My annual painting residency in Lucca came about by sheer luck.
Planning our well-earned holiday, we threw a dart at a map and hit
Lucca. I paid upfront for our European holiday so my workaholic
husband couldn’t back out at the last minute. There’s no way he’d let
any hard earned money slip through his fingers! While organising,
he said to me “Why don’t you stay longer and paint?” So I did!
1. Finding unique opportunities: Some people ask me “Why don’t you just take a photograph and paint at home! Wouldn’t you have more fun shopping?” Ahhh – NO!! I LOVE painting outdoors and relish each and every opportunity. For me it is exciting and exhilarating and frightening – also it gives me a unique understanding of each location, I feel more intimately engaged and become part of scenery and history. Each painting session is unique – successes, little disasters, taped up fixes and all!
2. Engaging: When I paint en plein air, I am paying attention and completely engaged; profound memories of a corner, piazza or garden, the people, smells and sights. Painting straight from a photo cannot match that. When I return to my studio to create another version, all these memories come flooding back, for example, when I cut my finger on my bicycle bell (so stupid!) and a lovely elderly couple stopped and used their first aid kit to dress it so I could continue painting – so very kind! But I remember every angle of the buildings, the light-struck balustrade that was so much in need of TLC, the shapes of the shadows and the colours within.
3. Seeing value in shadows: Photographs can never do a location justice – the colours and values are never right and the shadows are often just a black mass. On careful observation when on-site, you will discover that shadows are never black, nor are they dull. They are full of bounced light and luminous reflections, dark shapes and darker corners.
4. R & D: Painting en plein air is mostly about research and development. I create sketches, colour and value notes, so I can create larger studio works based on the memories of each location, perfect for studio painting in the winter months. Painting en plein can be fun but it is also my work and a valuable asset to my professional development, so yes, there is a certain pressure to paint, to hurry up and focus totally which means I’m not overthinking, just painting!
5. Taking time: I’m learning to stop and smell the roses. When I paint in Italy they think I’m nuts! I’m pretty much the only person in the street when I leave home at 7am. I am a morning person and I love early morning light!
6. Finding the focus: It is interesting that when one paints en plein air, the focal point becomes the centre of your attention and everything else is secondary in your visual periphery with softer edges. This should be communicated in our paintings.
7. Connecting to people: A studio painter’s life can be very isolated, tucked away behind walls and closed doors, especially in winter months. It’s great to get out and connect and share my paintings with people, locals and visitors who appreciate art. I become part of your history and you become part of mine. Sometimes people stand and watch and sometimes they will ask questions or take our picture. I am no longer a tourist, I am an artist in Italy who is respected and supported.
8. Observing: Painting en plein air is the best training ever. There is no better way to improve seeing and painting skills and overcome challenges. I can observe light, shade and details and when I return to paint in the same area, see other elements that I didn’t notice or may have been obscured by different light effects. I can walk around and see the shapes from a different perspective and gain a deeper understanding of my subject. I can see the origins of light and reflections bouncing around.
9. The Masters did it! If it was good enough for the masters to paint en plein and study the same subject over and over again, it’s good enough for me. How many lily pond paintings did Monet create? How many haystacks did van Gogh paint? More than we know I’m sure. This study leads to development of one’s art and mind – this is how we grow and develop, carrying on the traditions of landscape painters such as Corot, Monet, Ruskin, Sargent, Cezanne, Gainsborough, Constable, Turner, Van Gogh, Renoir, Wyeth - the list is innumerable.
10. Just being en plein air: Lastly, I love painting outdoors, I love toting my painting gear around on my bicycle searching for my next painting spot whether it be thru the streets of Lucca or along the river near my home.
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