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