jenny and vincent

jenny and vincent low rezJenny and Vincent, 14" x 10", oil on panel

Here is a quick sketch that I did of my friend, Jenny, and her fiance, Vincent.  Jenny and I had agreed that her fiance would be a great sitter for a portrait.  She and I met at the Charles Cecil Studio several years back and have been in touch ever since.  Years ago, Margaret and I went and stayed at her house in southern England, and the three of us went rambling through the countryside, visited Jane Austen's house, drank hard cider beside a rabbit warren.  This past time in Florence, we met and became friends with her fiance, Vincent, as well.  Vincent is an Anglican priest who served at the Saint Mark's Anglican Church in Florence.  He is often whistling some piece of music which he had been previously playing on his piano.  He was very generous with us, had us out to his house in the countryside, and kindly tolerated Liam smashing and destroying his belongings.

I did this sketch in about two days time, or five hours or so.  It was a really fun piece to do, as it was a unique perspective on the typical portrait sitting.  The way things work at the Cecil Studios, there are two models for every one portrait sitter.  Canvases are placed directly beside the sitter, and the easels remain in this position for the entire pose.  On the day we began, I decided that I simply wanted to do something different.  I backed up about fifteen feet or so, placed the wooden panel in such a way as to best view the scene, and started painting.  I really enjoyed doing this piece, and the other artists in the studio chimed in with their enthusiasm.  I think we all liked that it was a variant on the same old theme.

Jenny's painting of Vincent is seen here in its early stage.  She is a very good painter, very good at depicting emotion, and I really love her work.  This painting turned out exceptionally well for her.  I guess it is that she somehow captured Vincent's unique, wry smile, and that is what made her painting.

Before their marriage, Jenny and Vincent visited us in the States this past spring.  They returned to Europe, and were married in the summer.  Shortly after, they moved to Aberdeen, Scotland.  Margaret and I were unable to attend the wedding, which took place in England, but I was able to give them this painting as a wedding gift.  It is a nice thought that, somewhere in Aberdeen, both Jenny's painting of Vincent and my painting of her painting Vincent are, perhaps, hanging side by side.


mercato centrale, florence

mercato centrale internetMercato Centrale, 9" x 12", oil on panel

This is a painting sketch of the Mercato Centrale in Florence.  I set up my easel right in the middle of the market, and just did a quick paint sketch.  I would have also done a larger painting afterward, but we had to return home to New York a little earlier than we expected.

The Mercato Centrale, or Central Market, is basically a huge, wrought iron cathedral that the Florentines built to worship food.  It houses countless vegetable booths, kind of like farm stands, with produce from all over the Mediterranean and Northern Africa.  Then there is the meats section, with blood dripping from animals hanging on hooks, chicken carcasses, and so many trays of tripe that it looks like a coral reef.  Other sections include the fish market, the wine market, the cheese and marinated foods market.  There are too many choices.  When you buy food there, you have to act like you've done it a million times before, or else they will charge you triple.  Trust me, Margaret and I made the error of wandering around, giddy with delight, our eyes glazed over with oogling admiration- then we were raped by their prices.  So, no gazing at the cavernous cathedral of wrought iron and glass, no taking pictures- no having a camera for that matter, no smiling at the food vendors.  Act like a New Yorker in New York City, detached and disinterested.  Just ask for a half dozen blood oranges, some swiss chard, and be done with it, or else pay the price.


Here's a painting that I am working on right now, and I thought it would be cool to show a work in progress.  This painting is in its second day, and so I've only had Matt sit for this painting twice now, about three hours each time. Matt is the best sitter, I wish he were around to sit more often, but he himself is busy working in his father's faux finishing business.

Matt is one of my best friends from childhood.  Matt's brother Brandon is my closest friend, and Brandon and I went to school together.  Although Matt is younger than Bran by a few years, the three of us always hung out together.  And so, the three of us are all still very close.

I love the way that Matt lives his life.  He is very aware of what society demands of him, and he will make concessions to these demands, but only so far.  And so, he did as he was told and went off to university to get his Bachelor's degree in Biology.  He works hard throughout the week, but he chooses to drive rundown cars, wear shabby clothes.  But then, and this is what I love- he up and moves to Costa Rica.  He spends months and months working and saving, and then books his flight.  Two days after faux finishing in a beautiful mansion in Mill Neck, New York, he is laying in a hammock on a beach in some obscure Costa Rican village, smoking a cigar, reading Brothers Karamazov. He exploits the system responsibly.  He works for materialistic society, then withdraws from the materialistic demands of society and enjoys himself for months and months on end, living off his savings.  He does this back and forth thing on a regular basis.  I doubt whether capitalistic America has birthed a finer specimen of beach bum in which resides equal parts antiestablishmentarianism and commercial enterprise.

Matt got back from Costa Rica, this last time, about four months ago now.  When he got back, he was wonderfully hirsute.  He had long hair pulled back in a pony tail, and a scruffy beard.  Perfect sitter for a painting, especially in metrosexual Long Island, where the men are as hairless as the women.  He came over my house with a handmade, classical guitar that he had bought from a guitar maker in Costa Rica.  He decided to learn the classical guitar in his free time.

I'm including lots of photos, in order to show how broadly I paint in the beginning.  In the first few days, especially on a big canvas such as this one, I paint with only big brushes, each one about an inch wide.  I just want to see the whole picture, the broad planes, before I get absorbed into the smaller details.  Using such big brushes prevents me from getting absorbed by the trivial aspects of the painting- I literally cannot paint small details with these brushes.  I typically paint this way, confining myself to good habits, as if I myself were a thing to be roped in- I just know that I will get absorbed by unimportant things if I allow myself to be (in life as well as painting, I must admit.)  Using this technique, I've taught myself how to move quickly on the first few days.  It's not that I need to always work quickly, it's just that in the first few days I need to get all of my thoughts out, before I lose enthusiasm and creative energy.  After this burst of painting, I can slow down and focus on refining the work (such as shortening his arm, enlarging face a bit...etc.), and try not to lose the momentum of the initial sprint.

low rez matt progress shot day 2, full studio beside window

low rez matt progress shot day 2

low rez matt progress shot day 2, detail face

low rez matt progress shot day 2, detail left hand

chiaroscuro, clear and obscure

finalselfzoomlowrezSelf Portrait, detail, 40" x 47", oil on canvas

Many people are aware of the term "chiaroscuro," a word often used in art history books to describe the works of baroque artists such as Caravaggio and Rembrandt.  In the academic setting of my university, I was told that the term simply translated as "light and dark."  That simple.

If I often digress into etymology, it is because I actually find that words hold the keys to abstract concepts.  Painting is a visual language.  But for English speakers, when our understanding of verbal language, such as the word chiaroscuro, is applied to the visual language of painting, the verbal language can occasionally be the round peg which is crammed into the square hole of the visual language of painting.  When I moved to Italy, I soon discovered that chiaroscuro does not mean light and dark.  Okay, to say that chiaroscuro means light and dark is technically correct, but it is also grossly incorrect.  Chiaro, in Italian, literally means "clear."  Yes, light happens to bring clarity, but chiaro implies that which is within our sensory limits to perceive.  Scuro implies not simple darkness, but mystery.  You can talk at length with an Italian about this word, oscuro, and you will learn that it can imply all sorts of things: what is incomprehendable in that it is beyond the impasse of human knowledge, what is unfathomable in that it is outside of the ability of the human mind to understand, what is imperceivable in that it is not detected by the five human senses.  And so, chiaroscuro has much more metaphorical power than I previously had known.

How does this delving into the meaning of "chiaroscuro" apply to painting?  Well, it applies to life.  What exactly do you know, in your world?  How well do you know yourself?  How well do you understand your current emotional state?  Do you know others?  Even those closest to you?  Do you entirely grasp the spiritual implications of your religion?  Do you understand the workings of the natural world around you?  How do your relationships with other people work?  Baroque artists would simply shed light and bring forth details on that which they understood, and cloak in mystery that which they did not fully understand. Chiaroscuro can simply be a style of painting which emphasizes certain elements, and diminishes the importance of other objects by shrouding them in mystery.  Chiaroscuro was a type of metaphor for the best Baroque painters, such as Velazquez.

velazquez.meninasVelazquez, Las Meninas, 125" x 108"

I often ask my students, as my teachers asked me: "Why are you painting so much detail in the shadows?  When you step back, can you actually make out the details of that portrait model's eye, or is it lost in shadow?... Can you see the specks on the side of that apple in darkness, or is it the case that when you step back, you can really only see that which is in the light?"  Look at the shadows, not into them, and you'll make better paintings.  An artist friend once asked me how I had done a painting of a certain person, and I simply said "I just was thinking that everything is dark until light hits it.  And, the light didn't quite reach all the areas of the figure.  That's where things are still dark."  It sounds painfully simple, but that really is painting to me.

If I were to write a book on painting, I would write it on this: the clear and the obscure.  I didn't write a book though, I just painted the portrait of myself at the top of this page- I painted what I knew about myself, and left in obscurity that which I didn't understand about myself.  What we understand in life, and what we don't.

Look at this painting by Caravaggio, look at how honestly human it is, and think about his language of chiaroscuro.  Look at his statement on the omniscience of Christ, and the limited understanding of the world.  Look at how Caravaggio orchestrates that which is clear and that which is obscured.   See how he metaphorically conveys truth cutting through ignorance by the placement of Christ's hand.  The hand is parallel to the beam of light which cuts across the wall and strikes Matthew's face.

The_Calling_of_Saint_Matthew_by_CarvaggioCaravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew, oil on linen

Look at this next painting by a contemporary artist, Ramiro.  He is an artist from Venezuela, trained in Florence.  His work is stunning.  He is one of my favorite artists, because he understands the metaphor of chiaroscuro.  There is so much meaning in the fact that his eye sockets are in deep shadow, and that he has barely painted his eyes.

Ramiro_Selfportrait_2006_500Ramiro, Self Portrait, 28" x 20", oil on linen

time spent not painting


Well, a good part of my day was spent lamenting the fact that I wasn't painting.  A week ago, I bought loads of stretcher bars so that I could make a load of new canvases.  I'm down to about four canvases right now.  It frustrates me to think of a painting and to not be able to begin it.  And so, every few months, I stop working for three days, and just blitz a load of canvases.  As well as constructing new canvases, I took apart a few old paintings that I wasn't too fond of, and rolled the canvas up.  Also, I took apart a few premade canvases that a friend gave to me, so that I could replace some of the cotton canvas with linen.

This is a picture of my studio, the floor strewn with 27 stretcher bar frames for canvases.  It is really time consuming to build my own canvases, but I save a lot of money doing it myself.  As well, there is nothing nicer to paint on than a handmade canvas- premade ones are never comparable.  I stretch the Belgian linen over the wood stretcher bars, size the linen with a rabbit skin glue mixture, and lastly I apply titanium oil primer over the linen.  In all, it takes over twenty hours of work, not including drying time in between.

I get very frustrated by all of the time I spend not painting.  I have to say, I spend so much time driving, talking, etc., that I wish I could just lock myself away in a studio in the mountains and just work by myself for a few months.  And then I remember, for several months I moved to a cabin in the Mohonk mountains, upstate New York, and I was so lonely that I didn't get anything done.  I left after two months, though  I had planned to stay six.  But, this period by myself in the mountains was not useless, because I found that I actually needed distractions to keep my mind stimulated.  I believe that Walden Pond was only a mile or so from a bustling nearby village.

And so, though I was frustrated that I didn't get to paint today, I was able to get 27 new canvases underway.  It is nice to know that there are 27 new opportunities for paintings.

northern light


The Cellist, 5' x 4', oil on linen, painted in northern, side light

For those that don't know about my working methods, one of the hallmarks of my technique is that I work entirely from natural, northern light.  I just find any other form of lighting to be inferior, in that the light is always so "same."  This sameness is why many painters work from electric light, in order to achieve a consistent light which won't vary from day to day.  But I find that the variable quality of natural light is actually an asset.  On a sunny day, a portrait sitter is bathed in warm, intense light, with all of the details of the face in either brilliant light or dark shadows.  On a rainy day, that same sitter will have a cool, consistent light across their face, with delicate transitions between light and shade on the face.  How exciting to draw from both of these realities, and create a synthesized, third reality of light!

Why northern light?  Well, it does not necessarily need to be northern light.  However, once I began painting with northern light, I realized how pleasantly cool and diffused this light was.  And when this cool, northern light falls on a portrait sitter's face, the shadows are warm and resonant.  I have painted in many types of natural light, and I do so on a regular basis, but if I am going to choose just one source of light, it would be northern.  Southern light is more tricky, the problem being that direct light comes through the window and onto the floor.  This may sound trivial, but it actually throws the lighting for the whole room.  The aperture of the eye is set to the existing light levels in a room, and as this patch of sunlight makes its way across the floor and onto the walls, the eye adjusts to this burst of light.  And so, the shadows become darker and the middle values get lost.  The aperture of our eye can't take in both the brilliance of that direct light, and the subtlety of the interior light.

For an ideal studio, the light needs to also be from above.  Not directly above, but high up on the wall, such as a very tall window.  Again, this is not an absolute necessity, but is really desirable.  The problem with side light is that it creates a shadow pattern which is vertical.  Think of shining a flashlight directly to the side of an orange.  The result is a line drawn from the top to the bottom.  This is, quite simply, not exciting in aesthetic terms.  For a portrait painting, side light necessitates some cunning placement of the model, so that the Jekyll and Hyde light/shadow pattern can be avoided.  Light that comes from above and to the side is much better.  It is much more flattering to the human figure, the human face, still life objects, etc.

Well, why am I writing so much about light?  I mention it because I've found another studio that I will be working in.  A local church has a beautiful building with 15 foot tall, northern windows in an enormous room.  The ceiling is about 17 feet high!  The building itself is 150 years old, and is a very nice structure.  I am so very excited about working in this space, I should be in there in about a week's time.  My old studio, located in a warehouse, is fairly large, and is ideal for certain projects.  But, the light is from the side, and so I've found this to be limiting.  I'll keep my old studio, and work in both the church and the warehouse, depending on which project I am working on.  But I have to say, I am so excited for the tall, north windows in this old church building.


mandolininternetBluegrass Bedlum, 18" x 24", oil on linen

Much of my knowledge of painting is derived from the Baroque tradition of painting, and my link to Baroque painting is through my teacher, Charles Cecil.  The reason for my preface is because "disegno" is something I learned from Charles, it was not a discovery that I made on my own.  Only fair that I give him credit!

The Italians have a word for the noun "drawing" which they call "disegno."  "Il disegno" means "the drawing."  The derivative is the verb "disegnare."  Linguists will have to tolerate my limited knowledge, but the artistic application is what I am going for.  What does the word "disegno" look like?  To us English speakers, we would guess "design."  That is precisely the point of my writing today.

The Italians are so preoccupied by the idea of design, that they will not even tolerate the idea of doing a drawing without there being present the element of design.  Think of this for a moment- not even a rendering of a hand, a study of bone structure, is to be done without design.  There is no drawing without design- they are one and the same.

And so, when I paint, the chief of my concerns is design- where is the climax?  How do I balance of light and darks?  What is to be emphasized, what is to be downplayed?  What should be graceful?  If I had to draw a shape around the important works, would it be a square, a triangle, a circle?  In this painting, Bluegrass Bedlum, the climax of the design is not the cork in the wine bottle, which is the peak of the triangle encompassing the objects.  Instead, it is a deferred, whimsical climax- the knocked over glass, with drips of wine falling off the table.  All of the lights and darks are designed in such a way as to emphasize the highlights on the glass.  While this is the climax, everything else is given just enough interest so as to keep the eye moving all around the canvas.

When I began painting, I was unaware of these elements of design.  I just selected things at random, tried for absolute, razorsharp accuracy.  The result was "photorealism,"  a detached, mechanistic mode of painting in which there is no human spirit.  Accuracy is found in photorealism, but poetry is altogether absent.  An Italian of the naturalist persuasion would look at a well rendered, aimless photorealistic painting and say "senza disegno."  For the sake of clarity, I will give this the rough translation "without any ability to design or draw."

And in a reference to the previous essay on linear calligraphy, I return to the idea of painting being more concerned with composing than with observing.  As a painter, I always think of myself as the head of an orchestra.  As both composer and conductor, the elements of design are my instruments by which I lead my audience to the same feeling that I am trying to convey.

a personal calligraphy

finalannaflorencelowrezAnna, 55" x 32", oil on linen

This is the painting  that you may recognize from a prior blog entry.  I am glad to say that I enjoyed this painting from the beginning to the end.  I did not have that long, drawn out series of frustrations and epiphanies.  I was confident in what I wanted to paint, and I was beginning to understand what it was that I was trying to achieve.  I understood, first off, that I wanted to place a higher emphasis on line than I had in the past.  I wanted to find a beautiful contour, and let it run from the top of the canvas to the bottom.  Although I was very concerned with the issue of light, I was equally concerned with the issue of line, and so I turned to Raphael.  Raphael was able to see and create beautiful lines in all of his figures.

The following drawing may initially seem irrelevant, but if you follow the beautiful sense of line that Raphael has incised onto the contour of this figure, you can understand how there are beautiful lines to be found everywhere in nature.  The lyrical flow of line that runs along the side of a woman's figure has its parallel in a line of trees silhouetted against the sky, even in a violin resting on its side.  This drawing by Raphael is actually a copy of Michelangelo's David, and he is said to have done this sketch in front of the David, in Piazza della Signoria in Florence.  Raphael infused his own personal sense of calligraphy into his observation of the David, and many art critics believe that Raphael's sense of linear rhythm actually trumped Michelangelo's.

raphael1Raphael, Drawing after the David, pen and ink

Follow Raphael's sense of line on the left side, from the top of the head to the heel of the foot.  On my own time, I copied many drawings such as this.  And I believe that these copies enabled me to develop my own, personal sense of calligraphy, which I was then able to imbue the figure of Anna with.  I have found, in the end, painting is more concerned with composing than with merely observing.

schumann vs. techno

Do all of my posts have to be about painting?  I have a quick story.  The other day, I was driving along in my pickup truck with the windows down,  listening to one of my favorite pieces of classical music, composed by Schumann.  Does that sound pretentious?  Well, I'll file a disclaimer- a few minutes before, I was listening to Charlie Daniel's "Uneasy Rider", and my shuffle function went to Schumann afterwards.  So, I was driving along and listening to Isaac Stern climb higher and higher in the melody, his violin weaving in and out of the voices of the viola and cello... what a delicate piece, a delightful diapason, a beautiful melody that is given back and forth between the strings and piano.  As I am wrapped up in this piece, I pull up to a traffic light.  Suddenly, into this soaring, sonorous melody there intrudes the discordant sound of some noise so loud and jolting that it can only be likened to a herd of brontosaurus charging across a field of broken glass.  And two seconds later, a red Nissan Maxima with a spoiler, chrome rims, and lowered tires pulls up next to me- it was a Guido, blasting music with his windows down, some type of techno rap fusion.  The guy sat low in his seat, draped his tattooed arm over his steering wheel (yes, a barbed wire tattoo, with tribal motifs to boot), and his brow was furrowed.  His girlfriend danced to the music as they waited at the light.  I sighed, and went to roll up my window.   But then...

I hit the volume button.

And I hit it again.

I did so until I maxed out my volume.  So there I was, in a big pickup truck, blasting Schumann's piano quartet in E flat major, op. 47, andante cantabile.  It was deafening.  The violin was screaming, the cello made my dashboard vibrate, and I was tickled with glee to find that my sound system was much louder than his.  I slouched in my seat, draped my arm over my steering wheel, and furrowed my brow.  I looked over with detached toughness, as is the manner of a Long Island guido.  When my eyes met their eyes, I was delighted to find that I didn't break character.  I gave a head nod, furrowed brow still intact.  And then, they broke- the girlfriend started laughing convulsively, and the guido turned red.

The light turned green.  I rolled on in my dented chevy, and as the cacaphony faded away, the onlooking pedestrians wondered what on earth had just taken place.



iltocco2internetTwo, 9x 12, oil on panel

This is a figure painting that I did several months ago, and it was painted on a small panel, about 9 x 12 inches or so.  I have to admit, I don't often get attached to any of my paintings- perhaps the reason is that letting go of works gives me a reason to paint more.  This is one of the paintings that sold at the show in Greenwich, and yet, I was sad to let it go.  It just has a spontaneity, a suggestion of form, that I often strive for yet seldom attain.  In addition, there is something cool about seeing one figure nearly finished, and the other just briefly addressed.  Well, I'll stop patting myself on the back, and I'll talk more about the piece.

A few artists friends and I were talking about the difficulty of designing large canvases- it is so difficult to paint life size figures, because it is difficult to see the whole canvas.  You feel like you need a few hundred feet to step back, in order to see the whole thing.  But, my friends and I all simultaneously discovered the usefulness of smaller paintings.  In a smaller, spontaneous sketch, you can capture the entire gesture, skin tone, composition, etc., in just strokes, and then that image can be repeated on a larger scale.  This is an approach that I've only just began, so I'm excited to see where it leads.  And, in the meantime, I am really enjoying doing these smaller works, as they have an aesthetic all unto themselves.