sign up too!

Still, someone told me that the system at the SCBWI conferences in places like New York have big tables where everyone can put out their whole portfolio and business cards, and that people actually do come by and take them. That seems fair to me. The Bologna system seems, well…Italian. I love many things about my adopted country, but trying to make my way through a line is not one of them.

Services for Illustrators–Masterclasses

Author/illustrator Chris Riddell in the Illustrators’ Café

I did enjoy the masterclasses. In all but one very regrettable case, I did fairly well at getting to the event early or at least finding a place to stand in the back where I could see and hear. And you never know when someone might lose interest and leave, opening up a better spot.

Among the masterclasses I attended were: A talk by an Italian editor and first-time illustrator on what it’s like to work together on a first book, a talk by an illustrators’ association on pricing work and negotiating contracts, a New York Times talk on trends in children’s books, more than one talk in which an illustrator talked about his or her work (I particularly enjoyed the one by Tiziana Romanin), and a charming illustrate-as-you-talk chat by Chris Riddell. I enjoyed the last one so much that I went back for a similar event at the Illustrator’s Café. Never mind that only Chris Riddell could pull off some of the ways of getting work that he talks about, because he is already so famous. He is a great raconteur with a British wit, and he made me remember how, when I was a small child watching Romper Room and Mr. Rogers, my favorite segments were always the ones where someone would draw on screen and tell stories.

What Chris Riddell was drawing at the above moment…

It helped that I speak both Italian and English, because some of the talks were only given in Italian and those often had more room. The regrettable exception I hint at above was the masterclass given by Beatrice Alemagna, who is apparently not only one of my favorite illustrators, but seemingly the favorite illustrator of most everyone in Italy. I lost track of time in one of the publishers’ halls, arrived ten minutes late, and not only couldn’t get close enough to peak over anyone’s head (I’m not tall), but couldn’t even hear a word of what she was saying, despite speakers, because of all the ambient noise. Next year I’m setting phone alarms!

And then there was the day in which I repeatedly walked into masterclasses and conferences for which there were not enough simultaneous translation headsets, or for which there was supposed to have live translation but wasn’t. This is how I discovered that I still understood a passable amount of French, but not quite enough for comfort. Same thing with Spanish to a lesser extent.

Other talks

Possibly the most helpful and informative talk I listened to during the whole book fair was the NY Times presentation on their Best Illustrated Children’s Books award. This was a three-hour presentation during which I sat on the floor the entire time, trying not to lean too hard against a loudspeaker stand and thus cause an embarrassing incident. The upside of my discomfort was the I was sitting less than three feet from the aforementioned Beatrice Alemagna, and not much further from Sydney Smith, another of my top five illustrators, and at a similar distance from Suzy Lee, Laura Carlin and Paul Zelinsky, who are equally talented to the first two but I have to choose somehow. They are all past prize winners.

The New York Times illustrators’ panel, presided over by the Times’ s children’s book editor Maria Russo, center

The presentation included a history of the award and how it is chosen (unlike the Caldecott, it is open to illustrators worldwide and is chosen by artwork only), an editorial panel who spoke about their experiences with these illustrators, and comments by the illustrators themselves. Since I have followed this award and the NY Times for years, I found the whole conference very informative, though space won’t allow me to go into detail about it for now.

My only regret was that this time Beatrice Alemagna spoke in French instead of Italian, and I didn’t have a headphone. Zut! Apparently I just wasn’t fated to learn much about Beatrice Alemagna, except that she was self-taught and everyone wondered why she would write a book about someone doing nothing (The Magical Do-Nothing Day).


I spent most of the last day just walking the publishers’ halls and trying to get an idea who published what, but it was overwhelming and I still have to sort it out. It’s not one day’s work, that’s for sure. Some of the major American publishers had booths that were as big as a book store and obviously designed by an interior design firm specializing in display (I have some experience in commercial interiors). And some of the publishers have their own portfolio reviews. I left the hall with a very full backpack, and wouldn’t you know it, that’s the day I ended up having to walk up Via dell’Osservanza (a second-gear-all-the-way-up kind of hill) on foot! But I don’t mind exercise.

The illustrators’ exhibition

The illustrators’ exhibition had very interesting work from very talented illustrators, and it was especially nice to see how some of the artists worked precisely and intricately in traditional media, but for the most part, it looked as though it were more intended for artists than children. Often I couldn’t find much of a narrative thread in the works. Book illustration can be overly commercialized or sentimental in many cases. But I think the most endearing (and enduring) illustrations for children themselves are somewhere in between the two extremes.

Odd and ends, and tips for next time

During the fair I stayed at my friend and catechist Fra Pietro’s Franciscan friary. It’s up on a (second-gear) hill outside of town, and therefore, unlike at home, the friars mostly go out to serve instead of having people come to their doors. So it almost feels more like a monastery inside. The friars were welcoming and it was very peaceful to come back to, but it was a long way from the fair and more importantly, you can’t enter the city by car until after 8:00pm, which is when buses stop, causing traffic to stand still. This makes going out for dinner in the center quite difficult. Also, parking for the fair is €20 per day. So next time I go, I may try to find a place within walking distance and then go pay Fra Pietro a separate visit.

An Italian friend who was only there on the first day showed me an internal restaurant that not everyone knows about (you can’t leave the fair and return, and the traffic situation eliminated grocery shopping for lunch). So by eating light and supplementing with snacks I’d brought from home, I made out pretty well for lunch. But the lines for coffee after lunch were so long that I went without. Finally on the last day, I discovered a downstairs coffee bar inside the restaurant. The only catch is that you have to get lunch fairly early, which was fine with me because I prize a few minutes to regroup.

Amazingly, for a book fair that offered a free app and at which most everyone was constantly messaging each other and taking photos of artwork, I never found a charging station and so I had to use my aging phone sparingly. On the last day someone told me that they had seen people under a table in the Chinese exhibition charging their phones. But next time I’ll buy and take one of those battery packs.

A Bologna city center street in the market area

I had originally planned to return to Torino on Thursday morning, but since I hadn’t seen much of the city center yet, I took a walk first. Bologna couldn’t be more different in style than Baroque and Neo-Baroque Torino. It’s medieval, with narrow streets and a lot of brown brick or orange stucco buildings. The impression from the hill above is of a circular red mass punctuated by towers. And as I walked and drove around, I realized that it had once been ringed by a brick wall, now torn down but with broken bits still extant. Because of the traffic, motorcycles are very popular. And it is home to the oldest university in the world, the original Alma Mater. I always like getting to see a new Italian city!

Meanwhile, I met some really interesting people at the book fair, saw a lot of excellent artwork, and got a sobering reality check about where the level of my own work needs to be. But all of that is exactly what I wanted. The rest is up to me, and to both how hard, and how smart, I am willing to work.

Happy Passover and Happy Easter!