Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Upcoming Solo Show

Who knew I had such a rebellious streak in me ? Three years ago I started painting compositions of boxes and parcels and they had an immediate and quite unexpected success.
All of those paintings sold in a few months, and soon galleries asked for more. That's when the mutiny happened, I just couldn't paint that subject any longer.
For months I made a series of unsuccessful still lifes of shells and narrative figure compositions, I dedicated my time to printmaking and portraits.

  And then, all of a sudden, the boxes came back. The encore started as I was leafing through a book on Giotto and looking at his painted buildings: pink, green, baby blue, like being in a candy store. Then of course there's the marvellous elegance of Piero's Arezzo, and the tiny farm clinging to venetian hills in Bellini's Virgin of the Meadows. Those are my roots, that is my country, my colours, the light I know so well. Those volumes and their relationship, their haphazard but balanced disposition are the subjects of my most recent works. Twenty five oils are going on show at Galleria Elle Arte on the 31st of October in Palermo, Italy.

After Bellini, oil on linen, 40x50

I have uploaded images of the paintings in the show as well as the thoughtful introductory essay that James Bland was so kind to write on a special tumblr blog.  I can't wait to get to Palermo and see all the paintings hanging together !

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Upcoming Show at the Royal Academy: Giovanni Battista Moroni

On Monday I attended a talk in which the curator Arturo Galansino introduced the show "Giovanni Battista Moroni", opening on the 25th of October at the Royal Academy, and this is a short account on what he said, a little information if you are planning to visit.

The show is a very special occasion: it's the first UK show of Moroni in thirty years, and the Royal Academy's first old master's exhibition in a decade. And Moroni is a great master, unfortunately very little known to the general public!
The UK hosts the largest collection of Moroni outside Bergamo: the exhibition will feature forty paintings by him and five by other painters ( Lotto and Moretto among them).

   Moroni was born in Albino, near Bergamo, around 1520. He studied close by, in Brescia, in the bottega of the painter Moretto. In his first works we can immediately notice some elements that will characterise all his work: an interest for texture and materials, the use of architecture to structure the space and most of all the striking realism.

   Soon after establishing his independent practice he was called to Trento during the Council that decided the fate of the Catholic church. In that moment the town was a very important centre and Moroni produced some religious works that embodied the ideas of the Counter Reformation, looking at Lorenzo Lotto, who was twenty years his senior and had worked in Bergamo.

   This painting, from a private collection, is an interesting example of a new kind of devotional work. Saint Ignatius of Loyola had written about some spiritual exercises: one of these was the so-called "orazione mentale", mental prayer, in which the faithful should concentrate and visualise a sacred scene. Moroni breaks up the architecture so that the vision is real and imagined at the same time.

     In the second part of the show we will see the portraits of the 1550s, where his excellence in this genre starts to appear clearly. He paints some "ritratti esemplari", portraits of people who should be an example to emulate. Among these the elegant and truthful portrait of Lucrezia Agliardi Vertova from the Met. Notice the beautiful shadow of the veil on the collar !

  The rooms dedicated to portraits from the 60's will be very spectacular. Moroni had an extraordinary ability to depict fabrics and clothes, his women are at the peak of fashion. We will see beautiful silks, embroidered fabrics, furs, jewels.
In time dresses change as political allegiances change: Bergamo was in Venetian territory but very close to the border with the Duchy of Milano, under Spanish rule. The Spaniards favoured black and so we see men increasingly wearing that colour and standing in front of Spanish mottos inscribed in architectural elements.

   In Bergamo the aristocracy ended up taking parts and splitting in two very distinctive factions, pro-Venetians and pro-Spanish: in 1563 a high profile assassination in a church prompts Venice to try and re-establish its rule, and Moroni, who had often painted the opposition, decides to return to his small town of Albino. Here he will go back to making religious works and he will portray members of the bourgeoisie. It is then that he painted his famous "Tailor".

Scholars have given different interpretations of this work, including allegorical ones. Charles Eastlake, the famous director of the National Gallery, had bought this work from an Italian aristocrat nicknamed "Tagliapanni", literally fabric cutter but figuratively "a gossip", could this be his portrait  in disguise? It was also said that our tailor is wearing a belt made to hold a sword, but further studies found that tailors did dress like that.
Galansino rejects different interpretations and is convinced that this is an earnest portrait. It is the first time that we see an artisan on canvas, and Moroni shows respect both for the man and for his trade. The painting has been compared to Degas'  Women Ironing, it is a forerunner of XIX century taste.

A gentleman in black from the 1570s: it's Gian Gerolamo Albani,;belonging to a pro-Spanish family, he had been in jail in Venice and then in exile. Again there is a comparison to make with XIX century sensibility and Ingres' octopus-handed Louis-Fran├žois Bertin.

Moroni was indeed a modern artist, he worked like an early photographer: sitters would go to his studio where they would be sat on the same prop chair, in front of the usual background, and made immortal.
In his time he was known by the cognoscenti but his was a small scale operation: he didn't have a bottega with students who would help him with the work and carry on his name.
He didn't leave an immediate and evident legacy however it would be difficult to imagine the work of his famous fellow countryman Caravaggio without knowing that he left for Rome with Moroni's realism in his pocket.

I am looking forward to the opening !

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Il Libro Mio

"If by chance one is disorderly in exercise, in clothes, in coitus or superfluous eating, in a few days it can harm you or even doom you. So you should be prudent in June, July, August and mid September, sweat moderately and most of all beware of the wind after you exercised, and take care in eating and drinking, particularly when you feel warm.
Afterwards, from mid September, get ready for autumn, when, because of the short days and the start of the humid weather, and the humidity of the excess drink you had in the summer, you should prepare yourself by fasting, drinking very little and exercising so that winter colds, finding you not well disposed, might not harm you.
And don't meddle too much with meat, particularly pork, and from mid January on don't eat it at all, that it is fibrous, and bad. And behave moderately, because excess body fluids and catarrh will only appear later on in February, March and April since in winter cold weather freezes them.  
And take care that some times, following the moon phases, one catches cold and immediately everything that's frozen becomes liquid and this might cause dreadful snots and even apoplexy or other dangerous diseases, that everything is caused by this cold temperature: as cold makes you eat and drink too much and everything solidifies, then fairer and humid weather warms it up and it grows and swells. 
And so as I said at the start when you feel congested beware of getting cold when you exercise because it might kill you in a few days. So if you acquired  excess liquids in the winter do as I have above here described and most of all be careful in March, particularly ten days before and ten days after the full moon...that every time the moon fills up it is harmful and it is important to take precautions.
In the year 1555 during the moon that started in March and lasted until the 21st of April, in all that moon pestilent diseases were born that killed many people who were healthy and good and took care of themselves, and everyone was bleeding.
I think what happened was that January wasn't cold and all the cold temperature happened in the March moon, that one could feel a dull and poisonous cold battle the air of the "long days season", which was like listening to fire sizzling in the water, so that I was very scared. 
It is advantageous to be prepared before March moon starts, that she might find you sober in eating, exercised and very mindful of sweating. And don't be surprised that, as soon as [the moon] is over, a man doesn't know why but from feeling ill he will then feel better, as it is happening to me, today 22nd April, first day of the new moon, after I have never really felt any good in the past days.
It must all be because of a certain cold weather that hadn't really finished and had lasted until the 21st; but today, this day I just mentioned, I feel warm and fine because the weather is finally in his own season."

This is a rough translation of the fascinating incipit of Jacopo Pontormo's diary. Written in 1555 and 1556, these few pages, the only ones we have, are a vivid and present testimony that bring the master close to us.

   He was 60 when he wrote this, working at the huge cycle of frescoes in San Lorenzo in Florence ( then completed by Bronzino), now lost apart from some preparatory drawings.
Pontormo cuts a lonely and hypocondriac figure, noting the weather, the food he ate and the bits of work he completed that day. He seems to be writing at the end of each week, as if his notes might help him to device the best conditions for him to work. He records his stomach upsets and the cost of food.
His frequent meals with Bronzino and few others leave him the rest of the day to work, and he never mentions any other distraction. His supper is simple, often only a "fish of egg" ( omelette rolled so that it looks like a fish) and not much else, and accompanied with a few ounces of bread.

There is no glorification of his work, very little pride, just a love for what he does, as he describes finishing the head of a figure, then the next day an arm, then the other one. He writes that he hit his toe against a door or that his assistant has spent the night out at the very time when Jacopo was ill, and " he will never forget this".

   I find his spleen, lunacy and fastidiousness endearing because of the humility that transpires from his words.  "Today 25th March [1556]: the moon is in opposition": the moon governs his life, it's the planet of Mannerism.
Vasari says that in the little house where he lives, across the road from a convent and with a little orchard he tends to, he often climbs up where his bed is, and hauls up the ladder.
In the diary one day he is drawing in his house, perhaps working at this dramatic tangle of falling apart bodies, and he hears Bronzino knocking, then later on his friend Daniello. We can picture him being startled and deciding not to open and continue working. Later on he writes: I don't know what on earth they might have wanted.

The diary ends in October 1556, a few weeks before his death, these are the last entries.

"Monday: I did the head and hair of that boy; I dined, 2 birds.
Tuesday: I woke up one hour before dawn, and I did the torso of that putto that holds a chalice, and the evening I dined, a good wether. but my throat is sore and I can not spit this thing I have.
Today, 11th, Sunday: I went to Certosa. In the evening, I dined.
Today 18th, Sunday, Dined with Piero, wether; and in the evening I dined at Bronzino's fried liver.
Friday it got cold and in the evening we dined in a tavern, Daniello, Giulio, at the Piovano: roasted eel that cost 15 farthing."

I have a connection with Pontormo. His paintings from the Story of Joseph, now in the National Gallery in London, was originally commissioned for a nuptial chamber in the Florentine palazzo Borgherini. After the demise of the Borgherini in 1750 the building was acquired by the Rosselli Del Turco and it's been in our family ever since. 

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Mi Blog Es Tu Blog - Leslie Watts

I met Leslie Watts at the opening of the BP Award in June ( thank you Sophie Ploeg for inviting me). I was terribly flattered that she recognised me while I was having a closer look at her painting (she is a reader of this blog) !
Her portrait of son Stefan is incredible, one of the best entries this year. It's a work that gracefully dissimulates the extreme sophistication of its technique, a portrait that I find strong and melancholic at the same time. 
I want to thank Leslie, a lovely person I hope to meet again, for the very extensive post she wrote and the precious insight into her process and her pigments drawer.

Stefan, 23,
Egg Tempera on Panel, 20" x 16"

I am a painter living in Stratford, Ontario, Canada. I work in both egg tempera and acrylic. In addition to painting most of the time, I also have a dozen or so private students who come to my home for weekly art lessons in groups of two or three. I find that teaching helps me to articulate what I tend to do by instinct, and this helps me to become more aware of what I’m doing. Since I paint from photographs, awareness is a necessity.

I painted this portrait of my son specifically to enter in the BP Award 2014. I’m working on a series of faux-16th century portraits, and I had originally intended to paint Stefan for that series, inventing a costume to replace his t-shirt. But when I looked through the photographs I’d taken of him, I realized that this pose, without any elaboration, seemed right for this year’s BP submission. It was a good combination of a traditional pose and setting and contemporary clothing. I have painted Stefan many times before, but this was the first time that I felt I was painting him as a man and not a boy.

It is hanging in the National Portrait Gallery in London as part of the BP Portrait Award 2014 exhibition.

Although 20" x 16" isn’t enormous, for an egg tempera painting it was large enough to keep me busy for five months. My first submission to the BP Award was accepted last year, and I wanted this year’s submission to be bigger and more complicated. Working from a digital photograph will only take you so far. You have to be very careful to interpret rather than copy. I never want my paintings to look like photos. For instance, I created a cool reflected light on the shadowed side of the face. This light isn’t in the photo, but without it, the face looked flat and not quite believable.

I have three rules for painting: follow the form; soften the edges; use reflected colours. These are all approaches that keep a painting from looking like a photograph. The last rule means thinking carefully about how colours bounce off one another. If the background is green, for instance, the reflected light on the subject will have a greenish cast. If you exaggerate this, you don’t end up with those orange faces that are so typical of literal copies of photographs. Each form within a painting should influence every other form with its own light and colour; and so I paint what an object does, and not what it is.
After I’d been working on this portrait for a month, I was frustrated by how poorly the face was working, so I washed it right down to the board with a scouring sponge and started again. I felt a bit sick after I’d done it, but it was the right thing to do.
Besides referring to photographs on my computer monitor, I also spent time Skyping with my son, who lives in Toronto, so I could correct the shapes that couldn’t be seen in a photo. And he was able to critique the painting from his end. The first time he saw it in real life was at the opening at the NPG.

The painting is done on Ampersand Claybord. I love the surface, which is extremely smooth and absorbent. It’s specifically made for tempera paints, and it saves a lot of time. I used to spend a lot of time preparing boards with traditional cooked gesso, but now I just remove the plastic wrapper and get on with painting.

I don’t mix egg tempera in the traditional way. Instead of grinding pigments with water and then adding egg yolk, I mix an egg yolk with six tablespoons of water in a small jar, which I keep in the fridge. I pour some of this into a small porcelain dish. To make paint, I dip a brush into the egg mixture, knock off the excess onto a rag, then quickly dip the brush into dry pigment. The pigment sticks to the brush without leaving any egg mixture behind. I mix the colour in a round porcelain watercolour palette. This is a spontaneous method; it allows me to be free in choosing my colours, one dip at a time, since I don’t have to plan ahead. With this method, there is little waste.
I have nearly sixty pigments in little plastic canisters, all open in a biscuit tin, and I used most of them in this portrait. I tend to use earth tones more than primaries, but while I was working on this painting, I discovered that cadmium green and cadmium red mixed together with white make an amazing and versatile skin colour. I use iridescent gold to bring warmth to white and depth to eyes. I usually add a bit of iridescent pearl to skin tones, just because I think it looks good.
I start by blocking in with large strokes, usually with a 1⁄2" flat brush, keeping the colours to a basic few. For the first while I’m worrying only about working out value and form. It takes a long time before the layers are built up enough to focus on detail. After awhile, the surface starts to feel different under the brush. As I get further along, I use smaller round brushes. I try to avoid the cross-hatched look. I want my pieces to look solid.
I like to buff the surface with a flannelette cloth as I work. This painting looks as if it’s been varnished or waxed, but that’s just what happens when you buff it. I usually give the painting a coat of clear egg and water mix first to seal the colours. But this really helps to refresh sunken colours, especially the darks.

Titanium White
Raw and Burnt Sienna 

Raw and Burnt Umber 
Yellow and Golden Ochre 
Chromeoxide Green 
Terre Verte
Green Earth Light 
Iridescent Pearl 
Iridescent Gold 
Iron Oxide Black
Transparent Orange Oxide 
Transparent Yellow Oxide 
Venetian Red
Potter’s Pink

Cadmium Red Deep 
Cadmium Green


Wednesday, 6 August 2014

A quick look at the BP Portrait Award 2014

Finally getting round to publish a short post on the yearly BP Portrait Award Exhibition, now open at the National Portrait Gallery in London. This is one of the most competitive open exhibitions in UK with, this year, about 2400 entries.
The jurors have a vast choice for picking the exhibitors: only two paintings in a hundred make it to the walls of the gallery.

   Every selected work has all the reasons to be there and they are all very good paintings each in their own merit. I wanted to write about the selection as a whole and how the show generally looks.  I wonder if the presence of Jonathan Yeo in the jury has influenced the judging process overall as the exhibition looked more homogeneous than in previous years. 

   Most of the paintings can be classified as belonging to realism and photorealism. The “BP Big Heads” (over-sized close up portraits that have made a constant appearance in the show) have returned this year, but aside from those, most of the paintings on display are within a range of more tightly rendered works from photos to more “painterly” ones but still strongly rooted in realism.

    Probably as a consequence of the realism there is a distinctive lack of colour in the exhibition. Walking in the gallery I felt as the dreaded banning of cadmiums in Europe, that is tragically looming upon artist’s heads, was already in place.
It isn’t only the “classically” trained artists (it occurred to me in a recent conversation that a more accurate definition would be post-neoclassically trained), who normally don't use a very chromatic palette, but also among artists from different countries or schools there is a predominance of tonal paintings, earthy skin tones and neutral backgrounds (with exceptions of course), and pure colour basically appeares when there is an object or garment that is more chromatically saturated, when it is in fact a local colour. Matisse's portrait of his wife wouldn't have a place in the selection, to be clear.

   Another constant of the exhibition is that the sitter matters. Before the opening of the show the NPG released a video in which one of the jurors, the writer Joanna Trollope says that it wasn’t too difficult to see which portraits were about the painter more than the sitter.
 I like portraits that are equally about the painter, about the relationship among the two, about the artist’s vision of the world; however I felt that there are several paintings chosen either because of the celebrity status of the sitter or because of their quirky fashion sense, so works in which the sitter's identity is the most relevant element, and the criterium mentioned by Trollope doesn't seem to have had much of an impact on the selection.

To simplify the eternal painter's dilemma between form and subject ( who do you love more, mummy or daddy?) I ask myself, when considering a portrait : what if this was a photo of the same sitter in the same pose ? What does the fact that the portrait is a painting adds to the work, how is painting integral and essential to the piece?

Mumble, mumble

Monday, 23 June 2014

Catherine Goodman - Portraits from Life at the National Portrait Gallery London

Right before the buzz of the BP Portrait Award the NPG has opened a new display featuring a series of portraits by Catherine Goodman, together with a a few of her drawings.
Since Goodman won the BP Award in 2002 she has exhibited regularly with galleries such as Marlborough and Colnaghi. She has helped found the Prince of Wales Drawing School, in which she has retained the high profile role of artistic director (the person who keeps the focus on the "art" part of the institution).

   The show at the NPG is intense and emotional. The portraits are almost all close ups, the head bigger than life size, the brushwork layered and energetic, respecting both the form and the surface of the canvas; the palette is rich with realistic skin tones punctuated by marks in saturated colour.

     There is only one large self portrait in the show, and is the only painting in which the viewer is confronted and looked at straight in the eyes. In all the other portraits the sitters' glaze is turned away, they seem to be staring directly at their own life.

  The show includes some very haunting drawings. In the last number of Intelligent Life ( quarterly magazine of the Economist) I read a beautiful article on Jean Vanier, the founder of L'Arche, a community for the mentally disabled that has now branches around the whole world. The article describes the deeply moving and life-changing experience of spending time as a volunteer in these houses and as I looked at Goodman's drawing made in one of L'Arche houses I found the same sentiment expressed in the pages of her sketchbook. While the large paintings expand and encompass a long span of time, the constrictive size of the paper and the instantaneous nature of the drawings compress emotions into these powerful works full of pain, compassion, love and respect.

  Portraits have always been at the core of British painting, and in recent years Hockney, Auerbach and Freud have taken the genre to both a highest artistic standard and a wide level of popularity.    Goodman follows in their steps with a, yes I'm stereotyping, womanly capacity of empathising with her sitters. As with Goodman, Freud and Auerbach required quite an extraordinary number of sittings for each portrait, some going on on for decades. I can't help feeling, looking at the paintings, that there is a process of subjugation going on there.
Freud's sitter look mostly gloomy and obliging, Auerbach's have their outside appearance obliterated as he explores their humanness. Goodman's sitter on the other hand seem to have a much more active if not democratic role in the work of art, which looks like a cooperation between two human beings rather than a long ordeal one is submitting the other to. The process result in a series of works that speak about painting, life, beauty, memories, engagement.

  I had the chance of meeting Goodman a few years ago. It was at a dinner party, so not the right place to ask lots of questions. Anyway it was soon after the 2010 BP show and she remembered my painting there. She said it looked "sladeish" ( as per the Slade School of art in London) but she didn't recognise my name as one of the students there. She had in fact correctly identified the influence of Uglow in my work, perhaps less strong now. She then asked me about my practice and I said I was painting still life and working from the model. At that point she said something that I have not really appreciated until later on, taken as I was by learning to paint the figure, she warned me against the objectification of women's body.
I hadn't paid much attention but then it became evident to me the danger of picking up, from Uglow's work, the way he painted girls like soul-less bodies, pieces of meat splayed on a table. I don't have many chances to paint the nude, but looking back I can see that my best portraits from models are done from those I have painted several times over the course of years, people I care for, and this now is something I pay attention to in my work and also in other artist's.

     Read the introduction to the show,  an interview with the artist and an essay by William Feaver here . It is clear from the sitters and the contributions to the show's catalogue that Goodman enjoys support from many prominent members of society, but her inspiring work and her dedicated art practice deserve to be more widely known and celebrated.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Facebook and I

Capture IV, oil on linen

Since the dawn of Facebook artists have found in it a mean for breaking the isolation of the studio, connecting with like-minded people worldwide and learning about artists of the past and the present. It is also an invaluable platform to show work and receive feedback and support.

   I spend ( too much) time on FB, where I receive and have received a lot from the online community of artists. If I look back I see that thanks to them my work has evolved and improved, particularly as I have looked at old masters with new eyes,  made virtual studio visits, perused online catalogues of their shows, read about materials and learnt how they go about in dealing with the commercial part of the job.

   My experience with FB is positive also because I try to be proactive and filter the content I receive. The website has its own agenda and of course it pushes viral videos and platitude memes on my newsfeed, so I mercilessly unfollow people who post too many of those ( dog videos are keepers though). I also bestow "likes" on lots of paintings in the hope the algorithm starts getting a clue on what I am interested in.  Although I look at FB on my phone when I'm in the studio I think it is better to check it on the laptop because on the right sidebar there's a lot more activity going on than what FB dispenses on the newsfeed.

   Posting has its rules too: I have learnt that some posts, for example when I share content from this blog, need to be shared more than once, depending on the time of day they were originally published.  
    Facebook by the way provides a lot of visitors to this page, however nowadays part of the traffic stops there.  I sometimes find it easier to publish on FB than write a blog post. If for example I take photos of a show and I don't want to sit and write a review, I'd only post them on FB.
I am sure that FB has generally intercepted a lot of traffic that used to go to blogs and websites, so some visitors to go through online FB albums rather than clicking through individual online portfolios, hence I think for artists it's a good idea to have a clearly labelled and updated album of works on their FB profile.

I only have one profile on FB: I decided not to have an artist page as I find it difficult to distinguish between people who are "real life" friends and people who are interested in my work, too many overlappings there and people would get lots of double posts. I wouldn't be able to stop some of my silliness from appearing in the pro page anyway.
 I must confess I don't hit the contact request button very often. I send friendship requests to or accept contact with people who post work I like and with whom I have mutual friends; although I have occasionally sold and bought work on FB, I am not there to sell nor to be sold paintings ( I unfollow pushy marketers), but I like to befriend people who dialogue openly on art, and I am often humbled by the level of the discussion.

Not everything is great on Facebook of course : censorship police is patrolling too zealously and many artists got warning and even bans simply for posting nudes. Privacy is an issue but I think there are ways, particularly if you don't click on yes to any single app who wants to gain access to your own data.
A recent change has also affected artists: images posted on FB now get processed and their resolution is drastically decreased. I think this is now a general trend on big websites, including  Blogger  here and on my webhost service, Weebly.
Once, when you clicked on images on this page you'd get to see them almost at the same resolution with which I originally uploaded them; not any more now,  there's just a smallish image viewer.
One website that goes against the trend is Tumblr, where image quality is very satisfying ( also there's no censorship at all, for the good or the bad).
I also have a Twitter account for quick updates but I find it is less suitable for painters because you have to click before viewing images. Also I am not very good at short sentences...

I hope I didn't sound too scary, please do befriend or follow me on Facebook if you wish.

To give a better sense of what my paintings look like in real life, this is a three minutes iphone video with close ups of the surfaces of my works.