Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

April 16, 2018

Venice

Venice. Like all artists I went there knowing it already. I wondered what I would make of it and if I could add anything worthwhile to the morass of artwork that takes it as a subject. Would I find the “real” Venice? The answer of course is no. There is no real Venice, Venice is a fantasy. Venice is a theme park and all the life that goes on there is devoted to the commercial maintenance and operation of the dream.

Venice is a city wide tourist trap, a veritable sea girt Alcatraz for visitors to do their time in. A Venice street goes: mask shop, fake Murano glass shop, taverna, mask shop, restaurant, mask shop, fake Murano glass shop etc ad infinitum. After Napoleon conquered the city it slowly died until finally we are left crawling over it like flies admiring its beautiful corpse.

There are legions of immigrant workers slaving in its kitchens reheating dishes shipped in each day from the factory kitchens on the mainland. In China they labour to make the masks, glass, paintings and other tourist trash. There is an imaginary transport system that never takes anyone anywhere but on circular tours… no one brings their shopping home by gondola!

If I had been by myself I would have quickly done the rounds and been out of there pronto. Fortunately I was there with other artists and their company made all of the difference. The plethora of mask shops could be laughed at and the madness admired. I could rise early immerse myself in painting and join in with the fantasy.

So how is Venice as a subject for an artist to paint? Firstly there are subjects everywhere, if you came across any of them in a town in the UK you would set up your easel in a flash and set to. In Venice though every aspect and all directions are paintable. As Einstein said, everything is relative. You almost immediately start to rank the possible scenes and try vainly pick out the best of the best. Venice is also all very similar, endless repetitions and rearrangements of the same few ingredients.

Anyone who looks at my work will know my fondness for architecture and old buildings in general. In theory Venice is a cornucopia of perfect Rob Adams subjects, gothic palaces, mad baroque churches, cool classical facades and rustic mouldering buildings, roofs crowned snaggle toothed by random chimneys. Mostly though I painted legs. Visually the buildings reach down from the sky and are carried on the backs of the dark serried ranks of the innumerable visitors who obscure the join of buildings to street.

I am told that it was quite empty by Venice’s standards, I shudder at how in must be in high season. On the other hand I love watching people and enjoy seeing how they group, linger and go about their day. I enjoyed the contrast between drifting tourists and workers on missions trying to weave between them. Oddly I did not really notice the absence of cars. I did warm to the place after a while, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with it just being a playground. The place reminded me of a computer game where you wander a city built by a long dead civilisation looking for clues and prizes while avoiding the ghouls hidden in dark passages.

So to the paintings, I will try and do them in the order they were painted.

 

Venice, Rialto, market, oils, plein air

Up early on the first day and off to the Rialto fish market. I was sharing the apartment with Ian Layton who is an old Venice hand who knew all the best spots! Quite a tricky subject, the light burning in from the outside is what struck me so I tried to paint that. I can see now that the effect needed to be exaggerated more with the interior darker and the outside almost completely burnt out. 12in by 7.5 in oils.

Venice, Rialto, plein air, oil painting

On the way back from the Rialto we were taken by this scene where the sun was slowly coming across on to our side of the Grand Canal. I had primed my boards a sort of Venetian red which mostly just right, but I should have done a few a more ochre colour. Like so much of Venice the fringe of people ran in a strip all the way across. I quite liked the more determined folk leaving the vaporetto on the right contrasting with the moochers on the left. 15in by 7.5in Oils.

Venice, plein air, oil painting

Here is a very trad early morning Venice view. We were all painting away in a line getting spots on our retinas! Once the key was decided and the tones established a straight forward subject to paint. The main pitfall people tumble into is getting everything initially too light. If the painting is too high a key is is impossible to describe the sparkle on the water unless you have neon paint! 12in by 7.5in Oils.

Gate to the Arsenal, Venice, pen and Ink

In the afternoon I went to the Arsenal, no not to watch the football, the Arsenal in Venice was the manufacturing powerhouse that maintained its naval dominance of the Mediterranean. In celebration of this they gave it grand gates flanked by comedy lions. Like so much of Venice it is hard to get exactly the vantage point you would like without falling into a canal and getting wet. I should have done more drawing, the only reason I might return to Venice is to concentrate on the wonderful architecture. Pen and Ink.

Venice, mist, plein air, oil painting

Mist! We got up early and the sea mist had come in transforming the city. I was focused on the painting I imagined I would do after this one as the sun burnt through. A mistake as I abandoned this one early and it was better than the subject I was eagerly anticipating. Still I had more than enough down and only had to finesse the figures and drag pale blue over the distance to finish. Once again control of tone was the key. 12in by 7.5in Oils.

Venice, Plein air, oil painting

This is what appeared out of thew mist! I should have been in a different place about a mile away but I just had to set to and paint what I had in front of me. I never quite finished as the light moved on so rapidly. This one is no more as I painted a different one on top due to running out of boards! 12in by 7.5in Oils.

Venice, pen and ink, drawing

I drew this as I waited for my expensive and badly cooked supper in a restaurant. As it turned out the passing mosquitos had a better meal than I did for no charge at all… Pen and Ink.

Venice, canal, plein air, oil painting

My first canal painting. There are endless versions of the narrow canal with the thin vertical strip of light and reflection, but this was more open and attractive as a subject. I placed the bright vertical strip of the canal edge first as I felt it was the key to the composition. In the bright light I found myself quite frequently putting in all the lights first allowing the prime colour to stand in initially for the buildings etc. I found myself using a lot of black in the mixes as it seemed just right for the character of the greys the city is steeped in. 12in by 7.5in Oils.

St Marks square, Venice, cathedral, plein air, oil painting

Later that day I painted in that famous stage set St Marks Square. The afternoon light was flat on the facades reducing them to cutouts. I was sitting on the arcade steps and painted hand held. I was lucky not to get moved on by the gestapo who strut about the square. I tried not to get too involved in the architecture as getting the tones right was the challenge. In the event I had to very slightly lighten the cathedral later in order for the whole thing to gel. 16in by 7.5in Oils.

Venice, pen and ink, drawing

I decided the next day was a wandering about drawing and watercolour day. This is the Campo San Rocco… how could I resist the light slanting across this mad baroque confection. The school to the left is just as barmy but only plays a supporting role here. These wonderful buildings seem to almost never appear in paintings done by recent visitors. I suspect people find them just too much to take on. In actuality they are just divided rectangles, the complexity is not structural but an overlay on a simple grid. The trick is to firmly establish the underlying grid within which the decorative elements sit. Once that is done the mad stone salad of detail can be suggested rather than over defined. Pen and Ink.

Venice, watercolour, plein air

My first watercolour of the trip. Though the stalls are full of the worst tourist tat they make good compositional punctuation marks. Watercolour easily captures the luminous quality of the light. 7in by 5in Watercolour.

Campo Formosa, Venice, plein air, oil painting

This is an early morning Campo Formosa, the light was a real challenge and I nearly abandoned it. As so often I found in Venice the people are the key to a satisfying composition. In each painting I found myself more and more considering the makeup and grouping of the figures. 12in by 10 in Oils.

Campo San Giovanni, Venice, plein air, oil painting

Next Campo! This is St Giovanni, one of the most interesting to paint. Odd how the old Venetians were not in the slightest bit embarrassed about putting up huge statues of themselves. Getting the horse in the right relationship to the rest and not over detailing were the biggest challenges here. Once again many of the greys were made using black. 12in by 10in oils.

Gondola repair, Venice canal, plein air, oil painting

Another day another canal. Here is where they service the gondolas. In my jaundiced opinion they look better upside down! The thrown together industrial sheds make an interesting contrast with the grand edifices behind. Not far from here the mask shops dry up and the grass grows between the stones. There are run down tenements and washing hung between the buildings. This is where some of the workers live, though it is only the briefest fringe before the industrial port. 12in by 7.5in Oils.

Campo Santo Stephano, Venice, pen and ink, drawing

On the way back to the apartment I saw there two girls hanging out and doing phone stuff. They are students in the college on Campo Santo Stephano, a little glimpse of ordinary existence. Pen and Ink.

St marks Square, Venice, plein air, oil painting, nocturne

After supper it was nocturne time in St Marks. The wet paving made it a great subject. I rubbed violet blue over my board before leaving base which made a great ground, indeed most of the paving is just the resulting prime colour. Very quick hardly more than 20 min. 12in by 7.5in Oils.

Rialto Market, pen and ink, Venice, drawing

Another day where I just took my drawing stuff and travelled light. We all met at the Rialto fish market in the morning.  It is very nice to have other painters about to chat and laugh with. I found myself a little corner to sit and draw out of the way. The light was moving very fast so the first thing after setting out the drawing was to get in the paving, shadows and key figures. I also painted in the white first rather than at the end as I usually do. This was a real help in getting the darks the right value. Pen and Ink.

St Stae, Venice, pen and ink. drawing

Deep breath before I started this one of St Stae. I am sitting as far away from the building as possible without tumbling into the Grand Canal… but still too close for comfort. To get what I wanted in I used spherical perspective so that few of the perspective lines vertical or horizontal are straight. This sort of construction is very tricky to do en plein air especially as I don’t like it if the distortion is too obvious. I spent quite a lot of time getting the facade laid out, deciding what should be warped and what kept straight. A very satisfying puzzle though and I enjoyed trying to suggest the bonkers architecture. Pen and Ink.

Santa Maria del Giglio, Venice, plein air, oil painting

Santa Maria del Giglio and rain at last! I had been dying to paint the wet streets. Also it sweeps many of the visitors away and those that are there are rushing to avoid the wet. I was in a discrete dead end corner so I could paint away at my leisure. A bit of a relief as most of the paintings so far had been a bit of a rush to catch the light. 12in by 7.5in Oils.

La Salute, St Marks, Venice, plein air, oil painting

Later I went to St Marks to look across to La Salute. I was hoping for more rain, when it came it was very brief so I got brollies but not the wet paving. I was forced to make the reflections up at the apartment after. Some of this was painted hand held as the gestapo made me fold up and put away my tripod. The highest leg count so far I think. 16in by 7.5in Oils

St Giovanni, Venice, watercolour, plein air

Last one of the trip! This is Campo Santo Giovanni again. I loved the angled shadow but it moved very rapidly. Had to be watercolour as my oil boards had run out! I then proceeded to do another that went completely pear shaped and had to be torn up… 5in by 5in Watercolour.

So there is my Venice. I might return to draw some of the buildings and I am glad I went and saw it all in the excellent company of my fellow daubers. Venice itself I found sad and defaced by the lazy, cynical, rapacious hand of greedy tourism. The mask and trinket vendors have done far more to besmirch this beautiful relic than any of the many graffiti artists have.

June 5, 2017

Innocent X by Velasquez

Filed under: Art History,Italy,Painting,Portraits,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 1:43 pm

I intend to do a series of posts on paintings that knocked my socks off and thereby influenced me. Some famous others less so. I start with a famous one…

A decade or so ago I had a job painting a ceiling in Rome… no not that one, the ceiling of the Hard Rock Cafe which I had to cover in flying rock stars reimagined as cherubs. Working in Italy was great fun, the builders after initially being a little suspicious called me “Maestro” and brought me lovely coffees and treats. So I spent several weeks lying on on my back up on a scaffold tower being wheeled about by my long suffering helper Paul. In Italy work starts early but finishes at 4pm which gave me ample free time to float about Rome painting and looking at all the wonders.

One of those visits was to the Palazzo Doria Pamphili. I am embarrassed now by my ignorance, but I had not heard of it. I had just visited the Pantheon which was bombed out by hoards of tourists and was wandering home when I saw the sign and the entrance. It had that grand palazzo thing where you ascend a stone staircase to the piano nobile. To my surprise I was one of only a few visitors so could wonder around in peace. The place is absolutely stuffed full of paintings and every square inch frescoed and tromped. There are a many wonderful pictures, but I was after several rooms astounded by how much really bad painting had been done over the centuries! On average the decorative painting was better than the stuff in frames.

So I wasn’t prepared when I entered a fairly small room and there it was. I had no idea that the picture was there so it hit me right between the eyes. To say the painting had presence was an understatement. I nearly said, “Whoops, excuse me!” And tiptoed out again.

The picture of course is Velesquez’s great painting of Innocent X.

Velasquez, portrait, Rome, painting

A few details, painted about 1650 and 141in by 119in. The Pope was apparently suspicious of painters in general and Velasquez in particular and reluctant to be painted. He got Velasquez to paint his barber first to check him out. I suspect he was mainly concerned how any picture might reflect on his perception by others. In the event the picture was kept private by the subject in his own lifetime. There are two other versions that are probably studies. We don’t know but presumably these were done from life. There is an amazing consistency between all three in the likeness. Here are the other two:

Velasquez, Innocent X, portrait

This one is just a head study and is in the Washington Met.

Velasquez, Pope, Innocent X, painting, portrait

This is a head and shoulders and is in Apsley House in London

Though the studies are wonderful they don’t have quite the impact of the Rome picture. This is perhaps because of Velasquez brilliant structuring of the larger picture. Side to side the figure only just fits, indeed the paper held by the Pontif which holds the artist’s signature is cropped by the frame. The gilt work frame of the chair is broken by the Innocent’s head which both places the head in 3d space and anchors it in two dimensions. The background is an indeterminate russet then the chair fabric is a tad redder and then finally the Pope’s vestments a brighter red still. This progression pushes the figure towards us. All three reds are much the same in general hue which in turn gives harmony and subtlety.

The white of the rest of the vestments is where I feel Velasquez has had to work hard, I suspect they got painted and repainted a fair few times. The brief crisp shadow of the red papal fanon on the white makes the pope’s upper torso appear the float. The clever shadow of the right hand and the arm of the chair fixes the casually posed hand in space. There is the merest hint of lace to suggest opulence but not excess.

The hands describe a man who is relaxed. We cannot somehow imagine them fidgeting. They rest imperturbably on the fore-square arms of the gilded but rather severely formed chair.

Velasquez, Innocent X, Pope, Portrait

So to the head. Innocent was a lawyer and had been a representative abroad to both France and Spain for previous pontiffs. Here is a face that has seen much and would be hard to surprise. Worldly, he had a mistress, but not prone to any excesses although occasionally cruel and capricious he was a politician through and through.  He was not I suspect much of an art fan. Although Bernini was closely associated with Innocent’s enemies the Barberini he was left in charge of the works in St Peters and did a fine bust of Innocent. So although reportedly paranoid and suspicious, a calculating, worldly and pragmatic man. Velasquez catches this by having the head held forward little, not tense but wary. The eyes consider us with, if we can believe the mouth, a wry edge of amusement.

There is tremendous control of the edges. The hat is sharp and cuts across the forehead except as it approaches the ear where it is softened by hair. To the right of the brow there is a darkening of the gilt of the chair to pull the head forward. The line of the cheek is softened and wonderfully subtle. The shape of the chin is hidden by the Pope’s wispy beard. The collar cuts the neck sharply tone wise but the drawing indicates it is softly turned. The ear is strongly lit and describes the very slight turn of the head towards us. Velasquez has arranged it so the the eyes are turned further still which gives animation to the  square on pose of the body.

The features in themselves are ordinary, the fleshy nose the wispy beard, Velasquez has made no attempt to flatter. There is no real record of the Pope’s reaction to the painting, though rumour has it he commented, “It is all too true.” In any case the picture was hung in his family home where it still is today.

Finally a detail of the Washington study.

Velasquez, InnocentX, portrait, detail

Many layers of refinement are visible but the whole remains fresh. He decides what should be clear and what obscure what marks of making should appear and which blended.

For the sake of interest here is Bernini’s bust of Innocent.

Bernini, Innocent X, Sculpture, marble

He is given a more youthful air, Bernini hopes to flatter I suspect. This bust also stayed in the Palazzo and was not for public consumption.

Another by Alessandro Algardi who was Innocent’s favoured artist:

Alessandro Algardi, bust, sculpture, Innocent X, bronze

This image was I suspect more how Innocent preferred to imagine himself, more in the mode of an apostle weighed down by his office.

Algardi also got to do the official sculpture:

Alessandro Algardi, statue, Innocent X

Now this one was definitely for public consumption!

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