Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Ecstasy of Truth

The German filmmaker Werner Herzog, in recent interview, talked about the role of factual reality in filmmaking. He had this to say about the liberties he takes with facts in some of his documentaries:

"If we are paying attention about facts, we end up as accountants. If you find out that yes, here or there, a fact has been modified or been imagined, it will be a triumph of accountants to tell me so. But we are into illumination for the sake of a deeper truth, for an ecstasy of truth, for something we can experience once in a while in great literature and great cinema."

This statement applies equally to art. A still life is not simply an even rendering of a group of objects any more than a shopping list is a piece of literature. Take for example the difference between these two "realist" paintings:

The top still life by Stephen Gjertson is an impressive piece, definitely what we would call realist art. There is no denying the artist's ability to reproduce what he sees onto a flat surface. Everything is clearly represented and experienced to the same degree, which, quite frankly, is a little boring and not representative of we we experience the world around us. In the long run this painting leaves me a little cold.
The second painting by David Leffel is a much more powerful work. It is accurate and abstract at the same time. There are artistic decisions which have been made. He has modified and interpreted reality into a work of art that speaks about how we see and experience reality. This is a painting to be dreamed into and lived with.

We painters need to find our special way to an ecstasy of truth.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Cool Landscapes

Fellow artist and illustrator Mike Sass and I decided to spend the weekend in the Canadian Rockies painting. Saturday was beautiful, warm and sunny.

We were both looking forward to continuing Sunday. Unfortunately the gods had other plans. We woke up to 0 degrees and 10 cm of snow.

Yes, it can and does snow every month in Canada.

Workshops Part Two

I spent a good part of my summer giving workshops in Florence and my hometown, Calgary. The range of student personalities makes these workshops great fun. Students such as: Hank, a retired Pan Am pilot, Kesnia, the Russian animation student, an Italian brain surgeon named Palma, Marvel Comics artist Cary and Aaron, a high school student who is already saving to study with us in Florence

I design the workshops to be fun and informative. That said, they are not easy. As one student said, "I can't wait to get back to work so I can relax."

The paintings you see here are student works completed in a two week course.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Villa People

Surrounding Florence are scores of masterpieces tucked away in country churches and small public museums. Some of the most interesting are to found in the Medici Villas which dot the Tuscan landscape. These include: Villa “La Petraia”, Villa of Castello, Villa of Careggi and Villa of Cerrrto, Certainly all of these are worth a visit, but perhaps the most interesting is the Villa of Poggio a Caiano. Designed by Giuliana da Sangallo for Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1480, this villa contains a beautiful garden and the Museum of Still Lives. This museum boasts rooms of paintings from the Medici collections, well presented and rarely visited. The villa itself is a slice of Medici life, including games room, theater, dining rooms and bedrooms. Of particular note is the Salone di Leone X (which takes its name from the famous pope, son of Lorenzo). This room is a showcase of important 16th Cetury frescoes illustrating episodes from Roman history by Andrea del Sarto, Allesandro Allori and Francabigio. The finest work, however, is the lunette by Pontomoro. A mannerist masterpiece, it depicts the divinities Vertumnus, god of harvests and Pomona, goddess of fruit tress.

The villa is a 50 minute trip from Florence. For 2 euros one catches the COPIT bus next to the MacDonald’s on via Nazionale. Phone the museum ahead for a reservation (see number below), pack a lunch to eat in the garden and enjoy a day out of the city.

After the villa, and seeing as how you are in the neighborhood, it is a short bus ride to Carminiagno, where a second Pontoromo masterpiece, “The Visitation”, resides in the church. You can buy a bus ticket (95cents one way) at the bar across the street from the villa and catch the bus directly in front of the villa. Ask for directions to the church when you arrive. Not much else to see there, but be sure to try some of the local sweets and indulge in a bottle of wine from one Italy’s finest regions.

Villa Poggio a Caiano 8:15 – 12:30 2:00 -18:30.. Closed the 2nd and 3rd Monday of the month.
Still Life Museum 055 877012
Both are free to visit.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Trying to be a Florentine

It is sometimes a strange thing living in Florence. In fact the word for foreigner in Italian is straniero, which literally means stranger. And a stranger is exactly how foreigners are treated here. Florentines have a reputation for staying distinctly separate from the 7 million strangers who come to their beautiful city every year. Sometimes though, we foreigners do not make enough of an effort to break through that wall. I joke that not much has changed here in 500 years, yet I often choose to watch the news in English on the internet instead of the local Italian version. I still struggle to express myself in the Italian language. I teach in English, there is a large number of English speaking expat artists here and even the Italians want to speak English with you. It makes it very easy to be comfortable not speaking Italian. I was on my way to becoming like my Italian grandmother who lived in Canada for 50 years and never learned more than a few words of English.
But I had an excuse. Really. I had been preparing to leave Florence for South America and so I felt no need to study Italian. Instead I was focusing my attention on Spanish. When that move fell through I decided I to get the most out of my life in Florence.

What I did was join the "Bandierai degli Uffizi". These are "The Flagwavers of the Uffizi". This is the official flagwaving group of the city of Florence. The "Bandierai degli Uffizi" are integrally connected to the history of Florence. The group carries the flags which represented the pricipal Magistracies and legal offices of the powerful 16th century Florentine Republic. We perform at major events in Florence and throughout Italy, the E.U.and the world.(Check out the website:

I have been practicing for almost a year and am finally good enough to perform in the events. One of the most important is the Easter celebration and that was where I made my debut a couple of weeks ago (That's me in the photo above). You can watch it on You Tube.
Kudos if you can see me.

I feel quite proud to be able to represent Florence in an official way. These flagwavers are a really great group of guys among which I have made some genuine friends. Although my accent is constantly made fun of I have managed to immerse myself in Italian. Not really though because these fellas speak the Florentine dialect, and with their soft 'c' and slang even my dictionary is of no help. None-the-less after 7 years I am starting to know a new part of this city. And it just makes it more beautiful.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Drawing from me head!

I have been working on a a program that would develop in students the ability to create and draw the figure from imagination. This an area that is overlooked in the drawing programs of many currents art schools where students are taught to copy and render the model without analyzing it in a way which allows them to create figures without a model. The ability to compose wothout a model is a necessary skill not only for fine artists but more so for students wishing to work as illustrators and concept artists with the film and gaming industries. ( Both of which offer many opportunities). I am consolidating ideas from a number of sources including: The Angel figure drawing program, Andrew Loomis' books, Glen Vilppu's drawing manual, Leonardo's notebooks, the sketchbooks of Adam Hughes, Bridgman's Drawing manuals and Strength Training Anatomy by F. Delavier. The first student of this program is me. Below are some of my sketchbook pages:

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Portrait of a Woman

Ingres once asked 'Is there anything more difficult than painting the portrait of a woman?'. Indeed it was Ingres who I took as my model when completing a recent portrait.
The subject was a lovely Florentine lady, so I decided to try and interpret her in the Florentine 'sweet' style so familiar in the works of artists such as Perugino, Leonardo, Botticelli, Raphael and finding it's ultimate expression in Ingres. The basis of this style focuses upon the conceptualization of the subject. Big basic forms are clearly expressed with smaller details subdued. Smooth, luminous modelling and architecturalization of features (modelled on prototypes of classical sculpture) are evident. One can see this clearly in Ingres, who was emulating Raphael. It is also seen in the work of Bouguereau.

Here is my result :

When the subject came to see the portrait she asked "Pero, non e' finito, vero?" (It is not finished, is it?). She explained that she was flattered, but she wanted to look older. And so my experiment came to an end. Time for a repaint.
Since the painting as it was had been painted with an emphasis on the big simplified forms and smooth modelling adding age was relatively straight - forward. When she is happy with the result I will share the final result, and that of the companion portrait.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008


For this first time ever I will be giving a workshop in my hometown Calgary, in addition to my yearly ones in Florence. Professor Gregory Scheckler from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts recently reviewed my workshops on his blog:

Calling all serious art students and art professionals: you can learn as much in a two-week intensive workshop as you can learn in most college art courses. Why? Your time and attention is focused on just one main goal, which you’ll work on carefully with expert feedback for about 60-80 hours in a row. As a student you aren’t distracted from painting by taking three or four other classes at the same time, plus you have the camaraderie of other students in the workshop who are as committed and interested in fine art as you are. A good workshop is the fine art painter’s heaven; a real chance to extend and improve one’s skills.

My colleague Martinho Correia notes that he is again offering workshops this summer in Florence, Italy and also in Calgary, Canada. Martinho’s an exceptional teacher with a great eye – an accomplished figurative painter and one of the lead instructors at the Angel Academy of Art. I can attest from my own experience taking Martinho’s workshops that they are extremely helpful, concrete, and well-planned.

Interested? For Calgary check here:

Yikes and other small suggestions!

Comic book great John Byrne had some advice for me when I asked him how to achieve success as an artist:

"Treat it like a job. Start at the same time, break for lunch at the same time, end at the same time. And remember, time working is time working, not time listening to DVDs, or watching TV, or any other timewasters/distractions.

And then he added this little rhyme:

Busy doing nothing,
Nothing the whole day thru.
Trying to find
Lots of things not to do.

Busy going nowhere,
Isn't it just a crime?
I'd like to be
Unhappy, but,
I never do have the time.

There really are a million excuses not to work. I like to think of myself as a craftsman rather than an "artiste". My father was a carpenter and my grandfather a shoe maker. Working in this tradition is much easier than waiting for my muse to show up. I have to get out of bed, drink some coffee and get to work.
Somewhere around the time of Leonardo and Michelangelo, artists went from being craftsman to being divine. Of course the ultimate conclusion to this way of thinking has lead to anyone who decides to call themselves an artist is an artist. And look what we we end up with: conceptual art and websites full of bad painting. I have a student who is a brain surgeon and wants to be a painter when he retires. It is a strange coincidence because when I retire from painting I was thinking about taking up brain surgery.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Press and More Press

It's been a good month for recognition of my work. First, I came in third in International Artists' Dec-Jan issue figure painting competition. Won a $1000 for that! Next, my painting “Vanitas of the Angels” recieved an honorable mention in the 2007 Art Renewal Center's Salon.(
And finally I got an email from a pal back in Calgary. A slick local magazine called "Avenue" featured me as one of Calgary's best artists in their "Best of Calgary" issue.

Ok enough boasting, on with Art!