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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Morning Light

 Outside the Walls of Lucca 

I have to admit a preference, partly biorhythmic and partly aesthetic, for late afternoon light. Having to gear up mentally for the focus that painting requires, I’m not a spontaneous morning painter; but if I plan for it, there is something appealing about starting your day off en plein air. I did it in Rome several years ago, catching (within an hour for each) the changing light on the Villa Doria Pamphilj on the Janiculum Hill (paintings which inspired a later capriccio, the process documented in American Artist magazine’s January 2009 issue).

from the archives, June 2006

from the archives, June 2006

In the late afternoon (like this earlier post) the light gets progressively more interesting, and changes more quickly, toward dusk; in the morning, instead, the light changes rapidly at first, then settles into the slow climb toward midday. While the light mirroring solar noon—say, 9am and 3pm—would theoretically be the same, by the afternoon everything looks bleached out, while in the morning colors are still saturated, the reflections off the dew give the ground some sparkle, and haze pushes distant objects even farther away.

The mural circuit of Lucca offers appealing prospects across the arc of the day. While the walls themselves are fairly consistent, what tops them, and what surrounds them, changes from one side of the city to the other. Outside the walls to the north is the greenest swath of land, blocking out the urban sprawl which is kept thankfully farther away from the historic center than elsewhere. I’ve painted here in the afternoon looking east, but these images show a painting looking west from outside the northern city gate.

With a wide scene like this getting the perspective and proportions right is half the battle. After a loose drawing I started blocking in the grassy field and the central bastion, which anchors the image. The rest of the walls and their trees are mostly frame to these two primary elements. The light (and shadows) stayed fairly constant across the two hours of painting.

Friday, July 18, 2014


Landscape Painting Show in Seravezza

Last evening my wife and I, along with our plein air painter friends Maddine and Joe of Etruscan Places, visited the show of 19th century landscape paintings in Seravezza, above Forte dei Marmi:

The place, first of all, was a happy find: a palazzo/villa built by Cosimo I de’ Medici as an outpost above Lucca where he could keep an eye on his marble quarries. Recently restored, the palazzo provided a lovely setting for the show of Tuscan landscape painters who, influenced by Barbizon realism, re-approached the local landscape with gimlet eye.

Palazzo Mediceo in Seravezza

Painters unknown to me previously, like Giuseppe Camino (two spectacular landscapes of the Alpe Apuane, crisp, fresh, and cleverly structured) and the amazing Andrea Markó (his Monte Forato, in the collection of the Pitti’s Galleria d’arte moderna, is a tour de force).

These were, admittedly studio works and not done en plein air, but they smacked of a freshness and clarity of vision honed in the clear light of the marble mountains around Carrara. Corot’s studio work always disappoints after appreciating his open air painting, but these artists probably (there were no plein airs to compare them to) exceeded themselves in the studio, retaining the freshness of observation but combining it with calculated effects of reflected light, chiaroscuro, and a rich, albeit controlled, palette.

If you find yourself in this part of Italy this summer, take a break after the beach and visit the show, open evenings from 5pm to midnight. Wednesday evenings, apparently, aperitifs are offered on the grounds....

Monday, June 9, 2014

Under & Through the Walls


Lucca’s walls make great subjects, whether in summer or winter. Simple, prismatic forms, they provide poignant ruddy contrasts to the green that crowns and surrounds them. Less attended to are the spaces below/within. The walls were designed to resist artillery attack, but like all defenses they also provided for counterattacks (sorties). Troops could slip out in the space between the polygonal bastions and the walls themselves; to get to those spaces one passes through the vaulted passages (the rest of the walls are, contrary to popular belief, solid earth) that link intra- and extramural worlds. Not designed for aesthetics, nonetheless they offer dramatic architectural experiences that Piranesi would have loved.

I drew this scene last summer under the Bastion of S. Martino, where the vaulted passage opens briefly to the sky and a portal for crossfire offers a glimpse of distant grass in front of the walls, before the sortie path disappears again through the arch on the left. I returned to paint it last weekend, and will probably do so again. It’s an interesting, challenging subject; part of the challenge was looking from the brilliantly lit subject to the canvas in the shadows where I stood, which involved constantly adjusting my eyes to the light/dark.


To really understand what you’re painting, you need to know your subject; right now there’s a show on the walls, with original drawings and models, at Lucca’s State Archive:

Friday, May 30, 2014

Random Thoughts

Just back in Italy, I’ll be posting new works and observations as they emerge, but in the meantime following are some random thoughts and info.

Having spent the early winter painting sets for Charpentier’s Acteón (Haymarket Opera company), which involved a woodland setting inspired by Lazio, I was interested to see Corot’s studio painting of Diana and Acteon at the Metropolitan Museum:
I have to admit I don’t find his studio works nearly as appealing as his on site paintings, especially those from his time in Italy:
For me this is related to the question of time—in the studio one has potentially infinite amounts of it, and as the expression goes, work expands to fill the time allotted to it; in the field, instead, one is constrained by changing light; thus Valenciennes’ two hour window. Speed saves, in other words.

Plein Air magazine is happily back on the newsstands:

And my friends Maddine and Joe are back in Italy again soon offering their artistic and culinary classes:

Buon Lavoro.