My Top 10 Must-Haves for a Street-Sketching Trip

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It’s all about traveling light when you’re packing a mini-studio! 

Just like packing a suitcase, packing a sketching bag is a matter of weighing options over bulk.

A heavy bag is simply not an option for me.  I am mindful of shoulder strain and carry-on bag restrictions. And yet… I get bored quickly! A lot of sketchers can make do with one pad of paper, 1 brush and 6 pans of colour. But to me, those restrictions spoil the fun.

I’ve come up with my own system that packs up in under a kilo. The game-changer for me is the roll of water-soluble pencils in graphite, watercolour and ink. It adds about another 250 grams to the kit, and I can definitely live with that!

Here’s my packing list…

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  1. Lightweight carrier: I found this lightweight, completely collapsable laptop bag on one of my travels. It has a convenient A4-size rectangular shape perfect for carrying pads of paper, and it is small enough to fit into other small luggage. Another small pouch like a pencil case is also really handy.
  2. Something to sit on: Here’s a life-saver! In the photo you see a spongy green kneeling pad that I picked up in my local hardware store for under €5. It weighs next to nothing and it’s waterproof. It’s awesome.
  3. A variety of small sheets of paper: Sometimes I carry a block, but these can be expensive. Most times I carry a variety of small sheets in a file folder and clip them to a light clipboard. I love to work in miniature, so for me a little block of postcards is a must. You can also use them to send notes with your work on it! And it’s always good to have a sketchbook – this one I bought at a local hobby shop for under €3.
  4. A pan of watercolour paints: That’s the black rectangular tin in the photo. My tin has 24 colours which is excessive for most people, but the bigger tin gives you more mixing trays and room for a small brush and a tube of titanium white. I don’t mind carrying that bit extra.
  5. A selection of water-soluble pencils: I never go anywhere without a range of my favourites in primary colours in watercolour pencils, Derwent Inktense and water-soluble graphite.
  6. Pens: I love fine lines so I have a few very fine technical drawing pens in waterproof ink. These come in black or sepia and various widths. Sometimes I make an ink drawing and cover it in a light wash with my watercolours, other times I splash on the colour first and then add in the line.
  7. Basic drawing supplies: pencils, sharpeners and erasers – my preference here is for the technical drawing pencil because I don’t have to sharpen it! I just use it for a very light under-drawing and bring extra leads. A sharpener should have a barrel for collecting shavings, and the best eraser for watercolour paper is the soft, kneadable kind.
  8. An assortment of brushes: I use cheap synthetic brushes when traveling, and I love my water-cartridge brushes for blending my water soluble pencil marks.
  9. Water containers: a refillable water bottle with a retractable nozzle is great for squirting drops of water into your paint tray and refreshing yourself with a cool drink! A small jar with a tight-fitting cover for the water I rinse my brushes in.
  10. Cleaning supplies: a roll of paper kitchen towel will help mop up any unused paint on your paint tray and dry your brushes, and you’ll be glad of a small waterproof bag to hold your wet rubbish until you can get it to a bin.

Outdoor sketching is such a great way to enjoy being in an amazing place, soaking up the atmosphere and really seeing a place.  — Marie S.

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Postcard from a Dublin park


Bernini Elephant
watercolour pencil and graphite sketch and photo by Marie S.

They say an elephant never forgets. The famed mental strength of the beast certainly appears to be the reason it was chosen as the figure to decorate the support for the obelisk of Sais (from ancient Egypt) that towers over the piazza della Minerva in Rome. That obelisk bears an inscription that was said to contain so much wisdom that only the strongest minds could grasp it.

Whatever great thoughts are inscribed here are forgotten now, but this attractive elephant by Gian Lorenzo Bernini has been charming visitors for hundreds of years since Pope Alexander VII commissioned it. Al the 7th was from Siena but was devoted to the embellishment of Rome.  He was keen that his own name be remembered too, and his family crest adorns the elephant’s blanket.

The Romans always did have a thing for trophies. The ancients brought at least 13 Egyptian obelisks to the city that you can still see today. This one came to Rome with the emperor Diocletian, but has been in piazza della Minerva since 1667. The piazza gets its name from the temple to Minerva which was located around here in ancient times. A Catholic church now dominates the square: Santa Maria sopra Minerva (Holy Mary over Minerva). Most of the body of St. Catherine of Sienna – Italy’s “matron saint” and Pope Alexander VII’s countrywoman- also rests there. Her head is still in Siena.

It is hard to describe the feeling of being in a place that has been in continuous use for so long. I sat on the steps of the church for an hour one evening, listening to a busker play the violin amid the playful cries of young local boys kicking a football. As the afternoon sun descended in the sky, casting a warm glow on the exposed brick of the Pantheon, the temperature cooled to perfection.

Drawing something exactly as you see it is a great way to record a memory, so I dedicated an hour to making this little sketch in watercolour pencil… just to be sure I would never forget.

Join us on our next art holiday in Rome to record your own memories of beautiful and historic locations in the Eternal City! Get in touch at: 


Video – Urban Landscape Painting

Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore by A. Lombardi
Detail: oil painting of piazza Santa Maria Maggiore by Anthony Lombardi

Anthony Lombardi has been painting on the streets of Rome for many years, and is by now an expert in how to approach plein air painting on the busy streets of that city. As he points out in this video, there are a lot of very practical decisions to make.

Click on the word “video” above to go to Anthony’s YouTube channel to watch and listen in to his thought process as he selects from among the many views in one location – the piazza of Santa Maria Maggiore.

The end result is this beautiful study in complementary colours that picks up the heat and peach-toned effects of the Roman sun.

To view more of Anthony’s work, have a look at his website, and to join the group that will be drawing and painting with him in October 2017, click here to contact us!

Street Scene: Trastevere



Street Photo: Google Maps   —   Watercolour: Marie S.

The subjects I chose to paint on a hot summer’s day in Rome have a lot to do with how comfortable I can be while I’m painting them. As long as I can sit comfortably in a cool place, I’ll paint whatever is in front of me!

One day I happened to be particularly loathe to leave the shade after a lunch in a small café in Trastevere. This little neighbourhood has an area that is well-known to tourists, something like what Temple Bar is to Dublin. But it also has another side that is less photogenic, and where the narrow cobbled streets are full of the life of local people.

Near the Church of St. Cecilia you can find nice little places where the lunch counter is less crowded, where you can have a nice healthy meal at a better price.  On a hot summer’s day, these narrow streets tend to be darker and cooler, too.

On one such hot day, I really didn’t want to budge from the cool nook where I had had my lunch. I asked the staff in the cafe if they would lend me a chair while I sat by the front door in the shade and painted my view of the building across the road. I think they found that pretty amusing, because for them a Vespa parked under a clothesline by a tobacconist’s sign was just so ordinary!

It’s a very Italian sight though, and I enjoyed just meditating on that while I sat there. I recalled the line from an old Noël Coward song that only “mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun”. The local people all seem to have had the good sense to empty the streets at midday, and there was nothing to disturb this modest little scene of waving shirts and a parked mo-ped.

When we travel to Rome to paint and draw with our group, we will visit so many historical places of cultural and artistic significance and great beauty. At the same time, we might just find ourselves painting whatever catches our eye from a comfortable vantage point!


Sometimes, it rains…

Aphrodite of Cnidos


Plein-air artists are usually occupied with landscapes and architecture, but the bottom line is that we are mobile. Plein-air-style sketching means you travel light, and this means you can also duck into a museum or gallery to escape bad weather.

You hardly need a bit of rain to draw you indoors to any of the stunning museums in Rome! Many of the museums themselves are architectural treasures, but if you want to leave aside drawing courtyards and columns, you will also find plenty of fuel for some figure drawing in many of the ancient statues to be found there.

Our group will visit the Palazzo Altemps right in the centre of Rome when we visit together this autumn. One of the treasures there is this demure figure of a woman bathing, known as the ‘Aphrodite of Cnidos’.

At close inspection, the figure seems flawed in many ways. Her posture and proportions are not entirely convincing… and yet she has her charm. Sitting down with her for an hour is a way to enter into a kind of conversation with a piece of art. She can teach you a thing or two about what works and doesn’t work, why and why not.

An object like this is also an opportunity for a mental journey through time, and an opportunity to explore the evolution of societal values. Questions emerge about the woman who modelled for this work, about society’s relationship to the nude figure, about the cult of goddesses, and gender roles in art.

The ‘Aphrodite of Cnidos’ here in the Palazzo Altemps is a pastiche with an interesting story. What we see today is a collection of parts of a Roman statue from the 2nd century, copied from a Greek statue already several hundred years old, and patched back together with a new torso in the 1600s by an Italian sculptor. The original Greek statue is said to have been made by a man named Praxiteles. The sculpture was much admired, and inspired numerous copies over the centuries.

One of the reasons this statue was so intriguing and so famous, is that the woman who modelled for it was assumed to be the courtesan named Phyrne. Legend has it that Phyrne, who was the artist’s lover, was accused of beguiling men into lewd behaviour and got herself arrested. During her trial, she was defended by a clever orator whose ‘coup de théâtre’ was to pull her dress off.  According to the story, her judges were wowed by her beauty and found it impossible not to desire her. This proved it wasn’t her fault that men couldn’t control themselves at the sight of her… and she was acquitted!

Drawing this statue’s distorted proportions and hermaphraditic torso, I also tried not to judge Phyrne too harshly. I tried to render her as I saw her, gangly arms and all.



“Another Artist”

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When you are focused on your subject, you get into a kind of flow and forget where you are. Many people have noticed the meditative quality of this kind of feeling, including artist Anthony Lombardi.

While he was painting on the street in Rome recently, someone passing by his easel mumbled under his breath something like, ‘Another artist!’ and there are indeed lots of artists in that beautiful city.

Anthony says, “The words weren’t important at that precise moment. What really struck me was the fact that, just before hearing the words, I was completely immersed in a sort of trance while painting. I had created within myself this ‘space’ in order to be in contact with what I was painting.

For me, the act of painting opens a door that leads to a spiritual space. In other words, my inner being, even though linked to the physical world by observation and painting, is no longer anchored to that which surrounds me. Instead my being is transported to a spiritual realm that is both inside of and outside of me.

This could be one of the reasons that people who paint claim the activity makes them feel good.”

To see the kind of work Anthony creates and enjoy his vision of the Eternal City, visitors can view his website at

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Art on the streets of Rome



Plein air (French for “outdoors”) painting is a way to escape the controlled conditions of the studio and make work that is full of spontaneity and personality. As you grow in confidence as a plein air painter, you might take on bigger and bigger challenges – making drawings and paintings in all kinds of environments! As far as cities go, none offers more stimulus to the plein air artist than the city of Rome.

So, you’d love to give it a go but are unsure what to bring, where to go, what subjects to choose, and how to stay comfortable. Our mission is to help with all of that. With the right preparation, you can learn to pack a “studio” in a small bag. With expert companions to show the way, you can set up discretely in a safe public space and get to work. With an experienced art instructor and local companions to help you, you can have an art-themed holiday that you will enjoy, learn from, and remember forever! Click on “Join Us” on the main menu to find out how…

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