The alarm went off and I woke right up. Clumsily putting on my painting pants, an old paint-smeared pair of jeans that smells like turpentine, and grabbing my bag and my easel, I tried to formulate a game plan. I knew which was east was, looking across the water towards San Giorgio Maggiore. All I had to do was find the right spot to paint it from. Then I would have fifteen minutes to set up my easel and palette. It was still dark out, but I had slept enough and the thrill of starting my first painting in Venice was enough to wake me right up. I found a bridge, the top of which provided me with the view I wanted, and I set up shop. A sunrise painting is all about timing, and I didn’t want to miss my chance, so I set up extra quickly. Then I waited. “I hope this goes well,” I though to myself. “What a disaster it would be if my first painting here stinks.” Self doubt is always the enemy of the artist. But then I saw the sky starting to glow pink and orange and there was no time for that. The next thing I knew, the day had come, and there was a complete painting in front of my. I had broken the ice.
Dropping my supplies and painting #1 off, I headed to breakfast, where I enjoyed terrible coffee and a large breakfast. Without wasting too much time, I grabbed my backpack and headed across the Academia Bridge. Alan had mentioned during my critique the week before that I might enjoy painting the Salute from across the river, and I had copied a couple of Turner’s watercolors of this motif, so off I went to find Turner’s spot. Having not yet realized that in the history of Venice, not once has a waterbus driver checked his passenger’s tickets, I made my way on foot, through the maze and the hoards of tourists and street vendors and through San Marco. In broken English I was repeatedly offered sunglasses, useless toys, key chains, belts, even fake designer handbags groups of men selling them along the banks of the Grand Canal.
Once I had finally made my way past all the tour boats and the related commotion, I turned around and instantly found my motif. I was looking across a large expanse of water, lit up with the colors of the sky, at the Salute. It was an upward explosion of circles and energy unlike anything I had ever seen. Was I looking at a cathedral or fireworks? How could something made out of stone be shooting upwards in every direction like that? I would struggle here all week, floored by the beauty and life of my motif, desperate to do it justice.
After a nap and some lunch, I went back out, this time turning my attention to the Redentore, across the Giudecca canal. It would take me several terrible paintings before I gave up on painting that building. Four paintings in a day is about my limit, I discovered. That was my goal the first three days. Fueled by pizza, coffee, and gelato, it was a constant cycle. Wake up, paint, eat breakfast, paint, eat lunch, get coffee, nap, get more coffee, paint, coffee, dinner, sleep. Three days of that was about enough.
The second day it rained. Sunrise was impossible because of the weather, so I started my day with breakfast and then a double session of San Giorgio, in which I wrestled with how to paint more like I draw. But how do I draw? That afternoon, I did my very last painting of the Redentore, and was none too pleased to say goodbye to that motif. Then I headed back out to my spot to paint the sun setting behind clouds over the Salute. My struggles with drawing continued, although I was fairly convinced by the end of that session that I had created my best painting yet. This is never a good sign. The paintings that, immediately upon completion, feel like masterpieces, are never good.
On my way back home I was struck with an idea. Why don’t I wake up tomorrow morning and paint the sunrise over the Salute from the Academia bridge? And when my alarm went off at 5 the next morning, that is exactly what I did. What a beautiful motif. The morning sky shines in the water, and wraps itself around the backlit domed beauty. This motif would yield some of my favorite paintings to date. The timing is trickier here, as I would discover in later sessions, because it is so tempting to start painting before the sunrise actually begins. So I would finish a painting of what I thought was sunrise, and then watch the most beautiful lightshow of my life, unable to paint because I had already finished. But these things happen, and are not the end of the world.
The rest of my second painting day was just one bizarre weather occurrence after another. Thick fog blocked the view from my motifs, so I had to find something to paint up close. I chose a dramatic motif of the Salute towering above me. All I can say about this work is that some paintings come out better than others. This artist needs to try his hardest not to take it too personally when it doesn’t work. That evening, the fog lifted, leaving bright blue sky. I went with my compatriots, Eli and Mary, out to my favorite motif to paint the sunset over the Salute, but it was too bright! The sun was shining right into our eyes. So we sat, legs dangled over the edge of the Canal, and just relaxed a bit, waiting for the sun to get lower. Eventually, a thin cloud moved its way from behind us, and seemed like it would provide the perfect screen from the sun. Waiting, we watched as a team of tugboats navigated a cruise ship around the corner, the sun reflecting off their windows. All at once, everything was illuminated by a flash. “What was that?” Eli asked. I explained to him that the sun must have reflected off the ship’s windshield. And then, BOOM! I heard the first thunder I had heard in months. We turned around to see that the cloud we thought would screen the sun from us was black as night. Then came the rain. We grabbed our sketchbooks and our backpacks and took shelter under a hotel awning, watching as the city was enveloped in the hailstorm. As the storm passed us, we set up our easels, the three of us in a row, and painted the glowing pink sunset shining off the clouds left by the tempest. That was the last of my four-painting days.
Then came Tuesday. Alan had predicted that by Tuesday, those of us who had been painting like our lives depended on it would spiral into a deep depression, and, while maybe this is a bit of an exaggeration, he was right. Painting without guidance, experiencing a place of such beauty, and repeatedly, in my own, very critical eyes, failing to capture this beauty is not an easy thing to keep up. My painting was beginning to change, and I couldn’t explain why. I still can’t. Strokes became slightly more obvious. The canvases would end up reflecting the chaos that was my mental process, and I was beginning to feel crazy. I pledged to myself that this uncertainty was something I could paint my way out of, and I spent all of Tuesday and Wednesday trying to do that. To say it worked would be a lie, in that the uncertainty is not gone. One can never be sure if one is doing good work, at least not with as little experience as I have. But it was this uncertainty that allowed me to let go of trying to do anything in particular. I was free to have the experience of painting. And when I got home, my painting would go under my bed, and I would begin clearing my mind, over coffee, in preparation for the next. My unsureness took the ego out of the process of painting.
And, on Thursday, no less unsure of myself, I made a discovery. My beloved motif of the Salute grew to include much more of the sky and the water. In expanding my vision like that, I lost a bit of the size of the Salute, but gained a relationship between sky above and sky below, reflected in the water. On Friday, I did my twenty-second painting of the week here. It was my final one. I put down my last stroke, and turned around to see what lucky tourist was there, unknowingly watching me finish a long journey, and who was standing behind me, watching me paint from a bridge but Alan Roberts. Needing a break, I walked with him out to his motif, which he seemed not to mind showing me. The man has good taste. From his spot, he looks out on all of Venice. San Giorgio and the Salute sing to one another, just as the water sings to the sky. Walking, humbled, back to my spot, I was careful not to bother Francois de Asis, Alan’s former teacher, who was working away in the gardens. I packed up, had a cappuccino at my favorite café, and the week was over.
Part 3 to come soon. Who will win at hearts on the train ride back?
-O'Neill Cushman, Alumni Fellow