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Monday, November 3, 2014

Patron of Painters

sign on the via Roma, Buonconvento
From Buonconvento to Rome

in situ, outside Buonconvento
On October 18th I found myself painting, without realizing it, on the feast of the patron saint of painters, St. Luke; I was in Buonconvento visiting painter friends, and we had an afternoon of painting en plein air outside of town on an estate in the process of changing hands (historically, it had belonged to the hospital in Siena). Days later I would be in Rome at a conference at the Accademia di San Luca, honoring the head of the artists’ and architects’ academy at the turn of the eighteenth century, Carlo Fontana. Serendipities.
in progress, outside Buonconvento; oil on gessoed board
I left the two paintings from the afternoon outside Buonconvento with my friends, since I use a slow-drying medium, and I was too loaded down to take wet paintings to Rome. Shown here is the first and larger of the two, in progress on site; I was using the burnt siena/ochre ground as the brickwork of the wall, allowing me to focus on modeling the shadows, foliage, etc. It was a two-hour painting, something I try fairly rigorously to hold to as a parameter; my second painting was quicker still, about an hour, and while less ambitious in subject it may have been more effective as a composition. No photos of that one in progress to share…

the Acqua Paola on the Janiculum, Rome
In Rome I stayed for two weeks at the American Academy on the Janiculum Hill, near the spectacular Acqua Paola; I tackled the fountain twice, once on the day I arrived, in the afternoon, and again a week later, early in the morning. For the second I managed to finish within an hour, partly because I was working under very changeable atmospheric conditions, partly because I didn’t want to get bogged down in details (see the photo). I think this may actually become my new target, one (intense) hour forcing me to focus on big issues and avoid fussing over the details. I use a linseed/stand oil medium because I appreciate the unctuous quality of beautiful paint, although it is paradoxical that quick painting is paired with slow-drying medium. Whether the narrow window of time makes for better paintings I don’t know, but it does make me, I think, a better painter.

afternoon, Acqua Paola; oil on paper
early morning, Acqua Paola; oil on gessoed board

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 Mark√≥ (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: