Ellen and I recently visited Vienna (on the tail end of my Lithuania business trip). Vienna is one of my favorite cities – beautiful architecture combined with great restaurants, quaint coffee houses, and friendly people. I have cousins who live there, as well as a friend from elementary school and his family (that’s us on the right with them on the left). It was an exhaustingly full trip, but I was still able to catch a few moments to sketch between museums, cathedrals, the opera house, a boat trip, walks though Vienna’s extensive parks, window shopping, and meals with cousins and friends.
We took a day trip out of Vienna, taking a train from Vienna to the little town of Melk, home of an abbey (wow—check out these Melk images) and then catching a boat to return via the Danube. I captured the trip in a sketch with thumbnail scenes from each town we visited. I like doing these little sketches. There’s not much detail to get hung up on and it’s fun to try to capture the essence of a place or experience in miniature. I feel like it gives a feel for the whole process that a single painting of one scene could never do.
There were so many paintable vistas along the route – castles and churches and vineyards around every bend of the Danube. As we approached Spitz I grabbed my sketchbook and tried to capture the whole breadth of the town, which seemed to have it all – vineyard, castle, and church with a quaint roofline to boot.
Like a lot of sketches, I like parts of it better than others. I really like how the little castle on the far left turned out (raw sienna base with burnt umber shadow). I tried to capture the vineyard rows on the hills, but I’m not sure my dark line blobs quite do them justice. The tree in the foreground seemed like a good idea at the time, but I’m not sure the picture has enough depth to account for the size of the tree. It looks more like a giant sequoia dwarfing the village.
But there were more opportunities! As we approached Dürnstein, I was captivated by the castle ruins where King Richard the Lionhearted was held captive by Duke Leopold V of Austria during the third crusade.
I did a quick sketch while on the boat, and added paint back in the concierge lounge at the hotel in Vienna (below). This is image shows the first washes of yellow ochre and light sap green.
There were a couple of tricky parts to this painting. The rock cliffs presented the first challenge. I’m never quite sure how to paint the crags and faces of a cliff – you have the bright surface of a sunlit rock right next to the deep shadow of a crevice. I first painted a base of yellow ochre, and then painted layers of darker color (burn umber and ultramarine blue mixes) for the shadows.
The greenery presented a second challenge. I made three mixes of green (sap green with a touch of yellow, pure sap green, and sap green with ultramarine blue). I first laid down a wash of the lightest shade and then dropped in the medium shade (wet in wet). After that had dried considerably, I added the darkest green, trying to keep a hard edge on one side and a soft edge on the other side. The intent was to create the effect of stands of trees with shade on the left side and sunlight on the right.
The little buildings in the lower right were nifty. They were actually built into the cliff, with the roof flashing connecting the roof to the cliff rock. It made me wonder if the interior walls were rock. Very cool.
The next day (our last full day in Vienna), Ellen and I spent some time in the Innere Stadt (inner/old city). We climbed up Stephansdom (the massive cathedral in the old city), window-shopped, and people-watched. Ellie (my cousin) met us for lunch, and we ate at a little outdoor café in Franziskanerplatz. The photo below is the view from our table.
I was able to complete a pencil sketch of the scene while we finished up our meal. (I can usually carry on a conversation and sketch at the same time, although I’m not sure how the person on the receiving end feels about my sketch/talk multi-tasking.) I created the pen sketch while at Ellie’s house later that evening (chatting it up with my cousin, Thomas).
I finished the painting after I returned home to Portsmouth. This is the only one of my Vienna sketches that contains my little people. Ellen really likes the energy they convey, and I must confess that I do enjoy the process of creating them. I really like how the window on the far right turned out with that mottled reflection look.
After lunch, Ellen and I made our way across the old city to Demel, the famous bakery, confectioner, and cafe which Ellen had read carries some of the best kuchen (cake) in Vienna (locals would probably disagree). Since Vienna is famous for its cake, it was her goal to experience at least one piece of Viennese cake per day while we were there, and we’d fallen behind. I wasn’t feeling well, so while Ellen shopped for some cakes to bring to dinner with my cousins, I parked myself on a bench in front of St. Michael’s Wing of the Hofburg Palace. Again, that choice: sit and do nothing, or pull out my sketchbook. I decided to see how quickly I could do a sketch of the view (pictured below).
I completed the pencil version of this sketch in about 10 minutes. I tried to keep up the speed when I did the pen version later, and also when I added paint. My sister, Katie, thinks the faster I sketch and paint the more energy there is. I can agree that when I go fast my mind is in the background, and I seem to be able to tap into some kind of “flow.”
I’ve mentioned that Ellen edits my blog posts. Get this… as she was looking over this post, she mentioned that I should talk about the mishap with the perspective in this painting. Mishap? What mishap? When she pointed it out, it was plain as day (when compared to the photo, that is, but clearly not when I was sitting in front of the palace). My painting makes it look like the building curves away from the viewer, when in reality it curves toward the viewer (see the photo above). She’s right. The wings should slope up, not down.
I often catch myself in this mistake (usually soon enough to correct it!). My brain will tell me that a roof or a chimney line slopes down, and then when I hold up a pencil horizontally (which I frequently do when I sketch for this very reason), I see that my brain was wrong. That’s the difference between painting what you see versus painting what you think you see! I find it fascinating that I could look at the sketch so many times and not see that. Ellen likes to think she has the superior artistic eye, but I think she was able to see it so clearly when she looked at the photo, because in a photo the three-dimensional scene has been converted into two dimensions. Let’s put her in front of a real building and see just how well she does!
I tried to set up my paints on the plane on the way home. It worked reasonably well until we hit turbulence. Ellen snapped this picture before she snoozed off (she’s among the lucky ones who are blessed with the ability to nap at altitude):
While Ellen was napping I took the time to contemplate how awful Austrian Airlines’ colors are. Candy-apple red, yellow, white, and that dreadful heading-toward-aqua kelly green color. Who thought that was a good idea?? It made me wonder if flight attendants choose which airline to work for based on uniforms. If so, I’m surprised Austrian Airlines is able to staff its fleet. I snapped the picture below as I debarked so that I could remind myself that no matter how poorly my paintings turn out, they’re better than the inside of an Austrian Airlines plane. From the look on the face of the guy to the right, I don’t think I’m alone in my assessment. And did I mention that the flight attendants’ legs are that crazy red color? No kidding: candy-apple red nylons.