Saturday, January 18, 2014

Sketchbook Journeys - Italy: Piazza San Marco, Venice + Step-by-Step

Ready to escape to Italy for some fun in the sun? Come along with me as I work on finishing up the travel journal I started on my two-week trip to northern Italy and Tuscany last spring. I worked feverishly on the sketches last spring and summer, adding watercolor to line drawings I had done on location, then took a little breather as I focused on other projects. Now I'm anxious to finish what I started, so, over the next few weeks, I'll be posting sketches from the second half of the trip when I visited Venice, Vicenza, and Tuscany.

(If you missed the earlier posts, just click on "Italy" in the label list, right, and all the posts and finished sketches will pop up.)

10" x 7", ink & watercolor in Stillman & Birn Beta series sketchbook

We only had one day in Venice, but what a perfect day it was! It felt like a dream, and all day long I marveled that I was actually walking in the places that I had been seeing all my life in movies, photographs, and paintings.

The most popular tourist destination in Venice is the Piazza San Marco, which has been painted by master artists for centuries. I couldn't wait to pull out my camp stool and sit myself down in the spot where Renoir had set up his easel. My quick little 15-minute ink drawing did more to capture Venice in my heart than all the photos I took that day.

I thought you might enjoy seeing how this image progressed from a simple line drawing to a finished sketchbook page, complete with border and calligraphy. Here's the step-by-step process:

1 - On location in St. Mark's Square, I drew the sketchiest of outlines in pencil first, just to get the composition situated on the page, then began drawing the buildings with a Pigma Micron 01 black pen. I didn't have much time to spend on the drawing, and it's wobbly and inaccurate, but I think I managed to capture the essence of the scene.

Step 1

2 - Later, back home in my studio, I added the swirly border and lettering.

Step 2

3 - After all the ink work was finished, I wet the entire sky area with water and dropped in a variety of colors: cerulean blue, cadmium yellow medium, ultramarine blue light, and rose violet. The sky may look a little wild and crazy, but I wanted this sketch to have a "party" feel to it, to convey how lighthearted and happy I felt that day. Using bright colors and the curlicue border were a good way to set the mood.

Step 3

4 - Next I began to add the first washes of color to St. Mark's Basilica and the surrounding buildings.

Step 4

I applied colors wet-in-wet in some of these first washes to encourage them to merge and blend.

5 - In the next step I begin to define the architecture more fully with darker tones and shadows. I also painted the people in the mid-ground and added their shadows. Colors used were quinacridone gold, raw sienna, yellow ochre, olive green, ultramarine blue light, cerulean blue, and permanent alizarin crimson.

Step 5

6 - I decided the brightness of the sky was a distraction to the painting, so I put a pale grey wash over the right part of it, thinking it might make the buildings pop forward. I'm not sure it was the right decision, although it doesn't look as dull in person as it does in these scanned images.

Step 6

7 - The border and text were filled in with quinacridone gold.

Step 7

8 - As a final touch of whimsy, I added dots of color at random around the border.

Step 8

It's finished! My impression of one unforgettable day when I walked in the footsteps of Leonardo, Monet, and Vivaldi in the Piazza San Marco, Venice.


  1. What a perfect little tutorial. I will check out the other entries under Italy for more on how you did a travel journal. I know you were with another sketcher and maybe were able to take more time but I am travelling with my husband and another couple none of whom sketch. As the only sketcher in the group I have to figure out the best way to handle this, take enough time yet not hold people up. Thanks for this.

    1. It is harder to make time for sketching when you're the only one who's doing it, but I hope you can manage to steal a few minutes here and there to do some drawing. I'm sure the people you're with will get a kick out of seeing what you do. When I went to Alaska several years ago with nine other family members, I kept a travel journal the whole time. Everyone wanted copies of it later, as it was a wonderful remembrance of our trip. It was worth the extra effort to squeeze in some time to draw and write, and everyone benefitted. Something to think about...

  2. Thanks so much for sharing this. It is a wonderful, representative painting of the Basilica - which I was unable to simplify as beautifully as you did.

  3. Oh this is fun. Happy your are doing more and look forward to the rest. I will have to go back over this and let it all soak in. :)

    1. I'm having so much fun with it! I'm really anxious to finish this project, but then I have a feeling I'm going to feel sort of let down when I'm not spending hours immersed in Italy pictures every day.

  4. I really loved this-thanks for sharing your beautiful watercolor sketches-very inspiring!

  5. What a lovely and lively sketch this is! You did a great job of simplifying this complicated subject. (Something I need to work on)

  6. Excellent! Thank you for sharing your sketches and impressions of Venice. I love seeing it through another artists' eyes and brush. I am hoping to be back in Italy in September...fingers crossed.

    1. Lucky lady! I'm hoping I can return some day, too. It's such an amazing and special place.

  7. This is an amazing piece of work. I never thought of Venice that way with so many colors. I'll definitely have to consider doing this when I paint. Thank you for sharing your beautiful work.


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