Thursday, September 20, 2012

Italian studies

I just returned from a few weeks travel around Italy.  I traveled with a simple paintbox I'd fashioned from a cardboard box, a few brushes, paints, and small panels, and a notebook.  I've never been particularly good at plein air painting; it takes a lot of practice to be good and to understand the shifting light and wind and life that is painting outdoors, and I've neglected to do so with the diligence needed to master the art.  But I still enjoy it, and I find myself more willing to take risks in plein air than in my studio, painting things I consider far more difficult than what I can manage in an hour or two, because I'm not expecting a brilliant finished painting anyway, so why not make the most of the study and try something tricky?  I came home with  nine paintings and a couple of drawings, and while none of them are fabulous, I learned a great deal in the process.


I spent a fair amount of time painting with my friend, Kelly Medford, who lives and paints regularly in Rome.  Our first day out to paint, it rained.  It rained buckets upon buckets.  And we were soaked through.  But what to paint in the rain?  We found an  interesting old building the the Borghese Gardens with an overhang which would keep us dry as we sketched the crumbling interior.  It was challenging to try to capture the gloom of the rainy day as well as the complicated architecture.  

(My shoes were wet, I promise I didn't wander around Rome barefoot.)

The next day was windy with dramatic clouds.  I set up next to an aqueduct:

and painted the field leading to the hills beyond Rome. 

After Rome I went up to Cinque Terre, an area almost too beautiful to paint.  One morning I started a painting of the colorful houses bunched up along the sea, but quickly decided I had gone about it all wrong, trying to capture the details in the buildings instead of keeping it simple blocks of color.  Instead of starting over, as I knew I should, I went to the beach (it was my vacation after all) and decided to paint boats the next day, as I'm infinitely more interested in painting boats than buildings anyway.

 Here's the unfinished start of the jumbled buildings:

The next morning I got up early to paint the boats in the harbor of Riomaggiore.  I found a seat on the rocks by the shore and fell in love with a beautiful white boat with a purple floor and orange walls.  It went much better than the painting of buildings, but before I could finish, the sun came over the hill and changed my light completely.  And while I was sitting there contemplating trying to fake it, that is, to make up the way the light would have been while looking at a scene completely transformed, a man came and took my beloved boat out to sea, so I packed up and went for coffee. 

If I had a boat, it would have a purple floor too.

I do have a thing for boats, among other things, there's a growing collection of toy boats in the corner of my studio.  And so I spent a lovely while in a cafe overlooking the sea sketching the various boats as they went by, trying to capture them with as simple of a sketch as possible: a few perfect lines, the right shape, a silhouette. 

It was a great exercise.

The next day, encouraged by the boat sketches, I had a go at a gnarled tree.  I have a bad tendency to be lazy with trees, not bothering to study accurately the patterns of the branches, even though, truth be told, those patterns are probably my favorite part.  So I decided to do a proper study.

Tree study, Riomaggiore.

And then I found myself in Florence, a bit astonished to be returning to a place I used to call home.  In San Domenico, I again decided to do a proper study of a tree, this time in paint, and of an olive tree.

I've always loved the character brought out of the trees through years of cultivation, they are such twisted, gnarled creatures.

Then we had a turn in the weather, an overcast day, threatening rain. I had another go at buildings.  For all the the lines of Florentine buildings are all a bit crooked, they seemed less challenging and more straightforward than a pile of brightly colored houses wrapping around the cliffs by the sea.  It certainly was a more successful painting.

San Frediano 

One of the things that always strikes me in Italy is the way the buildings glow.  It's not the bright colors in the sun, although those glow as well, it's the light bouncing off the bright colors and lighting the shadows with incredible warmth that catches me and makes the scenes seem fantastic.  I tried to capture it in the study below of a few Florentine buildings.  I neglected accuracy of drawing in the buildings themselves, but I think I started to get the glow on the orange wall in the shadows, and that was exciting.  It was also, that day, despite being brilliantly sunny and startlingly clear, very cold, and I stopped the painting sooner than I would have liked in order to go in search of warmth.

My last few days were spent in Venice, and after wandering around under perfect blue skies, admiring the green of the canals and the arch of the bridges, I decided I couldn't paint them.  Not that I was unable to paint them, but that there are already so many paintings of them, and their beauty has been so well captured by so many artists, that I had nothing to add.  So I wandered around, enjoying the beauty around me, but wondering what I would finally paint, and I came across a boatyard.  A busy, cluttered, fabulous boatyard, which was far too complicated for a plein air painting of a few hours, but which begged to be painted all the same.  So, hoping to get to a larger, more finished painting of the boatyard, I did a study that was, among other things, a wonderful exercise in leaving out a hundred million details and focusing on the big picture.  It was the most exciting painting of the trip.

Boatyard, Venice.

Or at least it was the most exciting painting, until I found an old man with an old boat turned antique shop.  It was a fabulous old, beat up boat, piled in junk: chairs, boxes, chandeliers, cake pans, vases, saw horses, table cloths.  All covered with a faded, brilliant blue sail to keep off the sun, and anchored next to yellow and orange buildings on the edge of a canal.  It was another scene that begged a larger, finished painting, and also a study in simplification.  It was so much fun to paint.

Boat of antiques, Venice.

It was lovely trip, and while the paintings are of various quality, I learned so much from my studies, I hope to launch into successful work in the studio now that I'm home.