San Giorgio Maggiore ~ Exploring Light and Color

This view from San Marco past the gondolas and across the river to the island of San Giorgio is one frequently photographed by tourists and photographers when visiting Venice, Italy.  At first glance my photograph appeared tranquil, with early evening light and colorful reflections.  Once I started painting, I realized that the diminishing light created intense darks in the black gondolas and black reflections.  So strong were the darks that I felt like it might create more of a somber mood than what I wanted to convey.  I switched to an Impressionist palette in which blacks became purples and blues with a tad of Titanium White added to lighten up the darks.  I found myself using colors that would compliment each other in order to create an overall twilight tone.  It became an exercise in color exploration which I found challenging, frustrating and fun.

Sometimes the painting process flows and sometimes it’s experimental and takes longer.  The latter is the case with this painting.  A couple of times I thought I was close to finishing and the next thing I knew I was almost starting over.  Finally, I felt like I was onto something and progressed to where I could sign my name.

The bright white church on San Giorgio, along with the bold surrounding architecture, I felt deserved to be in focus even though the distance could have easily muted any definition.  Being a maritime artist, of course the colorful, reflective water and gondolas captured my eye from first glance. 

Art is not a science but an inexact science in which exploration of light, color, composition, brushwork, etc… is necessary in order to create something new and different.  I’d love to hear from you artists out there, or those interested in art, what you think of my San Giorgio painting.

Country Roads ~ Small Town USA

I’ve always wanted to live near the water but many times I’ve thought to myself if I were to live inland, Lexington, Virginia where my brother Tom lives, would be on the top of my top list.  This last weekend I went on my quest to find inspiration for my art from the Virginia countryside. 

It all started with my trip to the Muscarelle Museum in Williamsburg, VA, when I saw the Impressionist exhibit and wrote the following blog, Finding Inspiration in Art.   Beautiful landscapes by Degas, Sisley, Hassam, Robinson and others that were so painterly and serene that I thought to myself, I’d like to paint something like that!

The town of Lexington is “Small Town USA” and I could write a blog about it but on this trip I was focused on the surrounding countryside of Rockbridge County.  I got up early to make the three hour trip, attempting to time the morning light just right upon arrival.  Winding my way toward my brother’s home down Route 252 off Highway 81, I had my camera ready. 

Within minutes of turning off the highway, I was winding through the rolling hills, along little creeks and pastures and I soon realized this might be difficult.  It was hard for me to keep my eyes on the road with so many photo opportunities.  There were no shoulders to pull off on.  I drove by a few photo opportunities just because there was no place to pull over.  Already frustrated, I then spotted a single horse standing next to his white barn, looking at me across the mirrored pond that reflected the weeping willow tree that helped frame the shot.  I drove by and then backed up, mustering up the nerve to pull into the farm’s driveway and park, blocking the entrance just for the few minutes I needed to run along the side of the road snapping pictures.  Of course, all hell started breaking loose as the three barnyard dogs came running down the driveway, all barking at me and notifying their owner of my arrival!  Would they stop or would I find myself with them clamped on my leg????  I then pictured a farmer with a sawed-off shotgun running toward me.  I would have loved to have taken more pictures but it was rapid fire and I was on to the next scene. 

Rain set in and I headed to Tom’s.  After showing him my shots he said “We can do even better”.  When the weather cleared up, we hopped in his pick-up truck and that afternoon and the next morning Tom took me on a guided tour of Rockbridge County.  Tom is the kind of guy that can be driving 50 mph over a winding country road and spot a wild turkey off in the woods or a hawk going after its prey.  I’m the kind of guy that has two hands on the wheel and is looking for the oncoming truck coming around the corner! :-)

Tom is a residential builder of beautiful homes and knows the area backwards and forwards.  He is also a nature guy, loves the outdoors and appreciates the beauty of his surroundings.  So with my camera in hand, the two brothers set out on our photo expedition. 

He took me out old Route 60, took a left on Beatie Hollow, we merged onto Turnpike Road, took a right on Sugar Creek and went up and back, then up and back on Bird Forest Road and took a left on Collierstown Road, right up Kyger’s Hill, left on South Buffalo, right on Spring Branch Road, right on Blue Grass Trail and then headed back into town!  The road names I thought would fit nicely into a country western song. Only a local could have mapped out such a pretty course!

Tom said everyone in the area thinks they have the best view in town.  I can certainly see why.  The area is full of picturesque and panoramic views.  Even though the weather didn’t fully cooperate, I arrived home full of inspiration and new painting material. 

Thank you to my brother Tom for going out of his way for me.  Like Maine, going to Lexington, Virginia feels like you’re stepping back in time.  It makes you think of the “good old days”.  The heartening thing is that there still are wonderful places like Lexington to visit and to live, not to mention to set up an easel and paint!

The Delicate Balance of Portraiture

Blythe portrait.jpg

There is something very personal about portraiture.  As an artist, I always try to enhance my subject through my realistic interpretation, softened by touches of impressionism.  I start with a grid to create an accurate underdrawing, guaranteeing a fairly accurate outline and likeness from the beginning.  From there, it becomes a painting process of coloring, blending, shading and painterly touches to bring the subject to life. 

My tendency in portraiture is to lean more in the direction of what I would term a Renoir style rather than say a Thomas Eakins’ style.  Renoir’s faces in his portraits for the most part are very soft and blended, where Eakins had a more linear and defined style.  In this portrait my clients requested a few changes after their first viewing.  Their personal preference is to have a more defined face, showing more character.

I saw the request as a new challenge and worked to achieve the changes without sacrificing my own interpretation.  My overall goal in portraiture is not photographic realism but to create a flattering impression to the viewer while maintaining a likeness. 

I liken the process of a commissioned portrait to that of a home builder building a spec home versus a custom home for a client.    On a spec home the builder will have the natural inclination to build a home that suits his/her personal taste.  On a custom build a builder has to work with the client and build what suits the client’s personal taste.  A client might even throw in a change order to tweak something last minute.  In the end the builder wants the client to be happy even though the change order may complicate and lengthen the process. 

At this point in my career, I’m enjoying mixing up my subject matter, including accepting more commissioned work.  Whether it’s a portrait, a landscape, a private home, a maritime scene or even a still life, having someone excited about having me paint something for them is very gratifying.  In this case, when Blythe asked me if I would be interested in painting her and her niece, I knew it was exactly the kind of challenging and rewarding project that I would enjoy. 

The relationship between Blythe and her only niece was very important to consider in the composition of this painting.   Blythe has high hopes for her, a junior at Harvard, and sees her as representing the next generation of highly successful professional business women.  The setting is one of the function rooms at Harvard.  High ceilings, a large granite fireplace, old textured plaster walls with rich, dark red paint all helped to create an appropriate setting for these two accomplished women to pose.

After working together for several hours, rearranging furniture and lighting, trying a variety of poses and getting a good idea of what my client was looking for, I ended up with several hundred photos.  I narrowed it down to a select number of poses that I thought would create a nice composition and Blythe made the final pick.

I volunteered early in our discussions, if we felt the composition was lacking in any area, I could enhance the background by substituting whatever we felt would be more meaningful.  The client’s home bookcase was added to the composition to symbolize the intellectual pursuit and academic achievement of both women.  On the shelf shoulder high to Blythe, are two books that she has authored entitled Shaking the Globe and Fit in Stand Out, along with two books written by her husband.  The elephant bookend symbolizes strength.  The porcelain antique pottery was added as an artist’s touch.  I felt its oriental look in a small way represents Blythe’s world travels and at the same time ties in the bookcase with the Oriental rug.   The Oriental rug and the bookcase both took an inordinate amount of time, but add a richness and interest to the portrait. 

I hope you enjoy seeing the finished painting.  I enjoyed the entire process, from the beginning Boston photo shoot (Please Come to Boston, The Rest of the Story, and Night at the Museum) and all the laughs over glamour poses to finally signing my name.  I thank Blythe for this wonderful opportunity and for the journey.

To learn more about the inimitable Blythe McGarvie you can visit her website at

I would love to hear from those interested in portraiture what your favorite portrait is or hear who your favorite portrait artist is.  It would be hard for me to choose as I love many different styles.  I like John Singer Sargent’s grandeur in his large portraits….. Van Gogh’s brushwork and colors…. Renoir’s softness…  Norman Rockwell’s painterly quality, Frans Hal’s strength and boldness etc…

Breaking Out the Fine Point Brushes~Focusing the Lens

Rose Covered ArborAfter my trip to Boston and photo shoot for the portrait painting that I have coming up, I refocused on finishing my second in a series of Annie Bettie’s Cottage paintings.  This painting has been very time consuming.  So much so that I took a break and painted Monhegan Headlands in between painting sessions. 

In the portrait photo shoot, a number of the shots I took were done in the manual mode.  Adjusting the aperture or f–stops gives a variation of depth of field, with the higher f-stop numbers yielding a greater depth of field (objects are in focus up close and in the distance).  The reason Rose Covered Arbor took so long is because I broke out the small brushes again to gain a strong depth of field.  Standing before the rose covered arbor, I wanted the viewers to be sensing all that surrounds them.  I took the time to define every leaf on the arbor, highlighted by backlight.  I concentrated on cast shadows, reflective light and ultimate lights and darks.  The leggy, potted geraniums in the darkest nook are reaching for needed sunlight.  Annuals are thriving in their porcelain pots.  The angle of intense sunlight through the picket gate casts a shadow that creates a complex maze with the linear perspective of the cobblestone walkway. 

The highlighted woodwork I kept light from the beginning (no dark undertones), which helps give a stronger contrast from light to dark.  I let painted areas dry so that I could work in the tiny details later without the paint being muddied.  Glazes were applied over flat colors to add depth and interest. 

The strong perspective, strong lighting and abundance of color all made me want to take the time to focus in on every little area.  All this takes time.  This is my natural tendency in painting, whether it is a landscape, a ship painting or portrait.  It requires more patience to paint realistically but afterwards I find the finished product very rewarding. 

I love going to museums and examining details of a masterpiece up close.  I get so close that occasionally I see the guards start wandering my way!  I never have enough time at a museum to sit and study all that I find interesting because I don’t want to miss the painting that is around the next corner. 

I end up doing the same with Impressionist paintings at museums, as I find the brushwork and use of color fascinating.  The great majority of my work now combines realism with touches of Impressionism.  Occasionally, I have the desire to put everything in focus as in Rose Covered Arbor.  When working on a painting that is so time consuming, I liken it to taking on a challenging 1000 piece puzzle.  Starting out it’s overwhelming, in the middle you think I’m making progress, and in the end the final pieces are the fun ones. I just painted in the final pieces, so to speak.

I hope you enjoy taking a peek past the charming arbor into the secret gardens that await beyond the picket fence.