Approach your painting “empirically”

art-vacation-italy-2Many years ago, during a trip to Florence, I discovered the luminous paintings by the Macchiaioli at the Gallery of Modern Art in the Palazzo Pitti and immediately felt connected to their painting approach. Since then, I always say to our plein air painters of our art workshops in Italy, that both flourishing and accomplished artists can learn a few lessons from them.

The Macchiaioli were a group of Tuscan artists active during the 1850s, through the time of the Risorgimento (Italian unification). They first met at the Caffè Michelangiolo on via Cavour in Florence and shared similar political and artistic views. Their aim was to break from the academic tradition and experience the painting of light as it unveiled itself to their eyes by applying the “macchia,” meaning patches, or blobs, of colours. Often compared to the French impressionists, the Macchaioli preceded them by more than a decade. Also, while the French impressionists were working on the solid grounds of scientific colour knowledge, the Macchiaioli’s approach was purely intuitive. The leading figures of this Italian movement were Giovanni Fattori, Giuseppe Abbati, Cristiano Banti, Odoardo Borrani, Vincenzo Cabianca, Vito d’Ancona, Silvestro Lega, Raffaello Sernesi, and Telemaco Signorini.

So, what can the Macchiaioli teach us during our painting retreats in Tuscany? First, with a few quick and candid brushstrokes we can achieve paintings full of freshness and ease. Let’s try to do that. Look at the scene, build our colour palette, let go and capture the essence of the moment.

Second, the Macchiaioli’s pictorial subjects were simple and a manifestation of their everyday life and feelings. In order for us to be authentic, we need to paint who we are and go straightforwardly to what we experience in our everyday lives: our personal stories, the issues that profoundly touch us, our strong beliefs—all these are magnificent subjects waiting to be painted. Moreover, as spectators, we see reflections of ourselves in others when we find that they live what we live.

Finally, the “macchia” technique (to juxtapose the coloured shapes dictated by the subject, lit in the same way as it is presented to the artist’s eyes) evoked atmosphere and emotion. Simply look, experience, and paint the colour unveiling in front of your eyes. For example, if your eyes see a purple tree, paint it purple; paint the colour you see, not the colour you know.  And paint it quickly, because that colour is fleeing very fast. Scoop and apply your paint—hence the word “macchia.” Approaching your canvas this way is to approach your painting “empirically”; meaning that your painting derives from the experience that you are living at any particular moment.

Certainly, a few rudiments in colour theory are essential. Also, it is important to become more aware of the reflection of the light on the objects during your daily walks. We want you to be aware; we want you to cultivate a sense of colour as did our Italians while painting the Tuscan landscape. Colours, with their endless combinations of hues, shades and tints, are simply emotions recollected in the tranquillity and serenity of the moment.


1 Comment

  1. Heather Wadrop

    Ah….”scoop and apply”. These words continue to remind me of my Tuscany experience; soon to be enhanced by Provence adventure. A very interesting article Yves, introducing me to artists whose work I either have not seen or recognised as theirs.


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