One of the most touching moments I experienced while in Italy a few years ago was in the town of Sorrento while visiting the Santa Maria Della Pieta Nursery and Primary School. Our group had been invited to the school, and while there a class of primary school students presented a short program in which we were welcomed to their town and introduced to the town’s history.
Later, while being served cookies and coffee, the young children entertained us with a selection of songs in both Italian and English, concluding with the very beautiful “Torna a Surriento”, better known to us as “Come Back to Sorrento”.
We were deeply touched and for a moment did not know how to thank them until, sort of spontaneously, we all began to sing “God Bless America”. It was a very special moment.
“Come Back to Sorrento” is a song that has been with me since childhood. It was not unusual to hear it played in our home. Dean Martin popularized it in 1951 and Elvis Presley, with a change of lyrics, turned the melody into the most popular song he ever recorded…and into one of the best selling singles of all time, “Surrender”, 1961. And, in 1963, I chose it for my high school trumpet solo. There are many memories attached to that song.
It was also in Sorrento that I tried Limoncello…an intense recipe of lemon peels, vodka, water, and sugar. I did not enjoy it.
Sorrento has a long, long history. Its Roman name was Surrentum and its oldest ruins date back to 600 BC. Located in Southern Italy, it overlooks the Bay of Naples, and Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius are nearby.
It’s an impressive town, a tourist’s destination for sure. I am generally attracted to impressive architecture, and Sorrento offered many great painting opportunities. One of the very popular paintings produced from that trip is the 50″x 30″, Sorrento Harbor. Below I’ll show the process of creating that painting.
There are any number of concepts that could have been chosen for a painting of Sorrento…and any of them would have been just fine. So, why this? Well, the answer won’t elevate my status any, but the truth is, I wanted to do a vertical painting since almost everything I do is horizontal…and, I’ve had a 30″x 50″ frame laying around the studio for several years.
Once size and direction were decided upon, the critical work of composition began. Sorrento is built on cliffs overlooking the Bay of Naples. A low horizon line would emphasize its height. The photo above presents the feeling of majestic height I wanted to capture. With the scene selected, composition decided, some liberties were taken with the drawing in order to adapt the scene to the 50″x 30″ proportion.
I consider planning to be an important and necessary step in the creation of any successful painting. When you think about it, everything we use, from a simple ball-point pen to complex computers have been carefully and thoughtfully designed…well before being manufactured and ending up in our hands. Why should paintings be any different? Is the design of a ball-point pen any less creative?
So, what makes for a successful painting? What needs to take place in the planning stage? First, a clear idea/concept. What is it you want to communicate? After that, attention should be given to creating a balanced composition, accurate drawing, interesting distribution of lights and darks, and which colors will best communicate the concept. Put all these things together and we have a pretty good shot.
Very common sense, but important bit of advice…make sure the size of the final painting is exactly proportional to your preliminary work. In my case, the size of the available frame was the determining factor for this painting, but in most cases it will be the proportions of the canvas, or one’s preliminary sketches that determine the final.. I give this exhortation because over and over again I have observed students doing just the opposite…preliminary work one proportion, canvas selection another.
The block-in shown above is on canvas which has been taped to hardboard. Note the clear definition of horizon line (HL)…very important… if there is any hope of accurate drawing.
If the study has errors in drawing, those errors will be accentuated when enlarged. Great care must be taken every step of the way. Inaccurate perspective will create a sense of instability in architectural subjects…and a discomfort in the viewer.
It may seem like a lot of detail for a block-in…and it is. However, I thought it necessary in this case, because without it, all the perspective work done in the study would have to be totally repeated in the larger version. It is much easier to work out perspective issues on a small scale rather than a larger one.
This is very typical of how I select a suitable palette for each painting. I have stacks of cards similar to these in which two colors are mixed together with white. I simply flip through the cards until I come upon a set of colors appropriate for the work at hand. The cards selected will tell me what colors to place on the palette. In this case: white, ultramarine blue, cadmium red, transparent red oxide, and cadmium yellow medium.
Even after all the preliminary work, as I began painting on this larger scale, the foreground felt deserted, certainly less than the intimate feeling I was after. You can see the changes being made…removal of the large boat on right, replaced with a terrace…and the addition of a boat, with gentleman aboard, on the left. I viewed this whole area teeming with activity. I’m developing the center of interest first and then will relate the rest of the painting to it.
The painting proved to be a significant challenge. At times discouragement set in and I had to set it aside for a while. The work had to be continually checked for any errors in drawing (spell that perspective). It’s one thing to work on a small scale, another thing entirely when working much larger. One can get away with a lot when working small, but when scaled up, what was just fine on the smaller scale becomes an obvious error when enlarged.
I’ve always liked structure. But I also like structures. There’s just something about those functional man-made dwellings that has always been appealing. At a young age, becoming an architect was a desire…until I discovered how much math was involved. But drawing and painting buildings is not too bad either.
Being an advocate of accuracy, it does drive me somewhat crazy to see paintings that display little knowledge of perspective. It seems to me, if a structure is to feel stable and true to life, it must be accurately drawn, and that means understanding the principles/rules of perspective…and the number one thing that needs to be determined, when beginning a painting, is the location of the horizon line. All issues involving perspective begin with this line, also called the eye level. As the artist, we determine where on the canvas that horizon line will be located. In some instances it won’t be on the canvas at all, as when looking down on something, but be aware, there is always a horizon line. I suppose one could argue that knowledge of perspective is unnecessary if every line and angle of a given subject is matched perfectly. That, however, is pretty unlikely.
So, how is the horizon line of a subject determined? When working from life, select your point of view, square up your head and shoulders, and while holding a brush horizontally at arms length, bring it up until it breaks your line of sight. Focus your eyes beyond to the subject and notice where the brush is positioned within the scene. That is your eye level relative to the subject. When working with photos, it can be a little more difficult. Basically though, if you can see the top of something, you know that the horizon line is above that point If structures are involved, look for horizontal lines…eaves, windows, porches, siding. When a T-square is laid over the photo, look for absolutely horizontal lines. That will most likely be the eye level/horizon line of the photo. Remember this: horizon line/eye level are the same, and they are always a straight horizontal line.
Sorrento Harbor has an extremely low horizon line, just above the walkway. Every line above the horizon descends to a point somewhere on the horizon, while every line below ascends. With so many doors and windows in this painting, it was very important to get this right.
A particular danger for me, when faced with architectural subjects and paintings of this size and complexity, is to be so concerned with getting everything right that the painting becomes an architectural illustration and less of a painting. Part of the struggle with this painting was that very conflict.
Hopefully it comes across as more of the latter than the former. Thankfully for some it was more of the latter than the former; it has won two awards this year…Finalist, Art Renewal Center International Salon, and Best Building, Plein Air On-line Salon bi-monthly competition.
John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Associate Living Master
To view his art and bio, please click HERE