Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Around Europe with a Sketchbook, Summer 2019


The trip to Europe this summer started with visiting my 90 year old grandmother in Tallinn. Good to be back here. Jet lag and rain has kept us indoors for a while, but a quick trip to the old town quickly yielded some results.

Finally the weather and the head cleared enough for some pleasant drawing conditions. 14th century Hellemann tower in the background and the old city wall to the right.

Darn it! Things don’t always go as planned. Getting sick while traveling is frustrating when you want to see, draw, and visit with friends and family. This sketch also didn’t go as planned. I wanted to capture Tallinn’s layers of history in its distinct architectural choices of pre-soviet, soviet and post-soviet housing projects. Things got too busy and overdone, even though my intention was to keep color choices limited.


Back in beautiful Heidelberg for a few days visiting my childhood friend and his family. This town is truly magical and I will never have enough time to draw here.


As I draw the small town of Anghiari from the overlook in the park a large group of Italian school kids are swarming all around me checking on the progress, making comments and complimenting me on the drawing. The teacher keeps reprimanding them: “Don’t distract the artist because...because she needs to concentrate.” I love having their sweet attention and company.

Filming with one hand while drawing with the other is not one of my talents, but until I get a film crew to travel with me you have to settle for a shaky time lapse. Anghiari and the surrounding valley in 1 hour and 35 minutes with the church bells marking the passage of time.

And here is the finished sketch!

Arrivederci Anghiari! During the quick sunset drawing of this enchanting town I run out of water in my brush. As the only water I have with me is sparkling I decide to give it a try. It works but comes out with lots of force and too much volume. I call this’s sketch Anghiari Frizzante (sparkling)!


Finally in Amsterdam–the main reason behind this trip. Beyond excited to teach three days of workshops at the USK symposium in Amsterdam alongside the star lineup of the world’s Sketchers. This morning getting the first feel for the city and the Waterlooplein Flea market where I will be teaching “Unfolding Stories: Recipes and Ingredients for Visual Storytelling”. Only after three days of workshops at this market did I finally realize that the guys who I picked to be the heroes of my story and demo for my students are selling stolen bikes. Need to follow my own advice and talk to my subjects early and often.

I didn't do a ton of sketches in Amsterdam. I figured over a 1000 sketchers who were there in July will get the job done. I was extremely proud of my students work though who managed to produce amazing unfolding stories in the record setting heat of over 100 degrees.

Santorini, Naxos

Still so much left to tell and post about Amsterdam but this morning a cup of strong Greek coffee and a killer view.

The island is a total eye candy but completely suffocated by tourism. Cruise ship day tourism presents a particular challenge for the island’s infrastructure not designed to handle tens of thousands of visitors a day. While other islands could use the cash but perhaps are less of interest to Instagram tourists. Have mixed feelings about traveling and posting about this place as I realize I am contributing to the problem.

I decide on sketching a long panoramic drawing showing the caldera, the villages, the cliffs, the tourists, and the cruise ships–all of it. It takes a while, mostly because the lighting is not cooperating and the sun is relentless.

Part of the first of four panels of a large panorama of the Santorini’s caldera.

Third panel

Last panel

My little working spot. Grew attached to it at the end.

Now we are on another island called Naxos. It is less touristy, especially some parts of it. This is Kastraki beach at sunset. Away from the glamour of Santorini a more humble island of Naxos with Greek families and a few foreigners enjoying the last rays of the merciless Greek sun.

The sketch of the port of Naxos is appropriately as chaotic as the place itself. Ferries, boats, motorbikes, restaurants, octopus tentacles dangling of displays, tourists dragging their suitcases, elderly Greeks watching the world go by from their balconies. All of this is set in even more fierce motion by the gusts of wind that carry whiffs of souvlaki and sea.

Quick panorama from the lovely rooftop terrace cafe in the town of Naxos. Cooling down with Espresso fredo and meditating on the rooftops below me with a pen.

Quick sketch of the monastery that appears to be clinging to the rock on the gorgeous island of Amorgos. Gusts of wind come and threaten to rip the sketchbook out of my hands. I start to cling to rocks as well.

Sketching this giant beach while my friend is diving nearby I get fascinated by a character who persistently and energetically throws his pink net into the shallow water, even though it comes empty each time. Strong gusts of wind keep ripping my umbrella out of the soft sand and blowing it on top of an older Greek woman smoking and baking in the sun next to me. After it happens for the third time in a row she gestures me to try to dig it in deeper. I decide to fold it instead, reluctant to test her patience any further. The sun is relentless and with no trees to provide shade and refuge the only escape is the cool blue water.

A few more vignettes from a trip to Naxos and Amorgos. From top left: Only the door remains from the ancient temple to Apollo. The rest of the temple was stripped for marble but the door was too heavy to steal. Bottom left: A typical ferry boat always running a bit behind. It arrives with delay, the engines still churning the water underneath, opens up its giant mouth, swallows a crowd of people, suitcases and cars. Before they even stow their luggage, the ferry is already full steam towards another island. The whole process is very hilarious and chaotic. Then a castle with white crosses painted right on the cliff and a typical Greek mill.

Little Greek Orthodox churches pop up in Santorini’s landscape like magic mushrooms. Spotted these blue domes from the sea. To my surprise it was open. I hesitated about coming in—entering a church always feels sacrilegious to me as a nonbeliever. Then I remembered I was baptized as an Orthodox Christian, so I guess I have some sort of a license to come in.

Oía’s sunset is so famous or so over promoted by tour guides that enjoying the daily celestial event becomes an existential struggle not to have your eye poked out by a selfie stick. I am plenty entertained by watching people watch the sunset and sketching the gypsy with his accordion entertaining tourists and taking photos with the ladies.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Charming and Cozy Heidelberg

The view of Heidelberg from our friends’ balcony. Started this sketch on the first day and kept adding little sections every day in between cooking, laughing, eating, and spending the best moments together with these fantastic people. Finally it was time to run and catch the train, so ended up finishing it on the airplane to Estonia.  

Thousands of people and one giant unicorn enjoying the Waidsee lake near Weinheim. 

 Seems like we are the only people in this bar facing away from TV screens. Everyone else is watching the Wold Cup match Russia against Spain. Town of Weinheim is yet another ridiculously charming German town with at least four castles and impossibly romantic hills and river valleys.

Old houses of Heidelberg lining the shores of the mighty Neckar river  

Juicy characters distract me from the beautiful scenery aboard a river boat on the majestic Neckar river valley dotted with medieval castles and small towns. The recorded tour guide voice informs us that Mark Twain travel down this river in a raft and that the trip broke his writer's block allowing him to finish Huckleberry Finn.

The four castles of Neckarsteinach. All built between 1170 and 1260. My favorite one is called Swallow’s Nest (top right) 

The fantastic Heidelberg castle. 30 minute sketch from the Philosopher’s Walk. 
Hotel zum Ritter St. Georg in Heidelburg. Spent a couple of hours sketching and spilling wine on the elaborate facade of the Ritter hotel on the main square in Heidelberg. The sketch even survived a minor thunder storm.

The view of the historic center of Heidelberg and castle from the North side of the Old Bridge. 

Café Schafheutle, Heidelberg. On the terrace of the Schafheutle cafe proper ladies are having tea with fancy deserts. Just as we sit down a big thunder storm opens up the skies making the colors and the smells even more intense. I love watching and sketching the ladies as the combination of chocolate and good gossip never fails to please. I discovered this place thanks to the wife of my childhood friend who also turned out to be an urban sketcher.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Tallinn, Estonia

One of the best ways to spend a day in Tallinn is to walk the cobble stone streets without purpose or destination. I counted at least five medieval torture museums or is it always the same one?

My grandmother and my aunt drinking coffee and bickering. My grandmother likes to play with the big stuffed dog while she half-naps in the big leather chair

Tallinn’s pre- and post-soviet architecture in one frame. Sketched this out of the window of our place around midnight early July when twilight lingers until early morning.

Fell in love with this neighborhood in Tallinn because you can get a cross-section of all of the layers in its history in one frame. Modest pre-soviet wooden houses, Soviet style apartment boxes on the left and glassy modern post-soviet period towers in the background.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Freight Train Engineer For The Union Pacific Railroad

My short visual reportage about Mark V–single dad by day, freight train operator by night, and tuba player everywhere in between won the second prize in the Sketching Work Design Project put together by the University of Western Australia. I am very honored to be selected, especially after reviewing the exceptional caliber of other entries. 

Check out the online exhibition here.  

Mark's Story 

Mark has worked as a train operator for the last 39 years. He is planning to retire in the next 18 months. He loves railroads and feels like he is a twelve year old boy going on 65 when he climbs into a locomotive. He says that running trains in the Pacific Northwest allows him to enjoy some of the most breath-taking scenery. He even derives simple pleasure from warming his breakfast sandwich on a little metal space heater by his feet, worn and gritty from years of usage.

In order to become a train engineer one has to go through 6 months of intense training, plus some long hours in a simulator. Train operators need to be in tune with multiple forces of physics when they run a giant freight train pulling or pushing multiple cars. A lot of times these trains deliver some of the most poisonous materials known to human kind, and an accident could lead to an ecological destruction and loss of life on a catastrophic scale.

Another aspect of this job that comes up in training is the tragic fact that people use freight trains as tools of suicide without thinking about the consequences for the operator. “In training they tell us that on average you could expect to have up to seven incidents involving suicides or death in the course of your railroad career” says Mark with a heavy sigh. “You have no steering, and the train like this is impossible to stop in time, so you just close your eyes and wait for a thump”

An accident involving a drunk man climbing over the train that Mark operated in July of 2003 lead to Mark’s long struggle with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). The man accidentally fell under the train when it started moving and lost his leg. Fortunately, Mark noticed it and was able to save the man’s life.

Otherwise, Mark loves all aspects of his job, including crazy night shifts. He said that working nights allowed him to spend more time with his daughter when she was little. Mark’s wife died when their daughter was only 3 years old. Mark would play tuba gigs in the evenings, take three hour naps before reporting for his night shift at midnight. He would sleep another three and a half hours in the morning after finishing his shift and would help out in his daughter’s school and spend afternoons with her. He says that none of the stay-at-home moms would believe that he was a single dad working two jobs.

Mark is also a full time tuba player, playing with over 20 different orchestras and ensembles around Portland area. He has such a unique combination of occupations that following him around is an adventure in itself. I made a separate concertina about his tuba playing life.

He feels that being a tuba player and a train engineer are semantically connected by a button on his locomotive that sounds the horn alerting people of an approaching train. Tubas are sometimes also called horns and, similar to freight trains, are capable of making low loud sounds.

Mark feels that both of his occupations are perfect for his intensely romantic nature, and he considers himself very lucky to be paid for doing something he would love to do as a hobby.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Short Rendez-vous with the Red Cliffs of Arizona

By the time the month of March rolls into the Pacific Northwest we all feel rusty from the endless rain and moisture in the air, deficient in vitamin D, and depressed from the constant gloom and grey. That's why a trip to a sunny place like Arizona could serve as a much needed psychological bandaid to recover some sanity. 

As we arrive to Sedona and first spot the majestic red cliffs we are greeted by a strong spring storm that is immediately followed by an intense double rainbow. 

15 minute sketch as the rain is starting to fall over the spectacular red rocks. The light is changing minute by minute and rainbows are starting to form

The sweet Polish woman who is hosting us at her Bed and Breakfast outside of Sedona recommends that we go see the sunset from the hill behind the airport. The view doesn't disappoint.

Next day we are off early to accomplish a lot of hiking and sketching. Hike # 1 is an easy mostly flat walk along the Fay's Creek Canyon. There is an option to climb the smooth warm rocks at the end of the walk for an incredible view of the canyon, the valley and the mountains in the distance. 

Fay's Creek Canyon
The second hike for the day turned out to be a lot more serious, nevertheless rewarding us with some amazing views on both sides of the ridge. 

Sitting on a little shelf, smelling Jeffrey pines around us. Unfortunately, the view directly opposite of me is backlit to fully capture all of the details 

Next morning we are up at 3:30am to experience the highlight of the whole trip and something that I have been meaning to do for a while now–sketch from a Hot Air Balloon. I watch and quickly sketch the preparations. Our captain says once you see the flames shoot up in the air–it is your boarding call. We need to quickly climb into the basket and take off. 

The first few seconds of being air born were especially magical as the precise manipulation of laws of physics allowed us to rise up with ease of a feather picked up by a gentle puff of wind.

The fun challenge about sketching from a hot air balloon is the constant rotation, so the drawing ends up being a synthesis of a 360 degree view.

The town of Jerome–Arizona's classic Ghost Town

Jerome became a ghost town after the massive copper mine located here closed in 1950s leaving behind piles of tailings and partially collapsed houses. Fortunately, this town enjoyed some rebirth after a community of artists and hippies moved in attracted by the scenic views of the Verde Valley from the 5000 feet elevation of the town clinging on to one side of the Cleopatra hill. Now the Wild West aesthetic of the town with its former brothels, haunted hospital turned Grand Hotel, and steep winding streets attracts a lot of visitors attention. 

View of Jerome, Arizona from the bottom of the hill

Closeup of the panorama above

Historic photo of Jerome from its copper mining boom days
We climb all the way to the top of the hill to take in the view and enjoy a cup of coffee followed by a glass of wine on the terrace of Wes Andersonesque Grand Hotel. It is sitting like a cherry on top of the cascading rows of houses. What is now a hotel restaurant called Asylum used to serve as a general hospital where all patients with tuberculosis and mental illness were sent away. A very old fashioned waiter greets us “Hello and welcome to the asylum!” 

View of Jerome from the top of the hill

The closeup of the panorama above

More from the streets of Jerome

Arizona cacti collection