The Sketchbook

Just back from…Florence Academy of Art

Behind the Artwork, Lifestyle

In July I had the absolute delight/pleasure/privilege/luck of attending a plein air workshop at the Florence Academy of Art.

Earlier this year, I was lamenting to my Mother about how college – or, full-time learning without the cumbersome responsibilities of adulthood – is wasted on the young. Oh the things I would do differently! How I wish I could go back in time and revisit my lectures as a [somewhat] fully formed adult (a common sentiment I’m told). I finally am ready to learn new things!!

The summer I was sixteen, I attended Rhode Island School of Design’s Summer Intensive. The program was meant for high school students who were serious about studio arts and were considering applying to specialized art schools for university. Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), is widely considered the best and most competitive art school in the United States. That’s all to say… this program was intense, advanced, and utterly eye-opening. Despite how much I loved it, that summer was the last time I enrolled in a “serious” art program (thats a different story…). Since starting My Father’s Daughter Designs in 2019, I have fantasized about going back to that summer program. After months (years?) of talking about it, my Mom suggested what was probably obvious: find an accredited continuing education program to go to. Why didn’t I think of that…

After researching a variety of classes, certification programs, intensive, residencies… I landed on the Florence Academy of Art. I am a sucker for the Old Masters and have always gravitated towards more traditional styles of painting in my own practice – so Florence seemed like the natural choice. 60% of the world’s most important and studied works of art are located in Italy, and approximately half of them are located in Florence. As a result, Florence is arguably the epicenter of learning techniques of the Old Masters. On top of that, Florence is the birthplace of the Renaissance – the rebirth of art, architecture, literature, and music, coming out of the medieval period. SIGN ME UP!

After some lengthy discussions about which workshop and when, I applied for the Landscape Painting/Plein Air course – a bit out of my comfort zone, as I consider myself more of a still-life, studio painter.

Painting the Ponte Vecchio with the Florence Academy of Art
Painting the Ponte Vecchio from the bank of the Arno River. Photo courtesy of our wonderful TA, Saara Knapp

Plein Air painting, which is done entirely outdoors, has incredible benefits for artists learning (or re-learning) how to capture natural light, atmosphere, and changing scenes in real time. Having just a few hours to capture an entire scene is extremely challenging, and as a notoriously slow painter this course pushed me in the best way possible.

Florence Academy was founded specifically to train students in the art of classical, realistic drawing, painting and sculpture. The curriculum is based on the major Realist ateliers of 19th century Paris, and instruction “demands skill based discipline, a consideration for canons of beauty, and the direct study of nature and the Old Masters as foundation for great painting and sculpture.”

Our workshop used the city of Florence as our classroom, changing locations every 2-3 days. Working from life, our instructor Tanvi Pathare focused on simplifying composition and nature, perspective, color mixing, and values of light.

For our first location, our class set up camp along running path near the Arno River about 10 minutes from school. From there we spent two days at Il Girone, then Piazzale Michelangelo, and finally, the Ponte Vecchio from the Ponte alle Grazie.

Plein Air Painting Outside Of Florence
Our first location, just a 10 minute walk from the Florence Academy of Art

There are SO many takeaways from this experience, it would honestly be much faster to list what I did not like (exactly one note: I should have enrolled in the longer course). But I, the 31 year old woman, did promise my Mother I would share a few of my bigger ah-ha moments on this blog, so here we go!

Tess Ramirez Florence Sketchbook My Fathers Daughter Designs

Artists & athletes have more in common than stereotypes would lead you to believe

Practice and consistency – and consistently practicing – is absolutely key. I couldn’t believe how quickly our class improved after just a few days of consistent work. You wouldn’t run the New York City Marathon without training…you can’t expect to create a masterpiece when you haven’t touched a brush in months. There is no shortcut! So learn to love the practice runs. And sometimes those practice runs take place in 103 degree heat with absolutely no shade! DEAL WITH IT!

Be comfortable with imperfection and slow growth. Embrace SLOW!

On the first day of class our instructor Tanvi started orientation by saying, “Let’s just get this out of the way. The goal of this class is not to bring home finished paintings for your portfolio. In fact, you might not finish a single painting while you are here. And that is just fine.” Its impossible to keep an open mind when you are so focused on an end result. As soon as I let go of my preconceived expectations, I started to learn and grow. Go figure!

Another surprise on my first day of class was my reacquaintance with the Italian practice of riposo. “Riposo” quite literally means “rest.” In Italy, the practice of riposo is similar to the siesta – a period of rest (or big nap) mid-day after your meal. The history of the Italian riposo most likely came into practice as a bodily response to the extreme mid-day heat, combined with the deep cultural practice of going home for lunch to eat with family. In typical American fashion, I was [at first] frustrated by the practice. Our painting class started most days around 8am, and would break at 12:30/1:00pm – just at the time many restaurants and shops were closing for a riposo. (Luckily the school had an incredible chef and cafeteria that worked around class schedules). Medal shudders came down, shops closed, and the streets were quiet from 1pm until 4:30…or sometimes 6.

Coming from a life of working through lunch – eating with one hand and working with the other – the idea of sitting down for a big lunch (with an appetizer! and other people!), followed by a required pause from work until the evening sounded absolutely insane and maybe a little painful. Painful because I’m the kind of person who fills travel itineraries to the absolute max in order to see as much as possible when I’m in a new place. These were prime hours I could be doing things!!!! What would possibly happen to me if I, god forbid, didn’t utilize a big chunk of the afternoon! IN ITALY?! It felt like a crime.

By the second or third day, with a bit of jet lag and a 105 degree day determined to derail my “productivity”, I finally gave in. I quickly realized (albeit, reluctantly) that taking a few hours in the afternoon to pause had absolutely no affect on my productivity or ability to succeed in this course, or more broadly, professionally. Forgive me if you saw this coming, but practicing the Italian riposo actually had a POSITIVE effect on both my work and my health. As an independent artist, theres an assumption that if you aren’t working, you aren’t making money – and if you aren’t earning, you don’t “really” have a job and therefore are “less than” those clocking in and out of corporate America. While its true that billable hours can’t be applied to siesta time, the practice of filling each day with busy work and appointments from 9 to 6 just because, has absolutely no baring on a persons ability to succeed.

Of course the Italians have a beautiful phrase for this kind of anti-rat race lifestyle: “La Vita Lenta,” slow living, or “Il dolce far niente,” the sweetness of doing nothing.

La vita lenta is a state of mind – one I am *attempting* to continue in Brooklyn – the act of enjoying the simple moments in life, not rushing, taking your time. And wouldn’t you know, I started to find joy in those quiet, sometimes mundane, slow moments of every day life.

I think part of the lure and magic of Italy is due to la vita lenta. Clementina Jackson, a writer at one of my favorite digital publications, Italy Segreta, describes this perfectly: “…Silly things like big careers, future plans and responsibilities seem to slip rather alarmingly to the back of our minds, replaced with frantic schemes on how to achieve la dolce vita full-time. “

My god, how refreshing is that!?

Immersing yourself in a new place and/or routine = jumpstart for any creative slump or general world weariness

If you couldn’t guess from the rant above, for most of this year, I have felt extremely burnt out. I was working constantly, but progressing minimally; a hamster on a wheel. I wasn’t excited by my usual subjects and I couldn’t think of anything new. I was constantly panicking that I had “lost it” (whatever “it” is) and my career was over. Can you hear the violin?

My third day in Florence I even called my Mom and told her how guilty I felt momentarily leaving work obligations [in the capable hands of my assistant Sophie might I add]. She gently reminded me that this might be the last time I have the privilege of learning in a foreign city with no other responsibilities, and suggested I go on a long walk around my temporary neighborhood (very la vita lenta).

As I settled in to my class schedule and new lifestyle (!) I finally started to feel that creative spark again. Sure, I might not have created enough content on my trip (eye roll), or even sketched as much as I thought I would, but that wasn’t the purpose. I slowed down. I left my phone in my flat. I drank my morning cappuccino in the cafe instead of “TO GO!!!” I lived in the moment and resisted the urge to fret about the future. And I can’t express how valuable that was.

Sketching on my rooftop patio for two glorious weeks

If you are on the hunt for a fine art continuing education program, I highly recommend looking into Florence Academy of Art. Im sure these learnings seem extremely obvious (I just learned theres a dolce far niente moment in Eat Pray Love which Im slightly embarrassed to say I still haven’t seen), but hey I’m a late bloomer I guess.

This Fall (Mid-October 2023), I will be releasing a collection of artwork using some of the paintings and drawings I started in Italy. Spoiler alert: The “lessons learned” on my trip will make a big reappearance!



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