Alba’s Sculpture

I mentioned in an earlier post my intention of making a monument for my late wife. These are the finished marble pieces for her grave.

This was the first time I ever really sculpted or carved anything. I had a great deal of help doing the initial sculpture in clay from the director of the sculpture program at the Florence Academy of Art, Robert Bodem, who let me use his studio for a couple of months and showed me what to do. He also did the plaster casts for me. The sculpture technique at the FAA is very drawing-based, so all my years of charcoal and pencil portraits was of some help. I still really had no idea what I was doing. Rob would often come in with a trowel and take off lots of clay. Another old friend, Calyxte Campe gave me a day of hands-on help with the bust, and Johanna Schwaiger helped with the final stages of the marble.

Everything about this project was different. Normally, the process with portraiture is that the closer you get to a likeness the happier you feel about the work. When sculpting one’s wife a month after her death, the dynamic is very much the opposite.

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Alba had always wanted a dog. After they discovered the tumor she adopted a little stray from the streets of Naples, Emma. The dog always sleeps with it’s ears perked up, but after Alba’s death it slept for a few days with the ears down. I tried to capture that in the sculpture.

‘Emma’ will go at the foot of the grave, with Alba’s bust near the headstone. An architect friend of hers, Rudi Ulivi, has done a very elegant design for it all, something of a modern version of Jacopo della Quercia’s tomb of Ilaria del Carretto.

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Here are some photos from the process. The dog was done in our apartment from life. She sleeps on her pillow next to the radiator most of the winter anyways, so she was a pretty easy model. I tried to make the pillow look like one of the many cheap Ikea pillows we had around the house.

Alba was done from photographs. Here I’m working in Rob’s studio in Florence.

Sculpting in clay from photos in Rob Bodem’s studio.

The clay pieces were then cast into plaster, and laser-scanned by a marble-carving company in Carrara, Italy. After picking out a sculpture-grade marble block, the scans were sent to the robot (pictured below) which carves the blocks to within a millimeter of the specifications of the scan. It’s hard to tell the scale in the photo but Mickey is bigger than a person.

It may seem like cheating, but I learned that every sculptor since Michelangelo has had assistants block in the marble from the maestro’s clay model.

This digital process worked to my advantage in that, having never sculpted before, I had made the bust of Alba way too big.  By using this method of the laser-scan and 3D computer image I was able to measure an old sight-size oil portrait I did of her and reduce the dimensions of the digital wireframe model to her exact scale.

The marble-carving robot at Carrara.

After the marble comes back from the robot it still needs a great deal of work. I tried rasps and chisels but at the end found it easier to use a dremel.

The marble as it comes back from the robot.

When Alba learned of her tumor she desperately wanted some form of immortality, I guess we all do. None of us will get it.

This was the best I could do.

Villa le Rose Sketches

The walls at Villa Le Rose. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

Winter has set in and pushed me indoors so I’m currently enlarging the small sketches from this summer for shows next year. This was the last batch of Tuscan plein air sketches from the warm October we had there. They are all painted at the beautiful Villa le Rose property just south of Florence.

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Lead or Titanium White?

I get asked this a lot, and have strong feelings about it, so I thought I’d quickly put down a couple thoughts.

For portraiture you absolutely have to use lead white (Cremnitz, flake, d’argent etc…). Titanium white kills all the other colors, and lacks the beautiful transparency that almost mimics human flesh that lead has. Every great portrait was painted with lead.

For plein air painting, on the other hand, I think titanium is vastly superior. Keying a sky with lead takes hours, with titanium just minutes. Lead can still be useful for impastos below the horizon (especially if hand-ground), but titanium is really all you need outdoors.

I’d just like to add that anyone who disagrees with me on this is wrong.

Chianti and Baratti Sketches

Daniela Astone and I just finished our back-to-back plein air courses in Chianti and the gulf of Baratti. We had 19 glorious days of sunshine during the two ten-day sessions. Here are a few of the sketches I managed to bat out during my time off from teaching.

Baratti Dawn. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

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Sketches of Summer

Oil painting of the port at Marseillan.

The Port at Marseillan. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

Here are a few of the paintings from my travels this summer. I was in Tuscany and on Lago Maggiore in Italy, Marseillan and Bordeaux in France, and on the island of Pag in Croatia. I was working on portrait commissions for much of August and didn’t have a lot of time to sketch. I find the concentration required for commissioned portraits means you’re better off not exhausting yourself earlier in the day with landscapes.

Farmhouse at Tavarnelle. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel..

Arona, Lago Maggiore. 24 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

The Twins, Agde. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

The Canal du Midi at Marseillan. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Canal du Midi #2. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Church at Langoiran. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

Fishing Nets on the Garonne. 30 x 40 cm, oil on panel.

Castillion-la-Bataille. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

The Port at Mandre. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Sunset on Pag. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Summer Plans

I’m off for New York for my solo show at the Grenning Gallery which opens on August 6th. You can download a copy of the catalog here.

I also have recent paintings at  Carteret Contemporary Art and Vision Gallery in North Carolina.

While in the US, I’ll be teaching a four day plain air workshop at the Hamptons Studio of Fine Art in Sag Harbor, NY from July 25th to the 29th.

Montalcino Sketches

Here are a few of the sketches from our trip to Castiglione del Bosco.

View from La Befa. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

Graveyard at La Pieve. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

Cypresses at Quinciano. 15 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Two views of La Piana. 30 x 20 cm, and 35 x 25 cm, oil on panel.

La Badia Ardenga and Montalcino. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

View from La Piana. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Montalcino from Bibbiano. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

Construction at Bibbiano. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Bibbiano Scalo. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

There are also a couple of larger plein air pieces which I’ll post when I’ve finished them.

Castiglione del Bosco


I just got back from two weeks of plein air painting on one of the more beautiful estates in Italy. We were put up by a friend who asked me to invite excellent landscape painters from around the world for something of a symposium of painting. We had a good turn out: Ben Fenske, Jory Glazener, Joeseph McGurl, Edward Minoff, Rick Piloco and myself were the core group. Charles Cecil, Daniela Astone, and Mathilde van der Does de Willebois and Fiona Corsini came for shorter stays.

Here are some random photos from the trip.

We had perfect weather, great food and wine, excellent company, and it was one of the best seasons to paint in one of the more beautiful areas of the world. A resounding success all around.

Years ago I drove through the same valley where we stayed and always wanted to go back and paint there, so it was great to be offered this occasion in that exact spot.

Joseph McGurl is probably the contemporary landscape painter who had the most influence on my own work. I saw a show of his in New York when I was just starting out and it really made me see what was possible with landscape painting. It was great to be able to paint with him after all these years.

I’ll post photos of my paintings when I have a chance.

Art and Death

Art, for me, has always been two things. At its worst it is purely decorative (which, all things considered, isn’t so bad). At its best though I believe art is as close as a person can get to touching the divine. I don’t think we can understand god in any meaningful sense. Our brains simply aren’t capable. I use the example of my dog and mathematics. She gets two treats when we come home, but sometimes when we’re running low I give her one. She can clearly count to two, she follows me around the house wondering where the second one is. She is probably really proud of the fact that she can count to two. On the other hand she can’t do algebra or calculus and I doubt she is aware of the fact. For me, a human being’s understanding of god is like my dog counting to two. The reality is infinitely greater than anything we can imagine. The feeling of love (for lack of a better word) that comes with strong inspiration is, to me, as close as we will ever get. The surge of emotion a painter feels observing light on a withered old man, a beautiful young woman, or a Fiat Panda is us getting a small inkling of the vast beauty and power of what must be the divine.

With all of the metaphysical questions one deals with when confronted with the death of a loved one, my belief that my wife has gone somewhere which has something to do with this feeling gives me solace.

Art, for me, has never been a form of communication. Other artists I’ve spoken to find this strange. They say that is the main reason they create. I’ve just never seen it that way. I paint what I love, the world be damned. So it was interesting to me to see how communicative I found the art of others to be when mourning the death of my young wife.

These days people turn to online forums, therapy, counseling, and anti-depressants to deal with grief. Being the first of my friends to deal with a situation like this, I wasn’t really aware of the options and I looked to more traditional methods.

People say alcohol can be a crutch, I used it more like a wheelchair that first month. Even though being a functioning alcoholic in my profession is acceptable, if not encouraged, the problem with alcohol and grief is that the booze knocks the teeth out of the serotonin levels in your brain and the next day is much worse. Or so they say. The truth is that at least you feel o.k. part of the time. The real problem with alcohol for me is that it negatively affects my work. I think you could get away with being an alcoholic as a portraitist, but not as a landscape painter. The mornings are too important. Either way, I’ve toned it down lately.

I’m very thankful to have a fantastic set of friends. Both here in Florence and elsewhere around the world. It’s said your address book changes after the death of a spouse but my experience has been exactly the opposite. A few times I’ve had to hide from the concern, just to have a moment alone.

At the end of the day though, I found most of my consolation in art: Literature, music, sculpture and paintings.

When I was a kid I had to memorize the last paragraphs of James Joyce’s short story The Dead. It has always stuck with me. On one of my first nights alone in Florence we had one of our rare snows in the Mediterranean, I wondered if it was snowing on my wife’s grave across the Adriatic when I thought of the story. Poor Michael Furey, dead at 17, half my wife’s age.

Music is a wonderfully empathetic art form. I preferred the songs by widowers such as Casimir Pulaski Day by Sufjan Stevens, Blue Orchids and Katy Song by Mark Kozelek. Songs that don’t make any sense were, bizarrely, also of comfort. Songs like The Gardener by The Tallest Man on Earth, or Desolation Row by Bob Dylan (the Italian version).
There isn’t any sense to be made in the death of such a vibrant young woman.

Many painters have since written to me about their own loss of a loved one. At the beginning though I knew only of past artists who had lost wives and the art they left in their memory. I can’t say it made me feel better, but it did make me feel less alone.

Frank Duveneck was an American painter living in Florence in the 1880s. His wife, Elizabeth Boott, was the inspiration for Pansy Osmond in Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady (you can read more on their romance here).  They had also been married for three years when she passed away. He worked with a sculptor to create a monument for her. The original is here in the Allori cemetery in Florence. The monument was considered so beautiful that copies were made for the Met, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Cincinnati Art Museum. They ask you not to take pictures in the Allori cemetery, but here is a photoof the Met version. I’ve visited the Allori version a couple of times recently and found it very moving.

Tomb Effigy of Elizabeth Boott Duveneck. Frank Duveneck.

Arnold Böcklin was another foreign painter living in Florence. He was commissioned by a widow to paint an image of grief. The result is the Isle of the Dead (Die Toteninsel) and he painted five versions (Serge Rachmaninoff composed a symphonic poem with the same name after seeing it). The image is based on the cemetery in Piazza Donatello where his four year old daughter, Maria Anna, is buried. My studio looks onto the cemetery, but in the 12 years I’ve been there I had never been inside until now. I looked to see if he had done a monument for his daughter but it was stolen earlier in the century when the cemetery was abandoned.

Isle of the Dead (Die Toteninsel). Arnold Böcklin.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau buried four of his five children and a young wife. He painted his Pietà in after losing his 16-year-old son in 1876. For a man who must have suffered so much in his life, I find his work strangely lacking in emotion.

Pietà. William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

Claude Monet’s wife Camille died at 32. He was 38 and penniless, like me. I read that he blamed his poverty for Camille’s death, and it was part of the reason he focused on becoming so rich later in life. While I believe Alba was failed miserably by her doctors, I don’t know if more money would have necessarily saved her. By the time we knew what she had there wasn’t much that could have been done. Monet painted Camille on her deathbed, and kept it in his bedroom for the rest of his life as one of his most prized possessions.

Camille Monet on her Deathbed. Claude Monet.

I haven’t painted for the last 6 months, which is also why I haven’t had anything to blog about. I did a sculpture of Alba and another of our dog which will be re-cut in marble for her grave. I’ll post pictures when it’s finished.

From my talks with other artists, it seems that not being able to work is a normal reaction. It hasn’t really been my season anyways. I hope to hit the ground running in May when I have painting trips planned to Montalcino and the Val d’Arbia.