2. Through the gate…

Huff and puff up the steep bridge, through the Porta Santa Maria, turn and look back at this view as you emerge into the Piazza San Pietro. The workshop group often sketches here in the morning while we sit in shade and the facades are bathed in crisp morning light, plus the bar (what we call a cafe) on the piazza opens early and serves yummy lattes. Appropriate, as apparently there was a market here long ago.

Look carefully at this wide-angle view and you’ll see blue sky in some of the windows of the Renaissance era Palazzo Colesanti…yes, the building collapsed into the valley below and all that is left is the facade! The outdoor stair is called a proferlo and is typical of this area of Italy. The gray stone around the windows is a very dense balsatina, which is mined locally. It’s also used for some amazing fireplace throughout town.

In terms of technique, this is where we learn to leave a swath of the paper as white untouched by paint in order to get a sense for the sun hitting the face of the building and ground. This is also where we learn to do varied washes of color so the color isn’t flat and also talks about the materials and stone texture. Just look at all the colors that are dropped into any one facade! That was done with one layer of watercolor wash. And my favorite part, just look at the arch on the far right under the stairs…that glow of red is a drop of Daniel Smith Quinacridone Burnt Orange into wet paint. I love that color!

I am looking back as a way to dream about next year…gosh I miss this place!

1. Civita weaves its spell…

Yesterday, the workshop folks would have huffed and puffed their way up the long and steep bridge to the amazing tiny town of Civita di Bagnoregio.

Instead of the island in the sky it is now, Civita was at one time surrounded by fairly level fields with entry roads coming into town from various directions. But the rivers to the north and south, aided by earthquakes, cut into the soft volcanic and undersea soils and left it standing alone and cut off. There used to be a skinny land bridge that connected Bagnoregio with Civita, and the main mode of transport until only a few decades ago was by donkey! These days, in the mornings you’ll find shop and restaurant owners on their scooters, loaded down with bags of supplies.

Walking up the bridge is something of a ritual ceremony. And for those of us who are afraid of heights, it takes some getting used to. But with each step and gaze out to the vast landscape, you leave the real world behind and get closer to the timeless, auto-free, ancient world of stone that is beyond the gate.

Just inside the Porta Santa Maria, you can see the Etruscan era original arches which are held in place with no mortar, only gravity. The current facade was actually added in the Renaissance by the local cardinal who made it look like a sort of medieval gate. There used to be a chapel here, a hospital, roads down to the chestnut fields below town, and much more, but it’s all fallen into the valley by now, joining the wild boar or cinghiale that roam the hillsides (yes, you can eat pasta with cinghiale, and it’s delicious!) But pass through this gate, as pilgrims have been doing for thousands of years (you can see the crosses carved into the stone walls), and a spell comes over you. This place really is magic.

Rome 2019

In 2019, I changed my usual rushing in and out of Rome and booked 5 nights at a relatively cheap hotel near the Campo de’ Fiori after the Civita workshop. I had the BEST time all by myself for the most part (other than seeing my friends Kelly and Francesca), just wandering and sketching at my own pace. I have figured out that I really do my best work when I’m by myself, because I can listen to my own rhythms. Here are some of the images I sketched.

Near my hotel was the Portico d’Ottavia in the old Jewish quarter…yes, there is Jewish quarter in Catholic Rome. I say in the shade and listened to group after group of tourists with guides, often tearing up at their stories. I love how the ancient and modern coexist in this city. Unlike Americans, I suspect that Italians value and respect all things old…including people.
Also near the hotel were the sunken Roman ruins of the Largo d’Argentina (“argento” means “silver”). I stood to sketch in order to see the lower level. According to Francesca, Rome kept building on top of itself for thousands of years. The Tiber river would flood and leave huge amounts of silt, and instead of cleaning it out, they just built on top of it. The pine trees, which I did a terrible job of painting, are umbrella pines that produce pignoli nuts! The weeds growing in the walls produce caper berries.
When it’s hot out, I head inside the nearest church to sketch. Cool and quiet, I can sit undisturbed to sketch, rest and restore. The interior of Sant’ Andrea della Valle was right outside the window of my hotel. The interior is all shiny gold, so I basically just painted with yellow ochre and a touch of burnt sienna. I love the challenge of these perspective views! If you can enlarge this image, please take a look…it’s much more interesting when you can really see inside the spaces.
Towards the end of my stay, I woke up feeling sick, but I was so determined not to miss a day of sketching, that I threw on clothes, grabbed water bottles (Rome has the best tasting water, everywhere in the streets…), and I headed toward this picturesque spot I’ve walked by many times. This is a wide angle view that goes from the Vittorio Emanuele II monument (aka, the “wedding cake”), through the nearly 2000 year old Trajan’s Column, to the beautiful churches on the right, the Chiesa di Santa Maria di Loreto and Chiesa del Santissimo Nome di Maria al Foro Traiano. The more I sat in the heat, the worse I felt, but I pushed through. Listened to a guy selling something and how he engaged every person that walked by. Usually, it was “Where you from? Do you play basketball?” He was great, I hope he sold a lot, he worked so hard! In the end, I loved this sketch…and all the sights and sounds come back…

Walking Rome

In the pre-COVID 19 and world chaos universe, I would be sleepily stumbling around Rome right about now. After marveling the Pantheon, I would head to the Piazza Navona. I’d buy a gelato and sit on my sketching stool, then call my mother on Facetime so I could pan the scene and let her see where I am! Someone pinch me!

Once I’ve slurped down the gelato, I would start a sketch. I’ve sketched here a few times, mostly the same view with my back against the wall at one end while looking toward the other, watching the shadows change as the sun goes down.

2014 sketch in my 5×8 Pentalic sketchbook.
June 2019, sitting in almost the same spot. Slight change in style! This sketch is 8×16 on Fluid watercolor block (sadly, no longer made in this size) so I could get a little more detail in. I have to say, I got the yellow ochre glow better in the earlier one!

In 2014, I met up with my friend Kelly Medford, an American artist living the dream in Rome. Her work is beautiful, she hops on her bike and does oil painting on location!! She took my Civita workshop that year, and every time I go through Rome, I try to see her. She also runs sketching workshops for tourists, in case you ever go…

Really quick 2014 sketch of the Colosseum while walking around with Kelly. The left side is empty as it was covered in scaffolding at the time, but I like how it focuses on the broken edge on the right!

From the Colosseum to the Forum. It was probably 110 degrees midday as I sketched, and who should walk by, but my friend Francesca Caruso with a tour group! She took my first workshop ever in Seattle, and you can see her walking the streets of her beloved Rome with Rick Steves in his TV shows. She is amazing, her goal is to change the way people see their world…and she does it!!!

The tour continues tomorrow…and I have to say that these days, I am happy to be healthy at home, to have a roof over my head and food in my fridge. My sadness about not traveling pales in comparison to those in the world who are truly suffering. As I write these posts, I am counting my blessings…

The Pantheon, my ground zero

Today I find myself feeling so sad today for the current state of our world. In a pre-COVID-19 universe, I’d be boarding a plane to Italy today. This would be the 8th year I’ve had the honor to teach a sketching workshop in the amazing iconic hill town of Civita di Bagnoregio, just north of Rome. To say I look forward to this trip each year is a HUGE understatement. After 7 years, including a two month stay in 2014, it feels like a second home to me.

In 2013, I came to Rome and Civita during my 3-month architecture fellowship in Paris (OK, I still can’t believe I can write that sentence!) I usually stay a day or two in Rome to adjust to the time change before making my way north. Arriving in Rome is always a bit of a shock– it’s so wonderful to breathe in the warm colors, be greeted by bubbly and warm people, devour amazing food that felt like it comes straight from the earth.

When I get to Rome, I drop my bags and make a beeline for… the Pantheon. If I see nothing else, I have to come here. Just walking into the space fills me with awe and connects me to the ancient history that is this beautiful city. It’s humbling to realize I am at best a tiny nano-blip in the larger scheme of things in this universe, sort of like gazing at the billions of lights in the night sky. That’s how I feel when looking up at that exquisite opening in the ceiling above.

The Pantheon is a challenging place to sketch, I think I redrew the shapes on the page 10 times before I got everything proportional and fitting on the paper. It’s small, in my Pentalic 5×8 (perfect Golden Rectangle!) sketchbook. This sketch means so much to me– in part, I feel the connection to all the people who have been walking into this space for centuries, and it also represents the start of a wonderful adventure and lifelong dream to travel and teach. It’s the first image in my first book, Understanding Perspective, to explain the enormous power of sketching to see, remember, experience…

Yellow Ochre to Pyrrol Orange to Quin Burnt Orange…that’s the sequence of colors on the left…

For the next two weeks or so, I’ll be posting sketches, stories, and photos from my travel to Italy and workshops in Civita from the seven previous years. Until we can travel and meet there in the future, let’s travel together through the past from home! Grazie, baci a tutti!

End of an Era

Bluprint, formerly known as Craftsy, has just sent out the following message:


We recently shared the disappointing news that Bluprint will be closing over the next few months. You can see the letter to the Bluprint community here and posted below. We are immensely thankful for the opportunity to have supported you and your passion over the past decade. 

We know there are many questions and we will have more information to share soon. Please note that we will provide a way for those of you who have purchased classes to receive a copy of the classes you purchased. For example, we’re working on a solution to give you an extended period to download your purchased classes. 

Current subscribers still have access to classes, patterns, and course materials, however we will stop accepting new subscribers and orders for individual classes, patterns and supplies on May 31 at 11:59 pm EDT

Thank you for your patience and understanding as we work through these important details. If you have questions, please use the Contact Us feature on our website. 

May 24, 2020 

To our Bluprint community, 

This is not an easy letter to write. For the last ten years, my colleagues and I have worked tirelessly on Craftsy and then Bluprint. When we started the business in 2010, our goal was to provide passionate enthusiasts access to the world’s best experts and make it easier to learn new skills. Our hope was to make people’s lives better through creativity, and we’ve been honored to serve millions of customers over the last decade. 

I am disappointed to inform you that Bluprint will be closing over the next few months. Like so many customers, instructors, designers, and employees, I am devastated by this news. Please know that our team is working quickly to finalize details, and we will provide more information soon. 

For now, I wanted to let you know that we are looking at various options to allow those of you who have purchased individual classes to receive a copy of your classes. This includes individual classes purchased with own forever credits. We are also planning to issue prorated refunds for paid subscribers based on the last day our service will be available, which will be communicated when that date is finalized in the near future. 

On behalf of all the Craftsy/Bluprint employees, I want to express our gratitude and appreciation to you for being with us on this journey. 

If you have questions, please contact us and we will do our best to respond as quickly as possible. 

Thank you and please stay safe and healthy. 

Sincerely,BluprintJohn Levisay 
CEO, Bluprint (Craftsy)

So odd this is happening now, when you’d think business would be booming with everyone stuck at home and working online. On behalf of myself and the 9 other Urban Sketchers instructors on the Bluprint/Craftsy platform (Shari Blaukopf, Suhita Shirodkar, Marc Taro Holmes, Paul Heaston, James Richards, Lynne Chapman, Suma CM, Steven Reddy, Matt Brehm), I’ve written Bluprint with a list of questions. Most important, it sounds like they are trying to figure out a way to let people access the content they bought as “Forever Classes”. I’ll let everyone know when I hear back.

I have to say a huge THANK YOU to Craftsy, it’s been an honor and a privilege to get to be part of their family. They created really high quality, state-of-the-art online classes — heck, my courses alone reached literally tens of thousands of people around the world. It was funny to meet folks who recognized me by my voice even before they saw me, thanks to these classes! At the Manchester USk symposium, Paul Heaston and I talked with a woman from Africa who said these classes had “saved her life”, as they were the only way she could access art instruction. WOW! I’m very sad to see this resource disappear.

So if you’ve purchased the classes, watch them again now while you have the chance, I think until the end of June…take notes and lots of screen shots! And stay tuned, I’m working out a way to teach perspective workshops online via Zoom… interested?

A Guide to Our Living Room, and the steps it took to get there…

As primarily a travel sketcher who is now stuck at home on Day 47, I’m finally turning my sights to drawing our house. What started as a simple sketch of our small living room turned into creating a way to identify beloved objects, a road may for our kids who some day may want to know what all this stuff is and where it came from. (I’ve instructed them not to sell the watercolor paintings and my brushes at a yard sale!)
And since I was sketching at home, I had the luxury of being able to stop and start, and to scan various phases of the sketch. I LOVED the line drawing and hesitated to add any color at all, but then took the plunge and added a little underpainting to establish the voids or recessed spaces. Finally, more color, although I tried to restrain myself and leave a lot of white to give a sense of the sunlight.
In the end, my favorite is the underpainted version, and the kind folks who responded to my Instagram post helped me figure out why (most liked the full color version, by the way.) I like the unfinished quality of the sketch at that point, the areas that are left white feel fresh. It’s a painting of potential, one that doesn’t overpower the line drawing I really liked and didn’t want to lose with too much paint (which happens all too often!)
How about you, which version do you like best?

And the steps:

1–Initial rough sketch blocking out the big shapes. You can see my vanishing point right in front of me, and my eye level line drawn all the way across the page. I didn’t erase any of these lines, other than moving the Eames chair, I drew right over them.

2– Completed line drawing. I love being able to se all the little details! I added the text.

3– Underpainting, it’s my way of easing into the painting by dipping my toe in first. Cool colors show the recesses, the warm colors advance.

4–Full color, but a muted palette so I don’t cover up too much of the lines I love. I tried to restrain from painting too much, by leaving areas of the paper white to show sunlight.

This post also appears on the Urban Sketchers blog at http://www.urbansketchers.org.


Being stuck inside, facing a dangerous pandemic, has made me reflect on lots of things, including my sketching journey. A few weekends ago, I did an interview with Brenda Murray of Studio 56, and in light of all this reflection, I thought it would be good to show how I got to where I am today… it’s been a long road, with a 30 year break in between!! Some day, it will make for a good Ted Talk, as the road has lots of challenges, great tragedies, and inspiring moments of good will and good fortune.

At the end of each of the Sunday USk Talks, instructors pose a sketching challenge. So of course, my challenge was not to actually sketch something but to go back to your earliest sketches and compare them with what you do now. What have you learned? How have your sketches evolved? Any ah-ha moments? What is the meaning of life? (Just kidding on that last one, well, sort of kidding…)

You can view the entire talk on Urban Sketchers YouTube.

So, I extend the invitation to you to post your reflections to what is now being called the “Then and Now Challenge” on Instagram and Facebook. It doesn’t have to be the same location for both sketches. If you decide to jump into this challenge, be sure to tag the following on Instagram: #USkTalksChallenge #usktalks #USKthenandnowchallenge @ubansketchers and of course tag me @stephanieabower (don’t forget the middle “a”) so I can see it and comment!

Above is my Then and Now…the image on the left is one of my first pencil sketches done of Radcliffe Camera in Oxford back in the…gulp…1980’s. Then there was a 30 year break to marry, raise kids, work and teach. I picked up sketching again in 2011 with a fateful trip to India (that’s for the Ted Talk for sure). The image on the right, is part of a panorama sketch done in 2017 when I had the opportunity to teach a workshop in gorgeous Oxford. It was amazing to go back, and I would love to teach there again.

So what did I learn? My first sketches were thick and heavy, not a whole lot of control at the beginning of that trip, and no color at all, but things did get better. What I do now has the same goal — to learn about architecture — but with a lot more control of my hand, a lot more technique. Makes me happy to see that things have improved as they have evolved.

What about your Then and Now????

USk Talks #4: Couch Travelling Around the World

I was so nervous, but once I heard that soothing radio host voice of Rob Sketcherman welcoming people to the Instagram LIVE talk from midnight in Hong Kong, I was lulled into a relaxed trance. What followed was a blast! It was really SO fun to relive some of the places I’ve been and sketched, going in a clockwise direction starting in Varanasi, India, where I was almost born. The goal was not to show my best work, but to show sketches that hold meaning for me, especially since travel is restricted now and for the foreseeable future, which frankly, has been depressing. So Rob’s upbeat and warm delivery were very much appreciated.

The one hour talk interview crossed the globe in true USk form, with Rob in HK, me in Seattle, and the amazing Oliver Hoeller in Austria. It is now up on Urban Sketchers YouTube here.

Thanks to everyone who watched live! I will post the images I showed along with a few stories on this blog so you can see them a little better. Technology is great, but not perfect! We laughed so much, I hope you will find some time to join us for a little mini trip from the comfort of your own home!

USk Talks, Take a Trip to Distant Lands this Sunday

Look who’s up next in talk #4 of this inspiring series! Join interviewer Rob Sketcherman in Hong Kong, Oliver Hoeller from Austria, and me in Seattle, from the comfort of your couch for a little sketching journey to distant lands this Sunday, April 26 at 9:00am Seattle time (4pm GMT).
This USk interview will be on Instagram. Make sure you “follow” Urban Sketchers on Instagram, then at 9am, open your Instagram page and look for the USk logo with the word “LIVE” in your story feed. Tap on it, and you can see the interview and even post comments! AND–this is important– it’s best if you can watch from your computer, as you won’t have to squint at your phone to see the images!

It’s a fabulous series, I am so honored to participate. We are all apart, but connected!!

(PS, if you don’t already follow my work on Instagram, I’m at @stephanieabower .