Think Big, Paint Big

11 Sep 2009

Antonio Masi employs both the atmospheric and graphic capabilities of watercolor in his commanding paintings of New York icons.    

by John A. Parks


Red Fence—
Williamsburg Bridge

2008, watercolor, 60 x 40.
Collection the artist.
In Antonio Masi’s watercolors, the bridges of New York City live and breathe the light and air of the city, dissolving into its fogs and mists only to materialize as massive and enormously physical objects of girders and rivets. Avoiding any sense of architectural or technical rendering, Masi conjures his subject from the very stuff of watercolor, the free flow and flooding of the paint, the dissolving veils of washes, the collapsing edges and delicate shifting of color and tone. “Watercolor is by its nature a fluid medium—light, delicate, and transparent,” says the artist, speaking of his conversion to the medium some years ago. “I soon discovered that by adding a little body color, it is a powerful medium. It has a personality all its own. It likes to flow, do unexpected things, be light and delicate, and the next minute strong and powerful. This was the medium I was looking for—this play of opposites, the ridged steel against the light atmosphere, the sense of motion and solidity.”

Reinforcing the power and authority of Masi’s work is the enormous scale on which he works, often up to 40" x 60". In doing so he conveys something of the scale and presence of the bridges themselves. “I hope to give the viewers of my work a sense of place,” says the artist. “I’d like them to feel that they are standing where I was, and seeing what I saw. That somehow they are there. Sensing the massive structures, the surroundings, the feeling of the neighborhood, the time of day, the time of the year, or the temperature of the moment. I hope they become part of my painting.”

Masi’s working method grows out of his long affection for the bridges of New York, an affection based initially on the knowledge that his own grandfather worked on the construction of the 59th Street Bridge. “I like to walk the bridges in all seasons and weather conditions,” he says.  The artist’s intimacy with his subject leads him to images such as Red Fence—Williamsburg Bridge, where the viewer looks down at a plunging perspective created by a brilliant red fence disappearing into the shadowy ironwork of the roadway. Above, the airy steelwork of the bridge seems to evaporate into the damp air of the city. “This is a painting that I began, like I do all my paintings, by going to meet the subject,” says Masi. “I walked on the bridge, touched it, made sketches of it, painted it, and tried to sense it. Bridges all serve the same purpose—of getting one from one side to the other—but they are different as to their details, design, and characteristics. I attempt to capture the personality of the bridge as a portrait painter would of his subjects, not just the surface appearance.” Masi will go back several times to his subject, making many small sketches with a black Sharpie marker to work out the composition and select details. “I also take pictures to jog my memory later,” says the artist. “In this painting it was the diagonal girders, the recession of the walkway, and that particular light of the day with the sun playing peek-a-boo with the clouds and the bridge. The eye-catching red fence pulling you along the walkway was what I was trying to capture. It was this initial impression that I struggled to keep my focus on.”

Broken Window
2006, watercolor, 41 3/4 x 30.
Collection the artist.

Having homed in on his subject, Masi starts work in the studio by tacking up a full 60"-x-40" sheet of watercolor paper. He then starts sketching lightly, blocking out the masses with a light neutral wash. When this is bone dry, he applies the first transparent glaze with an 8" hake brush, leaving the white of the paper where needed. “When this is dry, I go back with richer paint and develop the areas further, and glaze again,” says the artist. “This procedure may go on five, 10, or more times until I achieve the effect I desire. I have put down as many as 50 glazes at times on a painting. Last I will apply the final accents.”

Masi says that he has two principal technical concerns when painting: the tonal values and the quality of edges. “I am not so much a colorist as a tonal painter,” he says. “The atmosphere and the presence of my work grow out of the tonal structure. I also work the edges a great deal, softening and hardening them.”

Making a painting can take the artist anywhere from three or four days to several weeks. “Sometimes you do one quickly and think you are going to speed up,” he says, “and then you’ll find that the next one presents difficulties and takes much longer. In the end you can’t worry about the time. You just have to allow the work to go at its own pace and accept it.”

Masi says that he is finished with a painting when he can’t think of anything more he’d like to do with it. He turns it to the wall for several weeks and then pulls it out again to look at it with fresh eyes. At this stage he may completely rework some passages, or perhaps decide that the painting really is completed.

One of the features of Masi’s paintings of bridges is the huge variety of viewpoints he has chosen. These range from close-ups that entangle the viewer amongst the steelwork or trap him or her in shadowy wells beneath roadways to distant views in which the bridge is engulfed in a neighborhood. “It’s like the difference in portraiture between doing a head, which can be very intimate, and painting the subject in a setting,” says the artist. “Sometimes it is important for me to describe the neighborhood in which a bridge is located.” In 59th Street Nocturne, for instance, the bridge is simply a presence lurking in the background behind the dazzling lights and bright yellow taxis of the street life. And in Broken Window, the Brooklyn Bridge is glimpsed through the grime and dirt of a dilapidated window from the vantage of a gloomy interior. Meanwhile in Diagonal Girder we are thrust up face-to-face with the rivets of a girder as it dominates the painting.

Tower Dipped in Fog—
George Washington Bridge

2007, watercolor, 41 3/4 x 30.
Collection the artist.

Perhaps the most impressive quality of Masi’s work is the way in which it conveys the air and light swirling around the enormous steel structures. In part the artist’s spatial sense may stem from his early interest in sculpture. “During my early years of training I was inspired by the work of Michelangelo, primarily his drawings,” says the artist. “They have a sense of form, a three-dimensionality in which one can feel the space around the form. When I paint or draw, I try to sense the space that the steel girders capture.” In Foggy Morning Manhattan Bridge, for instance, the subject appears to dissolve into a vast watery space. In this piece one notices how the artist never relies on mechanically straight lines or accurate perspectives to achieve the feel of a steel structure. Rather, he lets the life of the paint take over, adding its own movement to the rendering. Atmospheric effects also come into play in Tower Dipped in Fog—George Washington Bridge, where the steel framework of the bridge support is enveloped in a diaphanous film of mist and shimmers like a benign ghost behind a solidly painted overpass. Masi is also aware of the dissolving power of sunlight, visible in Walk on the Bridge, where the very solid walkway in the foreground contrasts with the dazzling light on the structures above.

Apart from Michelangelo, Masi cites Velázquez as a source of inspiration. “His power of suggestion of form is overwhelming,” he says. “When you get close to his paintings, you see only brushstrokes, but when you step back, the form appears. His limited palette gave him complete control of his values.” Another significant influence on Masi’s work has been the contemporary painter Paul Ching-Bor. “I took a class with him at the Art Students League of New York,” says Masi, “and he showed me how effective working on a large scale can be. Working large gives me a freedom. I paint standing up, with my full arm and body, darting back and forth like a fencer, alert to see what is happening and if I am capturing what I want.”

Walk on the Bridge
2007, watercolor, 30 x 22.
Collection the artist.

In considering the future of his work, Masi says that he will continue with the bridges for at least the next 18 months. “I’m putting together enough of them so I can publish a book,” he says. “I’m concentrating on the nine major bridges of New York, although there are technically more than 2,000 bridges in and around the city. I’m working on the ones that are generally regarded as icons of the city. The idea is to have at least five or six paintings of each one so that we have enough to choose from.” Masi is also interested in using more color. “There are problems because in some ways the atmosphere of my paintings comes from my tonal approach and palette,” he says. “My limited palette is by design. I can control my values more easily in my painting. Simplicity of color schemes also contributes to the graphic quality and harmony of the picture. Although I emphasize values, with my glazes, I utilize color temperature to send forms back or pull them forward. But I’m going to see if I can take on more color.” Occasionally the artist has already ventured into a more colored world, particularly in Throgs Neck, Sunset, where the scene is drenched in spectacular reds and yellows. More typically the artist confines any brilliant color to an area of strong local color, such as the red and yellow sign in Light Traffic Verrazano Bridge.

If Masi does succeed with infusing his work with even richer color while keeping the powerful atmosphere that infuses all his pictures, we can look forward to a great many more pleasures.



About the Artist

Antonio Masi was born in Italy and emigrated to the United States with his family in 1947 at the age of 7. He studied illustration at the School of Visual Arts, in New York City, and began a career in commercial art. In the mid-1960s he returned to his high school, the School of Industrial Arts (now the High School of Art and Design), where he became chairperson of the art department while also studying for a B.A. in art history at the City University of New York. He left teaching to form a graphic design business in partnership with his brothers. After 34 years, he sold the business to turn his attention to painting full time. He has since garnered many awards, including the American Watercolor Society’s High Winds Medal and the Philadelphia Water Color Society’s Elizabeth Shoper Hooper Award. His work is included in the American Watercolor Society traveling exhibition for 2009–2010. Learn more about the artist at www.antoniomasi.com.


Throgs Neck, Sunset
2006, watercolor,
30 x 41 3/4.
Private collection.
Light Traffic
Verrazano Bridge

2007, watercolor,
41 3/4 x 30.
Collection the artist.
 
Diagonal Girder
2008, watercolor, 40 1/2 x 60 1/2.
Collection the artist.
Foggy Morning Manhattan Bridge
2008, watercolor, 40 1/2  x 60 1/2.
Collection the artist.

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Comments

on 17 Sep 2009 7:27 AM

Antonion Masi's work is really wonderful.  I really enjoy painting big as well but unfortunately storage becomes a big problem.  I do strongly agree that painting big enables you to really get into the  "message" of the painting in a big way!  And painting big makes a big impact on the viewers with a lasting impression.

ilazarev wrote
on 26 Nov 2009 10:11 AM

The most amazing in Masi's paintings is his ability to create the atmosphere. His NY bridges are hymn to human creativity and, at the same time, to man's separation from his creation.  Great Vision!!

Inna Lazarev

<a href="http://www.innaartwork.com"> www.innaartwork.com </a>

Nirlav wrote
on 1 May 2010 9:14 PM

good post

on 8 Sep 2011 10:41 AM

On the Cover: Breakfast Club (detail) by Gordon France, 2004, watercolor, 20 x 28. Private collection

on 8 Sep 2011 10:43 AM

Check out what's featured in the Fall 2009 issue of Watercolor .