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Monday, September 14, 2015

L’Occhio di Lucca

Or, Light in the City

On September 14 every year the city of Lucca celebrates its renowned relic, the Volto Santo, for the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross; the big event is in fact the night before, when the city is candlelit and a vast procession moves from San Frediano to the Cathedral of S. Martino. The day before the procession this year the city reenacted its ancient signaling system, an extension really of its circuit of walls to include a warning system broadcast back and forth from towers in the city and the surrounding countryside and mountains. Smoke from the Torre del Bargiglio in the Garfagnana was the “Eye of Lucca” warning of threats from the north; for the reenactment what was spectacular in town was the vermillion smoke emanating from the verdant crown of the Torre Guinigi. The purple clouds of the twilight sky and the brilliant red, despite its implications of danger, was a visual feast. For a city defined by its walls, built for defense but now enjoyed for a whole town’s passeggiata, the aesthetic delight the walls afford is rich and diverse enough—in different light, at different times of day and orientations—to reward returning again and again to paint en plein air.

The painting here of the Baluardo (bastion) di S. Maria in the late afternoon of late August was an exercise in capturing diverse greens and projected shadows. My notion of plein air—short window of time, accuracy of hues and values—can’t be divorced from the painterly technique needed for such quick work. This painting, aiming to be an hour’s effort, wound up at about 90 minutes, with the moon rising telling me it was getting to be time to go.

The Baluardo di S. Maria

just for fun, from Murabilia

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Painting En Plein Air is Painting Out of Doors in a Short Window of Time


Painted in one hour on the walls of Lucca, June 2015
It's wonderful to see the breadth of interest in the idea of plein air painting, especially in America. It’s not unallied to our penchant for know-how, figuring out how something is done, because it is, in fact, a learnable and teachable discipline. The phrase "plein air" has become so popular, in fact, that it has taken on a value that transcends its actual meaning. At one level, this is fine, since anything that gets people to paint landscapes is positive. But the confusion of meaning, to the point at which plein air becomes more a euphemism than a definition, defeats both an historical conception of what artists were doing in the past who painted en plein air (like the works in the Gere Collection at London’s National Gallery), and confuses the playing field for those doing it today (whether in terms of practice or the publication/premiating of practice).

Let me put it another way. Painting en plein air is painting out of doors, perforce in a short window of time. Anything that is not painted in that way is a landscape painting. That is not a value judgment—a well-painted landscape not done en plein air can be a much better painting than an actual plein air work. But to paint in the open air is to be subject to a moving light source (the sun) and a changing atmosphere. The former especially conditions the window of time within which the artist may work, because after about two hours (as Valenciennes recognized centuries ago) you’re simply not looking at the same scene anymore. While mid-day in the summer the light is fairly constant for hours, it’s also a bleaching light that rarely yields compelling paintings. Of course, you can try to return to the same scene over subsequent days at the same time and find the same light, possible in the summer in Italy but not often in the late autumn or early spring, much less in England any time. And since the reason people started painting en plein air in the first place was to record fleeting conditions on site, to bring back to the studio like captured game, why would you want to treat the out of doors like a painter’s studio, expecting to show up day after day to paint in the same conditions? Record your experience, and go home and work it up in the studio.

And it’s not true to say that the amount of time to make a painted sketch is not a factor in its appreciation. Fragonard famously painted a series of portrait sketches in an hour, which he proudly scribbled on the back of the canvas. I’ve realized that the time constraint focuses the mind, and forces a focus on the essential elements of a scene. Whittling the time down to an hour not only conditions a subject doable in that time, but an economy of means in realizing it. It shouldn’t be forgotten that one of the reasons to paint en plein air is to hone one’s skills, not only to bag an appealing painting.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Nizza is Nice

Seeking the pre-Nineteenth-century Landscape

watercolor and gouache on Arches grain fin
watercolor block
I’m happily, if briefly, back in Italy, and while here my wife and I made an excursion to Nice—or as the Italians call it, Nizza. It was in fact once part of what we now call Italy, as part of the Savoy dukedom; it was also the birthplace of Garibaldi, who went on to effectively create Italy from a patchwork of smaller states. So there’s lots that recalls Italy in Nice—the churches, one of which was designed by the great Savoy/Piedmont architect Bernardo Vittone; the fabric of Vieux-Nice, old Nice that spreads out as a triangle below the hill (which was the site of the earliest Celtic-Ligurian settlement) that separates the old town from the port. The colors are like those of Liguria, but there is the Proven├žal tonality that comes in part from painting the architectural details in the same or similar color as the walls (the Italians would render them white, or the color of the local stone). The city was first annexed by the French not long after the Revolution; returned to Italian (Sardinian) rule after the fall of Napoleon; and definitively back to France in 1860 (paradoxically, just as Italy was becoming unified). So I can be forgiven for posting a watercolor done there on this otherwise Italian plein air blog.

1910 postcard view from the citadel;
the sprawl has already begun
Nice has grown exponentially as beach-going became a big thing over the last century; indeed, standing on the hill overlooking the city it’s hard to discern where it ends—the sprawl is particularly unfortunate here, where the surrounding hills would have otherwise evoked a quintessential Riviera landscape. The hill itself, once a citadel, then a cemetery, and for roughly a century mostly a park, offers enough of an escape from the town, if not its weekend crowds (who flock there as well). But while I found the Place Garibaldi one of the most successful nineteenth-century squares I’ve seen, I find the nineteenth-century landscape rather over-designed and manicured—not the lushly shabby landscape I mostly seek out to paint in Italy.

For me the hardest part of plein air work is the choosing of a subject. I know watercolorists who can plop themselves down almost anywhere and crank out a passable image. I’m always looking for a composition with some structure: not all beautiful scenes make a beautiful drawing or painting. I spent an hour or more on a first excursion onto the hill of the citadel in the morning, to scout out some subjects; and then another hour in the afternoon to finally find a place to work, as the sun was slowly sinking. I found this compelling spot, on the flank of the cemetery, looking from the gate of the Jewish cemetery down a long ivy-covered wall toward the cemetery chapel. Color and structure brought me there, and if the image (done in a little over an hour) has any merit, it’s owed to these.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

What’s He Painting?

What He Sees.

oil on gessoed card, 18x36cm

If you paint en plein air anywhere in Italy but the remote countryside, you will be the subject of conversation, either directly or in passing. While painting on a winter’s afternoon along a high-traffic path into one of the smallest gates in the city walls of Lucca, I overheard this exchange between a mother and her young daughter:
M Look, that man is painting.
D What is he painting?
M What he sees.

That, in nuce, is what plein air painting is. Painting what you see. The challenge, of course, is that you can’t paint all of it, certainly not in a limited arc of time. So you focus and choose, from the moment you choose the subject to the aspects of what you see that you can or should include in the painting.

The scene I chose to paint is something I thought I could accomplish in roughly an hour. While I have long held to Valenciennes’ two-hour limit, I’ve found I tend to pick too-ambitious subjects to realize in that time, so now I’m aiming for an hour, which forces me to choose simpler, clearer subjects. And even if I stretch over the limit I’m still within a relatively small arc of time—more important in the seasons when the day is shorter and sun moves faster.

Compare this with a similar, albeit longer, view from the summer, to see the difference in hue of the sky, the trees, even the walls. The summer view was a July morning.