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Monday, December 26, 2011

Water, Color

Some Thoughts on Process....

Plein air being a rather intense experience, I am not in the habit of methodically documenting my work as it evolves over the roughly two hours it takes to walk away with something credible. But a few months back I was working on a watercolor of a familiar subject as a model for my students, and having begun a version that I soon noted had some problems with the proportions of the parts in drawing, I abandoned it and began a new one; so here you’ll find the abandoned version, which might be useful to see what I start with—sky and the most saturated areas in this case—and how it all winds up. For me one of the critical things in this view of the Palatine Hill from across the Circus Maximus is the variegation of the brickwork, from the differentiation in color of the voussoirs that make the arches to the places where the brick has been rubbed/chipped away. Since the last thing I do is introduce the shadows—in the end perhaps the most critical thing—I want to get the proper color and texture of the material “right” before the shadows go one. So I often start with the strongest or most saturated areas of local color first, and from there work toward the more subtle and neutral ones.

Also, note the sky as the negative space of the form....

Happy New Year to everyone, and to those who labor in the open air, particularly in Italy,

Buon lavoro.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Revisiting Civita Castellana

Una Pausa

Castellaccio, from the Ponte Clementino
As the weather gets lets conducive (along with the academic calendar) I’ve retreated indoors and onto a series of studio painting and design projects, but in the meantime it might be nice to revisit warmer weather and a different environment: Civita Castellana (northern Lazio) in May of this past year. I’ve been told there will be a show of foreign artists’ plein air paintings around Civita in the Fall of 2012, as a way to promote the region which was such an important destination for plein air painters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially Corot. Posted here are some subjects of theirs that I painted, and which for all practical purposes remain unchanged. One will be recognizable as the painting on my pochade box at the head of the blog….

Regarding materials, the two tufa subjects are on prepared archival canvas boards, both primed with a burnt siena/umber ground; the one behind the Forte Sangallo is on stretched canvas, primed with a higher key ochre ground.

Vignale, near Corot's old hotel
behind the Forte Sangallo (morning)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Rome in Two Hours

The Window of Time

Valenciennes' two hour window for me defines the essence of what working en plein air means: in the open, natural light, looking at sun-illuminated forms and attempting, in the time available, to capture an effective summary of what you see. If it’s not that—if you’re not looking at forms in sunlight, and trying to capture that image, and are not therefore constrained to work within the window of time the sun allows—I’m not sure what it is you’re doing, but I wouldn’t call it “plein air.” One needs to be quick, or better, economical, in attacking the scene as the sun tracks across the sky (plein air painters have a Ptolemaic understanding of the cosmos!). I have found, especially for Rome, that working on a medium toned—ochre/brown, or burnt sienna, or Venetian red—ground facilitates that economy, not to mention gives body and volume to forms. Here are some recent examples. I’d welcome any thoughts on this topic….
Theater of Marcellus from the Portico d'Ottavia

Pons Fabricius from the Tiber level

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Oil on Paper

Media & Methods

Maddine Insalaco stresses the role of paper as a support for nineteenth century plein air painters, and with that in mind I’ve experimented a bit with the idea, although a primed paper is more conducive to my technique than the unprimed paper she recommends. Here are two examples, one from just outside Civita Castellana when I was there with Maddine and her husband Joe Vinson, back in May; the other is of the Fontana delle Tartarughe in Piazza Mattei, Rome, on a hot day in August. The first is on an unprimed, handmade green paper; the second is on a primed (light) handmade paper.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Try Again

Back to the Bridge
blocking in the sky, Castel, and bridge highlights

I returned to the Ponte Sant’ Angelo on Sunday afternoon, where Andrea Smith was working again, to take another shot at the bridge and castle. Having learned from my two previous failed attempts what the light would be doing, I arrived around 4pm, and got set up on the downriver side, where the bridge would stay in light until after 7pm, while the Castel Sant’ Angelo would remain more or less consistently lit left and shaded right (silhouetting the bridge). I worked on a large canvas board—35x45cm—that had been wiped down from the previous day, which had given it a mauvish glaze over the burnt siena underpainting. Starting with the sky, I moved to blocking the Castel, then the lights on the bridge,…..

The result, after two hours of painting, shown here is not quite finished—the Archangel Michael hadn’t yet arrived, and the fortuitous foreground bush got more leaves. But you get the idea.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Admit Defeat

This is the painting I painted yesterday for the Rome iteration of the Worldwide Paint Out. Actually, I abandoned two paintings, wiping them down to start again today. Plein air is not automatic, or if it is you're not doing it right. It is a bit of a high wire act, and what I got wrong yesterday were two bad choices at the Ponte Sant' Angelo--the first working on the upstream side too late in the afternoon, when not only the bridge but most of the Castel went into shade--and if you're not painting light you're not painting. By the time I went to the downstream side and started again I realized I had a better late afternoon subject, but again had gotten too late a start. Better to admit defeat and start over than "finish" a badly begun  (or nato male, as the Italians would say) painting.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Rome Paint Out 2011

Down By The River

Andrea Smith of Atelier Canova is coordinating the Rome iteration of the "2011 Worldwide Paint Out," sponsored by the Plein Air Painters Organization, September 9–11 along the Tiber near the Ponte Sant' Angelo. It's a site I've worked at in the past on my own, and where I've set up groups of students. I've tackled it before in watercolor, so it'll be good to work there in oil this time. So many great artists–Valenciennes, Vernet, and especially Corot–have painted it on site and in the studio.

If you're in Rome this weekend, stop by and see the works in progress (each day after 4:30pm); I'll be there Saturday.

A presto,

Thursday, August 25, 2011


Welcome to a new journal of the plein air experience in Italy. Since I've been at this for more than thirty years--
in progress outside Civita Castellana, Lazio, May 2011
starting during a year abroad working in watercolor with the masterful Frank Montana--there may be some historical catching up along with up-to-date postings. I hope what I have to show does credit to all of those who've come before me, to my masters, mentors, colleagues and friends who've inspired me and/or with whom I've painted. In that spirit, I hope it informs and inspires others. And, from a culture that truly values the work of the human hand like perhaps no other, this wish:

Buon lavoro,