Michael Kluckner

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The Moleskine sketchbook with brush and ink – it didn't really work

Painting on the handmade sketchbook on the Palatine Hill in Rome--the mobile, footsore sketcher

The Moleskine book with an annotated pencil drawing and the tiny watercolour box. I found it necessary to seek the repose of indoors in order to adequately wet the paper and underpaint the watercolours.

An annotated pencil drawing in the Moleskine book, used as a reference for a watercolour on Arches paper in the sketchbook.

Pure pencil in the Moleskine book (what the paper is really good for). A medidative nun on the train to Camucia, and the town square in Cortona.

October, 2004

Portability and "finishability": As this wasn't intended to be a pure painting trip, more a holiday with some painting fitted into the slow moments, I determined to carry only the lightest, most portable art materials. Thus, a Cotman watercolour box, a single Isabey squirrel-mop travel brush, pencils, an eraser, my handmade 10 x 11 inch (1/6th of an imperial sheet) sketchbook of Arches 140# cold-pressed paper, and the Moleskine sketchbook.We had absolutely limited amounts of luggage (only carry-on) as we were determined to be mobile and unencumbered, travelling without a car and moving around on foot, by train and by bus.

"Finishability" means I didn't want to bring home a pile of unfinished work, but wanted to see what I could complete on the road. Some of the sketches are very unfinished.

The Snapshot vs. The View: the two great travel painters of all time, in my opinion, were J.M.W. Turner and John Singer Sargent. Sargent, active around the turn of the 20th century, was very influenced by the look of the camera snapshot (following Degas's lead) and produced an enormous number of intimate, cropped views. Turner, painting before the camera was invented, painted spontaneous, almost abstracted views of places like Venice; in many cases when he was travelling he was documenting scenes which were later engraved and printed as popularly priced sets; in other cases, he painted very spontaneously by way of preparation for larger studio oils (Sargent did the same, but also used photographs for his studio oils and very rarely painted long views like Turner's).

On previous trips, I've painted the sort of cropped, intimate scenes that are like snapshots. This time I tried to pull back and record long views, such as the one of Firenze and the view from the tower in Lucca.These are the sorts of images that a camera mostly fails at, as cameras distort space, exaggerate the foreground and flatten the background to such an extent that the sense of a real 3-dimensional vista is usually lost. With a painting, even a small one, you can lay out the landscape on the paper the way your mind's eye sees it.

Technical Questions: Many of these watercolours fit rather uneasily into the no-man's land between drawing and painting. Because of the reasons of portability I mention above, I strictly limited the amount of gear I wanted to carry, but ran into the problem of always painting on dry paper. This, not surprisingly, is an occupational hazard of painting outdoors in crowded cities on hot, windy days. Nevertheless, the early pictures, especially the Roman ones, really miss the ambient light. I ended up trying to wet the paper with a tiny sponge, which was very messy and inadequate. Next time, definitely, I would make room in the bag for a small spray bottle. Otherwise, the kit worked well, and I would drag it around again, modifying the sketchbook slightly to 8 or 9 x 11 inches so that it wasn't quite so heavy to carry – it was about 3 pounds for 96 pages and a cover. Realistically, a book of about 32 sheets/64 pages would be enough for a trip of a month or so.





The Ponte Vecchio in Firenze (Florence). Within sortie distance of the swarms of pickpockets who hang around the bridge, therefore I put everything from my pants pockets into my shirt pocket and stood against the wall above the Arno River with the book and paints on the railing.

I quite like the softness of this one, although it's too pale and could have benefited from underpainting on wet paper.



Manarola on the Cinque Terre. It is so bright all the detail is dissolved into blue shadows.


Lucca from the Torre Guinigi. As the roofs aren't underpainted in yellow, the picture loses the golden richness of the afternoon light. Anyway, it was a really difficult place to paint, book on knees, back aching, swarms of point-and-click tourists pushing by, then rushing back down the myriad steps, their memories safely captured. The Torre Guinigi (below) is distinctive above the Lucca rooftops due to its crown of olive trees growing in large planters.



Rome, the Castel S. Angelo and the Ponte S. Angelo crossing the Tiber. The buildings of the Vatican are just out of sight to the left, the absolute swarms of tourists like chromatic ants on a honey trail. This one is very unfinished and pale but I was pleased with the light and structure of it.





The Ponte Sisto across the Tiber, with the dome of San Pietro (St. Peter's) in the background.I stood with the book resting on the stone wall directly above the river, sheltered from the heavy traffic by the line of trees along the sidewalk. Not ready for prime time...



St. Peter's and the Vatican from the Pincio. A day of very flat light, and an awkward place to draw and paint. Again, there was the flat top of the pier of a stone wall that allowed me a place to stand, but there was also a rather annoyed vendor of coloured prints of Roman scenes – annoyed because passersby were distracted from examining his wares by me.

This really could have benefited from some underpainting onto wet paper with a cadmium yellow mixture to get a richer tone.



The following day, the Colosseum and the Via Sacra from the Palatine Hill, the myriad brightly coloured ants dotting the pavement of the Forum below.

Like the one above, it need an underpainting, but ... no time! Too many people. Time for a drink!



The Grand Canal in Venice is so cluttered, the footpaths and bridges so crowded, it was impossible to wet the paper and paint properly. Therefore, I did a pencil sketch in the little book and painted it from memory back in the room. The abstraction of it actually helps, at least with my memory of it.



We took the ferry out from Venice (the purple skyline in the distance) to the islands in the lagoon.There was a special tranquility there, so calm, the water so leaden and flat, the islands punctuated with campanili. Again, I drew the scene in pencil in the little book and painted it from scratch into the bigger one back at the apartment. This is Burano's leaning tower, looking like it will fall into the reeds some day soon.



The Isola di San Michele (the cemetery island) with Venice in the background. A wind kicked up and chopped the water into ultramarine and green slices.



Venice, with Piazza San Marco in the middle, from the Lido.



Some mornings in Cortona the clouds flooded into the valley on the north side of the town (the triste, gloomy side according to the locals, where Frances Mayes bought her "Under the Tuscan Sun" villa). The cemetery occupies a bank below the town wall, the land falling away steeply behind it into the valley. The far hillside, dark blue in the morning light, was visible above the cloud bank.



Santa Maria Nuova on the north side of Cortona. I was able to wet the paper and underpaint, giving a much richer and stronger texture to the details applied later with relatively dry brush.

These ones from Cortona have much better, more authentic light to them than the ones from Rome where I was more besieged by traffic and other tourists.



The hillside below Cortona, from the side of the road a hundred metres from our rented villa. I didn't fill in all the terracing and olive trees that completely occupy the hillside.



The dining room at Cocciaio, our rented villa. I should have underpainted it completely, leaving only the patches of sunlight on the wall and floor "reserved" as white paper. That would have strengthened the colours. The scene is too light and bright for what was in reality a rather dark Cinquecento farmhouse interior.

The view from the Cortona villa looking along the valley south to Lake Trasimeno. The straggle of buildings in the distance follow the railway line from Camucia to Chiusi.

Again, underpainted with a cadmium yellow wash, then detailed with blues and a green made of viridian and burnt umber. 

October 22, 2004, went back to Firenze and found a viewpoint above the river. A deluxe one, as I was actually able to sit on a concrete baluster and lean back against a lamp post! Firenze is a golden yellow town. Therefore, I had to wash the paper, at least everything that was the town except for the towers and the river, with yellow, and wash the distant hills with blue. The middle distance of the city needed an extra purple wash of mixed carmine and ultramarine. The essence of the scene is the huge forms of the Palazzo Vecchio and the Duomo above a sea of abstracted golden and sienna shapes. I could have poked more colour and detail into the middle ground buildings and roofs but am glad I didn't.

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Artwork and text ©Michael Kluckner, 2001, 2002, 2003