Art Among the Poppies - A Watercolor Painting Holiday in Tuscany
Art Among the Poppies
Over the decades we have taught many painting workshops, both here and abroad, but this has to rank among the very best we have experienced. Not because we didn’t have any hiccups — behind the scenes we had all we could handle! Even so, this wonderful week of travel, camaraderie and painting just wasn’t going to be held back by anything. There were only four requirements that had to be met for this workshop:
Driving on small rural roads in Italy, most of them without any shoulders, is not for the timid, and takes some getting used to. Painted lines seem to me to be interpreted as just a suggestion by some Italian drivers as they make the entire road their own! Blind curves are the most dangerous, and the famous hills of Tuscany are full of them. Fortunately, I have had some experience with this on a previous trip to the area, see: Plein Air Pastel Painting in Tuscany, so I knew what to expect. And this time, I had a considerable size advantage driving a large white van rather than a subcompact car. Oncoming drivers tended to move back over the line when they saw us, self-preservation overruling their zest for speed. While I still had to be careful and drive conservatively, we had no problems the entire week. I really enjoyed the driving - how could I not, driving through such beautiful landscape?
Eating Well in Tuscany
Our first dinner, "la cena" in Italian, was served outdoors on the patio of Al Vecchio Forno, in San Quirico. The menu started with a Tuscan risotto with fresh artichokes and local saffron - delicioso! The table wine was the local vintage - Vino Rosso di Montalcino—and it did not disappoint. Located on the west side of the valley, Montalcino is the birthplace of the Super Tuscan Brunello wines and the Rosso is a “baby brother” version of those famous wines. Our second course was braised Chianina beef cooked in vino Nobile di Montepulciano, another famous wine, but from the town on the opposite side of the Val d’Orcia from Montalcino. It was also marvelous. We finished with a puff pastry filled with sweet mascarpone cream and fresh strawberries. What a great way to start the week.
By 8:45, all of the gear was loaded in the van and we were on the road to the UNESCO World Heritage town of Pienza, about 25 minutes away. Like so many of the ancient towns in Tuscany, Pienza was built on top of a hill with high stone walls and ramparts for defense. Tuscany, like all of Italy at one time, was a collection of city-states, and the major cities and towns like Montalcino, Montepulciano, Siena and Florence waged centuries of war against each other for domination of territory, trade routes and resources. Towns were developed on the highest, most defensible hilltops. Pienza is one of those interesting towns surrounded by walls, made more exceptional because of the partial rebuilding of it during the Renaissance by Pope Pius II.
Built from 1459-1462, the center of the village, or “centro historico”, was ‘improved’ by Pope Pius II (Enea Silvio Piccolomini), who was a native son of the medieval village originally named Corsignano. After he was elected Pope, he set about using his considerable papal resources to remaking his village into something more befitting his new station in life and renamed it Pienza. He did not live long enough to complete his renovation dreams making the village an interesting mix of rustic stone and carved marble edifices.
Despite the aborted renovations, the town has a rare charm and refinement for a farm country village and the residents go all out to beautify it with flowering pots of plants and waving flags wherever one looks. There is a lively tourist trade, so the restaurants and shops offer quality and abundance. I love the architecture and the way the light moves within the streets of this very manageable village. There are also scenic aerial views and vantage points all along the western wall which is topped with a wide, paved walk for much of its length.
The Big Picture
Since both my easel and my umbrella were still in my lost luggage, I had to struggle with this demo and paint very quickly in the hot sun. The bright light throws off values and flash-dries washes, making life difficult for the watercolor painter. I never paint under bright sun if I have a choice and I strongly encourage my students to buy a good umbrella. The proper equipment can make a difference.
Umbrella or no, everyone tried their hand at this subject. We had quite a crowd of pedestrians watching for awhile. One older fellow actually leaned on one of the students to take a photo! By that time everyone needed a lunch and water break, so we packed up, walked down the stairs and around the corner into a lovely dark and cool trattoria called Idyllium, run by a talented young couple. Housed in the former stables of Pope Pius II, the place had a relaxed vibe and funky, eclectic furnishings. What was even more delightful was the food. Delicious and plenty of it —it didn’t matter what anyone ordered—it was all good. While paying the young chef a compliment, I commented on the reasonable prices. He surprised me when he said in English, “We don’t believe in stealing from tourists”. Just another thing I love about Tuscany—pleasant surprises literally around every corner.
I quickly drew in my composition, making careful note of the angle that the shadow would cast across the design. There are two ways to paint this lighting condition: paint everything in without the shadow, and when that is dry, float a perfect shadow wash over the underpainting in one go. The second method is to tint the sheet with the color of the lighted portion of the building as before, but this time paint the details within the shadows wet into wet. Either way can work, but the wet method is much more difficult to get right en plein air. There is only one chance to get the details in and the risk is that one area of the initial shadow wash could start to dry while other areas are still very wet. Since we had a very warm day with a bit of a breeze, I decided on the first course of action for my demo. I wanted to paint all the buildings and the street in one big continuous wash. Starting with a mixture of Naples Yellow and Yellow Ochre, I washed in all the buildings and the pavement with my Richeson 1” flat brush. Immediately after that, I mixed a darker wall wash for the shadowed wall on the right using Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber and Indian Yellow and laid it in so it would merge a little at the street. Then, using Prussian Blue and Dioxazine Violet, I washed in the pavement, and my first layer was done.
After the demo, we packed up and walked back to the van for our next stop—Ceramiche Sbarluzzi—a small ceramics factory located just east of Pienza. I had discovered it ten years ago and was amazed at the quality of their hand-painted ceramics. Our hotel, the Residence Casanova, has many fine examples of their gigantic painted pots, urns and ceramic tables sprinkled throughout the building. However, back then you had to know where the factory was, since it wasn't particularly focused on retail sales. Now, they have created a little wine bar next door, which tells me that they are catering increasingly to tourists. Their work is exceptional and worth going to see.
Dinner that night was at Agriturismo Bonello located very near to our hotel. Bonello occupies the top of a hill and possesses a wonderful 360 degree view. The owner, Luca Savelli, and his family run the B and B and do all the home-cooking for their guests. Luca is a very kind and generous host and served us a terrific meal accompanied with his father-in-law’s homemade wine. (Homemade wine in the Val d’Orcia is like the really good wine we must buy here in the States). We started with toasted bruschetta covered in chopped fresh tomatoes and local olive oil before moving into the homemade tagliatelle with asparagus and mushrooms. Out of this world! The second course featured big platters of roasted Tuscan duck with fennel and a fresh salad from the garden. After that, we finished with a parfait cake. You can tell when a dinner crowd is happy—the noise level and laughter tell the whole story. Very satisfied and probably a little tipsy, they climbed into our vans for the short ride back to the hotel.
Tuesday in the Poppies
Thumbnail sketches help immensely with this. I encourage students to sketch three different designs. I prefer a large view, a close-up and a medium distance arrangement quickly sketched in a dark pencil or a marker. Or perhaps a square and a rectangle and a vertical thumbnail of the same scene will make it clear which will work best. It is so important to work these things out in the sketchbook before committing to watercolor paper. The other big benefit is that drawing educates the eye. It puts the important details and shapes in our memory and helps us to work faster.
A Storied Hill Town
Montepulciano is one of the most well-known wine centers in Italy and the world. The local wine—Vino Nobile di Montepulciano—is justifiably famous for its wonderful flavor and ability to improve with age. I’ve never tested the age of this wine. I find it delicious right out of the winery or served to the table. The town is located high up on a hill to the east of Pienza a short distance from the Roman spa town of Chianciano Terme, and is surrounded by vineyards and olive groves.
The road which leads up to this walled town is very steep and switches back and forth several times to gain the summit. The first time I tried to visit years ago, the clutch in the rental car was so weak that it started smoking - making it impossible to get up there! On this visit, we parked just below the old city gate because the streets are narrow and parking in the village is restricted to residents. Some of the turns up there are more than ninety degrees, making driving a real test of nerve and ability. I would never attempt to drive a nine passenger van up into the old town. Ever. Many of the locals drive little three-wheeled Ape vehicles to get around up there. We call them Cushmans.
The gardens served as the template for the look which is so charming and familiar to us today. Tall cypresses and umbrella pines now line the switchback roads. Green fields of grains, vegetables and grasses are all around, interspersed with groves of olive trees. Deciduous trees line the stream beds and old gullies which give shelter to the wild boar common in the area and on the menu everywhere. The Origos succeeded in transforming the Val d'Orcia back to a thriving agricultural area and now, tourism resource. In so doing, they improved the lives of everyone around. La Foce is still owned by the Origo family. They maintain the gardens and villa to a high level and have renovated several of the original farmhouses as rentals. One can take a tour of the gardens on certain days, by appointment—well worth it.
To get to La Foce from Montepulciano, we took a shortcut on a gravel road which brought us near to our destination, the Dopolavoro, or “after work” building. It was originally constructed by the Origos to feed the farm laborers who did not live on one of the many farmsteads. Today the Dopolavoro is a bright and airy world-class restaurant serving some of the best food we have ever put in our mouths. More about that later.
As we descended the gravel road toward La Foce, we came to a narrow pull-out spot next to a field that was directly behind the Dopolavoro. We parked and walked down into the farm fields to take photos of the wonderful views of Monte Amiata in the distance and the olive grove behind the Dopolavoro. We decided that if we could manage it, we would like to return to paint in these fields another day.
For now, our mission was to park in the lot across from the Dopolavoro restaurant to paint the view from there. The evening light, the air temperature, the view, everything was as perfect as one could want. The time flew by as the sun slowly lowered toward the tops of the hills and the light gradually took on a golden glow. By 7:30, the light was perfect, but it was also time for our dinner reservations across the street—and what a treat this was going to be. We knew when we arranged for the dinner that the chef, Asia, had a very good reputation for fresh delicious food. As we got to know Asia better, we were surprised to discover that she also spends part of each year in San Francisco, cooking with the top chefs and learning about the latest trends in food.
We were seated outside at a long table under an elegant metal arbor which had fragrant blooming Stephanotis climbing up each post, so the air was perfumed with jasmine. As the lowering sun streamed in across the distant umbrella pines and over the white roses edging the patio, we were served a fresh salad which must have been picked out of the garden the hour before, mixed with tuna, olives and tomatoes. The second course was a mixed grill of chicken, sausage, sliced Chianina steak, pork ribs and pork skewers, with a side dish of fresh spinach cooked in garlic and butter. The pork is from a special, nearly extinct domesticated Tuscan pig, called a "Cinta Senese", which has a very high fat content in the meat. Asia told us that she sourced everything, except the tuna, fresh from the farms nearby. The mixed grill just kept coming and coming until we could not eat anymore. At least, not until the tiramisu showed up.
By the end of the evening, everyone was in high spirits from the wonderful food, atmosphere and the excellent wine we were served. I carefully drove a raucous van full of happy students down the long switch back road toward our hotel across the valley, satisfied that we had really exceeded our expectations of what should define the best of a Tuscany experience. How could we possibly top this?
Coming up next month: It Just Gets Better and Better - Part 2 of our Watercolor Painting Holiday in Tuscany. Stay tuned!
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