Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Pretty As a Picture--But Not Quite

Passing through Campo Santa Maria Formosa the other day I was reminded of how painters make the scenes they depict at least as much as they find them. The English painter Ian Layton, whose work you see above (and which you can also see more of on Facebook), was kind enough to talk to me about his process, the differences between working in oil versus working in water colors, and everything else I could throw at him.

Of course some people are still rather scandalized to find that Canaletto made substantial alterations in the scenes of Venice he was supposedly only reproducing, but his departures from things as they strictly were to things as he thought they looked best on his canvases are a matter of course for painters to a greater or lesser degree--as you can see above by comparing Layton's work-in-progress to the scene beyond it.

That people might value an image of the thing more than they valued the thing itself, might confuse an image (or even words!) with reality, dismayed Plato no end, and has continued to drive people and some religions to distraction ever since.

But living in Venice one is reminded that if reality (however you define that) ever had even the slimmest chance of holding its own against images our digital age has finished it off for good. Capturing an image now precedes--if not entirely supersedes--seeing the thing itself, as one can observe most dramatically in Giotto's great Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Aware that they're allowed only 15 minutes inside the small precious space, smart phones are set to snapping before their owners' eyes can possibly take in any of the scene.

But even without a smart phone or camera or paint brush in hand, I think we tend to constantly construct or compose the scenes before us. Indeed, in a city of such overwhelmingly abundant and artful details we have no choice. On any given day I suspect that that tourist souvenir cart to the right of the photo above is almost as entirely absent from my perception of Campo Santa Maria Formosa as it is from Layton's canvas. We all have a certain Venice in mind, a Venice we'd like to see, a pleasing or maybe just tolerable Venice, and we frame our vision of it, with or without a camera, accordingly.


  1. How delightful to read about a fellow painter today! I'm glad to see that you reached out to him to understand a bit more about his thoughts and process!

    1. I've come across a lot of artists around town lately, Helen, ranging from professionals like Mr Layton to all levels of amateurs, often in what appears to be classes.