veni vidi venezia

Rialto Venice
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.
Piazza San Marco sm

don’t matter what i do

south silo aug 2017

Long hot summer ain’t passing me by, though I’m trying to pass it by. We went over 40 days of 90 degree weather, many of them being in the 100s. I drew this over the course of three lunchtimes, each one where I ate at one of the food trucks at the newly remodeled Silo area. I drew this from the shade of a tree, and you can see the whole area in front of the Bike Barn has been totally renovated and changed, it looks different from the way it did previously (see this post from 2015 which shows sketches back to 2011). Sketching in the heat is something I should be used to in Davis, but more and more it puts me off. Maybe because I have drawn everything in this town and on this campus (maybe not everything, but it feels like it), maybe I have sketched so much this year already that it feels like a chore sometimes (you go through these lulls), maybe I just don’t want to leave the house (I have discovered the joys of creating stop-motion Lego animations, it’s fun). Maybe I have been spending too much time drawing MS Paint illustrations of this year’s football kits (no, NOT ENOUGH time!). Maybe it’s that whole thing where you go to Italy, and nothing else seems quite as interesting afterwards, and you just yearn for more travel, more places. Maybe, I don’t really know. Maybe you’re the same as me, we’ll see things they’ll never see, you and I are gonna live forev-eeeerrrr…

my hart will go on

Hart Hall, UC Davis
Felt it was time for a new sketch of Hart Hall. It’s one of the more sketchable buildings on campus. The weather has been very hot lately, hitting at least 90 every day (and well over 100 for many of them), a little unbearable. These long hot Davis summers don’t seem to be getting any shorter or cooler.

Here are a few of my older sketches of this building. This one is from 2008, also sketched in a long hot summer. I was still getting used to the long hot summers then. 2008, feels a lifetime ago now.
hart hall

This one is from March 2014, with a still fairly leafless tree in the foreground.

hart hall, uc davis

And this one is six years old, May 2011, not officially summer yet but still bloody hot, I’ll bet.
hart hall, ucd

wherever i lay my hydrant, that’s my rome

Hydrant in RomeRome Hydrant sm

Almost there with Rome! Rome wasn’t blogged about in a day, but this will be the last one, much shorter and with less complaining. Above are a couple of fire hydrants! I was pleased to discover some in Rome, add them to my collection. Not many, but here they are. Rome is also well known for its fountains, not just the grand ones in the piazzas, but also the smaller ones dotted around the streets with drinking water for anyone who gets thirsty in those heavy, hot Roman afternoons. So I sketched the one below, the man with the barrel and no nose, in Via Lata. Next to that is a very quick perspective sketch just off of that street.

Rome noseless fountain sm

Now one fountain I did not sketch, you will have noticed, was the world-famous Trevi Fountain. It was very crowded there, and the surrounding streets thick with tourist-tack. Beautiful fountain, but not my favourite spot in Rome. We did nevertheless each throw a coin into the fountain, ensuring, as the legends and all the guidebooks say, that we will return to Rome. And I’m sure that we will, and I can’t wait. Arrivederci Roma!

nice one centurion, like it, like it

roman soldier (playmobil)
And so, a couple more Rome posts before moving on to Venice. There is an endless supply of Rome puns and Life of Brian references to draw from yet. Above is a little Playmobil Roman soldier I picked up near the Forum, goes nicely with all our Playmobil knights and pirates. So one of the things we did in Rome was the Gladiator School, which as I’ve mentioned before, was not worth it. It’s listed in  lot of magazines and guides and tourist videos about Rome as a fun activity with the family, but I must say I wasn’t impressed. It’s quite expensive to take part, and I took part with my son so it was twice the cost. On top of that, it’s outside the center of Rome so you have to take a taxi there. Our taxi driver from the Forum fleeced us with a 30 Euro ride (his meter was not running, tellingly). The taxi back on the other hand was 17 Euro, but we had to wait 45 minutes for it to arrive. Now when we got there the place is pretty small, it’s a space for a group that does Roman re-enactments, and they go full on with the costumes and put on shows and things I guess. There were lots of photos of the Roman guy who runs it with various celebrities who had gone there in the past, Arnold Schwarzenegger and so on. The Gladiator School is for kids really but it was like, well it must be good, famous people come here. I was wearing my Sampdoria shirt and the same guy spoke to me, saying that Sampdoria are just a bunch of drug users and miming someone taking an injection. Hmm, okay, I said. We ended up being in a fairly large group of around twenty or so adults and children, and then we were given a history lesson with a whole bunch of Roman helmets and weaponry, which was interesting enough, except it was in a very hot room on a very hot day and went on for an hour. The guy taught us a lot of history, and some got to wear very heavy helmets, but all of the kids were getting quite anxious to get out and learn swordplay. When we finally did get to move into the practical space, the instructor gave us costumes – red tunics for the adults and white robes for the kids. Massive white robes that didn’t fit kids at all, and tiny red tunics that we adults all barely squeezed into. Hmmm. Some of us laughed about it, but at this stage one family had had enough, I’m not sure exactly why but I heard that the instructor had made some comment to their son, a tall lad, which had upset him, so the instructor spent the next 10-15 minutes off talking to the secretary while we waited around wondering what to do next. Finally the instructor reappeared and introduced a small obstacle course which we had to run around five times, while he went off again, distracted. Then he showed us a wooden structure which gladiators had to learn how to put together quickly which was supposedly used in battle, and so everyone took turns, while everyone else watched, because there is only one. We spent a lot of time watching. In the meantime the instructor would wander off, or just chat to the mothers seated on the benches (“Americans and British today,” he said to one, “No Australians thankfully, the Australian women are very rowdy because they are all descended from violent criminals.” He actually said that. Hmmm. When finally we got to learn swordplay, which was with the wooden practice swords, we all lined up and he told us to copy certain moves, then he would go around to each of us and maybe show us how to do that one move, or in the case of my son, just say one dismissive sentence and move on without showing him anything (his only words were, “Too much Jackie Chan,” whatever that is supposed to mean). It seemed like there were far too many in the group for anything more, though he didn’t seem particularly bothered. The sword practice was about ten minutes at most, and then we got to sit and watch while two kids or two parents at a time were able to fight each other. Kids couldn’t fight parents however, which disappointed my son who wanted to battle me. It was only simple gentle battling, and again the instructor barely took any notice, preferring to go and chat to other people instead, or ask that the mothers get up and fight because he “wanted to see two women fight”. And that was it. He gave us all certificates, and then thanked us as a group for funding their Roman re-enactment society, and then he went into a tirade that they get no funding from the Roman city government, who prefer to fund things “for gay people and foreign migrants”, mincing about as he did so. Eh? Stunned confusion from everyone. “Hi, can we have our money back?” I said, knowing that was not a battle worth our time fighting. As we waited for our cab home, a 45 minute wait, I peeked in to see the group after us, which was smaller, and who had a different, more enthusiastic instructor. They seemed to be having a great time. We and the rest of our group however all felt a bit underwhelmed. However. We got back and had a gelato, and still loved Rome, and in the end, you get to see this picture of me squeezed into a very, very tight tunic, fighting a duel. I guess it was worth it for that…


sorernity now

Pi Beta Phi Sorority, UC Davis
Continuing the intermission from Italy posting, here is one from the edge of UC Davis, a sorernity house on Russell Blvd. One of many; this area is called “Frat Row”. This one is “Pi Beta Phi” which is you all know is short for “Pirates Be-taking Philosophy” which yes I know makes no sense, but I know nothing about the origins of the phrase and don’t want to assume. I assume it is some sort of in-joke, like “Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense”, the famous slogan of the Knights of the Garter, which I’m sure they never intended to be their permanent slogan, just a bit of a laugh, like their name, Knights of the Garter. The origins of names and phrases are often lost in the swirling sands of history. Ok before I turn this post into another inevitable meaningless collection of weak jokes and untrue etymologies (“sweetheart, that could be the name of my autobiography”), let’s just get back to the subject matter. There are lots of these houses just off campus, but as someone who didn’t go to college here this whole ‘Greek Life’ is alien to me. When I was at uni I went to the New Globe pub in Mile End with my fellow drama students and got drunk on halves, and that was about it really. Fratorities and Sorernities are not really a thing there at all. The first time I ever met ‘Frat Boys’ was when I spent a year in France teaching after I graduated. There were lots of American students in the city where I lived and I remember going to a party and some lads being described as ‘Frat Boys’. “Frat?” I would ask. “Is that an acronym, like ‘Fourteen Recipes About Thunderbirds’, or ‘Flying Rabbits Are Terrifying’ or something?” (I was not as good at coming up with funny acronyms back then) “No,” they would say. “It doesn’t mean anything. It just means they drink loads, are usually white, and drink loads.” I think that was the description I was given, it was a long time ago and I didn’t really understand it. They might have said more but they definitely said that. I didn’t think they drank more than British binge-students.  I have snippets of very odd conversations with young Americans while living in France, like the person who asked me, upon hearing that I was from London, if I liked “London Broil”. Again I didn’t know what that was (I still don’t by the way). What I got was that “Frat Boy” just means a certain recognizable type. They might not even be in a “Frat” (and I didn’t learn what that was until I after actually moved to America) (and then spent years deliberately saying “Fratority” and “Sorernity” just to see if anyone would correct me, then I would laugh). It’s an expression I hear very often, “They’re just a bunch of Frat Boys,” “This place is full of Frat Boys”, “Get off of my lawn, Frat Boys”. I’m focusing very much on the Frat Boys here but not on the Sorority Girls. You don’t shorten that by the way, you say the whole thing. The rule of thumb is if you can pronounce the whole word ‘sorority’, then you are sober enough to drive home. I don’t know much about these societies other than what I’ve been told, about how they do ‘Rushes’ where you have to wear a different dress every day for a month, and say “ew” a lot. Like I say, it’s all alien to me. My wife did make me watch “Legally Blonde” years ago, but it was because I lost a bet (if I had won she would have had to watch “Young Einstein”, to this day she still hasn’t had the pleasure of seeing that amazing and not ridiculous at all movie). In “Legally Blonde” they make references to some sorority or other and that is pretty much all I know. So, I decided to do a little research on this particular sorority. When I say ‘a little research’ I mean I googled it and looked at the Davis Wiki page. Apparently (and this is cool) Pi Beta Phi was the first “national secret college society of women”, founded in 1867 in Monmouth Illinois (as “I.C. Sorosis”, and we can all agree the Greek letter name sounds a lot better). This means they are 150 years old! Notable Pi Beta Phi people are Jennifer Garner and Faye Dunaway. Not from the Davis chapter of course, but it’s a national organization. So there you have it. It also definitely has nothing to do with Pirates Be-taking Philosophy.

a rome with a view

View from Rome Apartment sm
This was the view from our Rome apartment living room. I’m not exaggerating, this isn’t a collage, I’m not condensing a lot of different spires and domes into one, this was the actual view. I left this uncoloured because it was actually my favourite sketch in Rome, and definitely my favosuite view in Rome. I could look out of that window all day. Except for the fact I wanted to look around the city itself. The dome in the distance, behind the bigger dome, that is the Vatican. The church with the stag on top is the Basilica di Sant’ Eustachio. The stag’s head is a reference to St. Eustace, who was a roman general back in the 2nd century who was out hunting when he saw a stag with a crucifix in its horns, and he saw this as a sign and converted to Christianity. I had to look that up because I did wonder what it was for. It looks cool though. The most dramatic steeple though is the baroque church of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, that spiraling corkscrew tower on the left hand side. It’s so eye-catching. The church was designed by the legendary architect Francesco Borromini between 1642-1660.

Our apartment on Via Della Palombella was pretty big, and the owner was really nice; I’d definitely stay there again. The only thing, those stairs! Four huge very steep flights, over 120 steps I think my son said it was, so I got a good work-out every day. I went up and down a lot, to go sketching in the morning, come back with breakfast from the nearby Caffe Sant-Eustachio, back again after sightseeing, then again after dinner and if I went for an evening stroll then I would be up them again. I got my 10,000 steps in before lunchtime! But look at that view. That view is worth every step, and then some. Below I sketched the view at sunset, which was stunning to say the least.
Rome Sunset sm

And from the bedroom window is the dome of the Pantheon!