It was a trip to Venice at the end of my undergraduate degree in 2001 that got me into what we now call ‘urban sketching’. I had always drawn stuff, but drawing the world around me just wasn’t something I did. Oh except those few times in my teens, usually for art homework, plus a poorly scribbled panorama of Prague that I did sitting on a hill during my 1998 European railway adventure. I planned a few days in Venice after finishing my final exams – my degree was in French and Drama – and at the end of year party in the Modern Languages department at Queen Mary University of London one of my French professors (Marian Hobson) talked to me about how much she liked exploring Venice, and she recommended that rather than take a load of photos I should consider drawing while I travelled, because I would really see with my own eyes. I am paraphrasing a bit but I remember that conversation, and when I flew out to Italy I took extra pens and some coloured pencils (no sketchbook, didn’t bring one of those) and drew a few pictures on location in the white pages at the end of my Lonely Planet guidebook. Venice was too amazing not to draw, and too different from Mile End not to savour every moment. I explored early in the morning, getting up as the sun rose, before the tourists, before even the pigeons, while tradesmen moored their boats on jetties delivering to the local shops. Venice really was an impenetrable labyrinth, like nowhere I had ever been. I don’t even have that guidebook now and the sketches were small and not hugely detailed but I never forgot that feeling, and carry that sentiment with me whenever I sketch, even Davis, that I am using my own eyes to see things as they are.
I went back to Venice a year later, but did no sketching as it was February which meant thick dense freezing fog, thick dense Carnevale crowds, and more thick dense freezing fog. I went back a year after that, with my future wife, and we got engaged in the middle of Piazza San Marco. That was an amazing and memorable trip, in the sticky depths of August. I would also get up early and wander Venice with a sketchbook, free of the crowds, drawing what I could. Venice is an unusual city, but I always loved it and thought that we would be back sooner – if not every year, then maybe every couple of years. Then we moved to America, and so it was that we didn’t return for 14 years. Venice is still there, it hasn’t sunk yet (“oh you’d better go now,” people say, “I heard it’s sinking and it’ll be too late!” Venice has been sinking, or rather flooding, forever. Venice is still here.) When the chance came this year to finally return we jumped at it. We were going to Rome, so why not get a train up north back to old Venice?
And of course, I could get back to the early morning wandering and sketching. After 14 years away my sketching had improved somewhat so I was eager to try out my more developed sketching skills on Venice. Before the family were awake, I would get up and wander the labyrinthine calles and alleys looking for a place to sketch, returning to our Cannaregio apartment with Venetian pastries for breakfast. The sketch at the top of the famous Rialto bridge was done at about 7am, when the canalsides were calmer and the local traders carted goods ashore, and postmen wheeled little carts up and down the stepped bridges. You can see the golden light peering onto the water beneath the Rialto bridge; I can tell you that the view from the bridge itself of that other side at 7 in the morning is one of the truly magnificent sights to behold. I’ll draw that on the next trip, if I dare, when I’m a bit better at it. There is nothing like standing by the Grand Canal listening to the Venetian morning sounds and drawing in a sketchbook.
I have a good few sketches to show you and I’ll try to keep the storytelling concise but here is one more, of that very Piazza San Marco. It was pretty incredible to be back here in the spot where we got engaged, but this time as a family. I did a quick sketch of the Campanile and the Basilica San Marco while my son rested his tired legs (Venice equals a lot of walking). It wasn’t yet too crowded, but it was getting busier, so we got a Vaporetto back to Cannaregio and had a rest. And, of course, a gelato.