Wednesday, 12 February 2020


Due to the demise of the Blogger platform I now write ( infrequent) posts on my website.
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Tuesday, 25 April 2017


Since I founded Print Solo I realised that even people who are very interested in visual arts don’t have a clear idea about what printmaking is. The main element that they retain, I found out in conversations, is that it allows artists to make more than one copy of a piece. In an age in which technology can reproduce paintings and drawings with stunning fidelity then, ( did you see the Borgherini Chapel reproduced with 3D printing techniques for the Michelangelo and Sebastiano exhibition at the NG in London?) why not just go for digital reproductions, why do artists keep making original prints ?

The answer is of course that printmaking is not, or not just, about multiplication, but that the process involved in the various techniques is unique and has been fascinating visual artists for centuries.

In a recent talk in which I was introducing Print Solo I reflected on what some of these peculiar elements of original prints were, and the first one that occurred to me was the gap between the work of the artist and the birth of the print.
As you might know, in order to produce an original print the artist works on a matrix that is of a different material than the artwork itself: the print is on paper while the artist has been in fact carving a piece of wood, or cutting into plastic, or engraving a metal plate.
The artwork takes its final shape not under the hand of its creator but at a different time and place, when the tools have been put down and the object they created has been inked and is passing through a printing press.

These degrees of separation between the artist and the artwork have the effect of producing a surprise, a moment of real thrill when the paper is lifted from the matrix after having undergone the small journey on the printing press bed.
In the words of William Kentridge, a keen printmaker, at that precise moment the artist as a maker is left on one side of the press and the hands that peel the paper off the plate are the ones of the artist as observer. The surprise is further enhanced by the reversal of the image.
The metaphor that comes to my mind is that one of a person meeting an adult offspring they didn’t know they had, and looking hard to search for familiar features, for a resemblance to the other children.

Printmaking can introduce novelty and unexpected results, which in turn may feed works produced in a different medium. It can teach the artists something about their own practice, offer some insight. Also, the delight of seeing one’s own work with new, fresh eyes, of experiencing it as a viewer, is an almost addictive feeling one wants to relive again and again: when printing an edition or by periodically returning to the printmaking studio.

Evening in the Studio, mezzotint ( 20x15 cm)
Available on Print Solo

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Book Review - Italian Renaissance Courts: Art, Pleasure and Power


 I was recently sent this book by Alison Cole, an art historian and journalist, about the relationship between artists and courts in Italian Renaissance.
The book provides a very precise backdrop to the artworks that we know and love from that period.
I am always interested in the context in which a painting was made, I find that it matters as much as, if not more than, the subject. It was something I noticed when I went to see the "National Gallery" documentary by Frederick Wiseman, that most explanations about paintings were focussing on the subject while technique and context were seldom mentioned.

   In the past I have posted about the complicate interpretation of Piero's Flagellation providing a summary of Silvia Ronchey's book about it, and also tried to give an explanation of the term "sprezzatura", which was born in that period and is so relevant to the art and culture of Italian courts.
Cole's book refreshed and deepened my knowledge on the differences between all the distinct cultural hubs that coexisted in the peninsula during those extraordinary centuries.

   It is easy to forget that there were profound differences between communities that were only a few dozens of kilometres apart, like the courts of Urbino and Ferrara for example: one fortified and based on military strength and all centred on the figure of the mighty Duke Federico, brave and cultured; the other at times defeated but more open to communications and pervaded by poetry, music and chivalric ideals coming from the North.
If we are aware of these characteristics, it is easier to understand how the luminous, solid and rational space in Piero could be painted just a few hours away from the hyperbolic metaphoric one imagined by Francesco del Cossa in Palazzo Schifanoia (the frescoes featured in Ali Smith's excellent novel "How to Be Both" btw), although they were both "sons" of the ubiquitous Pisanello.

  It was a real pleasure, as I opened the book, finding a painting by an artist belonging to my family. Francesco Rosselli was the half brother of Cosimo and mainly known as the author of an important document, a painting that chronicles the entry of Ferrante d'Aragona's fleet in Naples after his victory over the Anjou. The painting had probably been commissioned by the banker Filippo Strozzi who helped finance the expedition and wanted to consolidate his exchanges with the Neapolitan king.

   The book is pleasant, with a lot of illustrations,  and also offers information on the character of the princes and their heirs, the dynastic intricacies and pecking order within the courts. A good read.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

"National Gallery" FIlm

    Having read some good reviews, last Sunday I went to watch this documentary by filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. At short notice I couldn't find anyone willing to endure three hours so I merrily went on my own and, particularly since I didn't not have to worry about the amount of boredom inflicted to spouse, I really enjoyed it.
The film is somewhere in between a fly-on-the-wall documentary and a photo of a museum by Candida Hofer. Images of paintings and visitors in museum rooms alternate with recordings of gallery talks, board meetings and discussions on conservation.

    There is no commentary, no narration, but the film is so self explanatory that there's really no need for it. The images, which I think have been recorded over a number of weeks, suggested to me the flow of a day.
The film opens with the whirring sound of a floor polishing machine and a glimpse of the gallery preparing for the daily opening, proceeds to "spy" on a morning meeting where we see the NG Director Nicholas Penny dealing with marketing issues. As the "day" goes on and we are shown people looking at masterpieces and a few ( too many?) gallery talks to the general public and to children.
It is quite revelatory how images of people queueing in the cold for tickets to the blockbuster Leonardo show precede footing from  corporate events evenings, and how the talks become more sophisticated when they address a public of "connoisseurs". Wiseman says his films are "based on un-staged, un-manipulated actions... The editing is highly manipulative and the shooting is highly manipulative... What you choose to shoot, the way you shoot it, the way you edit it and the way you structure it... all of those things... represent subjective choices that you have to make."

   Visits to the "backstage" are very interesting. The team from the conservation studio gives us a taste of the technological department of the Gallery's life, even if they too have to oblige to corporate visitors. The manual ability of the craftsmen painstakingly carving and gilding frames in the silence of some lab is hypnotic, and the care taken with the lighting of a display draws our attention to aspects that we might overlook.

   In a couple of shots we see people sketching in front of paintings, and two scenes present the art classes that take place in a frankly quite unsuitable room with a bad lighting and a circle of desks; it's the only time when the film touches on the subject of making paintings and on the museum's role to inspire and engage with artists.

    I have never joined one of the group talks from the NG program but having sat through a few during the film I am disappointed at how they (or the editing) focus on the subject and the iconography of the painting; from there we jump directly at the spectrographic analysis of layers by restorers. What happens between the moment the artist chooses the subject and visualises the scene and when we are confronted with the resulting physical object, the act of painting, is not looked at.
   Rubens' "Samson and Delilah" is explained as if the artist was a film director or a cinematographer, his main task placing and lighting the figures. Nothing is said about the impossible activity of taking some dust, mix it with oil and applying it to a piece of fabric and make something that is so individual and sublime that nobody can replicate it.

    We are told about Titian's paintings and his love for Ovid; we are even read a poem about the nymph Callisto but what about the surface of Titian's paintings, what about his revolutionary contribution to painting ? What about the way in which his teacher's glazing process is forgotten and the sensuousness of his nymphs is found precisely in the sensuousness of his paint, where the matter becomes flesh ?
Speakers in the film seem to be all art historians and the only one who introduces herself as an artist states she is not a painter but makes installations !

 "National Gallery" is enjoyable both for people who visit regularly and for those who don't have this privilege, its slow pace leaves the viewer time to think and flavour the atmosphere of the museum.
The attention to the visitors reactions, the slow track-shots in the empty rooms and the enlargements of painted details had made me hope for more, for a film that was enamoured with the deep and mysterious ways in which masterpieces affects us, but this is a long and at times beautiful documentary about the institution and not art itself.


Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Painting and Back Health


In recent weeks a fortunately short bout of back pain has made me think about the best practices for an easel artist to keep a healthy back.
In my experience the "move" from the table to the easel when I started working in oils years ago represented the end of all neck pains I have been suffered since school days. My posture has always been quite correct despite being tall but I always had the tendency to hang down the head when sitting at a desk. This of course meant a constant strain for the trapeze muscle that resulted in sore shoulders and a stiff neck.

     When I started working at the easel and, like a homo sapiens, finally looked ahead rather than down, all of this disappeared. In my early days as an oil painter I used to stand all the time, both in class and very often in the studio. I sawed off the top part of my easel so that I could lift the base up and work standing even with small paintings.

    For a few years I also had one of those Swedish chairs with the seat at an angle and a knee rest. I realised though that I often ended up perched on top of it slumped forward with my feet on the knee rest. An ostheopath recently explained that even if used correctly those chairs are no good, as you end up having all the weight supported on your knees, which ultimately damages the joint and might affect the sciatic nerve.

   In recent years, as I concentrated on table top still-life in which my point of view is aligned with the set up, I work sitting 90% of the time. A good amount of time spent working on printmaking also meant again sitting at a table and working on small scale works that need to be looked at from a close distance. Since I am not getting any younger I decided to find out about the best way of preserving a healthy back. I asked my GP's osteopath and posted on FB to get advice from fellow painters.
You probably already know all of this but here's a little reminder anyway:

- Take breaks
 Cindy Procious points a timer if she becomes too absorbed in what you are doing and take a short break to move around. I want to think that a certain space and body awareness develops naturally with painting skills, so it's good to relax the muscles involved in handling the brush. Judi Green uses Spikey Balls to massage the back during breaks, while Linda Brandon does push ups ( I'm impressed!)
Ingres at the Phillips Collection, Washington

- Exercise
 Donald Beal has obtained a set of exercises from a physiotherapist to strengthen rhomboid muscles ( between shoulder blades) and hold a good shoulder posture. In case of pain there are contrasting opinion if osteopathy or physiotherapy is the best option ( see difference here). Annie Brash Kelvin opted for a personal trainer and Lylian Peternolli for jogging.
I must confess that when it's time to go to the gym I always find something more interesting to do in the studio. I try to go twice a week and I don't do classes because I know I don't like to go at a regular time. The osteopath advised me to do "a bit of everything". Best of best, he said, is swimming front crawl, otherwise do a little on all aerobic machines: treadmill, bicycle, cross trainer, rowing machine and the like (no Power Plate) followed by core exercises with control.
Pam Hawkes  says: one of the postures I have developed over the years is to try, when standing or sitting, to fold my arms behind my back and hold the opposite elbow with each hand; it helps keep those long back muscles stretched.
This is a good exercise to relieve tension in the jaw, as we often clench it without realising. Place a fist under your chin as when you support your head. Open your mouth slightly pushing hard against your hand and count to seven, relax counting to three and repeat a few times.
Pilates, yoga etc. are all good disciplines of course, and Sophie Ploeg suggests that I get another dog ! ( sigh)

- Palette
Dennis Spicer bought a cheap tea trolley at a charity shop  for his palette, while Linda Brandon clamps it to another easel close by. David John Kassan has developped a vertical palette that also has advantages for comparing your mixes as it's positioned beside the painting.
I haven't tried DJK's palette but having worked on a glass palette on a trolley in the past I now feel I am doing well with holding a wooden one. I have a couple of these large palette, one that is slightly smaller and fits in my painting backpack and a larger one for the studio. I got them from Green and Stone and they are light and balanced and don't strain the arm or the wrist at all. ( I know, Roy Connelly, I should put it down but I like it !).

Maryanne Buschini ( and my osteopath) suggests a Swiss ball chair. Gallerist Jonathan Ross suggests the Alexander Technique but I must thank Gail Sauter who suggested a book by Esther Gokhale ( similar to Alexander Technique in some aspects). I only had it for a week or so but I found that
the explanations are very clear and the posture she suggests feels very natural to me. I learnt not only a new posture for sitting but also one for when I stand and look down such as when making monotypes or framing. I tried this today and it felt very good.

If everything else fails, I leave the last words to the wise John Hansen:  "A cure that works almost as well as exercise is age. Time and ageing pain receptors help. I use both."

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Organising a Solo Show Elsewhere : My Way

   En route for the opening of my exhibition in Italy, it occurred to me to jot down the basics, so here I am on the plane writing this blog post on my phone (sorry no hyperlinks ) on how I went about preparing the show.

First: start painting the paintings. Yes that's obvious, but note that I wrote "start". I think that an exhibition should be planned when I know I am onto something in my work, when the infamous "body of work" is taking form and I am confident I am going to produce a satisfying number of pictures. 
As the idea of a future exhibition starts shaping in my head, I notice I can hone in the theme and develop it with more focus. I learn about the common thread that links the painting together, take it up and start following it as a life line that guides me out of a maze.
Planning a show takes months so it's better to get things going much before the work is completed: that deadline is an important goal that sustains and motivates my time in the studio. 

Paint the paintings, I said: one of the first things I thought of was how many, and how large. In the case of "Villaggi" I had a given space that I knew ( it's my third exhibition with Elle Arte and the first one in which I have the whole gallery). I wanted to have a good number of works but not to overcrowd the rooms, so I settled on about 25 works of different sizes. That number seem to be enough to articulate a discourse without ending up being repetitive. 

I wanted some paintings large enough  ( with frames they go up to 120x150cm) that could really affect the atmosphere in a room as well as many small ones where the ideas are condensed.
I think it is fair to offer work at different price levels. In my experience there are collectors who love the work and collectors who love the work and also have a new house with a lot of wall space. 
A folder with unframed works on paper ( matted, labelled and wrapped in clear plastic) adds variety, is a cheaper buying option and showcases technical skills in different media.
"Villaggi" is a still life show but I wanted to include two works that function a bit like backstage footage and interrupt the quasi obsessiveness of the theme: so I purposedly painted a self portrait while arranging a still life ( also a connection with my other work ) and a study of a landscape by Bellini.

Where and when
I have an ongoing relationship with Elle Arte, a well established gallery in Palermo with a high professional standard. Laura, the owner, shows my work regularly so she was the first one I called when I made the decision to have a solo show. This also meant getting in touch with other galleries I work with to let them know they wouldn't get much work from me in the following months and also deleting "call for entries" to art competitions from my inbox so that I could build up the work faster.
I originally set a date for 2015 but as a closer slot became available I accepted to speed things up. I think October and November are the best time to show in a city as well as spring months. 
If you are planning a show somewhere don't forget to check out the town's calendar. In London, for example, opening on Halloween night during the school holidays wouldn't be a great idea, while I was told that in Palermo this is a time of the year when families get together and stay in town.
In Rome a few years ago I was showing during the local film festival so it was impossible to have a press release published because local arts pages were all clogged with reviews. Research in advance !

Photographing and framing
In the meantime, work goes on in the studio. As I finish paintings, I photograph them and file the images. ( also have a list of paintings with measures on a piece of paper, you'd need the info a countless number of times, it's quicker !)
I normally take photos outside on an overcast day and adjust images in Photoshop. If I were to sell giclee prints I'd definitely have them done professionally, but for postcards, online posts and a small catalog I'm perfectly happy with my own pics.

   Normally I order natural wood frames online and paint them myself. I have approached the framer and obtained a small discount seen the number of frames I order from them. 
I must say that I probably don't save much money by doing the work on my own but I enjoy it very much. Most of my frames are gray and/or white: it's good to find one or two colours that suite all the paintings so the show has a unified and tidy appearance.
I prime the natural wood and paint two or three coats of matte emulsion, some times adding a little depth by painting coats of different tones and sanding exposing the colour underneath.
I finish off by sanding with fine steel wool and polishing with wax.
I use z-shape clips to fit the canvas in the frame and attach gummed tape to the back.

I fit a string behind the work for hanging, but for medium and small paintings I also include a single triangular fitting because the string can prove a real nightmare if the gallery has a chain system for hanging: it's impossible to align the paintings ! 

I like to have control of my frames however this time I decided to send my smaller works to be framed in Italy as I wanted a slightly different mould that the online supplier didn't have.
I recently visited a small bottega in Tuscany ( no website !) that does fantastic job at a better price and I also figured out it would cost me less to ship small works on panel from UK to Tuscany, frame them at Italian price with bulk discount and ship them on to Sicily. Check local services !

Packing and Shipping
If you have read until now you'll know I do my best to keep costs down. So I did not build crates, I don't know how to do it, don't have the space nor the tools, but
I'm happy to say that all my works arrived safely to Palermo.
For medium size works I purchased telescopic sturdy boxes that are intended for moving mirrors ( on Amazon), and I saved the large flat boxes in which my frames arrived. I used a lot of cling film and bubble wrap and probably ingested half a roll of brown tape ( not enough hands for scissors!).

I bought cardboard corners that I fit onto every painting protecting the frame with cling film. I then sandwiched bubble wrap between paintings in similar sizes and tied them together very firmly with wide packing cling film so that they couldn't slide, then more bubble wrap around the whole thing and in the box very clearly marking "Do not stack" and using "Fragile" tape.
I booked the shipping with an online shipping comparison website and chose a land service that turned out rather cheap. For a show a couple of years ago the gallerist had secured a sponsorship for the shipping by including their logo in the catalogue, worth a try.

Most of the job locally is done by the gallery, including securing press coverage  by sending a press release to local newspaper. Here in Palermo hard copy works: the gallery invested in postcard invitations to send their clientele and leave in book shops, cafes etc.
Social networking is useful to remind people about the event and to send more extensive information about the show. 
I sent a newsletter ( using Mailchimp) to all my italian contacts even if they live elsewhere. You never know, people have spread the word and I'm expecting some extra guests who are friends of friends. 

A catalogue is an important record: nowadays there's no need to invest a large sum to have enough copies for everyone. An online Print on Demand service allows you to only print a few copies that can be given to the best collectors and to potential or actual galleries.
I asked an artist friend, James Bland, who is both very articulate and familiar with my work, to write a piece that I have then translated in Italian.
Again, I did a little homework to keep costs down. I originally composed the whole catalogue with a software from Blurb but I also asked for a quote to a local printer in Sicily that came out much cheaper. I uploaded my draft on the Blurb website and bought a digital copy. 
I then showed it to the Sicilian printer to show him how I wanted it ( too complicated to compose again with a new software ). I then optimised all the image files for printing, converting them to CMYK and uploaded them on Dropbox, and he put the catalogue together. Again check the locals !
I also uploaded all the images and the text on a Tumblr blog: I chose Tumblr because the images appear very large. 
I included a link on my newsletter for people to see the whole catalogue online. 

I have spoken with my (poor!) husband at length about the work, "rehearsing" a bit of narrative about the paintings. It's important to memorise something coincise, coherent and interesting to say: you don't want to be caught by surprise and stutter something silly to a good  collector ( yes that happened to me).

At this point I can say I did my best and I only want to enjoy my time in Palermo.
The plane is landing... I can't wait until tomorrow ! 

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 !