Once again I joined artist and Master Tim Clark for a watercolor workshop that began on the island of San Clemente near Venice and for the following eleven days traveled through Venice over the Italian Alps and into Austria ending up in Vienna. Tim and Marriott have a great talent for creating adventure, including new experiences and events, some funny, some frustrating, and some insightful. This account covers the highs and lows, starting in the small English town of Flitwick, where Pauline dropped me at the local station at 4:15 AM on a Monday morning after a few hours sleep. In this stage of travel I always ask myself “Why in the hell am I doing this, when it would have been so much easier to just stay in bed?” I have learned to accept that a day or two will change my mind and find me happy that I made this choice. That usually gets me past the first day.
Two hours later at Gatwick Airport I checked in on Easy Jet Airlines, the airlines which more appropriately should be called “difficult jet airlines”. This morning was, in fact, not so difficult since I had checked in on line. Especially with Easy Jet, on-line check in makes the difference between agony and ecstasy. I weighed in at .5 kilograms over the 20 kilogram limit. The clerk smiled and said “We don’t start charging for excess weight until 20.9 kg”, a useful bit of knowledge for my next trip with Easy Jet. My investment in the new light weight luggage had paid off again. I even scored a seat in the exit row so at least I could straighten out my legs. All in all it was great flight, and the plane set down in Venice on schedule.
Nothing beats being greeted by a familiar face in a foreign airport, and Tim’s wife and trip coordinator, Marriott, provided such a smile at the gate. Tim had already left with a group who had arrived earlier. A few more artists were arriving shortly, and we ordered a cappuccino while we waited.
Within a few minutes 9 more artists, with whom I had painted before, arrived from points around the world, and we headed for the water taxi, a nice reminder that everything in Venice moves on water, including taxis, buses, ambulances, delivery boats, cranes, and even hearses. We were on our way to San Clemente Island where we would stay for the next three days.
The trip from the airport to Venice takes about 15 minutes, scooting along the water “highway” marked with posts and speed limit signs. Boats zoom by to our left in the other direction, causing us to bounce over the waves. Passing a few islands along the way, one of which is the cemetery, reminded me of having seen a water hearse followed by a funeral procession, on its way to a burial. Our driver headed straight into the canals of Venice giving us our first close up look at central Venice before emerging into the Grand Canal near St. Mark’s Square. From there we headed for San Clemente Island, a few miles south of Venice.
After deboarding at the San Clemente Palace dock we walked along a flower lined path leading to the palace, I could see other artists, scattered about the lawn, some familiar some not. Tim introduced me to Mike, my room mate, who was already busy sketching the local scenery. After a quick trip to my room, we devoured a delicious lunch served in the garden; I was ready for it, having missed breakfast this morning.
After lunch we met in the old church and sketched some of the sculpture inside. It was a good thing that we did this first since a bit of unexpected nuisance about to take place in the palace would render most of this inaccessible. The entire hotel had been rented as the wedding venue for the daughter of one of UK’s wealthiest businessmen. Ultimately the cost of this wedding was placed at $300 million. They would rebuild the entire island and palace for the event, taking away much of the quiet mystique and covering up the very things we had come to paint, attempting to hide all signs of Christianity, since it was a Hindu wedding. While watching such a spectacle in progress was both impressive and amusing, the nuisance had removed much of the advantage of being located on San Clemente Island. This was the first of several of the plein air painter perils we would encounter in the next few days.
Later in the afternoon we embarked on the shuttle boat for Venice and took a short walk around St. Mark’s Square before heading for dinner. I have never had a bad meal in Venice and tonight was no exception. People who recommend a particular “great” restaurant in Venice probably only ate in one restaurant and don’t realize that almost all of them are good. By the time I had eaten some great seafood and downed a few glasses of wine, I had forgotten how much better off I would be back home in bed, and a few of us walked around the island before heading back to San Clemente. Even though I had the advantage of not having jet lag like the others, my few hours of sleep the previous night began to show, and I was fading fast. Mike and I had already discussed the potential snoring hazard that each of us faced. It didn’t take long for me to discover that I would be donning ear plugs before the night was over. Mike didn’t snore as loud as my former roommate, Zeke, but he was a lot more persistent.
Tim had announced that he would be painting the Venice skyline at sunrise if anyone wanted to join. A lot of hands, including mine went up, even though I knew I would be kicking myself in the morning for committing. Mike set his alarm for 5:30. I awoke before hearing any alarm and noticed sunlight through a crack in the drapes. A look at my watch told me that something had gone amiss; it was six AM. I rose and began to get dressed when Mike woke and realized that he had forgotten to change the time on his clock to Venice time. His alarm would go off in another nine hours.
I joined Tim at 6:30. Most of the previous night’s enthusiasm had yielded to jet lag, and only one other artist, Sharon, had just arrived. Even though I had missed the sunrise, the sky and the early morning Venice skyline were beautiful, and I produced my first painting of the day, possibly my favorite for the entire trip. We broke at 8:30 and joined the others for breakfast, a luscious buffet of cheeses, breads, Jams, meats, and fruits.
Our second painting session of the day would begin at 10 AM in the same location. Tim began a demonstration illustrating the process of including a foreground, middle ground, and back ground in a painting. (After his demonstration, I went back and added the foreground posts into my early morning painting. I had to agree, it added something to the painting.) By the time he had drawn the scene and started painting, the plein air painters worst nightmare began to unfold. A huge crane barge pulled up to the dock totally blocking the view of the Venice skyline. We got our first taste of the “nuisance” of the wedding preparation to come during the next few days. A 20 man work crew filled the terrace. The foremen approached Tim and asked him if he spoke Italian. When Tim answered positively and the man explained what was about to happen, Tim, thinking he must have misunderstood what he said, ask him if he could explain it in English. The man speaking in broken English said that all artists would have to leave the area because he may drop huge stone sculptures on their heads. They were going to rebuild the entire courtyard. Tim had heard him correctly the first time.
At that point Tim objected, and the hotel manager arrived on the scene. The foreman told the manager that the Indian family was paying a lot for this crane, and we needed to move. The manager replied that the artists had paid a lot to fly here to paint and they would not move. Eventually a deal was cut to delay the crane operation until noon. That gave us another hour with a clear view of Venice. The situation was not one of the best for painting, and consequently, my second painting wound up in the trash. We were just beginning to experience the perils of plein air painting that I have described many times before. At least no one had a seagull shit on his painting, like happened to fellow artist, Zeke, in Italy the last time we came to Italy, at least not yet. The afternoon painting session was moved to the side garden.
That evening, after another seafood dinner in Venice, five of our group walked to the Rialto Bridge, a spectacular 400 year old bridge and the subject of one of John Singer Sargent’s most famous paintings. We hoped to sit where Sargent sat at least long enough to do a sketch. The sidewalk café at the very spot was not busy and the waiter was accommodating, allowing us to split a bottle of wine and sketch in our books. I could almost feel the spirit of Sargent at the table with us. It was not until a few days later did I discover by accident where Sargent really sat for that painting.
Tim shifted most of our work to Venice, since it was but a short boat trip away with limitless painting scenes without cranes and workmen blocking the view. Of course, there are still seagulls and other hazards in Venice, but at least tourists just gawk and keep moving on. Some of the distractions are almost as fun as painting. We set up easels along the Grand Canal near St. Marks Square, and I began my usual struggle to choose between all the possibilities. Like eating at the buffet, my mistake as a plein air painter is choosing too much to paint and too large a field of view. Realizing it would take me the rest of the day to paint what I had just put into my first drawing and with some advice from Tim I turned the paper over and narrowed the view to a more manageable part of the scene, which, in fact, was the part that had originally caught my eye.
Painting the windows turned out to be a good choice for several reasons. First, of all, the crowds had the lower view blocked most of the time. Then just as I was getting into the zone, a huge ruckus broke out around me. The waterfront, which had been lined with the African guys selling the fake Gucci bags, turned into a chase scene, a cop having shown to confiscate the illegal bags of anyone he could catch. One of the guys, who was running with his arms full of Gucci’s, was looking back and missed running over me by inches.
Tim had negotiated a deal with one of the sidewalk cafes to allow painters to sit in the cafe if they would all order lunch. I got in the zone, forgot about time, painted beyond the deadline, and just made it in time for a glass of beer and a slice of pizza.
After lunch our group split up with some visiting St. Mark’s Cathedral, and others who continued to paint. I felt this urging need to return to Rialto Bridge to see if I could find a good painting spot in the middle of a hundred thousand tourists. It wasn’t easy. The restaurant where we had sketched was not an option. Everywhere I could find was stuffed with tourists. Then, after crossing over the bridge, I discovered the perfect place, a small alley way that led to a WC (toilet) arranged just perfectly to set up an easel out of the main traffic, and get a straight shot of the bridge, obstructed only by a few posts in the water. In addition to providing a nice view of the bridge, having a WC nearby was icing on the cake. Within minutes I was working away and found myself in the zone, where time does not exist. Something was extra special about that spot, and I wondered how many other artists had discovered it.
After doing a sketch and the better part of a painting, it was getting late and suddenly I realized that the WC was more urgent than finishing the painting. But that was okay since the WC was right behind me, right? Wrong. The WC, being a public pay toilet, had closed at 6 PM, and it was half past seven.
The solution to the problem was to solve a second problem. The slice of pizza that comprised my lunch had run out, and I was starving, so I hustled into a self serve café, selected a huge slab of lasagna and hit the head, i.e. the WC. That lasagna, when combined with the WC, was about the best and lowest priced deal I found in Venice. If you ever are in Venice, let me tell you about the best place to get lasagna. J
Now for the mystical part of the story. After I arrived home and began writing up the trip experience, I relooked at my photos of the bridge and began comparing them with Sargent’s paintings. I was stunned at what I discovered. It appears that Sargent was sitting at least close if not in that exact spot in the alley where I had sat. For the first time I realized that I had serendipitously discovered and used Sargent’s magic spot.
Photo taken from my magical painting spot in the alleyway compared to Sargent’s watercolor, which fortuitously was made from the same location. It was Three months later when reviewing my photographs that I discovered that this was where Sargent had set up his easel.
As already planned, we moved into Venice the next day into the former home of the famous renaissance painter, Leonardo Lotto, the Fenice hotel, located immediately behind the opera house smack dab in the middle of Venice. Leonardo Lotto would have been a lot more famous except for one reason. He happened to be unlucky enough to be painting at the same time and place as one of the greatest painters of all time, Titian. While Lotto was reasonably successful, there was only room for one Titian in the history books.
For the next three days we painted in various venues attempting to avoid the huge swarms of tourists as much as possible, but the most exciting of all took place on Saturday morning. Rising at 5:30 AM we made our way to the Accadamia Bridge overlooking one of the most famous scenes in Venice, including the Santa Maria Della Saluta Church. Normally, painting on the bridge would not be practical or even allowed because of the huge swarms of tourists, but at this time of day most of Venice is still sleeping. To spice up the luxury of this painting experience even more, Tim arranged for cappuccino to be served on the bridge from one of the shops next to the bridge. It was the best cup of cappuccino I have ever tasted. And if you are ever in Venice, let me tell you where to go for cappuccinoJ. This could be the most memorable painting experience in the entire trip.
Being in a place like Venice separates artists from tourists. The artist sits in one spot and paints, while the tourist spends the entire day running from one tourist attraction to the other. Nevertheless, there are times when the light is not quite workable, and those are times when you can’t resist ducking into one of the hundreds of churches and gawking at a Titian, Canaletto, Tintoretto, or Da Vinci. I, personally, love walking around late at night in Venice when most of the tourists are back in the hotels watching TV. The real hard nosed painters even painted at night, when the reflections are even more amazing.
On the way back to the hotel after such an evening, I felt my usual craving for gelato coming on, and paused at a gelato stand, when I listened to the kind of advice I know is nonsense. Two of the group assured me that the best gelato in Venice was in a specific shop near the hotel, and I should hold out for that place. “Yeah, right,” I remarked. “I bet all the gelato comes from the same factory, maybe one located in Hong Kong.” Nevertheless, I gave in and waited. When we arrived at the hotel, being almost midnight, that store was closed, and I was the only one in the group having a severe gelato attack. Still determined, I wandered around, alone, for another half hour looking for a gelato store before being the last customer at a shop near the Accadamia Bridge. I walked out on the deserted bridge and stood looking up the Grand Canal. A lone guitarist sat on the bridge playing his music. If you ever go to Venice, let me tell you where to get the best gelato. J Never let anyone tell you where to get the best gelato. All gelato in Venice is the best.
On one of our painting sessions we took a traghetto across the Grand Canal to get to the Friary Church. This is one of the best bargains in Venice at a one Euro price tag. Real Venetians stand up in the gondola.
Many of the churches don’t allow photography; they had much rather you buy their postcards in the gift shop, but with today’s digital camera, it is easy to walk out with a few good images. Before beginning the day’s painting some of us went into the Friary church, where Titian is buried. The church is well known as owner of one of Titian’s great masterpieces, commissioned for the altar. Apparently, they gave him a venue for being buried in exchange for the painting.
After a quick look and a few surreptitious photographs, I broke from the group and headed off to experiment with colors. Before I was finished I wound up getting caught right in the middle of a wedding.
On our last evening a few of us wandered back into St. Mark’s square to do some night drawing. The bands in the square compete for customers late in the night, and that with the rest of the ambiance provides about the best painting venue in the world. To add to the experience that evening was one of the high tide events with water rising over the canal banks and flooding the square providing reflccting pools in the square itself. Venice is, indeed, sinking. Occasionally, the water rises so much that wooden bridges have to be moved into the square.
The next day comprised mostly driving to Igls, Austria with a stop in Balzano, Italy. After driving for four hours most of the artists had one thing on their minds, food. I was still in the mood to paint so I split, equipped with a Danish and a thermos of coffee I had stolen from the breakfast buffet, and found a good painting spot. Tim had told us earlier to stop worrying about sleep. “You will get enough sleep when you are dead.” Having skipped lunch, I told him I figured that I would get enough to eat when I was dead.
We arrived in Igls on Monday afternoon, and to our pleasant surprise, had rooms with balconies overlooking the Austrian Alps. The snow capped mountains, were draped in clouds at first, but during the next few days, the view seemed to get more and more beautiful. We were watching spring happen. I produced several paintings sitting on the balcony including one of my favorites of the trip. This is the Tyrol region, the region from which my ancestors came and the origin of my name. When my ancestors arrived in Germany, they were called the Tyrol linge, or Tyrol people, which over the years evolved in to Trolinger.
We had a evening meal in a local Gasthaus during which I selected a regional plate with a variety of meats and saurkraut, one of the best meals of the entire trip.
Igls is a small town with one church, a few Gasthauses and hotels, a grocery store, and a train station, with trains departing for Innsbruck every hour. It’s a painters haven with great views in every direction, other villages within walking distance, snow capped mountains, and colorful meadows. The train trip to Innsbruck gave us even more wondrous scenery, including the Castle Hansa, gardens, and mountain ranges everywhere.
On the second day we took the train to Innsbruck and a taxi to the town of Hall, pronounced “Hell”. Artists scattered throughout the town to look for the perfect painting spot. I found a nice view beside the main church with a shady spot and a place to sit away from tourists. This looked like a simple enough composition that I could do in the two hours we had left before meeting the taxi to take us back to the last train. After an hour’s work a local resident discovered that there was just enough room in the spot in front of me to squeeze in another car, so there went my view. Not to be beat, I added the car into the composition.
The next day, Thursday, we headed for Vienna with a stop in Salzburg. Stops were not long enough to paint, but did give time for the dedicated artists to draw some of the scenery. In accordance with Tim’s advice, I am always on the lookout for interesting people, especially ones that have an interesting or energetic stance, so reference photography is part of my goal in such places. I don’t enjoy painting from photographs, but they are extremely useful for reference items to put in paintings, i.e. people, who don’t stand still long enough to paint.
After arriving in Vienna, artists became tourists for the most part. We visited museums, galleries, churches, marketplaces, the tour bus, and we ate the great pastries of Vienna.
One of the best surprises in Vienna was the National Gallery of Art History. I had not expected such a beautiful building and such an amazing collection. Tim had enough experience to understand the value of being ready the minute doors open in the morning. We were the first in the gallery, and for a few magical minutes we virtually had the entire gallery to ourselves. We found rooms full of Titians, Reni, Rembrandt, Rubins, Valasquez, Goya, Bosch, etc, and to add to the enjoyment they allow photography.
Before leaving the gallery Pauline and I recovered in the café with tea and pastry before walking for hours with every step providing new and magnificent scenery. Vienna also has a great tram system also that makes it very easy to return to places for a second look. With such a short time, we selected one of the open top tour buses and rode over the entire city to make sure we at least passed by the places tourists are supposed to see. Even so, one of the most enjoyable places was the Nacht Market, a kind of flea market with also a lot of food stands.
On our last evening, our hotel became a staging point for a gay celebration that had brought thousands of gays into the city to celebrate. They filled the streets in drag outfits and other bizarre forms of dress.
We had missed one well known architectural marvel, Hundertwasser. Realizing that it was located near the route back to the airport, so we left for the airport early and persuaded our taxi driver to make a diversion for a brief visit. He seemed delighted to add to our visit and help us wring out the last bit of pleasure from Vienna.