By Brenda Murray
Not to be put off by winter weather, super talented and innovative, Montreal-based urban sketcher and watercolor artist, Shari Blaukopf, sketches from her car in winter once or twice a week.
“Painting in winter makes me love winter,” Shari said. “I used to dread winter but I love winter scenes. Everything looks better with snow on it. Snow makes designing with values much easier.”
But with the average temperature in Montreal in January and February dropping to between -4° and -14° C (7° to 25° F) even sketching inside a car has its challenges.
Shari's Five Tips for Car Sketching
1. Find the Right Spot
Finding the right spot on busy downtown streets can be tricky. Shari sets out early in the morning before the stores open. She selects either a corner parking spot or she parks right behind a bus stop so that her view won't be blocked by another car. Yes, parking behind a bus stop means her view will be blocked at intervals, but usually she only needs to wait a few minutes for the bus to pull away.
“It happened once that I parked behind a no parking zone and it turned out to be the most popular parking spot in town! Everything pulled in front of me--a snow blower, a garbage truck, people getting coffee—it was a little crazy!”
In the winter, Shari looks for low buildings so that she can see the whole structure through the front windowscreen. She enjoys painting dépanneurs in old Montreal. A dépanneur is a corner store sometimes called “Mom and Pop shops”. Studies show that over the last few decades, 30 per cent of dépanneurs in Quebec have disappeared so capturing them now seems like a really good idea. Shari likes sketching them because they’re usually covered in colourful signage—giant red Coke signs or other brands. These signs provide a spot of colour in what might be an otherwise dull view. Her favourite neighbourhoods in Montreal are Saint-Henri and Villeray.
2. Warm up the Car
Shari warms up her car really well first. She blasts the heat while she chooses her sketching location. And when she’s settled in to her spot she turns the car off hoping to finish her sketch before the temperature drops too low. But she often has to contend with foggy windows, frozen feet and paint that won’t dry. Sometimes she turns on the car just long enough to get a blast of heat to dry her paint.
Shari doesn’t feel the need for fingerless gloves. “I’m comfortable in my car,” she said. “Thank goodness for seat heaters!”
3. Arrange Your Instruments
Shari is right-handed so she prefers to sit in the driver’s seat. She makes the passenger seat level so that she can rest her palette there. She uses the cup holder for her water and balances her sketchbook on the steering wheel.
4. Work Fast
Some artists use vodka as a kind of paint anti-freeze because the high alcohol level means it won’t freeze until the temperature drops to well below 0. But Shari says she’s not really a “vodka person”. Some artists swear by hand warmer packets available in outdoor stores, but Shari goes without.
“I just try to work really fast,” she says. “At minus 30 degrees paint still crystalizes. Sometimes my paint turns to slush—It’s just too cold. My advice is to warm up the car enough to prevent that from happening.”
Sometimes Shari uses her sketchbook as studies for bigger paintings, along with photos she takes during winter walks. When she’s working from a photo she likes to begin on the painting right away while the colour is still fresh in her mind. She finds it hard to paint from a photo out of season.
5. Remember to turn off your ignition
Inspired by my interview with Shari, I decided to try sketching in my car. I set out on a blustery day in January in Ontario. I settled on an old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere and found a spot on the side of the road to park. The sun was shining and that helped to slow down the drop in temperature inside my car. After about an hour I was finished. So was my car battery! I had forgotten to take the key out of the ignition and my battery was dead. Luckily I have CAA, a roadside assistance service.
Shari admits that she has done the same thing. “Brenda, you are not alone,” she said. “I have done that three times! No, make that four times. I’ve left the wipers on more than once! Good thing we both have CAA. Now I remove the key from the ignition and leave it in the console beside me!”
How to Paint Snow
Painting snow is all about painting the shadows on the snow because the snow itself is the whiteness of the paper.
Shari says it’s important to plan carefully. She doesn’t use masking or frisket. She tries to paint the shapes that are under the snow.
That high light/dark contrast is really key to a dramatic, colourful and eye-catching painting. On dull cloudy days there may be no discernable shadow on the snow. So when the sun is shining, Shari runs out the door with her yellow lab Alice to see what she can find.
“It is important to learn how to mix greys,” Shari says and she shares her colour mixing expertise in a new book called The Urban Sketching Handbook, Working with Colour coming out in April 2019.
Her go-to purple shadow on snow is a combination of cobalt blue and cerulean blue (Winsor Newton) with just the tiniest touch of Alizarin crimson on the tip of her brush.
by Brenda Murray
Umberto Torricelli is one of those artists. You know the type. His art-making is not compartmentalized into “studio time” or “sketching time”. He makes art almost every day. He’s always sketching. He draws on paper napkins and tablecloths. A restaurant near his home in Milan has a collection of the drawings he’s made there.
“You can always find a way to be artistic every day,” he says. Umberto appreciates beauty. He loves cooking. His wife relies on him to arrange the food artistically on the plate so that it will look the most appealing.
I’m curious to hear his story. At the risk of sounding like AskReddit, I want to find out what it feels like to be an Italian artist. To be surrounded by art, to study art and to make art in a country that is renowned for being the birthplace of western art and culture and the home of so many of the world’s greatest artists. To the outsider, it feels like the entire country is an art museum.
Umberto studied traditional oil painting at a small private school. His master, Vittorio Viviani, was very old. He had a long white beard and a strong personality. He was very intimidating for young Umberto. “He taught me to be aggressive in front of the canvas,” Umberto explained. “He taught me to dominate the canvas and the brushes. I learned more about attitude than technique from him.”
Viviani believed in doing things the traditional way. “It took forever to actually start painting because first we had to prepare the canvas.” The canvas frame had to be constructed, the canvas stretched and prepared with a traditional rabbit glue and chalk mixture. The media had to be mixed as well.
As a result of his experience, Umberto is privy to historical techniques not many people know anymore. It was a great experience and Umberto learned a lot but he was well aware that there was a risk that the student would become a clone of the master. And he prefers a less traditional style of painting. See Umberto's painting (left).
When Umberto teaches, he prefers not to teach technique. He teaches people about story, for example, and about page composition.
“I don’t want people to imitate me,” he explains. “I’m not saying that technique is not important. I’m always experimenting and copying the masters. You have to learn the techniques and then forget it. Keep it in the corner of your head. It comes out when necessary.”
In painting, Umberto loves the work of Alberto Giacometti (pictured above), Emilio Vedova (pictured below) and Piero Manzoni. He prefers abstract painting to hyper-realism and is inspired by Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock.
Umberto teaches drawing workshops for Urban Sketchers. He has a great appreciation for the Urban Sketching manifesto.
”Lots of people start from zero and improve in a short time. Urban Sketchers is a very friendly environment and that really helps people to express themselves and not worry about how good they are. You don’t need to be a great artist to be an urban sketcher.”
Umberto is more expressive when he paints than when he draws. Drawing is different, he explains. Drawing is an exploration of the subject matter. It’s a kind of meditation. It’s a way to see objects as if he’s walking around a map of the objects. When he’s drawing he thinks, “Ah, now I am finally seeing the object.”
Umberto recalls meeting Riccardo Mannelli, one of his drawing heroes. He travelled to Rome to see Mannelli’s studio and was thrilled to be invited to chat. They drank a few beers and talked about art for four or five hours. Mannelli draws for magazines and newspapers. His subject is mostly human figures rendered with incredible detail and shading using a ball point pen. Umberto shows me his sketch by Mannelli of a nude pregnant woman. The sheer mastery of his media--a ball point pen--is extremely impressive.
Unlike Mannelli, Umberto’s lines are clean and precise. His full-colour images idealized and happy as you can see in his Chicago drawing below.
So what does it feel like to be an Italian artist surrounded by so much art and beauty? Obviously, it has had a big impact on Umberto. He has had the opportunity to study from an old-school painting master and to rub shoulders with great artists. He lives it and breathes it. It’s part of who he is.
Check out Umberto’s Alfa Romeo 1900 Disco Volante drawing below. Disco volante means “flying saucer” in Italian and Umberto was inspired by its sleek lines. The Disco Volante is one in a series of experimental racing cars produced between 1952 and 1953 by Italian car manufacturer Alfa Romeo in collaboration with Milanese coachbuilder Carrozzeria Touring.