Friday, July 29, 2016

A Brush With Tuscany

Florence is timeless. The Italians have the perfect word to describe it... "insieme". Translated it means: ensemble, whole, all together. It's no wonder that Florence is the birthplace of the Renaissance. Dante Alighieri, the father of the modern, Italian language was born here.

Etched into the cathedrals and ancient alleys are the voices of the past and present. Florence offers a movable feast for the eyes and the tongue, with a gelateria on nearly every corner. The city is a mecca for students with hundreds of international universities. 

I made a pilgrimage of my own to the Florence Academy, which is located along the Arno River. Founded by artist Daniel Graves, the Academy teaches drawing, painting and sculpture modeled on 19th century, classical traditions. Yes, Florence is an "all together" kind of place and the reason why I chose to teach a painting workshop in nearby Fiesole this June. 


If Florence is the cultural heart of Tuscany, Fiesole is the soul. I chose this location as our base for its beauty and serenity. The first recorded mention of the town dates to 283 BC, when known as Faesulae, it was conquered by the Romans. Why it was built here, is a really great story. Legend has it that the Greek god, Atlas founded Fiesole as the most beautiful, earthly location. It's name means "stands alone". It was Atlas’ son Italus who gave his name to Italy.

Pensione Bencista is a 14th century villa, perched on the hillside of Fiesole, offering sweeping views of Florence. There is an austere, old fashioned charm to the place with its simple breakfast, spartan rooms and resident dogs. 

The Swiss, Symbolist painter Arnold Bocklin once lived here and guests are greeted by a large bust of the artist in the foyer. The Villa is the perfect place to enjoy "dolce far niente"... the sweetness of doing nothing. Sheer indulgent relaxation and blissful laziness would be lovely except there are paintings to be painted!

The day before the workshop began, a few of us ventured off to find the Villa Palmerino, located just below the Bencista. As it turned out our timing was perfect. We were graciously treated to a tour by it’s current owner, Federico Parretti. The Villa has been in this family of artists for five generations.
It is here that John Singer Sargent painted the portrait of English poet, Violet Paget (Vernon Lee). Lee purchased the villa in 1889 where she regularly hosted such literati as Edith Wharton and Henry James, among others. When Paget died in 1935, artist Federigo Angeli, and his wife, painter and writer Carola Costa purchased the property. Their grandchildren, host and promote artistic events in the artistic community and at the Villa.

Our first afternoon began with a wonderful tour of the Etruscan ruins which date from the ancient roots of the region. Our tour guide was so amusing and informative. We joked that if not for the use of her hands she would've been rendered speechless! The view from the monastery of San Francesco on the crest of the hill is worth the trek. Although history surrounds you, Fiesole is not a preserved artifact of the past. It’s a modern Italian town with beautiful villas, delightful cafes and interesting shops.

Our workshop began on the terrace of the villa. We focused on making small, greyscale studies in an effort to understand the underlying composition. I stressed the need to avoid detail and line, instead massing in flat, abstract shapes of correct value. 

I showed how to mix clean color by painting a series of small studies. This practice helps to unify your paintings. Relating the major masses in terms of color and value  creates a forceful statement of color harmony, and helps to organize major planes of light. 

The ever changing light on the sweeping views below our villa, allowed for a variety of scenes. Here are things to keep in mind when painting atmospheric scenes:

1. Keep the value range limited to no more than 4 steps.

2. Since values are closer together, tonal value is less important than color. Consider the temperature of your light source, and push the opposite temperature in the shadows.
3. Make edges soft. Heavy, moisture-laden air, or veils of atmosphere, blurs the edges making everything appear soft, even in the focal point.

The next day we took the #7 bus down the hill into Florence for a morning of sketching at the Bargello Museum. This may not be the most famous museum, but it is one of my favorites. Less crowded than the Uffizi, the Bargello is one of the oldest buildings in Florence, dating back to 1255. Today, it houses hundreds of sculptures. Donatello's bronze David is physically delicate and remarkably effeminate. Visually, it is a stark contrast to Michelangelo’s heroic, marble of David.

There were two more days of painting on the Piazza Mino in Fiesole. We enjoyed long lunches at the great cafes. There is something to be said for those leisurely breaks that Europeans take at midday. I found that given the lateness of our evenings - it was imperative to nap after lunch. 

Joan, our tour organizer found some of the most enchanting places for dinner. I loved Le Cave di Maiano with it’s rustic menu, or Tullio a Montebeni with it’s tuscan steak and colorful proprietor. Both were tucked away in the surrounding forest, just minutes from our villa.

It’s midnight and a few of us have snuck outside to share a bottle of proseco on the terrace of the villa. Florence twinkles below like a blanket of earthly stars. Suddenly the chirping of a cell phone (who’s owner shall remain anonymous) breaks the quietude followed by a harsh admonishment from the proprietor Beatrice! In hushed tones we go back to our conversation, savoring every moment of our last night in paradise. 

A painting workshop is about finding enlightenment, learning new skills and making new friends. And although every adventure must come to an end, there’s always the next one to look forward to! 

Here’s what some participants had to say about "A Brush with Tuscany" Workshop:

Now that I'm back home, I just wanted to tell you I had the most wonderful time at your workshop. Not only are you full of knowledge with the unique ability to put it into words, full of talent and great ideas, but you are also a delight to be with! What a great trip! Sheila W.

Eli, a quick thank you for a great workshop week. Lots of fun and I learned a ton. Met some interesting people as well. Thanks for your patience and encouragement. Bob S.

I want to thank you all for joining us in Fiesole. You were a great group of people who got along so well, which doesn’t always happen!  Eli is the best teacher I’ve ever done a painting class with; I was stunned at her knowledge, clarity and teaching skills, all in that very casual, Eli-manner.  Joan Hill, Artful Journeys

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Learning never exhausts the mind...

This quote by Leonardo da Vinci may seem contradictory to anyone who has endeavored to learn the skills necessary for representational painting. Whether a student or seasoned artist, the process of learning will test your patience to the point of insanity. Even Sargent had his difficulties, and issued forth a sort of battle cry of “demons, demons," with which he would dash at his canvas.

Copying Sargent's Oyster Gatherer's,  MFA Boston

Patience is a crucial element in learning to paint. One of the most encouraging things I learned was from Richard Schmid. His belief that painting is a craft which requires practice but above all patience, really set me free from negative thoughts. Much like learning to play the piano or becoming a champion athlete, it’s important not to blame ourselves when our skills don’t quite match our visions. Another mentor was John Terelak, the great Cape Ann painter and instructor. At that point in my journey, I felt my work was not good enough to share with the public and John instilled in me the need to believe in myself. He explained that learning is a life-long pursuit, our work is ever evolving and improving - your best effort is all that's required.

Richard Schmid, 1999
"I do not judge, I only chronicle." 

John Terelak 1998
I will never forget my first painting event, I was in way over my head but felt I should challenge myself. In spite of this, I must’ve looked the part because a fellow painter joined me at my chosen location. I was lucky that she quickly recognized that I had no idea what the hell I was doing. With some helpful tips I was able to make it through the day and although my painting was amateurish I was hooked on painting outdoors. 

After nearly 30 years at the easel, I continue to have moments of frustration and self doubt. It sometimes feels as if the more I know, the less I realize I know… if you know what I mean. These moments of fear and doubt can lead to a creative block. Sometimes we spend time gaining theoretical knowledge and not enough time actually painting. Nearly every artist I know has gone through it and the best way to overcome this is to just keep painting! When our skills become intuitive much like muscle memory, then our ideas and the execution of those ideas are synthesized.

Boy Swimming by Eli Cedrone, 2016

Developing patience requires having faith that eventually, you will get there. Seek out the support and exchange of ideas of fellow painters - especially those who are on the same creative path - and learn from their mistakes and successes. Celebrate small victories and breakthroughs when you’re learning the process, and allow those achievements to get you to the next level. 

Painting at Charles Hawthorne Barn, Provincetown 2014
Recently, I felt the the need to return to a more academic approach to painting by attending the Academy of Realist Art in Boston. The Academy teaches traditional techniques, modeled on 19th century French academies. The focus was on creating the color study which is a preliminary oil sketch that determines specific colors and establishes, in the most simplified manner, the value range that will best achieve a light effect and create volume. It gave me a greater understanding of how to simplify planes, properly compose values and create color harmony. The Academy proved to be a exactly where I needed to be in order to hone my draftsmanship and painting skills so don't feel that you've moved beyond a specific level - it's always good to revisit the fundamentals.

The Academy of Realist Art, Boston
"Cultivate an ever continuous power of observation… 
be always ready to make slight
notes of postures, groups and incidents."

In the studio with Dennis Sheehan, 2010

Paint from life as often as you can and carry a sketchbook with you at all times. Changing disciplines from portraiture to landscape, still life to painting the figure is also beneficial as each provides something different to consideration in terms of design, form, value and color. 

I visit museums often and carry a sketch book to "deconstruct" or make value studies of masterworks. So much can be learned from this practice. I also attend artist demonstrations and visit the studios of painters I admire whenever an invitation is extended.

As many of you know I love to travel. For me, there is no better way to arouse the senses than through visiting new places. Travel offers a diversity of landscapes, architecture and people. It’s always an awe-inspiring and enriching experience and a sure way to break free from old habits.
  "Above all things get abroad, see the sunlight and everything that is to be seen."
In the studio of Kelly Carmody, 2016

In regards to workshops, choose someone who embodies your values and approach to painting. Nearly 20 years ago I studied with a wonderful teacher who felt that taking workshops with seasoned (or celebrity artists as he called them) was like trying to pick up a "bag of tricks”. Although this is true to some degree, watching a master painter at work is a tremendously useful way to learn. Just be careful not to be so influenced as to believe that technique or mannerism is the path to good painting. Honesty is the true path - to yourself and your own expressive voice.

Visit my website to register for my upcoming workshop in California this July and the Bermuda Retreat!

All quotes by John Singer Sargent

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Diary of vagabond artist...

"There are three kinds of people: those who see, those that see what you show them and those who do not see" - Leonardo Da Vinci

The adventure begins with an artist residency in Palm Beach. I left behind mountains of snow in Boston so palm trees and sandy beaches were a welcome site. Dropping my bags, I head out to explore and do a few small oil sketches. The sun is low in the sky and as the clouds start to roll in, it makes for a moodier  scene than I'd originally intended. I pack it in and head to the huge Art & Antique Show at the Palm Beach Convention Center. (more on that in my next blog)

The following day, sunlight greets me, and I head to Delray where I enter the world of COLOR – orange brick walls, purple cast shadows. I set up quickly and knock out my second oil sketch of a brightly colored, surf shop. There is no better way to arouse the senses than through travel. It offers an increasingly vast series of landscapes; lively cafes, a stretch of beach, stunning sunsets, gardens and architecture. It’s always an awe-inspiring and enriching experience.

Here's my block-in for Surf Shop.

Surf Shop, Delray Beach

Society of the 4 Arts, Palm Beach
It’s often said that technology is making the world smaller. Nowhere is this truer than in the community of artists. By simply reaching out through social media I have widened my circle to include; painters, sculptors, educators, students and patrons, many of whom have become friends. A huge thank you to my wonderful hosts… Peter & Manon Sander ( and Steve & Pati McGuire ( Which leads me to the second half of my adventure...

Delray participants
It’s Thursday morning and I’m preparing to teach my first workshop at the Old School Center for the Arts in Delray Beach. We began with a series of gesture sketches and then move outdoors for the quick figure study in oil. The weather could not have been better for an outdoor session. I was excited to work with such a talented group of painters. Everyone did a great job and we covered an overwhelming amount of information in two short days. 

Our talented model, Randy Orwig

My second workshop was at the Lighthouse Center in Tequesta with another talented group of seasoned artists. The class was held in the gallery which as fate would have it, was hosting The Manoogian Collection. Considered to be one of the most significant private collections of 19th and 20th-century American paintings. Having these works on view during my workshop was an inspiring and invaluable tool for instruction.

Lighthouse Art Center participants

Manon's "surprisingly" good painting!
I was given permission to copy one of the paintings in the collection titled "Hush Do Not Disturb Them" by Hamilton Hamilton. The painting depicts a voyeuristic view of two children in the shade of a large boulder on a quiet beach. Copying a masterwork can be very instructive; Although my format was different, I was sensitive to the subtleties of temperature shifts from violet to yellow and the variety of beautiful tones of grey throughout the painting.

My copy of Hush, 10x12
One of the highlights of my time in Florida was my participation in the 2nd Annual Plein Funfest in Delray Beach. Fifty artists from around the country were juried in and competed for cash prizes on February 20th. We had 6 hours to paint and because it was overcast I chose a a cafe scene on a busy corner because of the tiny lights illuminating the figures inside. The paintings were on display that afternoon at the Old Square Center for the Arts. I was honored and pleased to have won an Award of Excellence. It was a picture perfect day in a picture perfect city!

My winning entry, The Fat Rooster, 11x14
If this is Tuesday it must be Miami… I had a few days off from teaching I so drove to Miami Beach to visit with friends from my Gloucester residency in 2015. We attended the Art Wynwood Exhibition which was a mind-blowing experience. I loved Wynwood Walls where the people watching was as fascinating as the graffiti-covered buildings.

Just down the road from where I was staying lives Dan Peterson, a renowned sculptor who just happened to be unveiling a new work that day. This large scale sculpture sits on his front lawn was created in collaboration with his wife Christina who is a talented painter.

"Conga" 2016 by Dan Peterson
Once again I hit the road and made the two hour trek across Alligator Alley to Naples to catch up with family and friends. I spent an afternoon with Nancy Smythe whom I'd met last November at the Bermuda Arts Festival. We had a great time visiting art festivals and galleries. Welcome to the world of the vagabond, I highly recommend it!

I'll be teaching a week-long workshop at the Bonita Springs Center for the Arts, March 19-25, 2017. I'll also be offering new workshops in Delray Beach and Jupiter next winter. Visit my website for more info at 

Nancy Smythe and I show off our new hats.