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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Outside the Walls of Lucca

One Smaller, One Larger

Lucca’s walls make an ideal subject for an artist interested in the juxtaposition of clear, almost abstract, manmade forms and an ordered Nature. Built to resist cannon fire, they resisted demolition in the nineteenth century when many other cities, like Florence, pulled down their medieval curtain walls and replaced them with viali—allowing the city to spread (or sprawl) outward in modern periferie. Lucca’s walls instead became a raised promenade, and their compelling exterior image almost demanded that the city maintain a greenbelt around them, isolating them from the inevitable sprawling development beyond. It is this rapport with Nature that the walls represent, as much as their image as crown to the city, that I celebrated in my Palio for this year’s feast of S. Paolino. And it is a subject I happily return to, in various seasons, to watch the light change and the forms assert themselves against their green frame.

These are two images, the first a smaller sketch, the second larger, painted on successive summer days (note the grass was being mowed in patches from one day to the next) at around the same time, 6–8pm. The photos show the work in progress. I’m outside the northern mural circuit, looking toward the church of S. Frediano.

Bella Lucca, quanto mi manca!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Some Sites in Rome

 August 2012 Reprise 

Columns en ressault at the Forum of
 Nerva along the via dei Fori Imperiali
LAST YEAR I posted an image of a painting of the Forum of Nerva in progress on my easel; having finally varnished that painting (oil on canvas board), and another from last August as well (oil on paper), I thought it would be opportune to post those two works as a spur to some thoughts on painting in Rome (a topic I’ve addressed before).

While the Eternal City seems to most eyes to be an intact relic of the past, in reality much has changed there in relatively modern (for Rome at least) times: the via dei Fori Imperiali, Piazza Venezia, and so much else of the centro storico felt the impact first of the unification of Italy and the creation of Rome as the capitol, and then Fascist planning, particularly under Mussolini. For me, at least, it is no small challenge to find the Rome of Corot or Valenciennes (and little had changed between the middle of the 18th century and the middle of the 19th). Some spots that still evoke that pre-Modern Rome include this site behind the church of Ss. Giovanni e Paolo on the Celio (at my back, however, was a rather grotesque outdoor bar); and focused views of the Imperial Fora can be timeless. It is good news to me that the new mayor of Rome, Ignazio Marino, seriously intends to close the via dei Fori Imperiali to traffic, making of it a vast archeological park (still not clear whether it will be an open, public park, or a pay-as-you-go museum). Rome takes some work to discover, and if one is seeking out plein air sites without the visual clutter of the modern city, it takes an attentive eye and a sense of how the city used to be.

Ss. Giovanni e Paolo

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Watercoloring Like it Was Oils

Saturation and Transparency

What often stops me and makes me choose a scene to paint out of doors is usually a saturated, brilliantly lit scene combining architecture and landscape. In Lucca the circuit of walls offers a wealth of options, cyclical as the sun winds its way around the city over the course of the day. From below or above, the walls, their balluardi (bastions), and gates present simple, powerful architectonic forms juxtaposed to rigorously planted rings and crowns of trees.

I painted the Porta San Donato from above over the weekend, with one of the city’s bishop-saints surveying the landscape beyond. Painting between about 5:45 and 7:45pm, the late afternoon summer light was saturated, the shadows growing longer on the ground, but the upper register of the gate illuminated fairly constantly by the westerly sun.

As I’ve moved from watercolor to oils in my outdoor painting over the last decade or so, I’ve found the experience of oil has pushed my watercolors to greater density and saturation in the darks, while giving me a new appreciation of the brilliance of un-watercolored white paper. As a painter-architect, I value the constant back and forth between disciplines, and the same fertile exchange I believe exists in alternating media. These are not lessons that can be taught, but they can be learned by experimentation and repetition.

For a view from below of the same area, see last year's post here.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Paint Like Whom?

Emulation Out of Doors

As I gear up for a season of painting in Italy, I thought it might be worthwhile to consider the role of models for the plein air artist. While the underlying assumption in working out of doors is that one is reacting directly to the scene in front of him or herself, that reaction is not unmediated, but depends on the culture of artists one admires and attempts (consciously or not) to emulate. All artists either imitate or emulate, whether knowingly or unknowingly. So, here are some of my models:



Friday, March 29, 2013

Art as Subject

Outdoors in the Museum

Ancient urn in the atrium/forecourt of S. Cecilia
Plein air, or open air, painting inevitably conjures up images of landscapes and artists perched in splendid isolation. But one of the most compelling aspects of the Italian landscape is the evidence of human artifice, with or without a juxtaposition with Nature. So much of Italy, both in and out of town, is a museo all’aperto, and I am mostly drawn to subjects that include the marvelous works of the human hand that the country abounds in, seen in brilliant, changing outdoor light. Rome in particular offers this, indeed there is nowhere one can go in Rome, even something as ostensibly rural as the Parco della Caffarella near the via Appia Antica is full of fragments of the manmade.

So, offered here are two ancient remains, prominently and picturesquely sited in the Eternal City. Just watching the light change on the Trophies of Marius as the afternoon sun descends is a lesson in plein air painting.

The Trophies of Marius, on the parapet of the Campidoglio

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Plein air in the new year

A show at the Met, and painting in Lucca in the winter

A survey of plein air painting classes and tours in Italy inevitably shows a preference for the sunshine and palette of late spring through mid-fall; winter in Italy offers a different landscape and palette, not as immediately seductive. So if there is less inclination to paint out of doors these days, there are other ways to hone one’s skills. The Metropolitan Museum in New York has a show of French plein air painters up now through 21 April. The Path of Nature: French Paintings from the Wheelock Whitney Collection, 1785–1850 documents both the recent appreciation of the genre and some lesser known artists, not to mention their ubiquitous fascination with the Italian landscape as subject. While plein air as a subject implies direct observation of Nature, it is wrong to think that observation is unmediated through the experience and skills of other painters’ observations. I’ve learned as much if not more about painting out of doors from looking at Corot or Valenciennes than from any particular subject. More information on the Met’s show is on their site here.

oil on primed (light raw umber, revealed in the sky) paper
In December I had the chance to be in Lucca, where the walls are such a compelling feature of the city’s image. They are also seductive subjects for outdoor painting, surrounded by a swath of green, their simple, powerful forms are enriched by the patina of time and their crown of diverse trees. Girdling the city, they are differently related to sun and light depending on orientation and time of day. Shown here is a sketch done in about an hour and a half, on an afternoon that started sunny and ended rather grey.