Director of ‘Painting in Italy’…

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October, 2016

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I’ve just received this email from Sheila de Vries, Director of ‘Painting in Italy’…
“Last year we were included in The Sunday Times’ ‘Top 100 Best Holidays’. We are very proud to report that recently The Telegraph included us in their “Top 50 Activity Holidays for 2016”. This is two of the UK’s most influential newspapers that have selected Painting in Italy out of many other painting holiday companies.
We are obviously doing something right!”

They certainly are, and what follows here is my personal endorsement…
Having enjoyed a memorable week painting in Venice (May 2015) organised by ‘Painting in Italy’ I set off again in late October 2016 with the same company for a week in Florence – once again I was not disappointed. This time we were going to work in a studio and find out how to paint a black box still life in oils – something I’ve always wanted to do.

I flew from Stansted to Pisa with Ryanair, then an hour’s coach drive to Santa Maria Novella in Florence followed by a relaxed 10 minute walk to the 3* Hotel della Signoria, just two blocks from the Ponte Vecchio and Lungoarno.

My first evening began in the hotel with introductions to the other participants over a glass of chilled prosecco with Sheila, and then we walked around the corner for dinner at a local restaurant where we ate à la carte with plenty of wine.

The next morning it was no more than a five minute walk to the studio of our tutors and hosts, Canadians Laura Thompson (painter) and Frank Rutger (sculptor), in their Florentine palazzo studio to start work. The easels, canvases, paints, brushes, etc. were all prepared for us in a high ceilinged room (see foto 1), and the previous evening Sheila had supplied each of us with an apron – everything needed for the week was provided.

Before Laura’s introductions were completed we had already espied the shelves full of fascinating objects with which to compose our still lifes (lives?) and we couldn’t wait to get started. What a selection – glass, pottery, shells, skulls, fruit and veg, containers of all shapes and sizes, along with materials, swatches of fabric, and the unmistakable straw-encased Chianti bottles – I could go on and on (see foto 2). We had only 5 mornings in which to complete this work of art so I decided to keep it very simple. Unlike Venice in 2015 where we spent each morning painting at a different location, finally taking home a selection of sketches, this week would give us the chance to return home with a single finished piece of artwork and I didn’t want to slow myself down with something complicated that I probably wouldn’t be able to finish.
Once the compositions were set up Laura explained the ‘Sight-Size’ method of transposing a still life onto the canvas – ‘this involves drawing or painting while viewing both the model and artwork simultaneously from a selected position so that both images appear the same size to the artist. This setup allows the artist to directly compare nature with the artwork and to more easily see and record the impression of the whole scene.’ To me this seemed time consuming and laborious – I don’t have much patience, I wanted to get on and paint! – and it was a struggle, but once I’d achieved it it all made sense and I had a more or less identical outline drawing and understanding of my composition on the canvas and it was at last ready to paint (see foto 3). Thus we progressed each morning with Laura providing instruction, explanation and support as and when required – first painting in the black background, then blocks of colour, finally blending these blocks to create contours, shadows, perspective and dimensions (see fotos 4-7).

Around mid-morning Frank would lay out some elevenses for us along with the, by now, customary glass of prosecco to speed us on our way – something we all looked forward to! We painted with tuition till 1 pm after which we could continue unaided until 3 pm or take off to explore our surroundings. Two afternoons had been organised for us – a guided visit to the Uffizi Gallery and Vasari Corridor, and an optional visit to a bookbinder to make our own marbled paper. The marbling is achieved by dragging combs through a carrageen moss gel in which blobs of different colours are suspended. The action of the combs drags and mixes the colours into different patterns which are transferred onto a sheet of paper that is gently laid on top of the carrageen moss to pick up the combed swirls of colour and then left to dry. Florence is famous for high quality stationery and bookbinding, marbled papers lining and/or covering the hard covers of the books. One afternoon Frank accompanied us to Fiesole, a small town high above Florence, travelling on the local buses. Each evening we ate at one of three selected restaurants, always à la carte. The à la carte meals included in Sheila’s holidays are such a bonus – I’ve had more than enough of set tourist menus!

The Hotel della Signoria deserves well in excess of its 3*, and breakfasts in the top floor breakfast room overlooking the red tiled roofs of Florence provided an enervating start to the day – especially the two fried eggs ‘easy over’ on toast which set me up for the rest of the morning until Frank’s mid-morning break!

A few decades ago I visited Florence quite regularly in a working capacity, and this was my first trip back to the city since those days. I remembered it all those years ago as a bustling city with narrow, traffic-jammed streets, loud honking horns, drivers shouting at each other, street traders shouting out their wares in loud Italian, elegantly dressed Florentine residents and shoppers frequenting fashionable cafes and shops. On this visit it seemed to me to have become ‘Disneyfied’. Streets in the city centre are now semi-pedestrianised, used only by local traffic, taxis and tiny minibuses, all driving very slowly and carefully, anxiously avoiding the hordes of meandering tourists criss-crossing the streets, without hooting their horns! Street traders seem mostly to be polite eastern Europeans who speak little Italian and make no attempt to accost or pester passers-by. Florentine residents and shoppers are now perhaps outnumbered by tourists. Each street block seems to have at least one branch of H&M and Zara slotted in amongst the high-end designer shops and traditional artisan ateliers. It is not as ‘Italian’ as I remembered it – but, on the other hand, as a now somewhat elderly, single traveller I felt very safe and had no qualms at all about venturing out alone at any time of the day or evening.

Our hosts Laura and Frank are simply delightful – nothing was ever too much trouble. Already accomplished artists, they had spent 3 years studying in Florence before successfully establishing The Florence Studio. Their works may be found in both public and private collections throughout Canada, USA, Italy, Holland, Germany and Spain. Laura seems to know instinctively whether or not you need her help and magically comes to your rescue without being called! Her explanations, with plenty of humour, are short, concise, clear and meaningful. It is amazing how she has been able to distil 3 years of study down to 15 carefully structured hours of teaching that enabled us all to produce artworks to be really proud of. See their website at

As we were painting, not sculpting, Frank accompanied us to dinner, assisted in the studio and was always happy to be a back up to Laura when required – all this in addition to producing our daily elevenses and cooking pizzas and apple pies for us. Plus he deftly packaged up our painted canvases so neatly that I was able to pop mine in my suitcase and get it home without damage. Somehow between their teaching sessions they manage to complete their commissions – although I wonder quite how on earth they find the time and energy! Oh, and I’ve forgotten to mention Leo, a very self-sufficient, cuddly, little resident rabbit who hops around the studio being careful to just keep out of arms’ reach.

In conclusion, this is a holiday that justifiably confirms Painting In Italy’s inclusion in the Top 50 Activity Holidays for 2016 and I will definitely be booking a third holiday with them. Sheila’s attention to detail is second to none, there is no single supplement to pay and non-painting partners are always welcomed. If you’ve never travelled alone before this is the company with which to take your first trip. You don’t have to be an experienced artist – tutors are selected who are able to guide complete beginners along with experienced artists. Apart from Florence and Venice Sheila also has holidays in Umbria, Sicily and the Italian Lakes.


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