BIG MOTHER HAN 3: Drawing in Buyuk Valide Han

Well, she’s gone. My drawing partner from the past six months, Gabrielle who got me up on this blog, is now drawing her tucchas off in Rome.  I’ve never had a drawing partner, and my we had fun, both drawing and hanging out. We’re about the same height and coloring, and she’s half my age. Everyone thought she was my daughter.

Gaby & Me ©2012 Trici Venola


Our last drawing session was up on the roof at Buyuk Valide Han. We meandered up there about a month ago the first time, on a miserably cold dark day, and held out for about two hours. We knew she was leaving, and wanted to make the most of any dry weather. Here’s what I got: not much:

Up On the Roof WIP 1 ©2012 Trici Venola

And we had a swell pizza. This beloved place is just out the back door of the Han complex. If there’s a better in the Old City I don’t know where.

That Great Pizza Place ©2012 Trici Venola

After that day the snow set in and drawing outside was impossible. About ten days ago, we staggered up there anyway to finish the drawings. Plein Air, brrrrr.

Suleymaniye Vista ©2012 Trici Venola

But here’s the view, isn’t it wonderful? That’s Suleymaniye Mosque on the hill up there. It was built by the great master architect Mimar Sinan, still studied all over the world, back in the mid-16th century for Suleyman the Magnificent. It’s been in renovation for the past five years. It used to look like God had been living in it for half a millennium, and now it looks like a movie set. It actually is a movie set; they shot part of the new Bond movie up there last fall.

Bosporus Vista ©2012 Trici Venola

And there’s the Yeni Mosque in front of the Galata Bridge in Eminonu, and beyond it the Ataturk Bridge across the Bosphorus. We’re looking up toward the Black Sea.

The Guys in the First Courtyard ©2012 Trici Venola

Where are we? You go all the way through Buyuk Valide Han: up the steep driveway and through the first little courtyard, through the Big Han parking lot with the Shiite mosque in it, clear to the back. If you’re lucky, you’ll meet one of the all-time great faces: Cemel.

The Best Face in the Han ©2009 Trici Venola

I’ve never encountered a face like this. Cemel tells me he’s got several brothers look just like him, but this is a two-shot of his face alone. You’d do a lot worse than to get a shoeshine from him, too.

Cemel at Work ©2012 Trici Venola

Through the arched Byzantine passage, past the sunken courtyard, and out the back door of what I call the Church Han. Back in 2009 there was this kid, Firat. He hung around for hours when I drew the Han, and since he did not demand it I drew him. He was so excited. Firat’s probably in the Army now, but here he is with his first mustache.

Firat Holding Still ©2009 Trici Venola

Like all portraits, I did this in about ten minutes and rendered it later, along with the background. Notice the pen strokes, how they can really strengthen the illusion of depth. Here’s a photo of the Church Han courtyard:

The Church Han Courtyard ©2012 Trici Venola

As you may remember from older posts, the roof, a barrel-vault arching across from side to side, came to just above the tops of the arches. The altar area is straight ahead. Just at the exit, there’s an astonishing work of art on the stone wall: the electrical panel for the Church Han. Lost in admiration at the sheer audacity of this job, I once started to draw this but got lost in the wiring. See?

Wired: Big Mother Han ©2007 Trici Venola

Then a hard right and a climb up a flight of tilted cement steps stuck precariously onto the side of the centuries-old wall. It’s stone and brick, with horizontal wood spacers in places. A mason friend told me that these take stress and keep the wall from collapsing. The wood is hard to recognize but wood it is. Here’s what the place looked like in fall 2004.

BVH Back Porch ©2004 by Trici Venola

I found this unfinished take with a note: Too damn cold. Later. This is common when one does not have a drawing partner. It was far colder when Gabrielle and I were up on the roof finishing those bloody drawings. This roof, like the much larger one of Buyuk Valide Han’s biggest structure, is covered with small domes, each topping a workshop. This smaller han’s domes used to cover the church, and possibly a monastery or convent.

Rooftop Domes ©2012 Trici Venola

Up here on top, the domes are weedy in places, holey in others. See them sticking up above this doorway?

There are several workshops up here, built onto the roof. Right at the top of the stairs is an earsplitting din. Glance in and see hundreds of spools furiously spinning, winding brass wire. The smiling proprietor is partially deaf, as was his father before him, but still employed.

Roof Shop Spools ©2012 Trici Venola

There used to be a cypress tree growing up here, and a rusty old weaving machine and a tribe of bronze tabby cats. And down at the end a shanty with a million-dollar view, in which dwelt a happy bearded man and a lot of barking dogs. There were more chimneys, too. One day in 2007 I was told in the Han that weaving machines had been banned. I came up and found a pile of rubble, a tree stump, and one lonely chimney. The Forces That Be had swept it all away. No one knows why.

That last morning, I got to the roof about fifteen minutes before Gaby. I’d just set up when I noticed the air turning thick. This jocular group was cleaning stove parts. In no time it looked like Armageddon.

Rooftop Smoke ©2012 Trici Venola

I leaped up and away, and fifteen minutes later there wasn’t a trace of smoke. Thanks to its location, a natural castle moated by seas, Istanbul has remarkable powers of recovery. Here’s my final drawing. Suleymaniye is undoubtedly the most magnificent mosque in Turkey. Its proportions are perfect. The four minarets (one is hidden by the dome) are of graduated size, and give a different aspect from every angle.

Up On the Roof ©2012 Trici Venola

As you can see from the rough at the beginning of this post, I tried to draw the top of this historic Ottoman chimney, but my own proportions got away from me. To my chagrin the top didn’t fit on the paper, and I’d already invested a few bone-shattering cold hours. So after I finished the drawing, I drew the chimney-top, and Photoshopped the two together.

Up On the Roof Composite ©2012 Trici Venola

Gaby with Chimney ©2012 Trici Venola

You know what? I like the first one best. The complete chimney throws off the balance and pushes the whole composition too far down. But we should pay attention to this fine old Ottoman chimney, because it is the very last. The much bigger roof of the main part of Buyuk Valide Han was covered with them, but now there are no more anywhere. Or so I am told by architect friends.

Tower of Eirene.detail 1 ©2012 Trici Venola

At the end of the roof is the Tower. This is the one I mentioned in Big Mother Han 2, the tower the guidebooks peg at 11th century but the guys in the Han call 6th. It lost its top in an earthquake in 1926 but is still impressive. A young woman was taking photographs of it, with a ruler for scale. We asked her, in a polite way, what she was doing. Her doctoral thesis, no less. At last, an expert. “What is the name of the church?”  Unknown, and this from a Turkish graduate student. She commiserated on the complete lack of information. She’s looking to find out, and I’m rooting for her. One tiny puzzle piece: an 18th-century writer referred to this tower as the Tower of Eirene. A churchly friend thinks it was a bell tower. And there it must rest.

Gaby Smoking Nargile ©2012 Trici Venola

As did we. We packed up and wrapped up, and my drawing fell facedown on the roof, which accounts for its murky wash shading in places. We clambered down the steep steps, me clutching the handrail, and out the Han, charged up the icy street and flung ourselves gasping into the clamorous color and warmth of the Grand Bazaar. Straight through, out the top and over the cobbles to the nargile cafe at Corlulu Ali Medrese. This haven deserves its own post, so I will leave you with this picture of Gabrielle smoking a snowy farewell nargile. In Rome, in Paris, in Laramie, Wyoming, draw on, girl, draw on.

All drawings Plein Air.


SAINTS AND ANGELS 4: Ghost Frescoes and Seraphim in Hagia Sophia


Angel Face One ©2011 by Trici Venola

At last, an angel with a face. The Angel. A Seraphim, actually, a six-winged celestial being created in mosaic in the 13th century, after the Byzantines reclaimed the city from the Latin invaders. The Byzantines’ church segued into Greek Orthodoxy. The Latin church became Catholicsm. The city, Costantinople, became Istanbul. Hagia Sophia became Ayasofya Mosque, and later, Hagia Sophia Museum. All these things the Angel has endured.

Its face was likely covered  by Mehmet the Conqueror when the basilica was converted to a mosque in 1453. Our angel face discovered by the Fossati Brothers during Sultan Abdulmedcid’s restoration in 1841, documented, and re-covered with a metal medallion. A face that survives that much deserves the best, so when I originally drew this picture back before Christmas and blew the face, I had to start again from scratch. On the left is the misfire, and on the right, the genesis of the drawing above.

First try and second start on Angel Face One ©2012 Trici Venola

This face is about a yard wide, incidentally, and I still had to refer to close-ups on the Internet, because look at what we can see from this vantage point:

Angel with Ghost Fresco ©2012 by Trici Venola

This angel is right up under the dome, in one of four curved triangular sections known as pendentives. Its fellow angels are all still faceless. The Internet shots are all full frontal, and this is oblique, so I had to play with it.

angel w minister

Here it is with the Minister of Tourism, at its unveiling in 2009.  This face isn’t human. It’s remote and emotionless. And it has zero relation to the face I drew, so I had to draw the whole thing again. Mea Culpa, I was cold and tired. That’s the price of working in ink, sometimes you can’t fix it.

angel Mosaic c u

Here’s what the mosaic artists saw. Those lucky stiffs up in the scaffolding can see the actual mosaic tiles. The green ones, with distance, give it that ethereal color, a moon face sailing in starlight. Down below, the only clue to its being mosaic rather than paint is the intensity of color and a certain deliberateness to the image.

Since my rendering of it is so small, I had to reduce the complexity to as little as possible. Like Twitter. And you have to ask yourself, just which lines make the expression? Here’s a haiku version of the face at an oblique angle.



GHOST FRESCOS As mentioned, in 1841, Sultan Abdulmedcid redecorated Hagia Sophia, known by then as Ayasofya. At the time it was a mosque. It had been the premier church of Christiandom for nearly a thousand years, and much had been done to convert it to a mosque. Sultan Abdulmedcid outdid four centuries of predecessors. It was this Sultan who put up those huge wooden medallions, the ones covered with calligraphy. It spells out his name, his grandchildrens’ names, and the name of Allah. He hired two Swiss restorers, the Fossati Brothers, to do the job on the whole basilica. Originally there were four huge mosaic angels holding up the dome: Seraphim with a face surrounded by huge brown and blue wings. At some point since the Conquest of 1453, all four faces had been covered. The two angels to the west, probably much decomposed from water damage, were replaced with painted attempts to match the mosaic ones in the east. These two were carefully cleaned. At this point our angel face was discovered under its metal medallion, documented, and covered back up again. The other face, whatever it is, is still covered by a medallion, and there are medallions to match it on the western angels, the painted ones.

TV Aya 2012 3

Photo by Ramazan Tanhan of TV in the Imperial Gallery drawing the Angel.

I am no fan of the Fossati Brothers. Their Trompe-l’oeil marble does not fool me, not even in the dim winter light with the upstairs lamps unlit, and their Trompe-l’oeil windows have lousy perspective. A lot of their work involved plastering over the massive, convoluted surface of the upper ceiling vaults. This was painted a golden yellow with medallions and chains of floral patterns, probably in an attempt to match the gorgeous original sixth-century mosaic of the lower floor vaults, which are actual gold-dipped tiles embellished with mosaic medallions in geometric patterns. This paint and plaster job is now peeling horribly, and here and there it appears that the Turkish Government of the present has been peeking under the plaster to see what is there. Now look to the right of the Angel, to the pale area in the leprous yellow paint job. That’s scraped-off plaster over frescos… on the big arch, which is in front of the altar / mihrab. See the ghost image there? A big blob of yellow paint, and behind it a seated figure. There’s another one mirroring it on the close side of the arch. The whole half-dome here was frescoed with a host of saints.

Angel w Ghost closeup

Angel with Ghost Fresco.closeup

Here it is in the drawing, s trio of saints. It looks the figure to the left is wearing a crown.

Angel Face One.Ghost Detail

At one point, working on the Angel, I sat on the edge of a column pedestal. Dead ahead was another one, buried in the very building:

Took a break and found this swell gift item at the shop outside the basilica.


The perfect souvenir of Istanbul: three cats. And here’s a Lamb of God with a different sort of tail.
Cat of God385

EXQUISITE DETAIL It took awhile, but I finished the Shadow Arch. The challenge here was to document the stupefying wealth of detail without flattening the drawing with too much busywork.  See the previous blog about how: chiaroscuro. Did I succeed? I hope so! A tiny little 9 X 12 “drawing, and I’ll bet it took 10 hours. Emperor Justinian wanted people to be floored by the grandeur. He is said to have exclaimed, on his first sight of the glory he had brought about, “Solomon, I have surpassed thee.” I’ll say. Consider, the Shadow Arch is to Hagia Sophia what an eyelid fold is to a person. Just a little feather in the Angel’s wing.

Shadow Arch ©2012 by Trici Venola

PAGANS OLD AND NEO Over the holiday I took a really interesting guy around the Old City. An  aeronautical engineer and photographer turned CGI artist, he also knows a lot about pagan goddesses, and Hagia Sophia knocked him out. It was a lot of fun to see an actual Pagan priest get their first look at the old girl. Those monster malachite columns holding her up from the ancient gymnasium at Ephesus, the giant porphyry ones from Rome, all resonated with this visitor. You stand next to those, you spread out your arms as far as you can, palms flat, you lean your face against the cold marble, and you want to howl. Oil brings out the color of marble. All the columns are intensely colored toward the bottom from the oil of people’s hands.

Hand-Oiled Pillar ©2012 Trici Venola

So there we were, hugging adjacent pillars. From his, he described feeling the power surging up from under the column, and said it felt much older than the basilica. Indeed it is, older than Christianity itself. Before this Hagia Sophia were two others, and before them Roman and Greek temples, on into the ancient shamanistic worship of civilizations long forgotten. This has always been a holy spot, of course it has. The ancients knew this, that’s why they built their temples here. Perhaps that’s why they still stand.

After such an experience, there was nothing for it but nargile smoking at a fine old tea garden in an antique Ottoman hamam. That’s where we wound up on New Year’s Eve , with Baaddin, Nasan and Celal, guys who make the actual water pipes. Smoking nargile with strangers is I’m sure a fine old Pagan custom, or it is now.

New Year’s Nargile ©2012 by Trici Venola

In the New Year, I returned to the Angel. This time I put it in context, with alternating Byzantine and Ottoman details. I drew it all from the ground floor looking up through the chandelier, sitting between the Pagan columns we’d hugged that day, the ones from the Gymnasium at Ephesus, 2400 years old.

TVStefanJoksik Aya12

Photo by Stefan Joksik of TV in the South Gallery drawing the Angel.

Here’s what I drew. At the top are original 6th-century clerestory windows around the dome, embellished by Ottoman patterns on the ribs. There’s a Byzantine railing around the dome, and under it Ottoman painting. The Angel and its surrounding gold mosaic are 13th-century Byzantine, the paint and curlicues around it 19th-century Ottoman. The chandelier is Ottoman of unknown vintage, the electricity present-day Turkish. The wooden balustrade railing is very old Byzantine, complete with torch holders, and the marble below it original 6th-century Byzantine, all the way down to Sultan Abdulmedcid’s 19th-century wooden medallion. With all the hard lessons learned, it’s always better the second time around.

+Angel Face DOI 2 72

Angel Face ©2012 Trici Venola.


All drawings Plein Air by Trici Venola. All art ©2012 by Trici Venola. Angel Face appears in Drawing On Istanbul 2. Original drawings are 20″ X 7″, drafting pens on rag sketchbook paper. We love your comments.

Drawing the Boukoleon Portals 10 & 11

Sunday 2 October 1:00-4:30


Yesterday I put in the big lump of roundy brickwork at the top of the far right arch. It was not at all where it seemed it should be. I invoked the Cross: the method of lining up what I ‘m trying to draw with something I’ve already drawn. I do this by holding the pencil out in front of me, so that it makes a line across what I’m looking at and… NOOOO!! Couldn’t be that low… you can’t see it here, but that pencil is all over the drawing. That pencil  I was only using in emergencies…well, this was an emergency. A perspective perception emergency. Everything in me told me that big brick lump was WAY HIGHER than it actually is. Wrestled with this awhile when Gabrielle showed up. She’d come the day before, when I was home working, and her ink-wash drawing is now wonderful, dark and solid and mysterious. She decided to leave it alone, and about that time the affable guy, the one who works up at the gas station, turned up. His name is Ahmet.  I asked him if I could draw his picture. He was bewildered, actually pointed at his chest and looked around as though he stood in a crowd and I had beckoned. Then he stood rock-solid, without a trace of self-consciousness, for ten minutes until I said he could move. Here he is. For portraits I do a tight but light drawing as fast as possible, using my own code to indicate what’s black, plaid, etc. as people need to move. Then I darken and finish it up later. I meant to scan the preliminary since many people are curious about how to draw a portrait. But I forgot and finished, so I’ll have to show that another time. Afterwards he kissed my right hand and put a small handwoven multicolored bracelet on it. He told Gabrielle he would give her a necklace. Youth!

After a plan to meet later and play How To Blog, Gabrielle left to go do stuff on the apartment she’s fixing up. A friend from the first day. What a bright, talented beautiful girl with her whole life ahead, and a solid resume besides. I remembered where I’d been at that age, barely on my own radar, hadn’t even gone back to school yet.  I worked for awhile longer but my head, that old enemy, had started up like a rusty old engine. I started worrying about getting my work out while I’m still alive. If I live as long as I’ve been living, I’ll be 122. Hm. How hard I work, moan whine, and look at how little I make. Piss, grind. When my head really gets going I completely forget things like choosing to do what I love, choosing to do without other things to make it possible, having friends who act like angels…Then I noticed the slant on the bricks had gone all wrong and I quit while I could still fix it.

 Monday 3 October 1-3:00


Today was a short one.  I showed up at one fully prepared to draw my ass off for five hours. Ha.

Took the route down from Hagia Sophia along the Topkapi Palace/Gulhane Park wall and out the Ahirkapi, the Stable Gate, to the highway. Another beautiful day! So beautiful that when I walked through our tea garden in the wall and saw Osman sitting there smoking nargile (waterpipe, apple tobacco), I asked him for a hit. Staring out at the water and smoking was just what I wanted, and I got up to leave…and then I found myself going back to draw him and the cafe…just a few lines…

Forty-five minutes later, I got to the Boukoleon and started to draw. As always, the first look is clearer than any other. I tackled the Cross Hell Mess from yesterday and got some licks in.  Straight across, yes, it really IS that low on the page. Should I use the pencil again? I’m tired of all this backing and filling, I just threw the ink on.Looks like a pine cone, not like bricks. I drew what I saw and not what I thought I saw, and yes, it looks exactly like a pine cone. Why?  First the marble sheathing was removed or fell off. Then the wall began to erode. The mortar went first, from the surface backward, leaving the edges of brick exposed. Then the brick itself began to erode. So now there are these edges, curved from rain and wind patterns, sticking out like wafers, tongues of flame…a pine cone.

Just then, a mere hour and a half into the session, a group of truculent teenagers came striding up, through the gate in the Belidiye’s fence, and over to the little tree and the site of the bum tent. They carried pillows and rugs, and set about shouting and shoving each other and hanging the rugs to make a tent.  Five skinny guys and a lumpy big girl with a mean face, a dog on a leash. I wondered if they were going to draw lots. These kids looked angry. They punched and screamed at each other, particularly at one kid. He stormed out the gate and over past me, then came up too fast and close and demanded… a potato chip. He got it. Thanked me in English, too. Well, the dog looked clean, actually I think it was the same dog as the second day, when kids were emerging from the tent straightening their clothes, and the police stopped by and said I should be careful. So this time too I kept drawing.

A woman with winesores came up with her companion. She wanted me to know she’s Romanian and her mother was an artist. She kept petting me all over, wanting to be friends. She looked like she had been pretty, in an elfin kind of way. She looked like she lived under a bridge somewhere.  I didn’t wince away, she was harmless and I didn’t want to hurt her. But I was glad when they wandered away.

I started delineating the actual end of the wall, a time I’d looked forward to…but now I was just slamming it down there as fast as I could. Never know how long I’ve got with these things– can’t come tomorrow… drawing a little tree growing out of the wall up top, the dark of the wooden house behind it. I fixed the slant on the bricks. No white pen this time, just a lot of shading.

The group by the tent got louder and uglier. Years ago in my experimental youth I hitchhiked all over Greater Los Angeles, developed some street sense, and lived to tell the tale. Maybe these kids were just kids, but I didn’t know what substances they were ingesting, so I got out of there.

Back to the tea garden and drew some more, smoked some more. Osman told me he and Asim are buddies from ‘way back, started this place together. He did this by crossing his two fingers and shaking them emphatically.  I drew the boats across the highway, up in dry dock. I drew some trees and the water. What I didn’t draw was the traffic. Cars bumper to bumper, slowly moving, so I had to draw real fast and then wait.

Went home, carrying far too much since I stopped and bought cans of cat food. Walked up the Istiklal, the huge walk street down the top ridge of Beyoglu across the Golden Horn, on my way home. Saw a demonstration, women in photos with hangman’s nooses, etc, a petition for women who were under sentencing for murdering their battering husbands. I said I’d sign it, although I didn’t know if it would do any good since I don’t vote in Turkey, I’m just a resident. not a citizen. A woman passing by said, “You don’t vote? Where are you from?” When I told her she said, “Ha, you should go home and vote against Barack Obama.” A brisk exchange, and  I sorta lost it. They were all laughing. So I said, OK, fine, insult my President and my country, to hell with it. And walked off. Why can’t I ever remember to say that if one is going to trash America, then one should trash those Nikes and jeans. And toss that iPhone too. Go home and sever the landline, and while you’re at it, rip out the electrical box and toss that. And the refrigerator-it seems to me that this, too, is an evil American invention. No more Facebook either! Finally if one owns a car, get rid of it and never ride in one again. Most especially, no more American dollars, which I notice are quite high here right now. But I didn’t think of any of those things in time to say them, and they wouldn’t’ve cared. It’s fun to hate America. It makes the world kin. And here I am being political in an Art Blog. What do I know? There’s nothing I can do about any of this, not the battered murderer wives, not the trashed ruins, not my spent youth, not my hated motherland. One thing we don’t have in America is the Boukoleon, or anything remotely like it. All I can do is draw it, draw it all, make art out of it, make sense out of it, make sense out of something.