For the latest in news, shows, upcoming events, new works, contests and special offerings… sign up today for John’s Newsletter.

John's Blog

Sunday, March 10, 2013

What's on the easel?

One of the most touching moments I experienced while in Italy a few years ago was in the town of Sorrento while visiting the Santa Maria Della Pieta Nursery and Primary School. Our group had been invited to the school, and while there a class of primary school students presented a short program in which we were welcomed to their town and introduced to the town's history.

Later, while being served cookies and coffee, the young children entertained us with a selection of songs in both Italian and English, concluding with the very beautiful "Torna a Surriento", better known to us as "Come Back to Sorrento".

We were deeply touched and for a moment did not know how to thank them until, sort of spontaneously, we all began to sing "God Bless America". It was a very special moment.
"Come Back to Sorrento" is a song that has been with me since childhood. It was not unusual to hear it played in our home. Dean Martin popularized it in 1951 and Elvis Presley, with a change of lyrics, turned the melody into the most popular song he ever recorded...and into one of the best selling singles of all time, "Surrender", 1961. And, in 1963, I chose it for my high school trumpet solo. There are many memories attached to that song.

Now there's a lemon! Discovered in a Sorrento market.

It was also in Sorrento that I tried intense recipe of lemon peels, vodka, water, and sugar. I did not enjoy it.

Sorrento has a long, long history. Its Roman name was Surrentum and its oldest ruins date back to 600 BC. Located in Southern Italy, it overlooks the Bay of Naples, and Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius are nearby.

Sorrento, Italy

It's an impressive town, a tourist's destination for sure. I am generally attracted to impressive architecture, and Sorrento offered many great painting opportunities. One of those paintings is currently on my easel.

There are any number of concepts that could have been chosen for my current painting of Sorrento...and any of them would have been just fine. So, why this? Well, the answer won't elevate my status any, but the truth is, I wanted to do a vertical painting since almost everything I do is horizontal...and, I've had a 30"x 50" frame laying around the studio for several years. 

Once size and direction were decided upon, the critical work of composition began. Sorrento is built on cliffs overlooking the Bay of Naples. A low horizon line would emphasize its height. The photo above presents the feeling of majestic height I wanted to capture. With the scene selected, composition decided, some liberties were taken with the drawing in order to adapt the scene to the 50"x 30" proportion.

The photos below demonstrate the steps taken to get me to where the painting is as of today.
Beginnings of value study. Canvas is toned with raw umber and approximate areas of light are lifted out with a paper towel. Then drawing with brush begins.

I consider planning to be an important and necessary step in the creation of any successful painting. When you think about it, everything we use, from a simple ball-point pen to complex computers have been carefully and thoughtfully designed...well before being manufactured and ending up in our hands. Why should paintings be any different? Is the design of a ball-point pen any less creative?
So, what makes for a successful painting? What needs to take place in the planning stage? First, a clear idea/concept. What is it you want to communicate? After that, attention should be given to creating a balanced composition, accurate drawing, interesting distribution of lights and darks, and which colors will best communicate the concept. Put all these things together and we have a pretty good shot.

Continuation of the value study - 12"x 7.25" - Oil on canvas 

A very common sense but important bit of advice...make sure the size of the final painting is exactly proportional to your preliminary work. In my case, the size of the available frame was the determining factor for this painting, but in most cases it will be the proportions of the canvas, or one's preliminary sketches that determine the final.. I give this exhortation because over and over again I have observed students doing just the opposite...preliminary work one proportion, canvas selection another.

The block-in shown above is on canvas which has been taped to hardboard. Note the clear definition of horizon line (HL)...very important... if there is any hope of accurate drawing.

Completed value study with grid drawn on an acetate overlay. Work is now ready to be enlarged and transferred to the 50"x 30" canvas

If the study has errors in drawing, those errors will be accentuated when enlarged. Great care must be taken every step of the way. Inaccurate perspective will create a sense of instability in architectural subjects...and a discomfort in the viewer.

Even here, adjustments have been made to architectural details and proportions 

Block-in on 50"x 30" canvas is complete

It may seem like a lot of detail for a block-in...and it is. However, I thought it necessary in this case, because without it, all the perspective work done in the study would have to be totally repeated in the larger version. It is much easier to work out perspective issues on a small scale rather than a larger one.

Block-in of final painting is complete, selection of suitable palette is made.
Top row: ultramarine blue, cadmium red; cadmium red, transparent red oxide
Middle row: ultramarine blue, transparent red oxide; ultramarine blue, cadmium yellow medium
Bottom row: Cadmium red, cadmium yellow medium; transparent red oxide, cadmium yellow medium 

This is very typical of how I select a suitable palette for each painting. I have stacks of cards similar to these in which two colors are mixed together with white. I simply flip through the cards until I come upon a set of colors appropriate for the work at hand. The cards selected will tell me what colors to place on the palette. In this case: white, ultramarine blue, cadmium red, transparent red oxide, and cadmium yellow medium.

Color study - 7.5"x 4.5" - Oil on gessoed paper 

The painting as of today - 50"x 30" - Oil

Even after all the preliminary work, as I've begun painting on this larger scale, the foreground felt deserted, certainly less than the intimate feeling I'm after. You can see the changes being made...removal of the large boat on right, replaced with a terrace...and the addition of a boat, with gentleman aboard, on the left. I view this whole area teeming with activity. I'm developing the center of interest first and then will relate the rest of the painting to it. Onward and upward!

Upcoming Workshops
22-24 March - Carthage, MO - Contact:
3-5 May - Atlanta, GA - Contact: and HERE
The theme of both workshops is "Deconstructing the Landscape". Bring a landscape painting you're struggling with. We will discover the problems and I will help you resolve on one.
See you there.

If you would like to receive my monthly newsletter, please click HERE

An Art Renewal Center Associate Living Artist
To view art and bio, please click HERE



Blogger tom martino said...

Thanks for sharing how to carefully start a large painting. The idea of the color cards is one I will try!

July 11, 2013 at 3:01 PM  
Blogger Marsha Hamby Savage said...

Love the idea of the cards! I will have to use that in my studio. Thank you.

July 15, 2013 at 7:15 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home