This week we talk with watercolorist Francesco Fontana, whose video workshop "Watercolor the Italian Way: The Alla Seconda Method," we just started carrying in the Creative Catalyst shop. Francesco has spent his professional life working in oil, watercolor, acrylic and dry media. After art school, he followed his dream and started his artist journey in bohemian Paris, as a portrait artist. In the years to follow, he exhibited his art in Italy and France and his paintings are now in many private collections in Europe, USA, and Asia. In his interview, Francesco discussed his approach for painting, why slowing down is important and the biggest challenge he sees students facing.
Your video is subtitled the Alla Seconda Method. Could you talk to us about what the Alla Seconda Method means?
It basically means to separate the moment you collect ideas from the moment you actually paint the painting. The way to do this is to make simple studies in a sketchbook, as you walk around -- with no pressure for the final result. That helps you as an artist focus on observation of the environment. Once you do this, you can paint on site or in a different location or even days later.
Could you walk us through your process? How does it change whether you’re painting plein air or working in the studio?
My process has evolved a bit since the DVD. Here’s how I work: The first step is to draw, from life or a photo reference, one or more value and compositional sketches. Some happy times that study could stand by itself as an artwork.
The next step is to set my color arrangement with two compliments + one adjacent. Lay a very light wash to establish the key temperature. I let it dry and outline my main shapes. Sometimes I number them according to value grades (other times outlining comes first). Then I paint just the focal element first. In a couple of steps, I let the paper dry and draw (and then paint) additional elements as fractions of the big shapes.
Why is drawing important to you as an artist and to your process? What do you say to students who don't want to learn to draw?
In the first place, I love the act of drawing. I have been doing it compulsively since a was a kid. So I am lucky to have acquired this critical tool with no effort. I encourage students to learn how to draw, but I do not insist too much. The reality is if they are not passionate about it, me insisting won't ever do any good. But an artist doesn’t draw, at least they should excel in color, composition and good ideas. Otherwise, there's nothing left and I resign my mission!
How do you use value sketches in your work? Do you use the values you see in your photo or do you change them? How and why?
Value sketches are the first step to arranging tonality of that painting. I decide how many tones I want in my design. Five is my maximum, sometimes just three. I insist that they are an odd number, so you always have a mid-tone equidistant from the higher and the lower (white and black). I might change them in order to have a dominant value, but in general, I just group them up, simplifying it to a readable scheme.
If you’re working from memory, how do you approach color? Are you working off of local color or time of day? What decisions do you make about color before you start the painting?
Reflecting a time in the day can be a challenge. On-site, I remember and take notes of colors. And then, following my value design, I reduce it to a limited color scheme and play with it. I do not necessarily make dramatic changes to the local colors. However, I do change one within color: I’ll turn one to a warmer or cooler dominant. It’s my way to try to create a mysterious atmosphere.
What is the freedom that comes from working from memory? What are some of the challenges?
Working from memory gives you the freedom from a ton of details that don’t really matter for you. You simply forget about them and remember those that resonate within. The subject is an inspiration. Surely sometimes you miss an easy solution.
Do you think most people move too fast into painting? Why is getting familiar with your subject before you start painting so important? What do people miss out on by jumping too quickly into the main piece?
I understand the expressive urge to grab the brush and get into action. It happens to me too! But studying the subject means understanding its real nature, identify what’s so special in it that inspires you and in so becoming aware of what does and what doesn’t contribute to that purpose. It’s more than merely copying.
In your video workshop, you use a reference photo. To you, what does a reference photo need to have in order to make it translate into a good painting? Does it have to be a perfect beautiful photo to make a good painting?
A photo reference should have a good value range including not missing good darks. It should have enough interesting elements that you can represent or select from. You should be the photographer. It should tell YOUR story. Colors are not a priority and I often work from a B&W version of it.
What is the biggest challenge you see your students facing? What advice do you give them?
They are obsessed by describing the scene photographically. I guess they feel guilty if they betray reality. For beginners, it’s understandable. They haven’t yet mastered the tools to interpret it. But competition with visual technology is a lost cause. A painting should always look like a painting!
Learn more about watercolorist Francesco Fontana at his website, or by visiting him at Instagram or on Facebook. Don’t forget to check out his video workshop, "Watercolor the Italian Way: The Alla Seconda Method," new to the Creative Catalyst Shop shop.
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