A very quick visit to Florence is my first trip abroad for the year. Once travel was deducted then we only had 3 days, not long for one of the world’s most famous and beautiful cities. I had been anticipating the paintings I would do, the piazzas, the magnificent buildings and the iconic views of the Arno. I knew in my heart of hearts of course that 3 days was not long enough for very much to get done.
The first thing that occurs is that the reality entirely overwhelms the previous imagination. I had been to Florence before but only for a day. You soon realise that to pick a picture out from this wealth of material is not as easy as it should be. There is also the problem that once you have spotted a likely subject then being able to position yourself so as to be able to paint it is nigh on impossible. In Florence with its narrow streets and thronging tourists all the more so.
So eventually the paints hardly came out at all. Fortunately my current love affair with pen drawing came to my rescue. With the necessities so simple and portable the medium was ideal for snatching a few glimpses of what surrounded me. With the sort of architecture on display in Florence almost nothing is simple though. Classical buildings of whatever sort need careful drawing. If you get those proportions wrong then it will always look terrible.
Also a large amount of time is needed for just wandering and looking. How artists managed before photography is a wonder… or you think it is until you look at the paintings done before. Turner’s “on site” sketches are are a marvel of brevity. He does not even attempt to do a finished work. He just notes the basics and then essentially makes it up when he gets home. Rembrandt does quick calligraphic drawings in reed pen and ink, he does no complete rendering. Even Sargent surely the master of topographical sketching keeps his work simple and fluid. Sargent mind you was well within the age of photography and his painting of Paul Helleu and the existing photo of the scene make it likely he used the medium as reference more than we might think. For an artist not to be interested and influenced by the photographic image was already unlikely.
I have a rapidly approaching visit to France so I need to establish my strategy. Last year I spent a fair amount of time painting oils, none of which I liked, so this time I wonder whether to take oils at all. The risk is they are more of a distraction than a help. I certainly did not miss them on this trip, though I do hope to get a few oil studies done from the many photos I took.
There is another strangeness that life presents one with. I took 482 photographs on the visit, assuming a 10hr rubbernecking regime that is about 16 an hour or about 1 every 4 min. Yet after going through them my “possible” paintings folder contains 9 images. So if the past is anything to go by this will translate into 3 or so pictures, which means a rate of well over a hundred snaps per final painting..!
First day and we were on the impressive Piazza San Croce. Avoiding the main view of the church I sat in the main doorway and sketched the view to the right. The lions are guarding an immense statue of Dante. I liked the figures passing to and fro. Every now and again a scrum of people queueing would completely block my view and I would have to work on the few bits I could see!
San Croce again, I must have been mad to take on this at 5in by 7in… I was forced to use gouache to sort out the facade. Once again my view was very restricted with tour guides mustering their troops just in front of us. They could plainly see we were painting the church but stood directly before us blocking the view anyhow.
In the evening I walked out of the tourist zone and found the Piazza Santo Spirito. I would have liked to return to paint but time didn’t allow.
The next day we escaped the city and went up to San Miniato al Monte which stands high above the city. Nearby is the Piazza del Michelangelo where all the tourists go. Only 300 mtrs away but very few of the tourists could be arsed to walk to the Abbey and preferred to stay in the Piazza which is essentially a coach park with gazillions of huxters. Nice for us, but makes you sad for mankind. The abbey had graves either side of the steep steps leading up and I thought they made an interesting lead in to what is an iconic view.
Ok so I couldn’t resist the view. It came out fairly well at the second attempt. The first time around I got the trees too dark so had to abandon it. 8in by 10in watercolour.
Back to my trusty pens in the evening! This is Piazza di Santa Trinita. There is a large column with the figure of Lady Justice atop it. I liked the changing perspectives of the triangular piazza and the people congregating at the column’s base.
On the final day I went walkabout to see as much of the city as I could. I only paused for a couple of times to sketch details. This is the head of a bronze saint on the Tabernacle of Santa Maria di Tromba. I did the wash first and the pen later, I needed a few touches of white to sort out that beard!
Later this took my eye, there were many grand lion headed knockers, but this one was especially silly. Pen and wash.
From my seat in a restaurant I sketched other diners and passers by.
Last morning and we sallied forth just after dawn to draw the famous Ponte Vecchio. Florence is a mad rush of delivery vans preparing for the next deluge of visitors first thing. You take your life in your hands if you try to cross any piazza as lorries drive at top speed from all directions.