Thursday, August 03, 2006

A struggle with ‘The Friars’

The gothic west front of I Frari in Venice dominates a little campo so that you have to tilt the head backwards to view its full height. Constantly moving the head when drawing creates all sorts of problems – the task is far easier when both the subject and the drawing are held within the field of vision. Nevertheless with the colourful pair of gondolas as a foreground motif I thought it would be a good subject. Working from a rather inadequate pen drawing dashed off in a hurry and photographs the painting became a struggle.

Buildings with dominant verticals always seem to present a problem so in the under drawing I used a t-square to lay in the lines of the shallow buttresses on the façade. Gradually these got lost as the painting progressed and had to be restated using the t-square – but the mechanically drawn lines laid on a loosely handled paint surface didn’t work.

After much agonising I looked afresh at the sketch and the photographs and realised there wasn’t a vertical line anywhere! Furthermore although In the sketch the buttresses were drawn with strong pen lines, in the photograph they only appeared as subtle tonal differences. The way forward then was to to think like a painter rather than an architectural draughtsman – concentrate on the colour and texture in the brickwork of the façade and offer merely a suggestion of the buttresses. This might convey the atmosphere of the place without needing precise accuracy.

This little campo is a favoured location for artists but usually they have the sense to turn their backs to I Frari and choose a subject looking down the canal from the far side. There is a shot of John Yardley in an APV Films video at his easel doing just that. Trevor Chamberlain also shows a nice little watercolour in one of his books of the view looking along the canal from the bridge in my picture. He made his picture from a few simple elements, a bridge and two or three boats moored on the canal. The buildings were cropped below first floor level – no head tilting needed for that approach. It was enough to capture the spirit of the place.

With hindsight I realised that the west doorway of I Frari held sufficient visual interest in itself to make an attractive picture. I could have saved myself a lot of trouble by keeping to simple things!

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