Skip to content

Volterra’s Roman Amphitheater: Ancient History with a Bizzare Restoration

August 17, 2015

MHolmes_Tuscany (10)_X

This is my personal favorite sketch from our time in Volterra. It is perhaps not the most pictorially beautiful painting. It could even be called confusing.

You are looking down at the partially reconstructed ruins of a Roman theater, with scabby grass growing between the rocks. It was hot and dry, baking the moisture out of the painting almost immediately. This was actually helpful getting this completed in the short time I had these interesting shadows.

This might not be the sketch you would choose to hang on the wall – but in my mind it holds an interesting story. Which in all honesty, we would never have heard about, if not for our friend Simo showing us around.

These ruins had been lost for many years. But apparently it was obvious to those who understand these things, that there was a Roman theater hidden here. The shape of the terrain is distinctive – and there were probably records – old maps and manuscripts with drawings of the place, or people’s diary writing. So, while most people had forgotten, someone always knew there had been a grand structure here .

In the years between the Romans and the 1970’s this piece of history might have fallen naturally – or been scavenged for stone used to build the town. But there was also a kind of willful ignorance humans will always employ. Because of the high 13th century era wall, and the location at the edge of the city center, it was somehow considered a great spot for tossing garbage. Eventually the ruins were completely buried below the city dump. I guess if you have a surplus of stone ruins in your area, you don’t care about burying a few rocks under your midden heap.



The town of Volterra, which goes back to the Etruscan times, had two modern industries before today’s reliance on tourism. At first it was the heart of an Alabaster carving empire. We heard about at least two great families who made their fortunes exporting treasures in Alabaster. During our week painting, we stayed in a beautiful villa that had been the country home of one of these art-barons. Today it is an artist retreat/bed and breakfast run by artists Klaudia Ruschkowski and Wolfgang Storch.

But the most recent economic engine of the city was an entirely different thing.  A huge mental asylum.

Sometime before its decommission in the 1970’s, the ever expanding complex had a population of 6000 patients. I can only imagine it must have been a Dantean warehouse for the mentally ill – along with any number of unfortunates who were simply tossed in there, never to return. A few internet searches about the asylum raise up grim stories such as 200 patients sharing a bathroom. Modern day Urbex photographers have infiltrated and brought back photos like these.

(Photo: Fabrizio Costa)

We are told that at one point everyone in the town worked for this hospital in some capacity. If not actually guarding the inmates, they were probably washing the sheets, cooking the food, or whatever support was necessary. Perhaps this came naturally, as the town has, since the middle ages, also had a stone fortress with a dungeon, which is still used today as a prison. Presumably the medieval cells have been modernized. (I hope). Coming into town by bus from Florence, we met an artist/actress who was on the way to a theater project in which they perform inside the prison. Somehow in collaboration with the prisoners? I didn’t get the details.

In any case – at some point in the 50’s, a local man named Enrico Fiumi who had been educated as an economist was working at the Guarnacci Museum and Library in some capacity. He became an expert in local history and became aware of the buried Roman theater.

In an incredibly Italian story, he achieved two things. He convinced the asylum to *lend him mental patients*, to carry out the excavation. Presumably as volunteers who would do anything to get out of that place for a short time, and presumably working entirely with hand tools, and without any real training or supervision in Archaeology.

As well – as the excavation took shape – he conducted a many year long campaign to relocate a modern day soccer field that had sprung up next to the old dump – finally allowing them to fully uncover the theater. It was probably harder to evict the soccer players that it was to borrow the mental patients.

Today, you can look down while passing from one gelato shop to the next espresso stand, and snap a picture of the ruins without ever becoming aware of this strange history. This is the kind of thing that I find fascinating, and what leads me to spend an hour in the blazing sun, making this painting.

For the artists still reading to the end: the sketch itself was drawn quickly in pencil to capture the complexity of the floor plan. Then, working very quickly, I painted the dry grass with a marbled mix of Sap Green and Goethite, working left to right systematically in little patches of wet on dry. The pigment Goethite (brown ocher) from Daniel Smith is quite similar to the commonplace Yellow Ocher – but I enjoy it for its opacity and extreme granulation. Effects like this patchy grass can be easily implied by the natural sedimentation of the earth tone. The shadows are mostly mixes with DS Moonglow. A cheater’s color for shadow if there ever was one.


Steam and Stone with Simonetta

August 9, 2015

Our week painting with Simonetta Capecchi in Volterra was a different sort of Tuscan experience. Not the usual tour of Italian food and culture the area is known for. She’d chosen the painting locations based around the theme of states of matter. Steam and stone.

We spent time in the town of course, the various historic squares and churches – but the real focus of Simo’s locations was the earth itself.

We visited many strange landscapes, starting with a drive through an area used for geothermal power generation. The ridge above us featured conical towers with the disturbing look of nuclear power plants. The steep valleys bisected by fat chrome pipelines arching over the road and cutting down hillsides transformed the entire valley into a postmodern sculpture.

MHolmes_Tuscany (14)

We started the exploration with a short walk through white clay hills that had the feel of a miniature Sahara desert. I did a quick sketch of the pale dunes, then turned around and sketched the reverse view directly behind – a stand of hard-scrabble olive trees and tinder-ready underbrush.

MHolmes_Tuscany (12)

It was odd to see the two different landscapes sit right next to each other. We had a hot and dry lunch of bread and cheese and moved on.

MHolmes_Tuscany (8)_Detail

Over a short but steep climb, we started to see the steam vents. Initially just small holes in the earth emitting a puff of smoke that might have been a dust-devil – but soon enough we came to the fumaroles themselves. An area that looked like a land slide or a small open pit mine where there was no top soil – just sand and red rock and big cracks in the earth emitting tendrils of smoke. This is the natural engine beneath the geothermal plants.

MHolmes_Tuscany (7)_X

It might have been a moody landscape  – there could have been a hellish feeling even – except for the surrounding green hills, and the blue sea in the distance. I was told we could see Corsica on the horizon.

MHolmes_Tuscany (6)_X

The next day we visited The Balsa – a great wall of red rock that is part of the foundations of the town of Volterra. The flat-sided ridge tapers off to narrow pinnacles, reminding me again of miniature versions of other places. Something like what we saw in Utah. I suppose this is the reason for the phenomena of the Spaghetti Western.

MHolmes_Tuscany (13)

On the way back from this view point, I pulled off a nice 10 minute sketch while standing in the blazing sun. I strapped my umbrella to my body using my shoulder bag, had to hunch a little to stay underneath it. I’m sure this looked ridiculous, but was the only thing that made the direct sun bearable.

I’m continuing to love these direct watercolor sketches. I used to talk endlessly how the drawing was so important, and how everyone should make a careful line drawing before considering color.  It seems I’m moving away from that technique – but I suppose I am still making a drawing  – it’s just that now I believe you can make that drawing using only the edges of interlocking shapes. The line can happen in the very moment the washes are forming.

In the time since these Italian sketches, we continued onward to Asia for the Urban Sketchers workshop in Singapore, and a followup painting holiday in Cambodia. So I’ll be showing some more of these ‘shape paintings’ in the next few posts. Stay tuned!


Last Minute Workshop Opportunity: Sketching the Wild Atlantic Way, Kinvara Ireland, Sept 2-6 2015

August 7, 2015


I’ve just heard that there are still spaces available for USK Correspondent Róisín Curé’s 4 day sketching workshop in Kinvara Ireland. The workshop is available either with accommodation or without, and there are discount rates for non-sketching companions. Prices have been reduced for anyone who can take advantage of this short notice opportunity!

This is a fantastic setting for drawing and painting – and I’ve been a long time fan of Róisín’s work. I wish I could go myself.  If anyone is already living in Europe, or is planning to be in the area in early Sept – I encourage you to have a look at the workshop details:




Venice : A Sinking Feeling

July 26, 2015

MHolmes_Venice (3)
[Santa Maria Della Salute, sketched from a secret garbage handler’s dock]

Venice. Is there any more romantic city? The maze of narrow streets, the glittering mystery of the carnival, the doomed (?) feeling of rising sea level. I have always wanted to travel here.

Sadly – there’s something wrong with my brain. This trip, for whatever reason, I wasn’t charmed by the place. I have to think that’s on me, not Venice itself. I came unprepared to find the real city.

We did meet our friends Stephanie Bower and Sean Andrew Murray – both in Italy by coincidence at the same time as ourselves. So that was the highlight. To be able to sketch next to other talented artists is something I don’t want to take for granted. I’m spoiled that way :) We go out of our way to have those experiences.

Seeing Stephanie’s masterpieces of perspective appear so easily for her – that’s always a pleasure – and a stern lesson. Her skills are frankly intimidating. Though she’s a patient teacher, I’m a lazy student when it comes to the discipline of architectural views. Mine are the painter’s cheats. Style over structure.

MHolmes_Venice (1)
[The Grand Canal from the Academia bridge, early AM before the relentless heat and crowds]

We may not have given it enough time. Only a week. We might have not budgeted enough cash. A struggling artists resources don’t go very far. A great deal of what there is to see in Venice is barricaded behind a living wall of tourists. Being willing to buy some special access passes to things, stay in some historic hotels, and hire a few water taxis probably would have helped.

MHolmes_Venice (2)
[Bridge of Sighs – from directly below the usual vantage point – lucky low tide opportunity]

Even though I enjoy the sketches we got – this faux Sargent Bridge of Sighs being a favorite – I hope to return with a better frame of mind some day. I’m kicking myself for not making friends with locals, and not doing better research in advance. I could see there is an extensive artistic community here. This is going to take a more serious attempt another time.

MHolmes_Venice (4)
[St. Marks – only the good parts – minus a few thousand people in the square]

A brush with the Black Death in Sienna

July 21, 2015

MHolmes_Sienna (2)

The note on this sketch says “…sound of out-of-tune bells – how does this happen?”. It seemed to me that someone would have fixed such a thing over the hundreds years these bells have been ringing. Damn tourists! Like spoiled kids, right?! Always wanting a perfect experience :)

So yes – one of the days during the Cortona event we did a side jaunt to nearby Sienna. We’d already spent some time sketching on location with plenty of 1:1 feedback, so it seemed we might as well toss everyone into the pool and go on a sketching tour.

We got dropped off at the Plaza del Duomo and started by choosing a series of meeting points – circulating around a small area, and meeting at a visible landmark in an hour. So you could stick together if you wanted, or choose to have some alone-time with your sketchbook if you preferred. Either way, we’d be back together for the next leg of the tour.

MHolmes_Sienna (3)

It seemed like a good model for this group of sketchers – people could find their level of artistic freedom vs. instructor attention. Each time we regrouped, people could see what we’d all found in the way of subjects. One person spent each session sampling dessert at a different café. That’s a sketcher who knows how to have fun :)

MHolmes_Sienna (4)

When I’m touring a new place, I like to alternate between the big picture, (street views or architectural portraits), smaller details of structures (carved ornaments and such), and the “human element” – which is sketching people whenever possible – or in the case when it’s all tourists and no interesting characters – then I’ll draw statues :)

There’s great story I heard about this gate:

MHolmes_Sienna (1)

Apparently this free standing gate leading from the basilica square to the larger oval track in the city center (where Sienna’s famous horse races take place) was originally intended to be the side entrance to a huge cathedral that would have massively enlarged the basilica, making it the biggest church in all Italy.

Except. The Black Plague occurred, and killed off both the work force and general enthusiasm for that project.

The gate, and some walls are still there today, implying just how impossibly big this structure might have been. It’s astonishing to stand in the street and imagine it roofed over with giant arches.

It’s always kind of magic to me, the way you sketch things, and later come to find they have some fascinating story. If you wander an area and just draw the interesting stuff – you’re always finding great things. You don’t need a guide book. Just looking at stuff, you can tell – that thing is something important!

This kind of fortuitous exploration is really inspirational to me. I feel the finding by accident, and the sketching by instinct and interest, connects me to history in a way that I’ll never get from books or documentaries.

MHolmes_Sienna (5)

The Cortona Panorama

July 16, 2015

So, of course I’ve already mentioned, we’ve recently been sketching in Cortona Italy. We were there in June teaching a workshop – which I was actually a little nervous about initially.

This was to be my big first sketching event outside the umbrella of and I was unsure what it would be like. I was working with a company I’d never partnered with before, and we’d chosen a town I’ve never seen. So there were a lot of questions how the event might go. Of course I need not have been concerned.


The best thing about these workshops is the people. Anyone willing to drag themselves halfway around the world to go sketching is someone worth knowing! From the first day, our little group was exploring Cortona, drawing together like old friends.

By the end of the week, we’d been doing a lot of pen and ink sketching, and I was raring to get in a for-real painting. People were interested in seeing a big demo, so we set up at the lookout point in Piazza Garibaldi and I did this 9×24″ panorama.

MHolmes_Tuscany (1)_X

I was – again – a little nervous going in. I’d been drawing all week, and felt a bit rusty with the brushwork. Plus, I was a bit concerned about tackling this incredibly complex view. Not that I was going to back down once I’d set up the easel. You just stick to your game plan – do the things you are always telling people – “simplify, see the big shapes, draw with dry edges, let water play inside, come back when dry to re-enforce darks”. And miraculously – one of my favorite paintings of the trip just appeared before our eyes – like watching someone else paint it.



Flying out to Singapore!

July 13, 2015

Cover_Actors on Stage

Heading out to Singapore for the big USK symposium first thing tomorrow. In case you can’t make it – here’s the notes for my workshop. Maybe you can try and sketch a few characters back home. More news when we hit the ground sketching! ~m



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 7,970 other followers