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Monday, June 26, 2017

What Are You Looking At?


LIVING IN ITALY and surrounded by spectacular beauty, I don’t just plunk myself down anywhere and start painting. I’m looking for a scene with some structure, that will translate into a two-dimensional image with some kind of compositional logic that survives the translation. Finding a good subject is half the battle in making a compelling plein air. Execution is the other half.

On a hot June afternoon I put myself among the tourists and hawkers around the Colosseum and Arch of Constantine to watercolor the latter. The en ressaut columns on the north side were just catching light, while the north façade remained in shade. I didn’t want the clutter of modern tourism to show up in the scene, so I looked southeast to catch the green of the Caelian Hill in the background, the side elevation of the Arch, and just one en ressaut column. It’s so tempting to want to paint everything in your field of vision, but cropping out inessentials is critical to being able to focus on a few simple issues: the light on the Arch, the texture of the weathered marble, the shadows and their values and hues. E basta.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Watercoloring Under the Influence II

Not Painting the Light

I always stress with students the value of reserving the white of the paper in watercoloring. Once you’ve killed the brightness of the paper, you never get it back. That being said, truly bright moments in a great subject are rare, and precious. If the image has too much paper showing through, then nothing is truly bright, because everything is washed out. The luminosity of John Singer Sargent’s watercolors come from his judicious reserve of the white of the paper, often juxtaposed to areas of dense, saturated color. It is precisely in these juxtapositions that the luminosity of a watercolor shines. Half the battle is picking the right subject, the other half is knowing where not to put color.

This is a spectacular Roman urn at the center of a foundation in the forecourt of the gracious church of S. Cecilia in Trasteverere. I’ve painted it before in oil, which was of no small value in helping me know how to tackle this watercolor. That, and the haunting presence of Sargent, which I’ve occasionally drawn on in similar circumstances.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Watercoloring Under the Influence

Porta San Donato, Lucca
Old Enough to Be Bold

Between one obligation and another, not to mention unforeseen work distractions, I haven’t been outside working for a while. What oil painting I’ve been doing has been in the studio. As the weather has gotten lovely, and the distractions fade, I’ve been making up for lost time. Watercolor pencils have allowed me to get some of my own work done while on academic travel; they’ve also made watercoloring generally feel less precious. My first plein air oil was done in Rome a couple of weeks ago, and in the last two weeks I’ve drawn and watercolored around Lucca.

I’m sure that my oscillating between art and architecture has been of mutual benefit to each; the same for watercolor and oil painting. But since my introduction to watercolor, and working out of doors generally, was in the context of my architectural studies (under the remarkable Frank Montana), and I’ve developed a body of work rendering my architectural designs (both real and theoretical), I’ve tended to see plein air watercoloring as somehow related to the literalness that rendering demands. Now, as I feel less obliged to see watercolor as an extension of architecture, and my oil painting en plein air has been done in shorter blocks of time, I feel more at liberty to paint in watercolor; a felicitous experience on the Aventine a few years ago opened me up to a Sargent-like manner without imitating him. And maybe I don’t feel as much like each plein air has to be an exhibit-able (or saleable) work. Not to mention that a judicious use of gouache has taken some of the pressure off of not being able to add lights to dark areas of color. So yesterday’s watercolor outside the walls of Lucca was deliberately a more painterly exercise than it might have been several years ago. And while I have some regrets, it was generally more fun than watercolor often was in the past. All of this is part of the upsides of getting older.