Venice Grande Canal ~ How to Capture the Sparkling Moment?

With so much to see and do in Venice, I didn’t even try to bring oil paint. I couldn’t imagine myself carrying wet paintings on the train, on foot or even a water taxi! I did take my watercolor palette and sketchbook. And of course my Iphone.

Arriving on the afternoon train, the light was perfect for photos. Fascinated with back lit shapes against the Grande Canal, I took a series of photographs.

Values First

One thing I have learned on this trip is that the camera over-exposes the highlights and under-exposes the shadows. I have been going through all my pics and adjusting the highlights, darker. And lightening the shadows.

Grande Canal, oil, 11 x 14

All this adjusting has made me more sensitive to values. Lights and shadows set the stage for color to function in a painting.

In this painting, I wanted to express my fascination with the shimmering light on the Grande Canal. I love the play of light shapes between the people, boats and pilings. This movement made every moment magical. To me this is what is so stunning about Venice ~ the magic of being there in the moment.

Painting Venice


How to capture this shimmer in a painting? I started with this question and a panel I had toned previously with a cool, neutral, mid-value gray. A little of this blue gray still peeks through in the painting.

The palette is very limited, using my neutral cool gray and Yellow Ochre, Ultramarine Blue and of course, Fastmatte Alkyd White. Toward the end I added touches of Alizarin Crimson for the darker shadows. And hints of Cadmium Lemon in the sparkling lights.

Converting a Hazard into Sparkle


The biggest potential danger in working this composition was in letting the figures along the sidewalk on the left become too prominent, thereby causing a conflict with the gondola on the the canal.

Instead of becoming too prominent, these figures stop the eye from moving off the canvas. Rather they create a triangle for the viewer to move along the sidewalk, back along the canal, a few distant boats and back to the gondola.

I didn’t think about this compositional element helping with the shimmer. Yet looking at  it now, I see the same mystery of moving shapes as I felt standing there on the bridge. The magic of being there was in feeling the movement, light and shimmer. Not knowing what twinkling shape will move next.

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The Fisherman from Monterosso

Visiting Cinque Terre was a circus of color, people and action. In the northern most of the five villages, Monterosso, the teal sea shimmered in afternoon sunlight. A fisherman tied up his wooden creating a wonderful abstract contrast to the myriad of blues and greens of the sea.

The Fisherman of Monterosso, oil, 7 x 5

Limited Palette Painting ~ Abbey of San Galgano

Incubation time is so important in developing an idea. I think it is the most overlooked part of life itself. Time to just be with an idea, problem or goal is a very productive way to utilize creative gifts.

In our fast-paced world, we tend to get swept up in a desire to ‘have it all’ right here, right now. When actually if this were to happen we would be unable to cope with ‘it all.’ Thankfully the Creative delivers bit by bit as it is needed.

It’s time to step back and ask when the flow crests and dwindles. In this case, I was working on a series of limited palette paintings and ideas about patterns, light and shadow.

San Galgano study
Hermitage of Monteseipi, oil, 7 x 5

This study helped me establish my composition by focusing on the relationship between the vertical shaft of light coming in the window ~ and the vertical figure standing below it. And it gave me time to be with my questions about light and shadow patterns and how I wanted to express them.

Now it would be really easy to slip into the ‘want it all now’ mode and dive into critiquing the value of my study. ‘Should I fix it? change it? tweek this or that?’

I must admit I entertained this idea. In the long run, it seems a waste of time and energy to go there.

Instead I choose to let it all steep. After a couple weeks, I was ready to explore these ideas further on a larger canvas.

San Galgano
Abbey of Saint Galgano, oil, 14 x 11

Limited Palette Painting Process

Controlling Values

San Galgano
Block in establishes shadow shapes.

For the larger painting, I began with a cool, neutral-toned panel. To create a mid-value panel, I used a neutral gray with Ultramarine and white that was left over on my palette from a previous day’s painting.

I had prepared several mid-value panels with slightly different tones, one warmer, one cooler, another cooler still. I selected  one which complimented my palette ideas for this painting.

To block in the shadow shapes on the mid-value panel, I want to use colors which are the same value as the panel, letting warmer and cooler relationships create depth in the painting.

To do this, I chose a warm neutral yellow to contrast with the cool tones of the under-painting. In the foreground, I then worked warm lavender into these yellows, leaving only the deepest shadows with the strongest yellow.

This established a simple, yet important color relationship that structured my entire painting. Painting within this structure frees me from having too many choices. Instead, I select colors which operate within this framework.

Controlling Mud

Using a palette knife to mix colors is a clean, quick way to control what is going on with the values and hues in the painting. It is easy to scrape any unused paint up out of the way and set it aside for later. Wiped clean on a rag, no unwanted colors work their way back into the painting without notice.

This housekeeping detail may seem mundane, yet it is extremely important to keep brushes, knives and palette clean. Mud in a painting is caused by dirty housekeeping!

Shadows vs Highlights

san galgano
Development of shadow shapes

To further develop the shadow shapes, I added Ultramarine Blue to the neutral lavender I used earlier. Colors are seen in relationship to what is beside them. It is important to maintain strong relationships between colors in the painting. Using the previous color and adding a related pigment to it is one way to do this.

Another way is to work the color into one below it in the painting.  This is done optically by allowing under-painting to peek through, or by physically blending the two together.

Light shapes blocked in
Light shapes blocked in

Grays vs Pure Pigments

The light areas are developed in a similar way. I used clear colors, rather than neutral colors for the lights. In this case, white with the same yellow ochre without the addition of the neutralizing gray. The key here is that I am using a custom mixed gray ~ not black and white ~ rather a mixture of all colors (red, yellow, blue).

This gray is easily pushed warmer or cooler with addition of pure pigment, in this case the painting moves between Yellow Ochre and Ultramarine Blue. In the lightest highlight, I have added Cadmium Red Light to create the warmth of sunlight.

Limited Palette

Limited palette for this painting includes; Custom mixed gray, Yellow Ochre, Ultramarine Blue, and touches of Alizarin Crimson and Cadmium Red Light for warmth in shadows and highlights. Gamblin Fastmatte Alkyd White is a stiff-bodied white which dries quickly, overnight or somewhat longer depending on how much other oil pigments are added to it.

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