It’s been four months since I returned from the Tuscan village that was my home last fall. A busy winter working on three projects at once. I am glad to see one complete and another finishing soon. Now I can get back to the heart and soul of my Tuscan village paintings.
Following the trail of paintings is how I will know what to write. While I have ideas about the story, it is the paintings that guide me. Bouncing back and forth between words and paintings speeds the creative process.
Here are two oil paintings inspired by the village where my story takes place, Poggio Alla Croce. A tiny hilltop village with one road running along it’s crest. Views of the Arno Valley on one side, vineyards and Florence on the other.
The bright Vermilion house at the main intersection captured my imagination the day we arrived. I have been trying to paint it ever since. I love the way it contrasts with surrounding earthy colors. In the oldest section of the village, rustic textures and irregular shapes juxtapose the brilliant blue sky that slices between them.
In the top painting, I am using a limited palette. Earth pigments such as Yellow Ochre, Raw Sienna, and Gamblin’s Warm Gray contrast well with Vermilion, Holbein’s Violet Gray, Cadmium Yellow Deep, Cobalt Violet, Ultramarine and Viridian. The pop of hot pink is Sennelier Rose Brilliant with a touch of White.
I am trying to keep my brush and palette knife work rough intentionally. There is a drawing quality that I like in this approach. I like the visceral color and texture. Rooted in a deep emotional response to this place, I don’t know why I am so fascinated with it. Perhaps getting it on canvas, over and over again, I will begin to understand something essential about it.
This doorway has the same quality to me. I don’t know if this painting is quite finished yet. It still sits on the easel in the studio waiting for an answer to that question. Every now and then, while painting on something else, a brush load or two of paint finds a place on it.
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?”
“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.
Danilo 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I wasn’t kidding when I said I could paint this view 100 times! Well maybe not 100 in a row! But this one is so different than the one yesterday. I’ve included 3 details so you can see the palette knife work clearly. Enjoy!