Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Island Get Away

I think this will most likely be my last post about the "Italian Adventure". What an adventure it has been. We are preparing to leave in just a few days with very mixed emotions - excited to go home and see friends and family, yet sad to leave this wonderful place we have come to know and love.
As I mentioned before I did fit in one last art course, a 2 weeks on portraiture. It was a fantastic course run by Vitaly Shtanko, and incredible realist painter who also teaches at the Florence Academy of Art. His work is stunning and his class was a very interesting mix of the Russian School of Art as well as the Italian Classical approach. I have such respect for portrait painters, to be able to capture someones image so that you can truly see a piece of their soul is no easy feat, and Vitaly does it with such grace. Unfortunately my portraits still look as if the model is made of wax. I learned so much in his course but it will take me months to process it all and years to practice it to the point where I can do the style justice. I plan to start with some self portraits at home before subjugating someone to the difficult task of sitting for a portrait. (it's a lot harder than you'd think)
At the end of the course I was sincerely "workshopped out". My brain can not take in another piece of information until I have time to go home and work through all that I have learned in my own studio. I am exhausted! So I figured the kids and I all deserve a vacation from our vacation! So we headed to Elba Island for 4 days. It is a little gem, a corner of paradise hidden along the Tuscan coast. We hopped the train to the coast and then took a one hour ferryboat arriving in the harbour town of Portoferraio. This is a sleepy little village in the offseason, which is thankfully when we visited!

The town was built in 1540's by Cosimo the 1st Grand Duke of Tuscany. It was built on top of Roman ruins, the town is a medieval fortress built around a natural harbour along craggy cliffs that jut out into crystal clear turquoise water. The town is also famous as being the place of Napoleon's exile in 1814. But for us it was a place to explore beaches, rocky coves, collect stones, chase crabs, go swimming, play in tidal pools and eat ice cream and drink sun-downers over looking the sea. Every day we explored a new beach, and in the early mornings and in the evenings we would wander the narrow streets up and down hills finding great pizza spots and enjoying incredible views. We walked along the harbour watching boats come and go, pirate ships and all!
On the day we left my children had their first serious melt down with huge crocodile tears since we have been in Italy. "We don't want to go!!! We want to live here forever!" Well I felt much the same way, and it was only my adult reservations that prevented my own tears from falling that morning. What a way to end our adventure. So now we begin packing, and saying goodbye to the friends we have made here along the way. But I won't deny in the back of my mind there is a plan brewing... one the entails spending another winter away with my little adventurers, and this time I picture it on a little island in the Mediterranean, painting white cliffs and sparkling seas...

Thanks to all for following our adventures. Your comments along the way have made us feel close to home and brought us encouragement on the cold and rainy days. I hope you were entertained, and perhaps even a little inspired.
Live your dreams!

arrving at Portoferraio...such a cool town!

Beach day 1 

Hanging out on the beach day 1

Beach day 2

Rocky Pools day 3

Pirate ship just passing by.... as they do.

top of the town

pirate ship docked....we got to climb a board.. a very handsome "pirate" invited us aboard...didn't keep us captive though....too bad

beach day 4

Leaving Elba...such a cool place!

Everyone is feeling the love! what a great trip.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Experiencing Italy via your stomach!

Our time here in Italy draws to an end. I have not kept up with writing, life seems to sweep me up in a bubble on constant busy-ness. It seems my holidays are as busy as "normal life". I'm embarrassed to say that my Italian is still abysmal. I get better and better at understanding but remain incapable of stringing together more than three words. An intensive language course is what I needed but I opted to cram in more art courses instead. Over the past few weeks I have completed my third workshop here in Florence, the last one specifically on Portraits in Oils. (I will tell more on this experience later). For now let me concentrate on something outside the arts for a change.
Part of my thinking in coming to Italy for such an extended period of time was to experience the place an culture in more depth than can be achieved in one week on the tourist route. Unfortunately without the language it's very difficult to get to know a place or the people. I wish the days had 34 hours so I could make time for everything. With my lack of Italian I have embarked on other mini-adventures to explore and get to know this city and it's culture a little more. What better way to do that than through food & drink.
(as I have mentioned before this blog does not follow in chronological order)
Let me share some of my favourite cultural experiences through the world of food here - hopefully I don't make any 'food bloggers' cringe in my attempt.

The Chocolate Festival (feb 2014)
At a time when it rained incessantly and we were still adapting to our Florentine home what better way to make the kids and I fall in love with Italy then a festival of chocolate! Row upon row of stalls and tables filled with chocolate treats, sculptures, flowing fountains and every few feet someone handing you a sample of something. Throwing all dental concerns to the wind the kids and I indulged! We had so much fun, sampling, buying, and eating more chocolate then our neighbourhood kids can ingest on easter morning. You really know you have over done it when your chocolate loving kids say "mommy can we please eat just the strawberries without the chocolate sauce?" While the kids loved all the chocolate sculpted items, I can't lie my favourite was the variety of chocolates mixed with alcohol... and what tired dishevelled mom doesn't deserve a shot (or two) of chocolate liquor? The bag of little Sambuca filled chocolate balls was my absolute favourite. The perfect evening snack after the kids fell asleep. It was a sad day when I ate the last one.

Chocolate Liquor....the fact that you can eat the chocolate shooter cup afterwards makes the experience that much better!

Chocolates for the ladies....

Chocolates for the "handy man"

Chocolate mania!!
And really, what chocolate festival is complete without a procession of damsels and men in tights?

Of course if you have men in tights there should be some horn players too....

Might as well add in some "flag throwing" and call it done!
(in all seriousness, we loved this flag throwing demonstration while gorging in sweets)

The Roadside Self Serve Wine Stop
Wandering the little alleyways of Florence on my lunch breaks has led me to all sorts of culinary experiences. One of my favourites being a sandwich bar along a typical narrow street. It caught my attention because when I came upon it the little ally was blocked from people either lined up to get in or those standing around in the street eating their sandwiches and drinking wine. The store itself is nothing more than a tiny hole in the wall, stuffed with fresh bread, bottles of wine, shanks of cured meat hanging from the ceiling and 3 very handsome men behind the counter. People seem to shout out instructions, the handsome sandwich barista men whip up an incredible sandwich about 12"x12"and pass it over the counter. They are always busy, it's always crowded and I admit because of my lack of language I don't know how to ask for something specific. But they always seem to have a few pre-made sandwiches which I can point to. One of the best parts is the self-serve wine bar out on the street. this means you can pour yourself a glass of vino and enjoy while you wait to order your sandwich. Much like restaurants at home you don't pay until you have finished your meal. This means in the tiny doorway there are people lined up to order, the people trying to get out with their sandwich in hand and those trying to get back in to pay. It's chaos, but a relaxed content kind of chaos with people mingling in the street, enjoying their lunch and pigeons everywhere picking up the crumbs.

The self serve counter

House selection

Through the window

A little shop with the same "ambiance" just down the street.

Trieste and Home-made Farm Food
The last week in February we were in Venice with my mother taking in Carnival with all its colour and fanfare. After this we rented a car and headed to the countryside for some respite. We drove to Trieste along the border of Slovenia and on the shores of the Adriatic Sea. Here we stayed on an agro-tourism farm just 15 minutes out of town. The Farm has more than 30 horses and it's own vineyard. It is run by a family who has been in the region for generations, they offer riding lessons, make their own wine and cure their own prosciutto. (they also run tours to nearby caves on their property) 
This was one of our favourite spots, quiet and remote and the home-made food was incredible. Fresh hot strudel with coffee waiting for us on the big long wooden table in front of the roaring fire place each morning. I loved it. Every morning we were always greeted with smiles and by 8:30 local gentlemen would begin to arrive for their morning baked sausage roles and glass (or jug) or wine. The wine made on the farm is called Teran and is a typical strong red wine from the region along the Slovenian border. They say it will turn you mouth black if you drink a lot, something to do with the heavy mineral content in the soil or something. I didn't get the entire explanation clearly, nor did I drink enough to find out. But i did enjoy the wine, and loved the fact that is comes out of a spout in the wall.
On the weekends the place was packed wall to wall with locals who come for the fantastic food, meats and wine. The morning we were preparing to leave two road construction guys pulled up in their work vehicle. Purchased some sausage roles and filled their 2 litter plastic water bottle with wine from the faucet and headed back to work on fixing the road... I laughed, and was sure to take the road in the opposite direction as the road crew. 
The Farm House

View from the horse paddy

Filling plastic water bottles with wine for "weary travellers"

We did go on a guided tour of the caves, they were not open that day, but our host was so kind, called up the guide and he happily came over, had a few glasses of wine and then took us to a world underground. 

Sadee prepares for her first spelunking experience.

Kids and I inside a massive cave deep under ground.

Cave ceiling as we head down down down.....

There are so many more stories I could write about the food and wine and adventures they lead to, but I am out of time. I would encourage anyone travelling abroad to do your best to learn the language of where you are, it makes the experience so much more fulfilling, but if you can't or don't have time then I say indulge yourself in the local customs of food and drink it certainly helps one to 'take in' a place.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Understanding the world of Buon Fresco

My newest art adventure here in Florence is studying the art of Fresco painting. More specifically buon Fresco which translates as "True Fresco". Fresco is an ancient technique in painting which dates to long before the renaissance. It is a method of creating very long lasting paintings by using ground earth pigments mixed with water and then applied to a wet plaster made from sand and lime calcium. There is a chemical reaction that happens when the earth pigments are mixed with the lime calcium. As it dries the colour becomes infused right into the plaster making it permanent. the colour becomes 'part of' the plaster as opposed to being painting 'on top' of it. This is why Frescos from over a 1000 years ago can still be seen at many historic sights with images relatively intact. Due to the chemical reaction that is necessary to bind the colour with the plaster only certain earth pigments with a certain mineral composition will work and react properly with the lime calcium. This means there is a rather limited pallet of colours to work with when doing 'True Fresco'. The word true refers to the process in which the colours actually become part of the plaster. There is another technique in Fresco called "secco" which means "dry". This means that some colours are mixed with an egg mixture similar to egg tempra and applied to the fresco once the plaster is already dry. There is no limit to the pallet that can be used in 'secco' painting, the downside is the secco colours are the first to disintegrate. Usually when seeing a damaged fresco the colours that are the most damaged or in many cases completely gone were done in secco.

My first class was spent learning many of the basics I just shared with you. After  a general overview and a brief history we began with the preparation - the technique of mixing plaster. 2 parts sand to 1 part lime calcium. Easy..... or not so much. After several failed attempts to mix a plaster that didn't crack after 3 minutes it became apparent to me that measuring and mixing plaster is lot like how my mother measures and mixes when baking. 2 parts sand to 1 part lime calcium really means: a 'bunch' of lime smooshed up, then some sand poured straight from the bag, then a smidge or two of marble dust for lustre followed by a dollop of course sand, stirred and then do the 'spoon test' - (very similar to my grandmother's test to see if the jelly will set or not) Does it stick to the spoon? Or slide off slowly with a sploosh or a plop? Once I started looking at the plaster like a homemade batch of muffins things improved.
On day two I came in excited to start painting. "Lets do a small landscape to start" suggests my teacher. Excellent idea I agree. A lovely Tuscan countryside with rolling green hills, bright blue sky, puffy white clouds and a little cottage or country villa...I love the idea. We get out the natural earth pigments to begin True Fresco. Well... talk about bursting my bubble before we even start! There's brown, light brown, dark brown, red brown, blacky brown,  browny green, yellow ochre (browny yellow), lighter reddish brown and tan. I admit I had a real moment of "what the F*&%!" There's not even a brilliant white to mix with these. I looked at my teacher with a 'what am I supposed to do with this look' She laughed.
So really there are two things that will make a Fresco painting seem bright and really 'pop'. One is using secco colours at the end, the blues, golds and bright reds but to really work in the buon fresco technique these colours are not part of the pallet. The other thing you can do is have a really good drawing, isolating the light and dark, controlling the values...gee there it is again, the basics of art. Just like in my first painting course here. It's all about shape, light and dark. It could be all in black and white and still seem bright if you get the drawing right. Ok I get it, bring on the browns! Oh and there is a 3rd thing that can help. There are in fact some brilliant whites that can be used one made from lead, the other made from zinc and a bright pink/red colour called cinnabar. Of course all of these colours will fry your brain and mess with your central nervous system but heck do they ever do wonders for a painting! There's a reason artist have received reputations for being flighty, outrageous and downright weird. Most of us are, but often it's not a personality trait...to many toxins.

Now that I can mix the plaster and prep the colours the process begins. Each day I do a "giornata" a small section that I can finish in one sitting. I start by mixing and laying a small area of plaster. Then I transfer a section of my image onto the damp plaster using a stencil I made earlier of the design. Then I paint it in a beautiful collection of browns. I have been working on areas approximately 6"x6" during a 3 hour period. Once I am pleased with what I have done or the plaster is too dry I cut off any excess plaster. The next day I will apply more plaster ensuring it is level with the previous layers, line up the stencil and dust little bits of pigment through the holes poked in the stencil. Then I will attempt to match the colours from the previous day and keep going. There is no going back to fix things once it is done for the day. Once the plaster dries the colours are permanent, you can not wash off or add to them to make changes. At first this was terrifying...now I find it liberating. No use stressing over something you can't change, might as well stay focused on the current section. It really forces you to let go of things and just get on with it!

I have had the chance to visit some great Frescos by great masters such as Giotto and Agnolo Gaddi with my teacher as a guide. It is inspiring and looking at these paintings I can see that these painters certainly have been able to create bold, bright moving images using buon fresco. So since getting over my own colour delusion I have come to really love fresco. It is such an eclectic mix of skills rolled into one process. Part painter, part baker, part construction worker, part chemist and part alchemist. I may yet be able to turn led into gold or at least turn a concoction of sand and a whole lot of brown minerals into something stunning!

First day, trying to make a plaster that wouldn't crack!

Beginning the process, preparing to paint two faces.

End of the day, two faces done, excess plaster has been removed.

My teacher Giulia helps me to apply the spolvero (the stencil pattern)

Last face stencilled in and ready to start.

I receive pointers from the pro. My teach Giulia.

Painting the base colours with verdaccio just one of the many 'browns' we use!

Kai comes to school with me one day and creates a fresco of his own! 
He finishes in one day, little speed painter. (using the non-toxic colours of course)

Visiting Santa Croce church to see the real deal. These Fresco do not look brown and dull.
It can be done, I am inspired!

This Fresco was painted by a friend of Michelangelo and adorns the top of his tomb.
Apparently this  reddish purple is a pigment that can be used in buon fresco! 
It is now my personal mission in life to find this colour before leaving Florence. Some pigments are harder to come by than others! 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Charcoal and Other Messes

First I must point out that not all the stories and photos in this blog are in chronological order. Sometimes I have not finished writing about one event before I get swept up into another. What can I say, it's a busy life and an overwhelmingly inspiring place. Usually I have not totally processed one event before being submerged into the next.
So, to backtrack a little, at the end of February I completed my first workshop here in Florence. A 6 week intensive drawing and painting course with much emphasis on the human figure. Having had very little previous experience drawing the human figure I was not sure what to expect. I was very pleased with my results and came out of the experience with a whole new respect for realism as well as many of the art materials we used. In the past I always hated working with charcoal, it is messy and impossible to achieve any sort of detail. How utterly wrong I was...well to a degree, it is true - it is incredibly messy... but with a wooden batten, a bit of sandpaper and a lot of patience it is amazing what kind of detail can be achieved. (the sandpaper is wrapped or attached to the wooden batten and the charcoal rubbed along it into a fine point)
Drawings come out with the precision of a photograph in black and white. What an eye opener for me. I had far better success with the charcoal than I did with the paints in the end. Although I did not manage a great portrait of my model Elley, I did manage to make a great friend in her. Elley was ever so patient with my grumbling, complaining and mumbling to myself throughout the process. I'm sure I began to embody the typical stereotype of the half mad artist who has inhaled to many fumes and ingested to many solvents. Elley did not seem too concerned that I might lop off my ear and stick it in the mail at any given moment, in fact she was even willing to sit for extra sessions for me as I attempted in vain to capture her likeness in paint. In the end I came out with a portrait that could pass... as a picture of her long lost sister. The painting in itself is not great, but does bear some likeness to her. The learning curve on the other hand was great. I gained a tremendous amount of knowledge throughout the entire course with some results coming out stronger than others. The trick now becomes integrating the new knowledge into what I do. Something that can be easier said than done.
Not to worry, I don't have to figure it out just yet, as I have already embarked on workshop number two! I have switched schools, saying farewell (for now) to the Florence Academy of Art, and have now started at the Leonardo Da Vince School of Art to take a 4 week course in Fresco! Buon Fresco to be exact which translates as "True Fresco". There are no modern modifications, techniques, tools or pigment here... it's the real deal, it's painstakingly slow and hard...but I love it... so far.
I will write more about the Fresco experience next post. Cheers!

This is my final charcoal sketch, two weeks of work. 
(Roughly 24"x 20)

Portrait in oils (of Elley's long lost sister)
Thanks for being so patient Elley!

The beginning of the Fresco process...this is after day 3 of work.
(The full panel is roughly 12"x24")

My Fresco at the end of day 4.
(More on this process in the next post)

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Venice is Sinking?

I have heard that Venice is sinking. I don't know if this is true. I suppose with rising seal levels around the world it probably is. I am so glad that we got to experience it now when Venice is still very much afloat and very much alive. We arrived in Venice during the middle of Carnival. I have to sheepishly admit I had no idea what Carnival was, nor that it was happening. Just two days before leaving several people said to me "Oh you are going to Carnival, how wonderful." I smiled not really knowing what they were talking about and just replied "Yes we are going to Venice, the kids are sooo excited" - to which they replied in genuine surprise touched with genuine horror "you are going to Venice with your children during Carnival? Don't ever let go of their hands!"  In response to this I smiled a little more faintly, thanked them for their advice and walked off wondering what could they mean?
Well there is only one way to find out. I admit I briefly wondered if I should cancel the trip, I had received so many adverse reactions, but my mother was coming to visit us. That would mean an extra pair of hands and eyes with the kids, and I had promised my son he would see the city where the roads are water and the cars are boats. We had to go.
So with great excitement and trepidation we headed to Venice. I can honestly say it has been the highlight of our time so far in Italy. The city is beautiful, stunning in fact with architecture so glorious in the sunshine it could make my five year old stop and stare in amazement. The streets are a maze of narrow alleyways, and it is true we never managed to leave our hotel room and NOT get lost even with a map in our hands. So yes it was important to stick together somewhat, as finding each other could be near impossible. But with one adult per child it really wasn't that stressful, the deal was you stuck to the kid assigned to you and if we got separated from the other adult/kid combo we were to backtrack to the last major intersection where we had been to together and wait. If all else failed we would buy another map and meet back at the hotel. In fact the experience was far less stressful then a regular day trying to get home from school in Florence. There were no buses thundering down the street 8 inches away from where we stood, and the streets being even narrower prevented the children from getting very far away at all, the Venice experience was quite relaxing.
As for Carnival.... we could not have chosen a better time to go. People everywhere in massive ornate beautiful costumes wandered through the streets. All with masks delicately painted and decorated with  feathers, jewels and gold. Many of them were period costumes from the 1600 or 1700's.  I was worried at first that the kids might be a bit spooked, but not at all. The costumed characters move around slowly, with a sort of grace almost spectre-like. There seems to be a costume culture in Venice, they don't speak or move quickly, there is a seriousness about it and they will stop frequently in an archway or on a small bridge and pose for photos slowly moving a hand, fan or parasol drifting from one pose into another. As night falls it is like walking through a city of ghosts of Venice's past.
The kids loved it and wore masks of their own. They would run up to pose with the masquerading characters. We were dazzled by the masquerading characters mingling with each other amongst the historical atmosphere that permeates Venice.
At one point the kids got their faces painted to really join in the fun. The Carnival attracts all sorts of photographers, professional and amateur who come to be inspired and take pictures. There are never ending opportunities for "that perfect shot". Once the kids were all painted they became part of the atmosphere that people come specifically to photograph. For a few minutes we got a taste of what life would be being followed by the paparazzi. Little adorable Sadee getting her face painted was enough to draw in a crowd of more than a dozen photographers with giant lenses, literally jostling each other for the best spot to get the best angle. I was killing my self laughing, Sadee took it all in stride, and all I could think was "thank goodness we are not truly famous."
With painted faces and masks we threw ourselves into the fray embracing our roles as tourists. We went for boat rides, a gondola ride, strolled on the promenade, ate multiple gelatos, went to the island of Murano to see the glass blowers, we drank $12 hot chocolates and enjoyed every sip. It was one of the best holidays of my entire life. It cost an arm and a leg, and thanks to my wonderful mother helping to subsidize the trip including our hotel room overlooking one of the small canals we lived liked kings... or at least like "high ranking nobles". It was the experience of a life time. I would encourage anyone who has an inkling or the opportunity - visit Venice...do it before it sinks, you won't be disappointed!

For this post there are more photos than usual, there were just so many I wanted to share... it could easily be double what I have included below.

Departing for Venice, coffee's at the train station... a little fancier than "Tim Hortons"

We arrive in Venice, evening on the Grand Canal.

Venetian water ways.

Kai, the Lion, the Jester.

Lady in Turquoise

Sadee gets painted

The paparazzi arrive

Kai gets painted

Ghosts of Venice

Men in Black

Texting while driving.... it's still legal in Venice.

Living the good life. Our hotel room.

It's Carnival, everyone's in costume!

A floating city of light, wonder and colour.

Sunset on the way home from Murano.