Oil Painting: Open Spaces

0810fronz3_588x600Francis Di Fronzo stopped working with paint brushes to create his own technique of “tapping the landscape into existence.”


All Paths to War
Lead Back to You (Part I)

2002, oil on panel, 48 x 48.
Private collection.

by Lynne Moss Perricelli

California artist Francis Di Fronzo is a dedicated realist painter, but not in the traditional sense. He doesn’t use brushes—at least not ones from the art-supply store. Instead, he invents all the painting implements depending on the needs of the piece, relying for the most part on a “comb” consisting of 60 or 70 individual hairs adhered to a thin, flat piece of wood. With the comb in hand, he can run it through the paint on his palette, and then tap it repeatedly in layers to build up thousands of individual blades of grass. The landscapes that result are open, barren, and mysterious.

The artist devised this approach about 10 years ago, when he found himself tired and frustrated by the process of painting. “The way I was painting made me sick of being an artist,” he recalls. “All the talk about the medium, the brushwork, the buttery paint—all I cared about was the picture I was painting.” After completing his studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in Philadelphia, he had been working with the figure, and although he still wanted to work realistically, he knew he had to change his subject and approach it in a radical way. So he put away his brushes and made the landscape his subject.

“I always perceived landscape painting as being tied to notions of romance, nostalgia, and, in particular, beauty,” he writes in a statement on his website. “I never understood any of these notions. To me, the landscape was barren, imposing, and completely indifferent to anything human.” At the same time, the universality of the landscape appealed to Di Fronzo. He began to consider how the subject could serve as a stage for “everything we understand the world to be.”


A Better Future (Part II)
2006–2007, oil on panel, 24 x 72.
Collection Post & Schell, P.C.,
Washington, DC.   

The artist’s landscapes originate almost entirely in his imagination. When he lived in Philadelphia, his urban surroundings offered little in the way of nature, but since moving to California, he often walks through the nearby farmlands and absorbs the scenes. Rather than taking photos or making sketches, he gathers internal references that he calls upon later in his studio when making a quick study of a potential composition. “The key is that I paint landscapes that have a certain feel,” he describes. “They may reflect how I feel about my life at the moment and they express it in some way—at least to me.”

Often he makes dozens of studies—consisting of just three or four lines on a small piece of paper—before deciding on a composition. He then prepares a Masonite panel with gesso and tones it with an earth color. He has no brand preference for his oil paints. After establishing some basic marks to establish the framework of the composition, he drags the comb through the paint on his palette and begins the process of “tapping the landscape into existence,” as he puts it. “Each hair has a little bit of paint on it,” the artist explains. “With each tap, 10 to 70 hair marks are on the panel. It’s like a stamp. I do this over the entire panel. After it dries, I do another layer, creating five to 10 layers of tone and color to convey depth.” To make a path, he might sand a certain area to remove the paint. “The technique is like pointillism,” he adds. “The colors mix in the eye. I layer the colors and the mind does the mixing.”
For the skies, Di Fronzo uses typical flat or filbert brushes, but these are the only conventional brushes he employs. “Recently I bought a 79-cent brush from the local art-supply shop and modified it by allowing the paint to dry on the brush,” he describes. “The brush was as hard as a rock, but I was able to loosen the clump of bristles into smaller clumps of bristles, and I used this ruined brush to paint the leaves of a tree.” Emphasizing that he just likes to make pictures, he adds that he creates whatever tools or techniques will suit the subject. 


A Better Future (Part IV)
2007, oil on panel, 24 x 72.
Private collection.

A large part of Di Fronzo’s aversion to traditional painting may have to do with his natural inclination toward drawing. In the beginning of his career, most of his shows were of drawings, “but the galleries didn’t make any money,” he says. “There’s not much profit in drawings.” Although he turned to painting to accommodate his galleries and advance his career, he never lost his love for pencil and paper. “I love the feeling of crosshatching,” the artist says. “The result and the experience are relaxing and meditative.” Not surprisingly, then, the layering of tiny lines with the comb holds strong appeal. Not only can he draw with the paint but he can also engage in the same state of mind he experiences in drawing. “I seem to get into a trance,” he describes. “That internal voice shuts off. I see the subject and what I’m painting. My mind drifts into the world I’m working on. The images are invented places, and in taking my mind off of the technique I can focus on the picture floating in my head.”

As the painting develops, Di Fronzo responds to the imagery. The process, in fact, reminds him of when he experimented with Abstract Expressionism in college and he focused on reacting to the marks on the panel. “I start with an idea, but I have to change it,” he says. “The piece is always in motion.” About half the time, Di Fronzo begins a new painting with a blank panel, with no specific idea in mind, but many of the paintings fail, he adds. “I peel off the gesso, and the whole thing goes in the garbage. If the work starts going in the wrong direction, I just walk away from it. There’s no point in forcing it.”


1998, oil on panel, 48 x 96.
Private collection.

Staying focused and motivated can be challenging with such a labor-intensive process, but Di Fronzo says he is able to keep going because he is realizing an image from his mind onto the panel, and that is satisfying in itself. “The image is in my head, and it has to come out in some way,” he says. “It can be difficult to tap away for hours on end, but I play music and take breaks. I enjoy seeing the painting evolve.”
Besides offering a departure from the figure, the landscape as a painting subject allows Di Fronzo to explore his emotional responses to certain scenes, such as the treeless vistas of Death Valley National Park, in California. “I love to go out in that broad, open landscape,” he describes. “It’s peaceful but in a scary kind of way. It’s nature at its most raw. It’s not green—it’s the bones of the earth. I like to see the landscape at its most basic—undressed.

“There’s a hollow quality about it, and I feel like that is something inside me,” he continues. “It expresses what life is like. There are a lot of people and noise, but we are alone.” He adds that viewers often look at a landscape and remark on its beauty without considering the savage side of nature. “If you spend any time out there you see things that are far from beautiful,” Di Fronzo says. “There’s no mercy. The idea of the romance, and the Garden of Eden, is so false to me. What I try to express is the unsteady feeling of the landscape. It’s not so beautiful but rather kind of hard.”


Dream (Part V)
2007–2008, oil on panel, 20 x 46.
Private collection.

The artist reinforces this concept with his highly suggestive titles. With phrases such as “Don’t Leave Me Now” and “I Look to You and I See Nothing,” the artist implies an absence. “It represents what it is to be a person these days,” he explains. “There can be little actual contact.” Di Fronzo writes in his spare time, and he intends the titles to extend the meaning of the painting, to take the viewer into the picture, and into the artist’s space. “A viewer might lean in, read the title, say it aloud—‘I Thought You’d Be Here Too’—and it brings them in,” he explains. “The title should have as much importance as the image itself.”

As much as a meditative process conjures up the imagery, Di Fronzo hopes viewers embark on their own interior journeys when viewing his paintings. “They are meant to be stared at for long periods of time,” he says. “I tell people to put a chair in front of a painting and after a while the blades of grass begin to move, the horizon wavers.” In fact, this movement within the piece is a positive sign of the success of the picture, according to Di Fronzo, who notes that painting in itself is about visual tricks. His primary objective, however, is to translate an internal image onto the panel. “I try to reconstruct the dream,” he describes, “to bring it back. In the process I don’t end up with what I thought I wanted because there’s really no direct translation. But the process also adds something.”    

About the Artist
Francis Di Fronzo, of San Francisco, earned his M.F.A. in painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in Philadelphia. He won a Pew Fellowship in 2004, and was also the recipient of a Stobart Foundation Fellowship in 1998, among other awards. He is represented in Philadelphia by Rosenfeld Gallery, which will host a solo show of his exhibition of his work from January 9 through February 1, 2009, and Somerville-Manning Gallery, in Greenville, Delaware. For more information or to contact the artist, visit www.francisdifronzo.com.

Lynne Moss Perricelli is a freelance writer and editor based in New York City.

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3 thoughts on “Oil Painting: Open Spaces

  1. What a thrill to find you and your work. I am convinced that we are of one soul along with all those who are entranced with your paintings. Congratulations to you on insisting that your life’s expression allows others to be so intimately enriched.