Back in 2001, Barbara and I were fortunate enough to spend two months in Tuscany and Umbria on our own in addition to our Arts Sojourn trips. I started keeping a travel journal on that trip – something that I have done religiously ever since. Here are a couple of excerpts from the month we spent in Spello, along with the corresponding watercolors I completed at that time. I hope they give you some insight into the creative process, as well as some idea of the pleasures of an American living and painting in Italy.
Sunday – Our first full day in Spello. It is gray and overcast so we’re in no hurry to get up. After breakfast we pack our painting supplies and head up the hill. It is a magnificent town – tremendous elevation changes, angles and stone textures everywhere. The light is very flat today, so it is hard for me to get interested. We hike to the highest point in town near the church of S. Severino. The town water supply (aquedotto comunale) is there. It appears to be behind a thick wall that has been leaking in many places for many years, creating long dark streaks and pea green moss all over its surface. The corner of the walls meet at an old fountain, chipped and stained. I start a painting – at times it is so abstract – the occasional spectators are puzzled. I’m feeling pretty good, but there’s always a doubt. You can’t just be aggressive. Every aggressive move has to have meaning, not just force. That’s why this sort of painting is so difficult. Control, by itself is not so hard. Any moron can show force. It’s the combination – one works against the other, but they need each other too, to create that great, powerful mark that also perfectly forms and describes. We grab a quick bar sandwich as it begins to drizzle. Soon it pours. We spend a pleasant afternoon in our cozy apartment. Barb makes a nice and spicy red sauce to go with the ravioli and tortellini we bought, along with some vegetable antipasti. I am very pleased with this day and feel fortunate to have done a painting on a gloomy day.
The day begins with fog, but it seems as though it might burn off. I do a lot of walking, finally, the sun breaks through. I start a painting near “Il Trombone” on Via Fontanello. The sun is strong and bright, but the view off the side of the hill is still soft from the haze. We have a quick lunch at home and after a short rest, head out for the afternoon. The sky is now an intense blue. The light is perfect. We take a new route that brings us to the Torri di Properzio. The light is glistening on the white stone. I think there’s a good picture here, but after three or four starts at a drawing I realize I’m going nowhere. At least I have the good sense not to continue. I walk up the hill to the right of the towers and find a little vicolo strewn with stone – in very poor condition. I begin with a good drawing, but nearly as soon as I begin laying in my first washes I lose the drawing. After an hour or two I return home for a snack (Campari – cheese – bread) out on our patio. Our landlord’s pet bunny gets progressively friendlier. As I study today’s pictures I don’t know whether to continue with them or not. After a dinner of last night’s left overs we go for a gelato.
The day dawns clear with that haze that seems to obscure distance, but illuminates the foreground crisply. This seems to be the normal atmosphere for morning in Spello. We hit the cash machine and Barb does some food shopping while I go to paint. This town is truly unbelievable. I think you could explore for a month and not find every hidden alley. I stop near Albergo del Teatro. The view down the street (Via del teatro?), past what looks like a little church so describes this atmosphere. The painting does not go well though. I feel as though I am very tentative. I want to be forceful, but I cannot. By 11:30 the light is in my face and I have to pee. A clear sign that it’s time to quit. Home for a quick lunch of piadini from the supermarket – only so-so. Yesterday’s bar food was better. Even when painting is not going well I feel like I am learning, not “how to” paint, but about the psychology of painting. I ask far more questions now. I think that may be why painting is so difficult. Even en plein air I don’t just want to paint the obvious. “Seeing” is perhaps the biggest challenge.
Barb comes with me after lunch. We walk back to S. Severino. I want to paint water again. I don’t think this afternoon’s painting is as good as the other, but it’s not bad either. What I’m really looking for is that certainty – the intensity that comes from a strong will. I can’t conjure it up or spit it out like some learned technique, which I suppose is a good thing. On the way back we stop and look at a house (nearly a ruin) with its own park that’s for sale. We ask at the house across the street and the woman calls her son-in-law, Mario, who shows us the place. It could be beautiful, but is ridiculously expensive. Only a dream, but I think Mario did enjoy our conversation (Am I nuts?). My Italian still stinks, but I’m improving. We sit out on our patio. Barb has prepared peppers stuffed with tuna. I’m going to pan roast some potatoes. We are feeding the bunny some lettuce. He is always close, but still won’t let us pet him.
…..My journals and watercolor paintings help me to relive cherished experiences. We have been back to Spello a few times since our extended stay and we still keep in touch with our landlords. We heard that Mario’s house sold to an American for much less than he was asking in 2001. Renovations have begun. Sometimes it’s best not to think “What if……..?”
Matthew Daub is a professional artist and university professor with works in major public and private collections throughout the United States and Europe. He has been leading plein air painting workshops in Italy since 1994. In 1999, Matthew and his wife Barbara formed Arts Sojourn as “a vacation for artists and their friends.” The program is designed to appeal to artists of all levels as well as non-artists who enjoy the company of creative people in a slow travel format.
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.