For the third edition of the Bach Talks column, financial expert and ten times New York Times bestselling author David Bach talks with Lisa Brancatisano, artist, entrepreneur and founder of This Tuscan Life magazine. The pair met at Palazzo San Niccolò to discuss Lisa’s most recent projects and how her passion for painting has transformed into a successful business.
David Bach: I’m interested to know more about your background and what brought you to Florence. How long have you been living here?
Lisa Brancatisano: I’m from Melbourne and I first came here when I was 22, in 1993. I came to learn Italian because, even though my father is from Calabria, he never spoke the language with us when we were growing up. I thought I knew enough to get by, so I bought a one-way ticket to Florence, as we Australians do when we decide to travel to Europe since it’s far too expensive for just a quick trip. When I arrived at Roma Termini, I asked this really sweet guy on the train, How long until we get to Firenze? And he said, Firenze? This train isn’t going to Firenze. I’d got on the wrong train! He helped me off, took me to the right platform, and even bought me a new ticket. His name was Giuseppe, which was a good sign because that’s my father’s name. And then, like a typical Italian, he said, Do you have to go right now? You could stay. We could go to the discoteca! That was as much as he tried. I was still really fortunate to have met him.
And was this your first time travelling solo?
Yes, and my first time overseas. I’ll always remember it because it was spring and there was always this beautiful fruit and veg market in the mornings, in piazza Santo Spirito, where I’d buy my bag of cherries. I stayed with an Italian family for a month. That way, I got to learn the language properly. Then I met an artist, here in San Niccolò. We ended up dating and I lived here with him for almost two years. He actually introduced me to painting. My background was fashion design, so I already had that creative side. I used to sit with him in front of the Uffizi and we’d paint together, like something out of a movie. Things were so different back then. I used to write letters home or call my mum from a phone box, and I remember her saying, Well, the bohemian lifestyle obviously suits you, you seem really happy!
Tell us more about your career path and what inspired you to start the magazine This Tuscan Life?
I was working in fashion marketing for a distributor here and it was when blogs started to become popular. So, I thought, I’m going to start one. I always had this idea that I wanted to write a book about 12 months in Tuscany, following the seasons. In a way, the magazine started out as a book draft. I created it in November 2016 and the first issue was only 16 pages long. Guests could go home with a record of the month they were there, with recipes and things to do in Florence and Tuscany. It eventually became bi-monthly. I really don’t like the expression “passion project”, but it was something I just loved doing. I had many late nights when I was still doing the fashion job. I’d go to the office until 3pm, pick up the boys from school and then I’d work on the magazine once I’d put them to bed. It was really full on. Then, my twin sister who does food tours in Rome said they were looking for guides in Florence. Since my husband, Emiliano, and I were in a much better position financially, I resigned from the fashion job to become an accompagnatore. My new plan was to work on the magazine and This Tuscan Life experiences, so that I could combine the magazine with the tours.
How do you divide your time between everything?
When I was in lockdown with the boys, I didn’t have as much time to do things as the golden time for me is when they are at school. We also had this block of time when the tourist season went down. When Covid first hit, I was in the middle of doing the spring issue for the magazine and, as we all know, it was quite depressing. There came a point where I questioned, Am I even going to finish this? I couldn’t ask anyone to sponsor it because there were no tourists and all the hotels were closed. When we moved into the second lockdown, I did something to my neck. I couldn’t even sit at my desk or exercise. I was just miserable. But one day, I was driving past the entrance to L’Andana, near Castiglione della Pescaia, with its gorgeous driveway of umbrella pines and cypress trees. I stopped the car to take some photos and thought, Gosh, this would make a stunning painting. I remembered I had an old set of watercolours sitting at home, so I decided to start painting again.
“The dream would be to have a This Tuscan Life homeware collection.”
And I remember you started posting them on Instagram?
Yes, my mother-in-law’s best friend had these two dogs and asked if I could paint them for her. I went online, did a tutorial and started posting the paintings. Then my Instagram followers started showing their friends and it all went from there. I started to get lots of requests for commissions, from pet to people portraits. Since then, I’ve done a yoghurt label, a brochure for a luxury rug company in the States, and recently did the new map of the Mugello for McArthurGlen Barberino Designer Outlet.
How long does it take for you to create a commission from start to finish?
About a week, but I’ve completed a dog portrait in two days. On a good day, I’ll sit down around 10am and start painting, but it’s not something you can do for four hours straight. There are times when you have to let the watercolour dry, or I have to take a step back and take some photos because sometimes you can notice something in a photo that you can’t see right in front of you. I like to do final details the next day and observe it with fresh eyes. It also depends on the photo I’m working from: what brings a portrait to life is the detail in the eyes and the lighting. If it’s poor quality and I can’t see the eyes, that can be quite difficult.
You started painting for your own enjoyment during Covid and now it’s a business. Does this feel like a business to you now?
Yeah, it does because I’m doing corporate things as well as embarking on textile designs. On Spoonflower.com, you can order bed linen, a tea towel or just metres of fabric. Their factory is based in Berlin, so it comes really quickly when I order from them. I already receive the sample within a week of uploading the design. Another website is an American company called Society6.com, which crafts canvas prints, phone cases, tablecloths, bed linen, outdoor furniture. You name it, they have a product category that covers everything. There, I can choose which products I’d like the artwork to go on.
How do you make money from that?
I get a small commission. For some of the things, I might only get $1. But for me, right now, it’s more about exposure and creating a portfolio because I’ve created a brand book that I’m starting to pitch to licensing agents. I’m really proud of that. It took a while to put together because I wanted to show the versatility of my illustrations. The dream would be to have a This Tuscan Life homeware collection. I just saw a sample of a friend of mine, who’s doing some beautiful linen tablecloths in Maremma. She printed an olive painting that I did, so I’m hopefully going to order some of those to sell directly from my website.
Lisa, tell me what the ultimate vision is. Where do you dream to take this business?
This Tuscan Life is my baby. It’s an umbrella as it doesn’t pigeonhole just one thing and covers everything I love, from food to fashion and shopping. Next year I’d like to create a beautiful illustrated map of Florence, with all the guilds around the outside and the giglio at the top. It won’t be a map that you use to walk around town. It’ll be more like a piece of art that you put on the wall. I was also privileged to teach a watercolour workshop at Debbie Travis’ property in Pienza. That was so much fun and the people were fantastic. I’m going to be doing another one on May 14 at the Secret Garden B&B in Florence.
Can somebody who’s never painted before come to one of your workshops?
When I did the watercolour workshop in Pienza, there was only one woman who had painted before. It really doesn’t matter because it’s not just about painting. It’s more like a lesson in patience, letting the watercolour do its own thing without trying to control it too much. If you put the water down and drop the colour in, sometimes the result is nicer.
Are you also teaching kids to paint?
Yes, there’s something quite beautiful about teaching kids because they’re not scared to put the brush on the paper and make a splash or a mark. Unlike adults, kids just have no fear. They’re not thinking, What’s someone going to think of this work? They’re just having fun.