Until a few months ago, Stromboli, Panarea, Lipari, and Ragusa, were not in my vocabulary. The Aeolian Islands and towns in the Terranian Sea, and Ragusa, Sicily are now burned into my memory forever. Painting them in plein air was my seventh painting adventure with art master, Tim Clark and, without question, the most unusual of the series. The trip began and ended in Rome (reported separately) and then moved on through Naples to the Islands of Lipari, Stromboli, and, finally, Sicily, by bus and boat.
Naples has earned a bad reputation with tourists and Tim insisted that everyone be extra cautious and on constant guard, not wandering even a few feet away from the group. Our stay in Naples was deliberately a brief few hours including a bus tour overlooking the city, a lunch, and a visit to the National Capo di Monte Museum, an amazingly pleasant surprise. What we found was a world class collection of renaissance art comparable to any gallery in the world, without the bother of tourists. We had it all to ourselves; we could have spent days; we had one hour. In my entire life, I have never seen such a variety of famous paintings in one hour, not in the Prado, not in the Hermitage, not even the Louvre. Clearly, a city’s reputation affects its art community.
The next 24 hours brought the most unusual part of the entire trip, an overnight ferry to the island of Lipari, which is 167 miles as the crow flies from Naples. Wait! Overnight? To travel 167 miles? The sheer size of the seven story ferry boat, not exactly built for speed, and its cargo, with every kind of vehicle on board, including trailer trucks and tractors, a half dozen stops at various island ports to load and unload before reaching Lipari, the most distant Aeolian island indicate the answer.
After boarding and settling in my cabin, I joined the others for a seafood meal in the restaurant. From a few of the usual dishes and a few rather odd ones, I chose octopus, which seemed to be the regional specialty. It wasn’t half bad, except for the suckers that kept sticking to the roof of my mouth…….not really. (I always have to say that when I eat octopus.) After dinner, I explored the entire ship, retired to my cabin and had the first really good night’s sleep in four days.
I woke on Friday morning to a beautiful sunrise and made a pot of coffee with my portable kitchen. Since the restaurant did not serve a breakfast, a few of us pooled our assets and had a picnic of fruits, cakes, and the coffee that I brewed. We spent the next few hours observing docking operations from the rear deck at the islands of Panarea and Stromboli where people and vehicles moved both on and off the boat.
Stromboli, the most active volcano in Europe, was to be one of our painting venues later in the week, and we could see the steam and smoke pouring from its crater. I could already see some of the great painting scenes that lay in wait for us, and a few of us, not wanting to wait, painted from the back deck, while the boat was docked. There was a perfect hillside view of the Stromboli Monastery from the boat.
We arrived in Lipari around noon, docked at the town of Canneto, and walked through Canneto to the town of Lipari, a 10 minute walk. Good painting scenes lay in every direction, even from the hotel itself, which was another kilometer past the town center. Other criteria began to enter the equation including lighting, a shady spot for an easel, as few tourists as possible, access to a toilet, and distance to walk. I spotted a quiet spot out of the main tourist route, in the shade, with a perfect view of the ancient church of San Bartolo. After checking in to the hotel and a quick lunch, I returned to it and produced my first painting of Lipari.
In addition to being a good spot to paint, an Italian construction crew was remodeling one of the adjacent flats and kept me entertained with a running dialogue that included jokes and laughter. I could tell these guys loved their work. During my entire three hour stay, I was interupted only once by a pair of tourists who entered the square for a quick photo, and peered over my shoulder and whispered “Bella, bella”.
I take photographs of the scenes I choose to paint to use as references for cases where the time is too short to complete a painting, including many scenes that I wish I had time to paint. Promising myself that I can paint the scene from the photograph later reduces the agony of leaving without painting everything in sight; but the process rarely leads to a painting. A real plein air painter knows why painting on location is better than studio painting from photographs. The photograph never captures the beauty that can be seen, smelled, heard, and felt on location. These photographs bring back pleasant memories, but they bear not the slightest resemblance to viewing on location. Being spoiled by and addicted to plein air painting, a photograph rarely ever inspires me to paint, but it does remind me of how desparately I wanted to sit and paint that scene.
Even as I painted the church, I kept glancing at a doorway that was screaming to be painted. It even had a number 3, my lucky number, as an address. I photographed the doorway, promising to paint it later, knowing that the photograph would only remind me how much I wanted to paint it.
When I look at this painting, I still hear the Italian carpenters joking and laughing and the sounds of hammers and saws as they worked nearby, and yes, the two Italian tourists who whispered, “Bella”.
On Saturday morning the whole group walked back into the center of the town of Lipari where Tim selected his first painting site for a demonstration, the church of San Giuseppe at the end of the town center. In typical Tim Clark style, he had made friends with the manager of a strategically located sidewalk cafe who subsequently gave us permission to take over a few tables for the group, with the implicit agreement that the group would purchase coffees, lunch, and drinks during the session. This, in fact, seems to be a win win situation, since it provides sales when the café is essentially empty, draws in other customers who enjoy watching the process of creating art, while providing the group with shade, seats, a view, and, perhaps most importantly, a toilet.
Tim has a magical way of seeing a beautiful scene buried in chaos and eliminating everything that does not contribute to the art. I think he may not even see the unnecessary objects in the field of view. Of his many skills, this is the one I would most enjoy mastering. I believe that this skill would also apply to life itself. One can choose to see the good in the world and not to see the bad, sort of like seeing the glass half full.
As always, he integrated the demonstration with carefully timed stories and jokes to illustrate various methods and compositions, while providing critical drying time for the paint, and keeping the demonstration lively and entertaining as well as educational. You would think after seven trips with Tim I would have heard all of his stories and jokes. Amazingly, I rarely hear the same one twice. He either has an endless repertoire or continuously adds new material, and I would find it hard to imagine such a smoothly running act without rehearsal. These sessions are much more than demonstrations; they are events. Considering Tim’s humor, amazing memory of details, and skill at imitating famous voices and accents, he could easily have had a great career as a standup comedian. I’m glad he chose art since we can now enjoy two in one.
Tim’s paintings go through stages beginning with a flawless drawing of the scene which he does at lightning speed. Sometimes he doesn’t like what he sees, turns the paper over and draws it again, somewhat like a fault on the first tennis serve. The next stage leads an observer to conclude that he screwed up and will never recover a good painting. He comments that keeping it messy longer helps repel gawkers. Then a beautiful work of art emerges magically from the mess on the paper and observers will think he is finished. He then asks us if we could take it from here to which most respond positively. At that point he suggests that anyone who is ready should head off and create their own masterpiece. A few grab their equipment and start a search, some set up an easel right there and try the same scene, and some just watch while he continues sometimes for hours finishing the piece.
We had a few hours before our agreed return for lunch. I found a nice shady spot just around the corner where the sun had reached a position to create interesting shadows in a corner balcony. The shadows were moving quickly so I had to establish them first, something a watercolorist would never do if painting from a photograph. Just as I had completed the upper part of the painting, a car parked directly in front of the scene forcing me to complete the lower part by walking over and looking at what the car had hidden from a different perspective. That process resulted in an error in sidewalk perspective that gives it an exaggerated slope. When Tim pointed this out later, I considered correcting it, but became rather attached to the distortion, relating it to the distortion of perspective I had seen in some of Van Gogh’s paintings. Plein air paintings almost always include errors of this type caused by a dynamic scene. When you see a painting without such errors it is probably not a plein air painting………..unless Tim Clark painted it.
After a pizza lunch, a large beer, and a gelato, I was recharged and decided to return to yesterday’s location where I had seen the doorway with the number 3. The sun angle would be right, a quiet, shady spot was available, and the number 3 must have been a sign that I should return. The carpenters were off, so I had it to myself. I painted the doorway just as it appeared with one exception. Since closed doors sometimes carry a negative connotation, I mentally opened the door and painted it open.
During the evening critique, Tim liked my green door, but he nailed me on the perspective error in the sidwalk of the balcony painting. He didn’t buy the Van Gogh explanation. His unspoken thoughts went something like this. “I knew Vincent van Gogh; I painted where Vincent van Gogh painted; Vincent van Gogh was my friend. Jim T, you are no Vincent van Gogh.” (Remember Senators Lloyd Benson and Dan Quail?)
After a great Sunday morning breakfast overlooking a sunlit sea, the thought occurred for me to just sit there all day and enjoy the view. Then someone mentioned missing our old artist friend, Zeke, who, like a fearless foot soldier, would would be saying “I’m going in.” So three artists and I sat out on a mission to find the perfect painting spot in Lipari and, in honor of Zeke, said, “We’re going in.”
As artists, we always face the temptation, especially in a place like Lipari, to become tourists. Narrow streets and alleys that characterize the town are loaded with scenery as well as distractions but lack in sunshine and shadows, so important for painting, so the search got complicated, with artists getting separated and lost within the maze of streets. Eunice and I continued to work our way upwards until, surprisingly, we found ourselves at the top of what is known as the Lipari Acropolis. I had not realized it was that easy to access.
Lipari has been inhabited for nearly 10,000 years; However, until the Spaniards fortified the town in the 1500’s and placed artillery in a strategic location, pirates continuously sacked and pillaged towns and terrified anyone who attempted to develop a serious industry. Having the ability to sink unfriendly ships from a long range allowed Lipari to thrive and it became a major source of pumice and agricultural products for various governments. The castle ruins, a baroque cathedral, a Benedictine monastery, and amazing views are the legacy of these early generations. Everywhere I looked was a great painting scene. An artist could paint here for weeks.
Finally after an agonizing struggle to select, I went for the beautiful shapes presented by the monastery and I found a very private, shady spot beside a large old Styrofoam statue, visible in the bottom right hand side of the photograph.
I began with a quick study, which, as is often the case, turned out, in a few people’s opinion, better than the finished piece done afterwards.
The more I looked at the scene the more beautiful it became in all its details. This scene offered the most interesting combination of shapes and colors I had yet seen. I was determined to produce a more planned piece, starting with a clear blue sky, simple but varied and repeating shapes at the top, gradually becoming more complex in both shape and color at the bottom of the scene. In violation of the common advice to simplify, I included everything right down to the stones in the pathway. I loved just sitting in this magical spot and studying the colors and shapes with the changing light. I remained “in the zone” for hours until sunset. The resulting painting was overworked and loaded with mistakes, but I had thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon. I promised myself that I would return on Monday and make another attempt using what I had learned so far.
Then I made a disastrous mistake. I carelessly left my study book tucked into a crevice in the Styrofoam sculpture and did not realize I had left it until later in the evening. The book contained not only all of my studies done on this trip, including the one above, but a number of treasured pieces from previous paint outs. Now I had to return. The next morning I rushed back to the top of the Acropolis, only to discover the book was gone. I was something short of devastated, and I hoped that whoever took it would appreciate the studies enough to frame at least one.
I set up an easel in the same location and began another painting of the monastery, beginning with another small study, and quickly moving to a larger piece. The disappointment in losing the study book had taken a mental toll and my heart was not in it. I lost my drive to paint for the rest of the day, and I returned to the hotel to deal with a professional work problem that I had been postponing.
A few artists chose to swim in the crystal clear water behind the hotel. The only slight problem was the presence of jellyfish. Ironically, the only jellyfish sting suffered by our group was by Clytie, who happens to be a skin doctor. Although not dangerous, it left an ugly welt that she won’t forget for a while.
At the evening meal, almost beyond belief, I overheard a conversation in which another artist had been approached by an official from the Acropolis Museum who said that an art book had been turned in. We were leaving the island the next day. On Tuesday morning Tim reluctantly allowed Susan and me to go off on our own and meet the others at the boat. “If you are late, we will leave without you, and the next boat to Stromboli is tomorrow.” So Susan joined me as I made a third trip up the mountain where the museum officials seemed delighted to find the owner. They invited me for tea and a free visit to the museum. Now with little time before having for the harbor to catch the boat to Stromboli, and with rain coming and going, I quickly completed drawings of other scenery and vowed to complete continue with these in my studio.
Taking no chances on meeting the boat on time, Susan and I had a quick lunch, she managed to purchase a piece of jewelry, and we joined the others in Cannova at the boat dock with time to spare. We boarded a hydrofoil that would take us to Stromboli, an amazing experience itself. This, indeed, is a speedboat, and one needs a seatbelt just to stay seated. There is no strolling around on the deck. At one point I made a trip to the rest room, and was not sure I would make it back to my seat. I didn’t need to ask why the floor of the men’s room was wet, since I contributed some of the wetness myself. Fortunately, the high speed of the boat made the time of the trip short, and no one had time to get seasick.
Tim and Marriott seem to design their workshop so that each location is progressively better than the last. I wondered how they could beat Lipari; Stromboli is completely different, more primitive, less touristy, and most of us liked it even better than Lipari.
After leaving the hydrofoil, most of us elected to walk the half mile to the hotel simply because the scenery was so beautiful. Motor transportation and taxis are available in golf cart like vehicles, and one of these carried all of the baggage by making several trips.
Hotel Miramare could arguably be the best hotel on the island, with panoramic views of a black sand beach and the sea from most rooms. By the time we had settled in our rooms and had a drink in the bar, it was time for dinner. We all walked up a tsunami escape path to Ristorante Pizzeria la Compara, which is located in the town center, further up the volcano.
By the time we had completed dinner, most people were ready for an early bedtime. A few of us sat around, exchanged jokes, and finished off the bottle of Lemoncello that I had bought in Lipari. A boat sat in the harbor directly in front of the hotel and pumped fresh water into a supply tank. Being fully lit up and providing colorful reflections in the sea made it a nice subject for a night painting, so Elana and I sat on the patio in front of our rooms and painted it. Painting in the dark produces some interesting results, and we were both pleased with our creation. I am not sure how much the lemoncello contributed, but I think it was not negligible.
The hotel breakfast began, unusually late, at eight, so our usual regimen of being ready to paint by eight had to be changed. I woke early anyway on Wednesday morning and took a stroll on the black sand beach before breakfast. The beach was covered with beautiful volcanic rocks of various colors. I had seen these very rocks at tourist shops in Lipari for prices as high as $20. I’m glad I waited until I got to Stromboli to acquire my souvenir.
After breakfast Tim led us back to the same pizzeria we had eaten in the evening before. He had arranged to use the open air restaurant as a painting venue, since it had good views of the local church and the volcano crater. Better yet, since the restaurant did not open for lunch, we could use it for one of Marriott’s famous picnics.
Eunice and I chose to walk on into town to see what possibilities awaited us there. From the center of town we had magnificent panoramas of both sea and volcano, but it was a bit touristy and busy with the gocart vehicles and scooters buzzing up and down the narrow streets.
Finding a beautiful scene to paint on Stromboli is a trivial task, since such scenery is available in every direction from almost any location on the island. The more difficult task is finding a spot in the shade from which to paint. Then we hit pay dirt. Eunice discovered a pathway that could get us upon a deck behind the church with an amazing view of the volcano from the shade of the church. As soon as I walked onto the deck, I knew this is where I wanted to spend the rest of the morning, and I spent the next three hours in heaven, working on this piece. I was not completely finished when lunch time arrived, thinking maybe I should add a pot of red flowers or even a person on the porch or something in the foreground. So far I haven’t built up the guts to add anything else to it or to crop off the bottom according to my originally chosen composition.
Eunice was hungrier and a faster painter than I, so she abandoned me to make an on time appearance at lunch, just down the hill. I followed soon after. Had I known what Marriott had in store for us, I probably would have cut out sooner, but no problem. There was so much food; we all took home a doggie bag to eat in the evening.
During this painting session, my painting stool completely collapsed into an almost irreparable state. Before attempting to improvise, I walked back into town to see if, by chance, I could find a stool for sale. Just as I had checked all of the stores and given up, I saw a shop keeper sitting on the exact stool that I could use. What the hell? I’ll see if she will sell it to me. She didn’t speak English, and I don’t know exactly how she interpreted my proposition to buy her stool, but she took me by the hand and smiled.
“Oh shit”, I thought to myself. What had I gotten myself into? She led me around the corner and into another shop where she had a long dialogue that almost had the appearance of an argument with the shop keeper, which after a back and forth exchange she seemed to win. The shop keeper left the shop and went around to the back of the building. After some minutes she emerged carrying three stools like the one I had first seen. I even had my choice of colors at the bargain price of 8 euros, and I was set for the rest of the trip. I hope the ladies know how much I appreciated their kindness.
Upon returning to the pizzeria, Helen joined Eunice and me in search of an equally good spot in the opposite direction. We walked a long way past several absolutely wonderful views that would have to be painted from a spot in the blazing sun. After walking nearly a mile, Helen found an old abandoned building that was made just for us. I figured, “How often will I ever get to paint a volcano in plein air?” So I took advantage of this location with some grapefruit sized lemons growing the foreground. I looked for and added repeated shapes that Tim includes in his work.
After a few hours, the three of us wound our way through the narrow streets back to the hotel.
Stromboli is the most active volcano in Europe. Ten years ago, it blew its top into the ocean creating a 30 foot tsunami that caused millions of dollars’ damage to both Stromboli and nearby Panarea. For this reason tsunami escape paths are accessible from all parts of the beaches. Every evening, wind conditions permitting, people make the 3 to 5 hour hike up to the edge of the crater to watch the explosions that happen about every 10 minutes. This is not without some risk that you could be up there when a big time explosion occurs or the wind changes and you suddenly find yourself in a pumice storm.
Tim had arranged a chartered boat that took us to a good offshore vantage point on the opposite side of the island, where we were entertained by regular explosions and fire show in addition to one of the most amazing sunsets I had ever seen. The sun was just setting as the boat left the harbor and passed the monastery on the hillside.
We arrive in our viewing location to a startling sunset. As it grew darker, we could see the fire at the crater. We could also see an occasional flashlight from one of the hikers who had ventured up the volcano. A huge explosion blasted fire high into the atmosphere about every ten minutes. We saw three or four such explosions. This was one of those times I chose to look and not be distracted by taking photographs.
On Thursday morning I was determined to paint a beach or harbor scene, so, after a brief demonstration, I walked back to the harbor with a few artists and began the search, not so much for a view, but for a shady spot where I could sit for hours without turning into a lobster. The problem is that the obvious place like under the pier was already occupied by fishermen as was every other shady place. Suddenly I saw a possible solution in the boatyard. An overhanging boat provided me with the missing ingredient, shade, where I sat for the next two hours without getting sunburned. About half way through the painting the universe added yet another gift. A beautiful young lady spread her blanket on the beach, shed her top, and lay in the sun between me and the water. Plein air painting doesn’t get any better than this. To finish off the painting I sprinkled some of the black sand into the painting.
From this location I had many painting scene choices. Looking to the right, I could see the volcano crater and many colors in the landscape, including pumice caves.
By the time I had completed, most of the other artists had abandoned their locations and headed for shade. I was ready to look for lunch.
Walking along the beach I spotted Avie, who had found a tree to provide some shade, but her painting contained a boat that was not in sight anywhere. In fact there seemed to be nothing in front of her to paint. Had she simply picked a shady spot and made up the boat? I was afraid to ask, but she explained anyway. Half way through the painting two gentlemen appeared and removed her boat. When they saw that she was painting it, they gave her five more minutes. She told me that she wanted to stay and add the background but she was dying to go to the restroom. So I watched her gear while she found a restroom in a nearby bar. After what she had gone through, it was the least I could do. When she returned, I headed up to the town center and found a great place to sample seafood pasta while overlooking the harbor.
The evening meal in a nearby ristorante was an amazing spectacle with the chef paying special attention to our group, spoiling us with the best dishes Stromboli could offer. We walked home in the dark using flashlights, and turned in for an early Friday departure. The hotel had agreed to provide coffee and snacks so that we could leave by 6 AM to catch the hydrofoil to Sicily.
To make the transfer back to the harbor as fast as possible, some of us walked to reduce the number of trips for the “golf cart”.
The ride to Sicily was slightly smoother because of a calm sea, but still a bit like a carnival ride. A bus met us and soon we were on our way to Ragusa, our last painting venue for the trip. After an hour’s bus ride I looked across the valley from the bus and saw the most amazing site, the ancient city of Ragusa.
I could already tell that this was going to be yet another treat for artists. The hotel was yet another surprise. Hotel Locanda Don Serafino is a 19th century mansion converted into a hotel, leaving much of its original architecture in place- a requirement, since this part of Ragusa is a world heritage site. The result was a rather bizarre combination of stonework and steps that were a serious challenge. Regardless of how hard I tried, I kept bumping my head and back or stumbling over uneven stones for the next three days. It is amazing that the group walked away without serious injuries, and yet no one would have wanted to change a single item. As ancient as everything appeared, we had excellent internet access.
My room had a balcony from which I could have painted for days. I think that Tim had, indeed, saved the best for last.
We began scouting the town immediately. Everywhere we looked were sculptures, interesting architecture, alleyways, churches, and flowers.
On Sunday, Tim provided everyone with a small piece of watercolor paper that he said was magic, and he wanted to see what we could do with it. I found just the spot with an ancient rock wall and flowers.
While sitting in this alleyway, I noticed that the entire alley way represented an interesting scene, with the sun in a perfect position, so I continued to paint in the same spot for the rest of the afternoon.
We completed our workshop with an elegant dinner in a converted church. The dinner was followed by our usual singing group, the Fabulosos, a workshop tradition that creates lyrics to describe the previous days together. This was topped of by a few mock awards and speeches. The restaurant owner spiced up the evening with a tour of his wine cellar, which contained over 50,000 bottles of wine.
On Monday, our bus took us to Catania where we boarded different flights for our respective destination. I headed back to Rome to continue my Italian holiday with my wife and friends.
The following web site has amazing, interactive panoramic images of Stromboli.