Last year saw a dream I had had for a long time come to fruition, to take a group painting in Italy. It was an amazing experience. So much so I am now organising another one to Greece.
Painting Inspiration was quite simply, everywhere. Whichever way I turned there was a painting waiting to happen. We did lots of walking and exploring around this medieval town. I held painting demonstrations and ran workshops during the trip, but I also made sure I took photos of everything to use as references for future paintings.
Some paintings have developed since I returned, some already knew what they were going to be. I have loved using a variety of techniques and mediums to create a diverse portfolio of work. Some of the paintings were sold before I even landed back in Sydney, purely based on the photos I shared on Social Media. You have to love the power of the internet!
While we travelled, I used watercolour paints and paper. I have particular watercolour paints that I like to use and my favourite watercolour papers which make painting so much easier when painting plein air.
I wanted to share the joy I have had painting from such an inspirational trip.
Painting Cortona Alleyways
On many occasions, we dived down the alleyways of Cortona finding art galleries and shops tucked away. On one particular day, we went into one of the alleyways and there happened to be lots of shadows and cast light with some brighter areas. It had all the components that make a good painting.
We set up in the alleyway to sketch and then took our drawings back to the gorgeous villa we were staying at. We made good use of the little dining area that wasn’t in use during the day and set up our easels in the spot where we ate our breakfast in the mornings.
When you are travelling and painting, the idea is to capture the inspiration, to recreate the feeling of a particular place in paint. We are not always looking for perfection when we paint this way. It is something nice to bring home as a memory.
The colours I chose to use for the alleyway painting was from my limited palette of colours. I always advise taking limited paints away to save on packing weight, and I like to pack as economically as possible. I usually work with a limited palette anyway, but it is always best for travelling.
The colours I used in this painting were Yellow Ochre, French Ultramarine Blue and Pthalo Blue mixed with Australian Red Gold, for the shutters which made it a rather nice, almost Veridian colour. They were the basic colours I used with a bit of Permanent Rose. Australian Red Gold and Permanent Rose mixes a lovely terracotta colour for roof tiles.
The Road to Bramisole
The first day we arrived in Cortona, and after checking out our accommodation the beautiful Villa Marsili and dropping our bags, we rushed out the door so that we could go and explore this fabulous town. We went up to the town and found a nice café to have lunch and of course, a glass of wine to go with it.
The group then scattered and went their ways exploring. I went with one of the ladies up to a beautiful garden called the Parterre Gardens and walked along the parkway through the lovely avenue of trees.
I just had a feeling that the villa from Under the Tuscan Sun was somewhere up that way. I don’t know why I knew, just a feeling. We asked one of the locals “Do you know where Bramasole is?” And she said, “Si, si, it is Avante, Avante, Avante, Avante and Avente!” And I guess from that we realised it was a long, long, long way!
But we were heading in the right direction so we kept going, as far as we could manage on that day, past an amazing tennis court built in the old style, past some beautiful houses, some older, some newer that were built in the traditional style.
Eventually, and after asking more people, we could see Bramasole, still a long way in the distance. It was starting to get dark and still too far for us to walk, but it was the best feeling to see the villa. Just wonderful. We walked back, through the most beautiful avenue trees I have ever seen, and seeing gorgeous views over the valley.
The next day, because it was so pretty in the Parterre Gardens, I took the whole group up to do our first painting session of the trip. We did a lovely little painting of the steps that were built into the side of the parkway, which had caught my eye. The rock work was quite exceptional, and the light was hitting it in just the right way.
The main colours I used in that painting were French Ultramarine Blue, Alizarin Crimson and in the greens were Pthalo Blue and the Yellow Light, creating a rather nice tone. Of course, lighter tones were used to start, with pale washes, and then deepening with purple tones mixed from French Ultramarine Blue and Alizarin Crimson. And there were a few poppies just starting to appear, so we added those using Cadmium Red.
Cortona Hillside Houses
Another day in Cortona we headed out after breakfast and set up in the Piazza Garibaldi, along the side on the terrace. It had a beautiful view back to the houses built up onto the hillside, all with gorgeous terracotta roofs, and shutters. It was a lovely view, and it was a nice spot to set up with trees and space so that could paint at our leisure.
We did a painting before lunch, and I think after lunch everyone went off and explored and visited art galleries, and museums and the lovely town. It was just gorgeous.
I started this painting with a basic wash of Yellow Ochre. For the roofs, the mix was Australian Red Gold and Permanent Rose making a lovely terracotta colour, and that was painted in next, working up tonally from light to dark, that way keeping the light. Always being mindful of keeping the light of the paper.
While the paper was still damp, I worked into the background with a light wash of French Ultramarine Blue in the sky. Working down the paper, I then mixed up some greens using Pthalo Blue and Cadmium Yellow.
To make an olive green I mixed French Ultramarine Blue and Australian Red Gold. The mix I used for the Cypress trees, which you want quite a depth of tone for, was French Ultramarine Blue, Australian Red Gold and a touch of Yellow. The three primary colours will give you a dark colour no matter what colours they are.
I painted the Cypress trees in while the background was still a little damp and it gave it a nice misty look as the still wet paint runs back up into the darker paint. It creates that little bit of mist.
What we noticed in Cortona was a lovely mist in the morning over the town itself. It was special, quite mystical.
I then brought in the darker tones down the side of the buildings that were darker in where there was a bit of shade. If you get the depth of tone correct, it will make the light side of the building really stand out.
This painting was done quite quickly, within the hour, and you do need to paint quite quickly when you’re on site, painting plein air because the lights shifts and changes so fast. You just want to get the essence what you see before you, and as I look at this painting now, I can imagine myself on that terrace overlooking this lovely scene. I couldn’t wait to get my brushes out to paint it.
It was an enjoyable morning, with a few sightseers coming around behind us, enjoying watching what we were doing. They loved watching us painting the little town, as did the locals.
After Cortona, we travelled to Venice by train. That was a fantastic trip travelling through the countryside and changing trains in Florence.
We got off the train in Venice and walked out onto the esplanade right onto the canal; it was just gobsmacking! The scenery of the canals and the hustle and bustle of all the gondolas and Vaporetto and the people was just a sight to see. I will never forget that site of the domed buildings across the canal and everything happening at once. It was incredible.
We were tired from a day of travel and looking forward to finding our hotel. After going down the canal in our private taxi, we then found our hotel quite easily, amazingly so with all of the alleyways. But find it we did, dropped our bags and went off to explore.
The Pier, Venice
On this particular morning, we got up early and met in St Mark’s Square in Venice so we could paint from the pier. As we were setting up, the sun was just coming up through the buildings. It was a spectacular sight. There were hardly any people, just us and the pigeons. There was a golden glow, and everything was bathed in a golden light. I decided to use Australian Red Gold in the paint, a light wash through most of the painting first and then into the wet paint I started adding tone with French Ultramarine Blue and some Yellow Ochre. I was mixing toward the brown side of the tone. Looking at the lovely pink colour of the building, I added a bit of Alizarin Crimson. So there were a few very pale washes to start off with and then to bring in tone, and then the depth of colour into the shadows, leaving the light as it came through the buildings and onto the pier.
You can’t get much more inspiration that this part of Venice. It is a special place, and of course, it has long been a place where artists go to paint. I felt privileged to take my group painting there.
The day after we arrived we found a lovely place to paint which was on one of the canals of course and had a beautiful view going down the canal with buildings on either side. Some of the buildings were in the shade and the other side had the light hitting it full on. It was perfect for a painting.
There were houses with lovely shutters and flower boxes, and there was a bridge in the foreground, so compositionally, it was an excellent scene to paint.
We could set up some easels or sit alongside the canal or on steps to sketch and paint. I set up my easel and did a demonstration.
The colours I used for this painting were Yellow Ochre for the buildings, Australian Red Gold and Permanent Rose for the terracotta mix used for the roofs. I started with washes that were kept relatively light and then adding tone. When you’re painting outside you are trying to work quickly.
I used Pthalo Blue in a light wash in the sky as it was quite bright against the buildings. It was a bright sunny day. I used a light wash of Yellow Ochre in the buildings and then worked on that tonally with French Ultramarine Blue on the shaded side and bringing in the darker mix for the windows and shutters.
I finished this painting off with a very dark combination of the three primaries – blue, red & yellow. I used this mix for the railings on the bridge and in the lamp post. I wanted to signify that this was something that stands out in Venice with all the lovely lamp posts dotted around. I used Pthalo Blue and a light yellow to make the nice green I needed for those. And then I darkened these with some French Ultramarine Blue in the shadowing.
We caught the Vaporetto to Burano for a day and what a lovely place that was. All the bright buildings were eye-catching and much more spread out and open than the canals in Venice.
It was nice to walk around. It was a warm day, and I remember looking out over the ocean and seeing snow capped mountains. It was strange to see but a lovely site as well.
We had lunch and spent some time sightseeing and shopping. Of course, Burano is famous for its lace making.
We set up to paint in the shade of a tree, which was nice and cool, facing some colourful buildings that had a laneway leading down the side of it. It was good compositionally with the laneway leading into the distance. On the left-hand side was a shady tree which I could use to frame the work and bring in some darker tones as well.
I started with a quick sketch and then started painting with some light tones. The light was changing very quickly, so I had to work fast. One of the buildings was a reddish pink, so I used some light washes of Permanent Rose and brought in some shading by adding French Ultramarine Blue and doing a shaded tone over the first. I kept the first washes pale.
Some of the buildings had a bit of Yellow Ochre, and some were quite pale, so I used very pale washes with those. With the roofs, some were terracotta, so I mixed up Australian Red Gold and Permanent Rose.
There were shutters on the windows, so I used a dark mix for those using the three primaries – any blue, red and yellow. If you wanted to make the mix even darker than that, you could use some Pthalo Blue in the mix.
After the initial light washes, and with the paper drying quickly, I shaded with a purple tone mixed from French Ultramarine Blue and Alizarin Crimson and bringing in the shade tone over some of the building and part of the pavement and under the trees and across the pathway that leads down the side of the buildings.
I used French Ultramarine Blue and Light Yellow for the first washes of the tree and then deepened with more tone using French Ultramarine Blue and more of the blue with transparent Yellow. I worked up the tones to be quite dark on that side.
It was a pleasant day. There were quite a few tourists in the village, so we had a few spectators watching us paint. When you are in the moment though you usually don’t worry about people watching, you just want to get that impression of the place down on paper quickly.
Have you been?
Have you been to Cortona or Venice? What were your favourite places to visit or paint?