M. Stephen Doherty

M. Stephen Doherty
The editor of Plein Air magazine at work

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Painting Venice

What better place to begin talking about painting than Venice, Italy. It's a location that has interested artists for centuries, and there are probably more drawings, prints, and paintings of the floating city than almost any other place. During the 19th century, James A.M.Whistler and Thomas Moran may have sold more prints and paintings of Venice than the other subjects for which they are well known.
One of most popular buildings to paint in Venice is the Ca D'Oro which happened to be directly across from the hotel where I was staying in early June, 2009. A good friend, Peter Carey, took me there for my first visit, and he napped in the afternoons while I wandered through the alleys and along the Grand Canal with my pochade box, 9" x 12" panels, and oil paints.
A good friend, Sondra Freckelton, observed that I always set challenges for myself when I paint, and in Venice the challenge was to separate the drawing process from the application of local colors. That is, instead of following my usual procedure of blocking in large shapes of color and gradually breaking those down into smaller details, I decided the more appropriate method would be to draw the complicated architectural structures with a warm neutral color (red iron oxide, titanium white, and black) thinned with Galkyd fast-drying medium and then brush the colors over the drawing. That allowed me to resolve the design of the buildings before dealing with the actual colors in the scene.
Since that painting trip, I have been trying to take advantage of the power that neutrals have in bringing emphasis to the colors in a painting. That is, mixing complementary colors (red with green, purple with orange, etc.) or adding blacks and grays to color mixtures to lower the intensity (chroma) while maintaining the relative value. The benefit of this is that when I want to bring attention to an area of strong color, I "neutralize" the areas around that color. It goes back to the idea that when you want to make one thing important, you have to reduce the importance of everything around it.
Portrait painter understand this idea and will often refuse to "correct" a painting in front of a client. When the client asks for the cheeks to be more pronounced, for example, the painter knows to darken the area below the cheek bone. If the client actually saw that happening, he or she would think the artist was correcting the wrong thing. That's why I darked the shapes around the columns of the Ca D'Oro so the pink-white walls would appear brighter.
This is only a rough sketch and I intend to create a larger, more finished painting using my oil sketch and photographs to come up with something that captures the experience of Venice more completely. That should keep me busy through the cold winter months.

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