The Art Bridge ~ Coming Home to My Unknowable Self

When I decided to live in Tuscany for nine weeks, to absorb the Tuscan Lifestyle into my life and art ~ I’d hoped living the Tuscan lifestyle  would cure the workaholic in me.

A new friend from Naples got it completely.  “It’s unknowable,” she uttered, looking at my paintings scattered about the room. She was in my incubator and she knew it.

Immersed in the joyful way my new friends and neighbors went about daily life, I’d already realized how truly and dearly “I LOVE to paint! There is nothing I’d rather do. This isn’t work at all!”

My Tuscan friends had knocked on my door, bringing me ripe figs, plums, tomatoes, chestnuts, wine and more. They seemed to squeeze every drop of goodness from each and every grape. I looked for something to offer them in return. “Would you like to see the paintings?”

Olive grove in Poggio Alla Croce

“Oh yes, we’d love to!” Week by week, they knocked at my door and each time I answered I experienced “the art bridge” in a new way.

In those very last moments of October, they knocked on my door once again. This time Danilo invited me to come to the family’s olive grove to see how olives are harvested. Down the steep slope of the mountain, zig-zagging dirt path to a vista overlooking the Arno Valley, Danilo roared the four-wheel drive like any Italian driver ~ fast.

Late afternoon sun shone through silver olive leaves. Tiny Tuscan olives once light green, were now black and full of oil. Danilo demonstrated climbing a ladder on each tree. Pruning, shaking until ripe fruit fell from the branch into a fine mesh on the ground.Tree by tree, each olive in the 12 acres is picked by hand and hauled in buckets to the olive press in the next village.

IMG_6708Danilo reached for a bottle of the family’s own wine from a shelf in the tool shed and poured three glasses. Sipping sweetness, I felt the glow. Did I know I was ripe for harvest too? No. Sweetness of sharing friendship, beauty and bounty I thought was all about Tuscany.

I flew home the following week and immersed myself in a show deadline, a bid proposal, an application for a gallery and a national show. The last thing I needed was a new idea. When it first surfaced last week, it seemed so far off base from my Tuscan series, I put it out of mind.

Thumbnail sketches in my journal
Thumbnail sketches in my journal

A dream this past week urged me to take another look at the idea. Did I know that it was the “unknowable” I was searching for in Tuscany? No.

“OK” I thought, “I won’t have to stop what I am doing to make a few thumbnail sketches in my journal. ”

In less than an hour, I’d filled three pages with value studies a series of landscape designs I didn’t have time to paint.

Two more journal pages filled with thumbnail sketches
Two more journal pages filled with thumbnail sketches
My pastels include Unison, Diane Townsend, Smichke, Sennelier and Rembrandt.

Intrigued, I decided I would “test” the designs quickly with pastels. I cut  several sheets of pastel paper into 9″ x 12″ rectangles.

I hadn’t used my pastels in over ten years. I laid my trays out on the table and sorted values. (Yes, I AM aware of how my own values changed in Tuscany. No mistake that I would have to come home and sort them out in my palette. Life is always a metaphor for Creator’s gifts.)

By lunch I had all the pastels arranged by values. Instead of searching hue by hue, having to check each value against my paintings one by one, I would be free to paint quickly, easily seeing subtle shifts in hue and chroma.

You can see how all the lightest (# 9 & 10 values) are in the far left of both trays. Cooler in the foreground tray, warm ones in the next tray up. Darks (#1 & 2) are all along the far right of each tray in the same manner.

In the center four rows of each tray, the cool and warm tones are sorted by values; #3 & 4, then #5 & 6, then #7 & 8 ~ warms in one tray, cools in the other.

The realization that my abstract thumbnails were my “pond in the woods” series came to me in the shower. Ideas seem to flow in the shower as they do in dreams. Why did I think my Tuscan residency was about painting Tuscany? Well it is and so much more. It’s about assimilating the Tuscan lifestyle here in Virginia ~ on my pond in the woods.

6 pastel studies brought my thumbnail sketches to life.
6 pastel studies brought my thumbnail sketches to life.  See the Pond in the Woods Series

Standing over the table with my view of the pond, I drew from 15 years of memory. By four o’clock I had a series of pastel studies. I chose one and took it to the easel. A 24″ x 30″ canvas I’d primed with gold under-painting for another project  awaited me.

Mixing my colors to match the pastel, I painted until it was too dark to see. The oil painting on my easel looked like pastels I’d painted as a young artist. I laughed out loud as I recognized the vibrant strokes.

Pond in the Woods VI, oil, 24 x 30,

Another dream puzzled me the next morning. Writing it down created more questions than answers. My tried and true methods of deciphering dreams yieded a new direction.

Picking up the phone, I called a friend, a soul sister who leads a parallel life to mine. “How are you?” I listened intently as she explained how coughing was helping her clear out old scar tissue, making way for new tissue to grow, healing her lungs.

“Ummmmm,” I wrote some of her words in my journal. “Scar tissue” stuck out like a sore thumb. I knew immediately what mine was. Unfinished paintings I’d stacked up in guest room to get out of my way in the studio. I wanted only to work on new ideas from Tuscany.

I shared my sketches with her so she could derive inspiration of her own. After I hung up, I unrolled two unfinished paintings and sat down to look them over. I sketched a thumbnail of one. Then made a second thumbnail, abandoning the first completely.

journal entries from my phone conversation and two thumbnail studies based on an unfinished painting. (scar tissue)
pastel color study

Wanting to see my sketch in color, I used pastel to test it out. I liked the study, though troubled by the dark positioning of the cypress trees, went to the easel to block it in over top of the unfinished painting.

Tuscan Home
Tuscan Home, oil on canvas, 30 x 40  Prints Available
Pond in the Woods, oil 24 x 30
Pond in the Woods, oil 24 x 30
Pond in the Woods, oil 24 x 30

The same day I also blocked in several other oil paintings. One based on a pastel, two others based on thumbnails in my journal.  Working back and forth from one to the other, I used ideas from each to help me see my way through the group as a whole. My “scar tissue” helping me paint the whole group.

Looking at the group of deadline paintings, now they look like scar tissue. The deadlines evaporated as checks arrived from the sales rep I’d hired in the spring.

Pond in the Woods Series>

Red Oakl
Red Oak, oil, 30 x 40

Plein Air in Tuscany

plein air in Tuscany
Panzano Vineyards, oil, 16 x 20
plein air in Tuscany
On arrival, a large cloud shadowed the vineyard in the foreground.

I couldn’t resist the opportunity of a brilliant October day in Tuscany to paint en plein air. We searched for the perfect spot. Late afternoon sunlight lit the vineyard in the foreground.

I could see that clouds were moving slowly. Deep blue greens in the vineyard would soon be brilliant yellow greens with purple shadows. In anticipation I painted the distant landscape first, setting the stage for the light.

plein air in Tuscany
Finishing up, the sun is getting quite low leaving my easel in deep shadow.


plein air in Tuscany

Plein Air Painting in Tuscany ~ Loro Ciuffenna

Plein Air Painting in Tuscany

Abstract Cityscape in Oil

Plein air painting in Tuscany

Captivated by the red clock tower that dominates this Etruscan village and it’s colorful patchwork of villas, I just had to paint it. I love the juxtaposition of old and new. The way Loro Ciuffenna overhangs the gorge took my breath away. But where to start?

How to create a painting that captures the spirit of this magical village?

Since I had been in this village a week ago, I had time to reflect on my experience of it. Going back to capture the palette en plein air, I took with me a clear vision for my painting. I didn’t want all the information and details of the scene. I wanted only it’s essence.

When we visited a week ago, we walked the town and took photos. I painted a couple small studies at home. Today I came fully prepared to paint the abstract cityscape I envisioned.

That’s where I began ~ with my vision ~ NOT with the view of the town. This is the important part which many people don’t realize. The painting is INSIDE the artist.  I began creating my painting when I visited last week. Today I have the opportunity to complete it.

The center of my vision is the tower, all other structures are drawn in relationship to it. It’s  vertical shape anchors the composition. The buildings in front of it extend it’s vertical lines downward, completing the vertical axis of the painting. This makes the rooftops, mountains, and sky function as a horizontal elements in relation to the clock tower.

I began by blocking in the warm tones.This ties all the warm tones together ~ in my mind and on the canvas. Notice the way the warm tones cluster together.

The cool tones are opposed to the warm ones. That is, they balance the warm areas. Some are massed together. Others step into the warm areas creating a playful dance.

I am working with oil paint thinned with Gamsol Solvent Free Gel. It doesn’t run like thinner mediums, though it is not at all stiff. Using the medium helps me block in my colors quickly. This quickness helps capture how I feel ~ without thinking too much. I love the resonance of the transparent colors on my white ground, energetic and spontaneous.

The stage is important as well. Another part of my work is done long before I even arrived in Tuscany. I designed special custom painting panels which would make it easy for me to work on location.

I prepared my painting panels with 2 special gessos. The first is toned with a warm sienna color. The second is Sennelier Heavy Body White Gesso. When this heavy body gesso is brushed over the first, it creates wonderful brush stroke textures. The two tones create depth. So when I paint my thinned oils on it, they run into the deeper areas and are thinner on the peaks. This creates a wonderful vibrancy of color.

Once my warm and cool tones are blocked in, I switch to a smaller brush and develop color tones. Using heavier paint, I mix colors on the palette and on the panel. This is where the rich textures develop in contrast to thinner glazes of underpainting.

Adding details is the last part. This is where the painting process slows down considerably. Details are not part of the vision, so it is essential to slow down and take time finding them. Choosing only to include the ones that complete the vision is important. Including too many overcrowds the painting and obscures the vision.

As I was finishing the painting, a lady stopped by to admire it. She pointed excitedly at the red house in the center and told me it was her house! How fun! It’s amazing to me how much Italian I can understand without speaking ten words ~ and how a painting speaks thousands in any language!

I was delighted to be able to include a line of laundry against the side of one of the villas. Italians don’t use electricity to dry clothes. Clothes lines are everywhere. To me this small detail in the painting speaks volumes.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I love the way this painting turned out! The palette is warm and inviting, yet pastel. Earth tones accent the play of neutrals and reds. I think it would look fabulous in a living room or den. It’s different, refreshing ~ a blend of old and new.

With this vision in mind, I have designed a Canvas Print of Loro Ciuffenna.  I will publish it in November when I return from Italy.
24″ x 30″ Canvas Print on Deep Gallery Wrap Stretchers
Wired & Ready to Hang without a frame.
The image goes around the edges.

plein air painting in tuscany
Loro Ciuffenna, oil
Special Pre-Publication Price

To receive $100 OFF
this special editon of
Loro Ciuffenna

Use the Code at checkout:

This offer expires at Midnight Sunday November 1.

[shop_section_listings section_id = 17816021]