Its been 65 days since the start of Italian lockdown and thankfully the weather in Europe has been mild and sunny which all the more easier if you live in the rural hills and can get ouside exercise and avoid bumping into anyone. Italy’s lockdown has been strict with no one allowed to go outside unless for vitals and the schools have been shut since february, so all the better for staying at home and painting.
Normally I wouldn’t feel the need to explore the woods with my painting stuff close to the house but when there isn’t anywhere else to go you are kind of pushed by the force of adventure and just follow you feet. Woods play a big factor where I live. So after skidding down steep banks with the easel in one hand and tip toeing over slippery rocks with a palette of freshly squeezed paint in the other I found this spot on the river Mangia below our house, it’s a short flat stretch with a warm February midday sun reflecting on the water.
The next river painting is a calm Spring afternoon on the River Vara. The river Mangia flows into this much bigger river that runs along the bottom of the valley. This river is very wide and deep and I liked the reflections from the trees on the water, the colours were lovely and I hope to go back soon. I think we are now allowed to travel for necessity but to be out painting and having a picnic could be seen as having too much fun (!!)
Travelling a little higher up into the hills you can overlook the whole valley from the Alta Via Dei Monte Liguri. The Alta Via is a stony road that takes you all through Liguria and into France and it could be one way in getting back to the UK on feet or wheels or a donkey without having to fly in an aeroplane! The horses in the foreground are privately owned and left to roam the pastures, there are at least fifty horses, some mules too and they are used to work on steep mountain tracks where tractors cannot go. The moutain in the middle is Monte Dragnone, the highest peak in the area. I wanted to get a sense of space in the painting with all the hills receding into the backround with thin washes of paint, (linseed oil and turpentine glazes). Something I find easier to do with winter colours than summer because there are more earthy colours in the undertones.
Here is the passo del Rastrello that is part of the Alta Via from in the previous painting. It is a little colder here and I have come across snow, it looks like I have just taken you through the wardrobe and into Narnia! (I painted this in 2019 when it snowed for a couple of days). This year it has been too mild for any of that kind of weather but it was nice to look at snow and to use different colours than usual.
Dusk from the top of Monte Dragnone. This is the highest mountain in the area at over 1000mt. It takes a steep 20 minute hike to get to the top but once you have arrived there is a Sanctuary that is used during the many religious festa’s. Unfortunately this year they have all been cancelled but the view is rewarding.
Thankyou for looking and I hope you are all safe and well!
Just one building sits on top of this mountain, the Sanctuario della Madonna del Dragnone. Monte Dragnone is just over 1000mt high and it lies in the area of Zignago, in the La Spezia region of Liguria. It has a very steep and rocky path climbing up beneath the pine trees to the summit where todays Santuario sits. Built in the 1800’s on a pre-christian site signs of the bronze and iron age have also been found.
As popular tradition tells us the Madonna appeared infront of a deaf shepherdess miracolously bringing back her voice. The spiritual following of the Madonna del Dragnone, Patron of Zignago, is still very popular and on the 8th September pilgrims from far and wide, old and young make their way on foot to the top of Monte Dragnone to the Sanctuary.
This 17th century sanctuary of Nostra Signora dell’Ulivo is built on the hills overlooking Brugnato, a small Ligurian town that sits in the valley below Monte Dragnone. The Sanctuary has been built on one of the several oratories that were constructed by the Brugnato monks in the 7th Century. There wasn’t much room to get a good view of the facade, (and the same problem happened in the Dragnone Sanctuary!) however after a bit of exploring I preferred this view amongst the olive trees overlooking the valley. Each olive tree has metal plaques with names and dates on tied on chains around their trunks, if you are born here in this community then you can have an olive tree planted in your name.
I don’t know about you but here in the north of Italy it has rained for the whole of June. Where is Summer? This is a study of my daughter who sits still long enough for me to paint, even though it’s nearly summer most days it feels like April!
In this painting I needed alot of Cadmium Red Light for the sofa which is an very intense orange/red – a really bright, bright red! Other reds verging towards crimson are more darker and duller. I also really noticed while painting this how much cadmium yellow and red pigment I needed to mix into my palette to try and get that cozy artificial light coming in.
Cadmium is expensive to buy but worth every penny. High quality artist’s grade paints generally contain far more pigment than the cheaper student paints so in the long run you use less and they last much longer, both in the tube and on your painting. Once I ground a few tubes of my own cadmium red and that tube really did last along time, it was worth all the effort but now too unhealthy to make your own paints with children about!
In Italy during May gardens are at their best, even when they have been forgotten but where everything still grows anyway. I stumbled across this villa and the garden that is almost abandoned and it was fun trying to put some long awaited colours into the greenery, with the spring grasses long and overgrown and the little wild flowers reaching through!
Finding a title for a painting is a sometimes a struggle! I chose this view because I liked the effect of the afternoon light on the house and the orange tree with the glass damigiana in the foreground but when it came to finding a title nothing very interesting came up. In Italy the glass bottle in the foreground is called a ‘damigiana’ and in English a ‘demijohn’. The word damigiana is definently a more elegant term than the blunter English word demijohn which I wouldn’t have put in the title !
Traditionally in Italy a damigiana is used for wine making and you are always sure to find a good selection of empty ones like this in most rural Italian families although nowadays they are used less due to the more modern ways of wine making. Except you can’t beat a damigiana full of wine compared to a bottle!
In these two sketches from life I aimed to capture the movement in what was infront of me instead of fussing over a bigger composition and trying to make a more interesting picture. A raging torrent after a big storm and a sun filled, bright yellow Mimosa tree that was exploding with yellow flowers are just a couple of March’s crazy offerings.
Today it is International Womans Day and it seemed a good day to post a picture of Mimosa (in Italy it is the number 1 flower today!) and lets give hope and courage to women and their familes fleeing from war torn countries.
Sasseta is a typical Ligurian mountain village in the valleys behind the Cinque Terre, 55 people live here including me and my family and the surrounding area is called Zignago that has a community of 550 which covers an area of 2785 km, made up of rural farmland and woodland.
Sometimes Italy feels quite densely populated due to the geography of the land and many people live in the sprawling towns on the flat or as near to the coast as possible but right here in the mountains life slows down, less people want to live so remote and there is more space and fresh air even though the neighbouring wild boar can be pretty annoying!
I really enjoy painting the colours of the countryside in winter, so many reds, pinks and greys find their way onto the palette and with the recent mild weather the trees still have most of their orange autumn leaves still on the branches.
I decided to do a couple of rose studies while the roses were still flowering, for me roses and the soft autumn light this year is more inspiring than what was offered in spring. Autumn brings the most colourful season and it feels good to be outside painting it! While the undergrowth turns away for winter and the possibilities of summer are gone I noticed the little things that still hang on like the flowering roses, beautiful soft pink roses clashing with the autumn decay!
I tried to define the rose leaves and petals with a flat brush, cutting into the wet paint to “sculpt” the petal or leaf without drawing it was easier. There is alot to look at when painting foliage so it was time to forget about each individual leaf and look out for the areas of darks and lights.
A couple of weeks ago I went to an outdoor painting exhibtion where artists were invited to paint in a local boatyard harbour here in Le Grazie in Italy that was hosting a weekend of Regatta of Classic boats. It was great fun to be able to see so many beautiful classic sail boats. The weather was fine, the wind was good for sailing and the people friendly – it was a great weekend!
I dont really have much experience in painting boats and every boat I chose to paint in the foreground disappeared after half an hour so I never got to finish the masts and the rigging, a bit of memory was needed and also the help of the camera to remind me where to put the rigging was extremly helpful. It made me wonder how marine artists in the past were able to paint every little detail, it was either from memory or very careful sketching over long periods of experience spent in the boatyards. Mastering the art of human anatomy is probably the same sort of thing I imagine you would need to paint a boat.
During the time I was painting I tried a new medium for oil paint: Poppyseed Oil. The advantage of this oil is that it doesn’t yellow like linseed oil and it dries very slow which was an advantage when I added the rigging to the boats back in the studio because the sky hadn’t dried and I was able to work wet into wet. When using poppyseed oil the painting should be finished all in one go instead of waiting for layers to dry as it will crack if the layers havent dried properly and used underneath linseed oil should be avoided. Linseed oil dries much faster, the only weak point is that when dry it tends to yellow or darken the whites and paler colours unlike poppy oil that is transparant.
After a bumpy drive uphill you will find yourself here at 1000 metres above sea level, (maybe with a flat tire too), out of the hot weather and into cool breeze mountain views of Val di Vara that overlook the Ligurian sea.
Just outside Cuccaro Club (a hotel/restaurant that is more retro than my Granny), along the road leading to the Casoni where I chose to paint on a couple of occasions this summer, grows an imposing pine forest that covers several hectares. It is considered among the most beautiful of the Ligurian Apennines, with trees that stand out clearly against the grassy slopes. It was planted almost 100 years ago to stabilize the land in wet weather due to the intense deforestation that over the centuries, weakened the mountain slopes of the area. The work was ordered by Mussolini and involved a large number of workers. A sign of prosperity and longevity and facist propaganda. Hopefully it won’t come into the hands of another facist leader to fill in the holes in the roads…