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.
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.