Sunday, April 1, 2012

Bella Italia

Posted by Maggie

In six months we will be in Italy. In a way, it seems a long time into the future, but in another way, it's very close. Time passes so quickly, especially when the schedule is hectic (and when isn't it?), six months is nothing.

So, in addition to thinking about Italy, reading guidebooks, and making plans, I've been going through files of photos from previous trips and workshops, and painting Italy. I am always amazed when I look at my photo files just how rich that country is, and how many photos I have. The location where I took the photos used for reference for this painting is one good example—I shot about 150 photos over two visits there, and many of them are excellent painting references.

This painting began as a demonstration for my Saturday class at the New Mexico Art League. Yesterday's class was Week #11 of the 12-week session, and our subject was architectural elements.

Readers of this blog will know that I am very fond of the Richeson Pastel Surface. When I want to start with an underpainting, I usually use the white surface. But I have also discovered that laying in the darks on the Terra Cotta surface and then turping them is a great way to begin. I leave the surface bare where the middle and light values will go. For a complex subject like this, I sketch with soft vine charcoal, then roughly lay in the pastel for the underpainting (mostly with a Ludwig "eggplant" color), and then carefully brush all the pastel down with odorless Turpenoid and an old brush. Once it's dry (either dried with a hair dryer, or in this case, left overnight), I begin with color notes all over the surface.

Because this was a class demonstration, I was talking and painting at the same time. I had intended to photograph the painting after the first color notes of the lightest lights—on the chimney, the light hitting the roof tiles, and some of the lighter greens in the foliage. But, as often happens, between talking, answering questions and painting, the camera was forgotten until I was much further along than I had planned. 

There were two rounded pots in between the rectangular ones, and the upper one had a scrawny, barely living tree in it. I decided to replace it with a geranium from another photo taken the same day on the property.

Behind these two adjacent buildings is a sloping hillside. There's a wall and a wrought iron fence, with a hedge behind that and some olive trees to the right. I blocked that area in very loosely, so that I could talk to the class about architectural elements (which was the subject, after all). I concentrated on the pattern of light and shadow on the roof tiles, and important questions like whether to include the bird droppings splattered all over them. (I decided they weren't important.)

I wanted to paint the plants loosely and freely, so I put them in place very quickly. The geranium got a little more attention, with some definition of leaves and flower bunches. I continued to work on it off and on through the afternoon, between visits to my students' easels and talking about their paintings, and breaking for lunch. And then the class was over and it was time to go home.

Belli Fiori, 20x16, ©Maggie Price
This morning, I studied the painting with a fresh eye. The chimney was crooked. When I'm teaching, I stand as far to the left of the surface as possible, so that my students can see my right hand and the application of the pastel. This often results in crooked lines.

I like painting buildings in Europe and Britain because they are often old, falling down, and have crooked lines. But the chimney bothered me. I straightened it up quite a bit (it's not perfect, after all, given its advanced age) and studied the painting some more. And I decided the olive trees behind the buildings on the top right had to go. The two tree trunks appeared to be growing out of the rooftop. With everything else going on in this composition, I didn't need the viewer's attention to be pulled up to the convoluted trunks and silvery leaves.

I turned the painting upside down and brushed them off with my foam brush. I replaced them with a lengthening of the hedge and some ambiguous grasses and trees. I wanted that background to remain soft and unfocused, to contrast with the business of the tiles, rocks and flowers.

I think it's done now, but every painting goes into the "holding zone" for a few weeks before being framed, in case something else catches my eye and I have to go back to fix it.

Painting this made me eager to go to Italy, paint plein air there as much as possible, and collect a few hundred more photos to work from. Want to join us? We still have two double rooms available. Details are on my web site. Noi avremo un viaggio meraviglioso!