Reflections on an Italian Painting Adventure
Returning to winter in Adelaide feels a long way from the dreams of painting in an Italian summer and looking at art. While a little disorienting at first, my quiet return has been necessary to sift through the experiences of Italy and launch my exhibition at the Murray Bridge Regional Gallery. I’m in a transition phase where one body of work is ending and a new potential wants to grow.
Studying painting through the Jeruselum Studio School (JSS) summer intensive program offered me new thoughts and experiences in paint. It was an immersion into the roots and history of painting the landscape outside. The JSS summer school operates out of Civita Castellana, a small town located an hour north of Rome. The old town is a fortress built on a rock surrounded by waterways and gorges. Views are spectacular.
During the 1800’s painters such as Corot, Ingris and Turner gathered with writers in Civita Castellana to reflect on nature. A sense of community existed. Corot made 3 sojourns to this area, often staying for years at a time. During his stays he made many paintings of the surrounding views. The experience of painting where these great painters laid paint on paper was a humbling one for me. I felt I had entered into a stream of thought. I became part of that historical community for a few weeks.
Israel Hershberg is a painter who founded the JSS and holds a tremendous passion and knowledge for this lineage. He shares it with fellow painters who partake in the summer intensive program. With my fellow painters, we became friends setting out in different directions each morning to look at nature and study light and space through colour-value relationships and record it in paint. This concept and practice is a big one to learn. It rests on a foundational idea that space begins in front of your nose and stretches into infinity. By putting down one colour shape next to another space is carved. In considering the beauty of shapes a painting is woven together with colour and form naturally emerges. I understood the emphasis to be on space and light rather than form. It’s a kind of back to front thinking that takes a lot of time and practice. Questioning what you see and lingering with uncertainty are very important.
Charles Hawthorne describes this way of perceiving at length in his book Hawthorne on Painting. This book was my daily companion in Italy along with my community of painting friends. We shared wonderful discussions on many ideas about painting and painters. Sometimes I would descend into the cool quietness of the gorge to paint the town above from under a shady tree, only to then climb the thousand steps of repentance back up to the town in midday heat. Wonderful gelati saved the day. Other times we ventured to set up our easels at the edge of people’s gardens and were often invited in for a better view and offered fruit from the orchard. The townspeople were very welcoming and accommodating of my nervous attempts at Italian.
We each experimented with different aspects of perceptual painting (as taught in the JSS), shared our focus and paintings, critiqued each other’s work with loving encouragement, and learned from each other. The weekly critique sessions run by Israel and Susan Litchman (who was this years guest of honour) were big lessons as these ideas were expanded on. I particularly appreciated Susan’s perspective as she is a painter of interiors with a very personal and dreamy narrative. Her painting experience provided a counterpoint to the big field that Israel held. Lessons in paint were supplemented each week with wild bus rides through the Italian country side to museums in different cities. From Masacio to Morandi, we were intoxicated beyond our eyeballs. My time in Italy was a real treat, giving me new friends and much to consider in paint.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse into my Italian adventure. Thanks for reading. My exhibition titled Off the Shelf is still on at the Murray Bridge Regional Gallery until 9th October. Thanks to all who came along to the opening and have made the trip to see it. It was wonderful to share it with you all.
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The featured image is a painting I recently did in an olive grove in Willunga.