In the fall of 2009 I was lucky enough to fulfill a dream and travel to Greece with my dad for two and a half weeks. Greece has always been at the top of my list of places to visit because it’s loaded with ancient ruins, mythology, and most importantly, no shortage of places to draw. My dad is well-versed in Greek history and mythology so it was helpful and educational to have him along. But most importantly, my dad enjoys a good gyro as much as I do.
When I returned from my trip, I combined all my sketches and journal entries into a published book. Below are excerpts from The Artist on the Road: Impressions of Greece.
I’m not feeling tired even after so little sleep over the past three nights, and I’m itching to break the ice and get drawing. From our hotel, we step into the city, and without consulting a map, walk towards the Acropolis. The narrow, zigzagging streets resemble pedestrian pathways more than motorways, but motorcycles come zipping through the crowds at surprising speeds. By 10 am, we make our way along the steep path that twists up the side of the Acropolis to the Parthenon. Along the way to the top, we pause to view the ruins of the Theatre of Dionysus, the Temple of Asklepios, and the Odeion of Herodes Atticus. They would all be perfect subjects to paint, but I choose to hold off as crowds swarm around each site. When I reach the summit, I elect to draw the Erechtheion with the Porch of the Karyatids. Halfway through my drawing a teenaged girl comes near and sits beside me watching me draw. She’s completely silent. After a half hour, she looks at me, smiles and thanks me, then slips away.
While strolling about the city streets of Athens, I find myself at the nearby Temple of Olympian Zeus. It’s closed this late in the day, but I find a good vantage point from outside the gate. Several tourists mill around also, looking through the fence at the ancient ruins. It’s now or never, I think, as I pull out my watercolor Moleskine sketchbook and begin to draw. Several people approach to watch while I paint. I’m feeling a little nervous, but keep going anyway. The sun’s golden light casts deep, violet shadows for me to paint, but also hints at the urgency to finish before darkness descends. The light is dimming and I splash a few colors around, using a blotchy painting technique that I hope will keep them from running into each other and making a muddy mess. This technique allows me to work more quickly and forms a loosely painted style that I like. Looking back over the finished piece, I see a story developing. I imagine the columns as people, with a crowd huddled together on one side looking back at the others. Especially interesting is the one that has fallen over and lays scattered along the ground spelling out a possible tragedy.
Early the next morning I’m pleasantly surprised to find the Temple of Olympian Zeus is already open for viewing. I enter the site and look around for the best view of the ancient structure, set up my chair in the grass, and begin to draw. From my vantage point, the Acropolis lies in the background just behind the ruins of the Temple, dominating the landscape. Lightly, in ink, I position the columns on the page, and using a two point perspective, estimate their height relative to one another. Then I dive in with heavier line work. My drawing style is often inconsistent, and my moods can dictate the style of a piece. On some days, like today, I’m looser and not so fussy with detail, which usually means better drawings.
Late in the day we board the Metro and head up to a suburb north of Athens called Kifissia. There we meet with Irene, a Greek friend of my dad’s whom he met playing online Scrabble a couple of years ago. She treats us to dinner at one of her favorite Greek tavernas: Greek salata, fish, fried cheese, spanakopita, and of course, Greek white wine. The wine is nicely balanced with grassy and citrus aromas and a touch of oak. I feel lucky to be treated to a delicious dinner and to have made a new friend.
Heading east out of Athens along the main highway, we make a few wrong turns and end up in the middle of nowhere. Using our map, we negotiate the back roads and finally make it to Mykines, the town closest to the ruins of Mycenae, late in the afternoon. The sun, having sunk low in the sky, casts lengthy shadows across the town’s deserted streets.
After settling into our room we decide to head out to a taverna. As we exit the hotel, the evening sunset splashes brilliant orange across the sky and paints the landscape in a warm glow. Up ahead we see two groups of diners on the patio of a restaurant. We walk through an archway and a host seats us near the other patrons. We enjoy an Italian dinner of pasta, salad, and crusty bread while discussing our travel plans.
The museum in Thebes has been, from the beginning, one of our primary destinations. But Thebes, contrary to my dad’s memory of the place, is a crowded, traffic-clogged little city on a hill with no place to park. Once we do find a space for our rental car, we weave through parked cars, then walk across a park and towards the museum. But the intoxicating smell of fresh pastries lures us into a nearby bakery where our taste buds find cinnamon buns.
When we reach the museum, we’re met with a sign on its gate that reads “Closed for Renovations.” This is one problem with traveling Greece in the off-season. We never know for sure what we’ll encounter at a given destination until we actually get there. Once again, we’ve traveled a good distance by car, my dad is disappointed, and I’m unable to produce any sketches.
As we walk away from the museum, I see a nearby coffee shop with an older man in the back and a young girl working the counter. I could use a cup of coffee to go with my last few bites of cinnamon bun. As we enter the shop, I nod to a couple of Greek men drinking coffee and chatting it up on a couch in the corner. I order a delicious espresso with an almost sweet, nutty flavor, with a glass of water and a little piece of chocolate on the side. This break offers a moment to pause during this busy day, stay off the crowded streets, and slow down enough to enjoy the moment with a luscious, rich, and foamy espresso.
After many hours on the ferry, my excitement builds as the island Santorini comes into view. Passengers with cameras gather in anticipation on the port side of the ferry. We also ready our cameras and find a good spot along the railing. At first, Santorini looks like many other shallow islands we’ve seen pushing up from the sea. But when we get closer, I see a mountain looming large on the far side. Where the land meets the sea, sharp cliffs rise up a thousand feet into the blue sky. This is the caldera, where the central part of the volcano broke off and collapsed into the Aegean. Striations of colored rock, stone, sediment, and lava make the island a lopsided layer cake. As we ferry closer, the white city of Oia covers the top like frosting. The city contains no storied buildings and gathers close to the earth to avoid slipping off the caldera.
As we sail into the center of the five volcanic islands that make up Santorini, the top of the caldera rises above us. Quarter-moon shaped Thera is the largest of the islands. The city of Fira comes into view and I’m amazed that it’s so high up. The famous switchback trail, which takes travelers by donkey to and from the port below, is visible snaking along the cliff.
Seeing Fira from the top of the caldera, and looking down at the Aegean far below, is an even more powerful experience than was looking up at it from the ferry. Most of the small city streets are free of cars and barely wide enough to handle two-way pedestrian traffic. My favorite street, which is narrow enough to be called a path, traces along the edge of the caldera for several kilometers. Homes, restaurants, and hotels line this street, and all have extraordinary views. Fira’s white buildings, brightly painted doors, and overflowing baskets of flowers make this a unique spot to paint.
Walking along a courtyard located on the ridge of the caldera, I find several brightly colored, free-standing doors that have a surreal presence. At first glance, they look like gateways opening up to the sea far below. Each door is uniquely designed and painted. I enter through one and see steps descending to a terraced restaurant below. A menu listing mouth-watering entrees catches my eye, but the prices make me step back.
While painting on Santorini, I’ve discovered a good way to capture the island’s unique quality of light. By focusing on the shapes of shadows, I’ve made use of the white of the page and defined the composition with washes of color. If I had used black lines to describe the buildings, I would have lost the uniqueness of Santorini.
I want to draw something, anything, but with the windy weather, it’ll be impossible to draw outside. Yet in the hope of finding a sheltered spot, I go out with my sketchbook. I draw while eating a gyro at an outdoor taverna, but shortly after, the wind blows me back to the pension. Discussing alternatives to outdoor activities, my dad and I decide today is a good museum day and choose to hide inside the Archeological Museum. As I had hoped, I see the wall paintings, vases and other painted artifacts from Akrotiri.
Richard Sheppard is a freelance illustrator and fine artist based in Healdsburg, California. His book, "The Artist on the Road: Impressions of Greece," is available on Amazon. An e-book edition will also be available in July of 2011. Follow Richard's work on his blog, The Artist On The Road, and flickr.
Would you like to contribute a sketch report for the blog? We want to hear from you. You may interview an urban skecher you admire, review a book about sketching or tell the story of a memorable sketching trip. Contact us at urbansketchers at gmail dot com.