Friday, October 27, 2017

Traveling in Italy - The Workshop

The Workshop

Looking back over the last three weeks in Italy a number of things stand out and are helpful in determining my own future direction. 

When the luggage was delayed it turned out to be a blessing, forcing me to open my eyes and mind to really see again.  Working from still life setups for the last year has resulted in isolating my vision to painting what is in front of me instead of trying to capture something beyond the setup.  While I know not to do that it becomes all too easy to slip back into it. Also I was correct in thinking ahead that I might be overwhelmed and I was.  Overwhelmed by new territory, new country, newness everywhere and so much beauty to absorb in the natural environment, architecturally and in museums.

As I already mentioned, when my luggage finally reappeared with all my painting gear it felt like too much technology compared to the simplicity of sketching and studying what's in front of me. This also highlighted a problem I've had all my life - being able to simplify options.  When I see a complex menu in a restaurant, or a complex landscape or still life setup, what I see is every detail in front of me.  I find it difficult to simplify to just the essentials.  Our eyes and brain see everything, much like a camera, but our minds sort out what to pay attention to – the camera doesn’t. I find it difficult to do this sorting to just the essentials when I want to paint.  For some reason the act of sketching is more immediate and gestural and therefore helps me quickly sort things out to the basics.

Another issue I have is feeling self-conscious about painting. One critique was that I’m being too timid, but I’ve discovered that it’s not timidity at all, but instead not knowing where to jump first if what I see is so complex I can't see a landing spot! It also reminds me of something Tom Hanks said in an interview about his acting.  He has always felt and still does feel self-conscious.  He has to just jump in and stop over thinking it to lose the self-consciousness that will destroy the immediacy of playing another role.  In art I have to remember that there are no mistakes or failures.   I have to explore and experiment and realize that anything I start can be put aside or scrapped and started over again.  With all the focus on details I become too invested in making sense of it all with the result being that I don't move forward till I feel I have more information.  Often that information doesn't become available without jumping in and just trying different approaches.

I also learned as an egg tempera painter that I certainly have patience, but I don’t have the mind-set or speed necessary for plein air painting.  With the changing light and weather conditions it becomes a race with time to correctly capture light, values, shadows. I prefer the time to consider what I’m painting over the longer term and in the studio as I often change my mind, rearrange things, add information as I carry a painting to completion.

As an egg tempera painter I’m also always looking for new techniques, or examples of techniques used by the old masters.  Two such opportunities were found in first the Ospedale degli Innocenti, the world’s oldest orphanage in Florence designed and begun by Filippo Brunelleschi in 1419, it has now been restored and contains some exquisite examples of egg tempera work. The other was found in the Uffizzi Gallery. Today’s egg tempera art experts and critics apparently disparage the use of the techniques of splattering and sponging as, I guess, not scholarly enough.  Here are two wonderful examples of the same from the 1300s and 1400s! Without online stores at their fingertips to buy tools of all kinds, the old masters used whatever they found or made that allowed them to achieve their goals in a painting – hence what certainly looks to me like splattering from Giovanni di Francesco Toscani (c. 1420), and sponging from Giotto di Bondone (c. 1306-1310). 

During the workshop we either painted there on the property of the Associazone Culturale il Palmerino or were driven to any number of places in and around the Florence area.  Most were private villas and museum gardens.  We had a private four-hour walking tour of the Uffizzi Gallery at night that turned out to be their last evening tour for a while.  It might seem an odd thing to say, but we were constantly surrounded by so much beauty that after a while I began to long for something ugly, or at the very least ordinary.  It was becoming too much like working in a candy store.

The painting tours were interspersed with walks down into Florence to go to the market to buy food for our lunches, otherwise most dinners were prepared by Federica and Stephano at the association.  A separate shout-out should be made about the dinners – they were spectacularly delicious.  Usually three to four course entrees preceded with apertivos and followed by dessert.  By the end of the workshop it became difficult to understand how I could consume any more food as I’m not used to eating this way at home.  When we shopped for our own food, though, it meant not only walking to get it, but to also carry it all back home up hill.  When I returned home to the states, despite all the food we consumed (all, I might add, that was healthy and fresh), I had lost five pounds just from all the walking.  It was a vivid reminder just why there’s such an obesity epidemic in America as we drive everywhere and then eat so much processed food (I’ll point out that I try to stay in the produce section of the grocery store).  Unless you live in a city it means you drive to get the things you need.  In America we often set aside specific times to walk or exercise, but isn’t integrated into our daily lives!