Saturday, 1 October 2016

Painting in the crowded streets of Florence

Painting requires a lot of concentration and a certain amount of zen to do well.

So pleinairing among crowds in a busy square goes against the grain for most artists but it's a great exercise and can sometimes be necessary.

I recently joined a couple of other artists doing just that in Florence. We started easy, in the relative quiet of the Boboli gardens at the Isolotto fountain, which features in Dan Browns book, Inferno. It's presence in the novel attracted people who might otherwise not have known of it. The weather was tempestuous with thunder and some light rain but it mostly held off. We discussed the light and established the best view for the subject and began painting.

'The Ocean' fountain by Tom J. Byrne
Visitors to the garden were polite and those few who spoke to us were genuinely interested.
Niklas Elgmo with his completed art.

It was an enjoyable day. We were successful in our goals and worked with relatively little distraction.

The next location was Piazza della Signoria, which is a very different environment where you are challenged not just by the fast moving light but by the enormous crowds. The light appears to move faster because you are basically inside a sundial whose shadows are constantly racing. Statues which are brilliantly lit one moment can be obscured within a few minutes and brightly lit spaces can quickly fill with shadow from a pivoting tower or giant statue.

Foolishly, without planning and calculating the movement of the sun, I began a painting of statues in the Loggia. Although beautifully lit when I began, the shadows slowly crept over the forms and all the light was gone before I had completed the drawing. I also allowed myself to become intoxicated by the drawing rather than think strategically about what it was I needed to do, so the drawing took longer and was more detailed than necessary. By the time I was ready to paint, the shady area in which I had placed myself was flooded with so much light that the canvas was blinding. So my subject was suddenly obscured by shadow and my canvas obscured by light. I had to abandon that painting.

Timothy Atkins capturing a street scene.

Three of us returned the following day and set up our easels. I set up at the mouth of what seemed to be a quiet and unnoticed laneway to the left of the Loggia. Here I prepared to paint the statue of Neptune and the surrounding Piazza. This time I was careful with my light planning and composition.

Working quickly I laid in the shadows, keeping the details to a minimum. There were hoards of people everywhere but my little space was relatively quiet or so I thought.

Niklas Elgmo tackling the shadows.

Every half hour or so a tour guide wishing to evade the other crowds would bring their group through the alleyway and it was necessary to either move the easel or hope that no one would trip over one of the legs.

There is definitely a difference between a painting done in relative peace and harmony and one done in the more crowded public space

Mastering the art of finding an island of quiet within the milling crowds  is the goal. There is always one somewhere.

Piazza Della Signora. Neptune in oils by Tom J. Byrne.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Strategies in Watercolor Painting: A building in the Tuscsan landscape

When you prepare to make a watercolor painting it really helps if you use certain strategies.
Particularly if you have a landscape with a building in it.

Most people would focus on the building first and then paint vegetation around it. That's the direct opposite to what you should do.

In this video you can see how to prepare for a painting in watercolor using an easel and how using vegetation to frame your architectural elements helps enormously when it comes to choosing the values for the buildings.

Strategies in watercolor

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Painting San Niccolo along the Arno - Step by step en Plein Air.

Painting by Tom J. Byrne
Oil on canvas
12 x 16 inches / 30 x 40 cm
Location: Florence, Italy


The scene of the San Niccolo tower and the reflected morning light in the Arno is a popular one among artists and students of art, living in Florence. It pops out of the opposite riverbanks trees and is complimented by the remains of a mill at the weir opposite. The calmness in the water created by the weir creates beautiful reflections in the early morning and is best from 9am onwards. A civilized hour for a working artist to begin a painting.

The tower is illuminated while the trees are mostly in shadow and the waters reflections are like a slow moving ripple and are easily captured if the artist can work quickly and reduce them to their essence.

The first thing is to consider the changes in light which each day brings to the scene. Get involved by looking at the intensity of the light, clarity of sky, and strength of shadows. Look for colors in the darks but don’t try to reproduce them. Just be aware of them so that there is a tendency towards the colors in your darks. A hint of red or purple in the shadows can be your guide to the color tendency of the whole scene. Imagine how the scene is going to change by considering the position and direction of the moving sun. Try to animate that in your mind before you begin painting so that you can anticipate changes that are coming.

The painting process isn’t only about recording what’s in front of you. It’s about your response to it and if it doesn’t engage your imagination then the scene will be dull and uninteresting. When an artist feels that they have a connection they don’t worry so much about the details. They simply get into them as a process of painting. Having said that, experience and lots of painting practice help to get past the worry about ‘how’ to capture something that seems very complex and demanding.

So by way of ‘experience’ here are the steps I took in painting this scene.



Consider the scene here and look at it as mostly shadows with clumps of light sticking out. The camera can’t capture the movement of the light or the ever changing reflections in the water, nor the light in the shadows which the naked eye can see.

My first step is to mark in the position of the shadows on the canvas which in this case I’ve given a toned ground of pinkish red as the season is beginning to move into autumn. I am using a burnt umber and cad red to paint in the shadows position and will supplement this with other colors later. I don't do a charcoal drawing. Just marks with the brush and erase with another brush loaded with some medium.

The lightest lights are added in the sky and the waters reflections. So with the shadow marked in and the lightest lights the largest blocks of light and dark are indicated, which helps to put the other values in context.

Then I block in the main colors which will influence the impression of the painting. Not worrying about details I focus on the the fall and turn of light and get in at least 3 bands of values in each large form. From the lightest to the middle to the darkest to give a sense of the turn of light on the trees, for instance. These are my notes and help with predicting the position of the light a little ahead of time.

I won’t discuss the composition as I’ve described that in other demonstrations. Although there isn’t a lot of perspective in this painting I’m making the far banks colors a little subdued so that we have a sense of aerial distance.

It’s important to note the intensity and position of the shadows in the main architectural elements at this point. They draw the eye in and will be important later. So make them a little more intense than you might think is wise.



In the sky I’ve used a combination of cobalt, ultra marine, and a tiny bit of red mixed with white to make a greyish blue which moves from darker to lighter at the treeline. I like texture in the sky so am using a white from which I’ve removed a lot of the medium. I’ve painted in a lot of the foreground grass and it’s shadows. In the water I’ve very quickly describing the reflections at the edge of the far bank, the main lights reflected and the sense of movement.

So now you have the sky, the far bank which is mostly shadow, the water and the foreground. 4 bands of value intensity. This is done as quickly as possible without much detail. It’s all creates a frame for the tower and other architectural elements. If I were to paint in the architecture first, the chances are high that I would obsess on the details and not paint the shadows in the context of the nature surrounding it.


The lights on the edges of the water on the far riverbank are important. They always exist when water meets shadow but don’t always have the same value.


Now that the architecture is framed and the surrounding are in place I can paint the buildings. I have my shadows so only the main light planes remain. On the main face of the tower receiving the early morning light, the fall of light should be considered. Lighter at the top, darker as it descends. In this case I didn’t do that so the face looks a little flat. 

However the dark drawing peeks through at the edges which makes this acceptable. I didn’t paint a lot of detail in the shadows on the face of the tower. They are just suggested. Intense shadow moving to lighter. 3 bands of color value are used. The value in the shadow of the tower is painted over the red, which is allowed to show through. In the weir arches and butress’ to the right of the tower we see the fall of light and turn of light as the values go from high to low. I’ve increased the chroma here using the appropriate colors in white to compliment the shadows. If you look into the shadows of the trees you will see a light purple popping out of the dark shadow. This note of color describes the reflected light coming off the water. See the trees on the right over the weir. Under the line of riverbank trees you’ll see that I’ve just dragged a green shadow value over the dark red that was used to describe the position of the shadows under the trees.


You can see here that the movement of the water is created by simply setting colors down beside each other in abstract forms. There is no attempt to describe ripples. The lights are a variety of intensities and red shows through where it is appropriate. It’s mostly the red which I painted to describe the shadows that we are seeing here. As the eye travels further across the water the more abstract the forms.
Now that the image context is in place and the architectural values are done I can add some more form and intensity to the shadows and lights. The focus is on values now. Making the forms which have already been described come alive without obsessing over details. If this were a studio painting, this would be called the second painting stage. You can see from the brushstrokes that I’m moving very quickly with the brush and respecting the position of the light without focusing too much on individual elements such as leaves except in the foreground tree which is slightly helps to emphasize the perspective.

In this image you get a better sense of the water and again can see that the red underpainting is peeking through, helping to create the sense of ripples and reflected shadow. Red and green are complimentary colors and one emphasizes the other so the shadows under the trees sing. By adding lights in the most eye catching forms on the far bank I lift the shadows.


This side by side view of the painting and a photo gives a lot of information about the paintings progress. The sharp eyed will notice the photo is taken later in the process because the shadows are longer (sun is higher in the sky). This is why painting in the shadows first is very important. It unifies the painting before you begin to add color. I haven’t labored over detail. Just enjoyed the process of quickly observing everything I’m seeing and recording the vibrancy of light.

The painting gives the impression of realism but doesn’t attempt to record every line or brick and aerial perspective is very strong right here because I wanted to create the sense of trees falling away in the distance behind the weir using lighter values.

Painting © Tom J. Byrne 2016.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Dear Tuscany Pleinair - Congratulations to Pat Mahony Getz

Our congratulations go out to Pat Mahony Getz for her successful sale of paintings from the Tuscan Landscape. Pat took part in last Septembers Plein Air event in Florence Itay and these scenes were done on the spot in the hills of Florence. 

"Dear Tuscany Pleinair, I am coming up on almost a year since I had the amazing opportunity to paint with all of you in Tuscany. I want to thank you for the experience. Last night I was part of a large landscape show in Davis, CA. I had one wall devoted to eleven small paintings of Tuscany. Many of the paintings I did during the week. Some were more elaborate that I either completed or started from scratch based on studies or sketches. The huge surprise was that when I walked in for the opening reception every one of my paintings had sold. I have not had something like that happen since the the mid-80's. Thank you for allowing this to happen. I will attach two images from the first day's workshop where we were experimenting with value. I tore the images from my notebook, framed them and voila!"

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Sargents 'In the Luxembourg Gardens'

25 7/8 x 36 3/8 inches (65.7 x 92.4 cm) Framed: 38 × 48 3/4 × 4 inches (96.5 × 123.8 × 10.2 cm)

Artist: John Singer Sargent:
Title: In the Luxembourg Gardens.
Date: 1879
Though not on public view, it is stored in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Examining the works of great artists and analyzing them help when considering my own compositions and the impact which paintings make. The conclusions I come to are my own.

This outdoor oil painting is set at dusk in the Luxembourg gardens, Paris, and was painted by John Singer Sargent. It appears to be a very simple image, perhaps painted just for the sake of painting but a closer examination suggests something far more complex. Perhaps this was a visual experiment by Sargent. The painting is neither simple nor detailed and does some amazing things with focus.

At first glance we have the impression of crowds and a romantic couple walking together under the setting sun.
Sargent gives us the impression of scattered blurry groups of people around the park and a couple walking together silhouetted against a line of trees and architectural furniture. The ambiance is very calm and relaxed with the setting sun blending into the grayish sky. It seems a very simple scene. Sargent hasn’t focused on detailing the foliage or even the furniture scattered around the park. His brush suggests more than describes the background and the crowds. These people may be simple silhouetted values but they are masterfully done. Illusion is the most appropriate description of this painting.  

However when we examine the painting closely we see something interesting. Our attention is cleverly focused onto the couple using color values, detail and definition. Their faces are framed by the dark suit of the man and the light violet dress of the woman as they come forward from the mid value of the background and stand out from the light value of the gravel walkway.

The rest of the scene is under the light of dusk with the sun and it’s golden reflections in the pond. The color value of the sun and the sky are the same despite the impression of luminosity so it doesn’t drag our attention away from the central element, the face of the man.

There is a musical rhythm in the pattern of lights and reds which dance around the mid value background forms. The positioning of the sun and it’s reflections in the pond correspond to the luminous band of the mans straw hat and the golden reflection from the woman’s bonnet in a way which brings the main characters forms even more forward. The eye moves across and down and back across the painting, never resting long on any one thing, as long as the viewer is not too close to the painting.

Focusing our attention:
Sargent put a lot of detail into the couple and particularly into the gentleman. As the eye travels across the painting the lack of real detail allows our eyes to wander without distraction until we arrive at the couples faces. Here our attention becomes fixed and the eye stops. Suddenly there is some subtle detail and it is as though the entire painting conspired to bring us there.

The woman’s face is half obscured by the material keeping her hat in place and the shadow of her hair. We don't see her eyes. The red flash of her fan against the dark of her companions suit further frames our attention.

Above it, the tip of the mans cigarette glows in the dark and draws us in. It even has a yellow point in the center. His brightly lit collar ends the flow of  movement and we bounce back to the details of the face. We can see his eyes and the brows but even as we get a grip on who this person might be, our focus begins to fade as everything begins to blur once again.

As we move beyond the well lit collar, his companions yellow bonnet, tied in place by a light material, begins to go out of focus and there is only a hint of rosy cheeks and a suggestion of mouth. This change of focus radiates in all directions from the central element of the mans face. Even as we move from his collar to his hand and from there to the feet there is a definite transition to vaguer forms with softer edging.

 The womans hand on her dress is the next most defined element with beautiful transitions between light and dark planes but again when we reach her feet, they are simply vague and suggested. It's masterfully done.

This appears to be a very simple, attractive painting from a distance but as we look closer, much more is revealed and a great deal of artistic alchemy is expressed. Was this an experiment of Sargents to control the viewers experience. As though telling a story about this couple or to make us wonder about the young man and his future. So much around them is out of focus, yet they glow and twinkle in the scene. Perhaps Sargent was thinking that the main characters light was about to be obscured just as the sun glows in the sky on it’s way to setting.

1879 was the date of the Anglo - Zulu war.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Q & A with Caridad Barragan

Hello Caridad
You will be one of the artist guides this October with Tuscany Plein Air. Perhaps you can help us to get to know you a little with some questions and answers. 

Q. So how long have you been an artist.
Caridad: I’ve been a professional artist since 1991 when I moved from southern California to Italy.


Q. You come from California. Why have you decided to live in a small rural community in the region of Umbria?
Caridad: I had been living in northern Italy for 15 years and was looking for a change of "scenery" so to speak.  I needed a quite place and through my friends in California I found a tiny medieval hamlet perched on a hill overlooking the Tiber Valley.

Q. I believe you stopped painting for a few years after graduating from Art college.
Caridad: Yes. Life is an adventure and often we don't know where that's going to take us. I was going through a difficult moment and fortunately or unfortunately I wasn't able to dedicate myself to my practice.

Q. Can you tell me how you got back into creating art and was it hard?
Caridad: After 10 years of not painting it dawned on me that it would've been a tragedy to lose my ability to paint altogether.  I stumbled upon the American artist Duane Keiser and his "Painting a Day" practice on the internet. I immediately thought: THIS is the type of project I need to get back into the saddle.  So I made a deal with myself to paint a small 5 x 7 in. oil painting of a still life everyday from Monday to Friday for one year. 

It was INCREDIBLY difficult, I would say even painful to paint. Initially it took me 4-5 hours to complete a small size painting and most of them looked like duds!  I remember very well the struggle to sketch forms, mix just the right color of paints and have my work resemble what I had in front of me.  I've kept a handful of those first paintings just to remind me of my point of departure. 
I think it took a good 8-9 months to finally feel at ease with painting and really be happy with the results.  Needless to say I sped up and was able to finish in about an hour.

Q. Are paintings the only sort of art that you make?
Caridad: I like to think of myself as an explorer. I'm a very curious person and I love to experiment with different materials such as paper, thread, wax, found images to create collages. I've also worked with a group of musicians to create their light design. I love ceramics as well. Does cooking count as an art?!

Q. Do you have a favorite painting medium?
Caridad: Of course, I prefer oil paints because of
their consistency. I like the creaminess of them. They remind me of soft cheese.

Q. How do you feel about drawing?
Caridad: Drawing is the base for painting. It's the initial stepping stone to understanding and seeing what you have in front of you whether that be a still life or landscape.

Q. Is there something special about painting en Plein Air in Italy?
Caridad: Absolutely! Italy has a particular light. I think that has to do with the fact that it's a thin strip of land surrounded by the Mediterranean on both sides which reflects onto it and around. 
When you step into the landscape it's like you're stepping into a dream or a page right out of an art history book. No wonder artists and writers included it in their Grand Tour.

Q. What's your favorite time of day to paint?
Caridad: In the summer, I prefer painting either early morning or late afternoon. I love that warm lateral lighting and the long shadows.

Q. Do you have a favorite season and if so, any particular reason ?
Caridad: Summer is my favorite. I hate the cold and always have ever since I was a child.  I admire painters that can paint outdoors in the winter. I prefer to sip a hot tea next to a fire!

Q. Is there a particular part of Italy, which you prefer to paint.
Caridad: This is a hard one! I really love Umbria but I think all of central and southern Italy is beautiful. Don't get me wrong, northern Italy is nice too but the sky can often be greyish even in the summer. 

Q. Does Italy have a dynamic painting community.
Caridad: I live in a very provincial environment. I think the only community out there is composed of squirrels! Large cities offer more chances to paint together with other artists . In fact I often paint with other artists from Rome and Florence.

Q. If you could choose to live anywhere else, where would it be.
Caridad: For now, I think I would choose exactly where I am now. It seems to have everything I need at the moment: beautiful landscapes, about an hour north of Rome, peacefulness and excellent food.

Thanks for taking the time for these questions Caridad.
Looking forward to painting with you. 

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Plein Airs Crop of Colors this October in Tuscany

Autumn in Tuscany with Tuscany Plein Air brings you the bountiful crops and colors of October.

The hills of Florence are extremely pretty at all times but especially as the colors begin to change to a golden autumnal hue.

Though still warm, the summers heat has dissipated and a springlike ambiance cloaks everything in a gentle colorful gold as the plush greens of summer turn a gentle amber yellow.

A beautiful time and place to paint plein air.

It's the time for the harvesting of fruits, grapes and olives.  Locals and farmers work together to take in the harvest and you will have plenty of opportunity to capture rural scenes that are rarely experienced by people who are not Italian.

Make your reservation for this wonderful painting opportunity where our artist guides will happily show you how to capture this gentle beauty and ambiance in oils or watercolor. 

Mists in the morning and evening are normal at this time of year and they add to the romance of the environment. A great opportunity for watercolorists and oil painters alike.
Ancient abandoned farms in this area provide many rustic painting scenes and have won recognition and exhibitions for previous attendees of Tuscany Plein Air.

Pat Mahony

Tony Robinson

Maria Levinge

among others.

Octobers colors are magnificent. Changing from green to yellow and red especially among the ancient oak trees. The key to capturing this transition is an understanding of color values. We will show you how to translate colors into values and how they work with nature.

Reserve your place
as soon as possible to take advantage of this great event. Spaces are limited and the deadline for bookings is the 29th of August.

But values are just one element of the artistic process. Composition is important. Although we can all recognise a good composition it's not always easy to translate that to a canvas or watercolor paper. We show you the simple methods that realist painters use. Step by step. It's very easy when you know how.

Yes, there's more of course. We'll go through everything that we show all our artists and explain brushes, mediums, paints and how to prepare a canvas.

Thanks to our arrangement with the owners of this ancient 13th century villa, we can dedicate even more time to our students and the painting process. 

The local architecture is a mix of Norman style churches, local homes and 13th century monasteries.  There are plenty of locations that are approved for hiking. 
The residence is close to Florence and you will see the early morning mist as it rises over the not so distant city. We will be far from the hoards of tourists but always close to the beauty of it's architecture and the city's gifts of history and charm.