Sharing Tea and Portraits with Natalie Italiano

Recently the students at Studio Incamminati went to New York. I chose not to go, instead wandering around the school looking at the drawings and paintings on the student walls. Natalie Italiano, an instructor in the core program as well as a Fellow there, also stayed behind. We ended up sharing tea in her studio and talking about a challenging long-term project Natalie started in December 2010 called "One Hundred Alla Prima Portraits of American Teenagers."

Adolescence by Natalie Italiano, oil portrait painting. This work won Best Portrait at the Philadelphia Sketch Club's 149th Annual Small Works Show. Go Natalie! 

Natalie has been honored several times over for her portraiture–by the Portrait Society of America (in 2009) and by the Philadelphia Sketch Club (Best Portrait in 2011) to name a few. But  the alla prima approach she took for her most recent portrait painting project–and the selection of "real" people she chose to paint–was a bit different than the way she usually works.

The idea for the series started after Natalie saw Rose Frantzen's portraits at the National Portrait Gallery and read her book, Portrait of Maquoketa, in which Frantzen encouraged others to explore doing portraits as a series. The idea appealed to Natalie, in part to teach herself to paint "alla prima" (direct, expressive painting completed in one session), and in part to allow herself to spend time with teenagers. Her daughter and son have both left for college and Natalie was feeling a void that I well understood, having my daughter off at college too. Natalie was also interested in painting ordinary people, those you see passing by on the street. She chose to paint her models entirely from life, usually in a four-hour session for each portrait.   

At this point, Natalie has painted more than 100 portraits with more on the way. For each one, she asked her teen-model to choose his or her own outfit, sit however they wanted with whatever facial expression they preferred to reveal, wear make-up or not, and outfit themselves with any accessories like cat hats with ears or eye goggles that they wanted. It was all up to them and Natalie encouraged them to be themselves.

The faces that look back at you when you see the portraits in a group convey a range of emotions–gentle, quiet, angry, defensive, direct, happy, wistful, wise, idealistic. As a series the paintings bring the figures' cumulative experience and emotion to the fore. Not only has Natalie captured the breath and depth of those emotions, she has done it using a vast array of methods and surface preparation, some of which she was less familiar than others.

Madeline (progression) by Natalie Italiano, oil painting. Madeline (progression) by Natalie Italiano, oil painting. Madeline (progression) by Natalie Italiano, oil painting.
Madeline (progression)
by Natalie Italiano, oil painting.

Natalie initially used 12 x 12 panels, but eventually decided to do the series on 14 x 14 canvases. As she would with a longer painting, Natalie began with a thinly painted grisaille underpainting of burnt sienna and ultramarine, next moving into the color of the background to begin to communicate the color of the light. She also put in color notes in the clothing to help relate colors to the skin tones in the lighted portions of the models' faces.

Natalie experimented with different types of canvas and tones as well, discovering that the way the canvas is toned is just as important to her as the type of surface she uses). She even varied her brushes as she progressed through the series. She allowed herself to paint more thickly than she has previously, especially in the lights of the paintings. She used various types of linen as well, and experimented with lead white as a ground, finding she loved the absorbency, but was leery of its toxicity. She chose backgrounds that she felt complemented the teens' coloring, or selected them based on her emotional response to her subjects. In other words, she pushed herself both in subject matter and paint handling. I can't wait to see how Natalie finishes the series and what she learns about herself as an artist after such an endeavor. Here's to 40 more paintings!

Have you ever painted or drawn an extensive series of work? Leave a comment and let me know.


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