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Italia! Magazine

Watercolour of Susan in The Basilica San Marco

Susan in The Basilica San Marco

I’ve recently been asked to write some responses to the Questions & Answers section of the Italia Magazine. Readers are encouraged to ask any questions they may have about Italy. From time to time, questions about painting in Italy crop up. Here is one from the March 2013 issue from a lady called Valerie in Weymouth.

Q. I have been experimenting with sketches and painting on my recent trips to Italy, but am not sure which medium to use. How do you choose between watercolour, oil or charcoal sketches – for example, does one suit landscapes or cityscapes more?

For me personally, choice of medium when sketching outdoors is usually a matter of preference and to a certain extent practicality. Also one needs to have some clear goals and objectives as to the purpose of the sketching.

When working “plein air” in Italia I’m often gathering reference material which will be a source of inspiration for some future studio painting. I find watercolour the ideal medium to capture the colour, mood and atmosphere of both landscapes and cityscapes. A small box of watercolour paints with a sketchbook can be easily carried about in a jacket pocket or small bag. It’s not too difficult to find a place to rest the sketchbook on like a wall, a table at a cafe or a fence if you’re painting in the countryside.

Watercolour painting does demand more skill but working small makes it less daunting. Italian cities are great for their wonderful shops selling leather bound journals and sketchbooks containing hand made papers. Find a book with a heavy watercolour paper and fill it with your studies of city life, architecture or the distinctive Italian landscape. You will hopefully create a delightful record of your travels in Italia which you can refer back to jog your memory or use for inspiration to paint. An alternative to buying a sketchbook in Italy is the Moleskine brand which you can buy in the UK.

I find that working in oils is more arduous in comparison. The drying time of the paint is longer and you will generally have to carry a lot more equipment like an easel, a bag to carry paints, turpentine, a range of brushes and your canvas/boards to paint on. It can be done but it’s a little more demanding.

An alternative to watercolour and oils is acrylic paint which is water soluble and dries quickly. It’s more forgiving than watercolour, allowing one to paint over mistakes.

Working in charcoal can be rewarding if you are not concerned about recording colour but you will also need some fixative (or hairspray) to stop your drawings from getting smudged.

Here is an example of how goals and objectives are important to choice of medium. Last year I was making some studies in the Basilica San Marco in Venice. I used a combination of watercolour in one sketchbook to record the colours and a biro in another for some of the architectural details. The sketchbook watercolour  is one of several studies I made on that trip in preparation for an oil painting I have been working on recently of Susan.


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