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!
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
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.
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.