Sketchbook: The Venetian’s Candle

Pin-up, 2015

I found this story in Venetian legends and ghost stories: a guide to places of mystery in Venice, which I bought at the end of the summer I spent in Venice for a graduate program in art history.

View into the lagoon from the Giudecca, where I was staying, 2006
I would like the entrance to my house to be a bridge over a moat (or a canal)

Venice is beautiful and romantic and unusual and everything people say about it. But I found myself interested not in the lagoon and the sun so much as the corners and the shadows. So I was pleased to find this little book of local ghost stories in a tiny bookshop. One afternoon I picked a bunch of the locations and was very happy looking for ghosts.

I found pg. 25! The portal of the Scuola di San Marco

The ghosts in the story are described as “dead men,” which made me think of so many Italian representations of Death as not a skeleton but as a corpse. I must also have been thinking of the Venetian island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, which from the 12th century until the early 1600s housed a leper colony tended by a Benedictine order. Venetians suffering from this incurable disease went there to die (one of my professors from my program assured me that it was actually like a nice spa retreat). I think I was picturing their loose garments and fragile (and possibly detachable) bodies when I designed this little brotherhood. I don’t know why they wander around with candles.

Some of the first sketches of Paolo and the dead man (how I loved drawing his bare skull)

For a fin-de-siécle Venice of shadow I drew upon the work of my favorite painter, John Singer Sargent. His first visit to Venice produced views of dark interiors and close alleys (I believe his Impressionist friends berated him for going to Italy and painting shadows).

Street in Venice, 1882 (currently at The National Gallery of Art)
Leaving Church, Campo San Canciano, Venice, ca. 1882 (currently in a private collection)
Venetian Water Carriers, 1880–1882 (currently at the Worcester Art Museum)

I had a different idea for the cover until I realized it had to be a direct homage to Sargent’s creepy A Street in Venice, 1880–1882. I was so annoyed having to redraw the whole thing but it was worth it.

L-R: my first cover design; Sargent’s A Street in Venice, 1880–1882 (currently at The Clark Art Institute); the final cover design

I did a few character sketches, but that was it; the layout came to me very quickly and never changed. Sometimes it’s lucky like that. This was the first time I pencilled and inked anything this involved, and I was happy with my first layout; however, I was not happy with my first inking job, which looked like a 2 years old boy did it. I got 2 pages in and redid the whole thing. Practice is fundamental.

My first attempt at inking, which I gave up and for good reason
Final pencils for all four pages

I will probably redraw my artist picture for every project (because it’s so much FUN) but I do love this barn owl with a pipe. I also really like my Victorian gentleman’s look. The portrait style is obviously inspired by Mike Mignola, who likes to draw himself surrounded by night creatures.

Author portrait, stages of pencilling

I like story for The Venetian’s Candle because it’s spooky without being threatening. I imagined the protagonist frightened at losing his way in the dark, grateful to receive help, and then the biggest scare comes in the full light of morning. I also liked that he braves the maze of midnight Venice again (albeit aided by moonlight) to return what does not belong to him. It fits nicely with my belief that the thing in the darkness should be respected — and befriended.

Pencil/wash sketch of the big reveal

Download The Venetian’s Candle

This story is for the people I name in my acknowledgements, who didn’t doubt me even though I create slowly. I add one name to that list: Danielle Fisher, a talented illustrator whose work ethic is intimidating, and yet she helped me like an equal. Support her art!