Interview: Marc Dalessio
nlp: You paint landscapes and portraits, outdoors and in the studio and you can also sculpt. Do you have a preference for any one aspect of your work?
MD: My favorite of the three is plein air landscape painting. I came to art originally as I felt a very strong reverence for nature as a child. At first I studied biology to express my curiosity and love of the natural world. Later in university, I discovered that landscape painting, especially outdoors, was a much more immediate way to express that feeling.
Can you outline the importance of drawing in your work? How do you feel about the use of photography as a tool in painting?
I think the correct values are the most important element in painting, with drawing coming second, and colour third. I use photography on occasion as a memory tool, but I don’t trust photographs to work from. There is always too much distortion of the values, shapes and colors in photographs to use them for anything useful. For my large studio work I rely on drawings, colour sketches and invention for the most part.
What are your main materials, the ones you use the most, and where do you get them?
I was trained to make my own oil paint, but quickly tired of it. I still make my white lead as the pre-tubed colors are vastly inferior. For everything else I buy good quality tube paints.The advantage (of mixing one’s own paints) is that you can control the quality of the paint much better. Most store-bought paints contain fillers to improve shelf life, but these additives change the consistency and lower the tinting strength. With good-quality paints I don’t really notice the difference as they keep the fillers to a minimum. The disadvantage is that it takes time and is very toxic.
It is difficult for artists these days to rely on one manufacturer. So often they get bought out and change for the worse. My medium I make using a 17th century recipe and the boards and canvases I buy from our local store in Italy.
Your paintings are magnificently vibrant and defined by the clarity of colour. What colours are usually on your palette?
Outside I use only primary colors, two yellows, two reds, three blues and white. All are very high in chroma and I mix my greys, browns, and greens. High quality paints have much better colours than student-grade versions. For portraits I use the same four colours most studio artists used throughout history: Ivory black, lead white, vermilion and yellow ochre.
Can you explain the importance of light in your work, whether painting outdoors or in the studio? When painting outdoors, how do you cope with shifting light – less of a problem in Italy perhaps, but a frequent issue in cloud- cursed northern climes?
I’ve always worked in studios with north facing light to avoid direct sunlight. The shifting light can be seen as an advantage in portraiture; some people look better with a warm light on them, others with a cool, some with a bit of both. They make a fuss about Rembrandt’s alternating warm and cool glazes. Maybe he was just following the light.
Having spent so much time working outdoors, I’ve become very use to chasing effects in changing light.
On which note… have you ever painted in Scotland? (We have good clouds.)
My first plein air trip abroad was to Scotland, but it was many years ago. I have a painter friend with a house there now, and every year we talk about taking a trip up there.
Your painting style is rich in tradition and classical technique. Where did you train and what were the most important things you learned there?
I trained at Charles Cecil Studios in Florence, Italy. Cecil trained with R. H. Ives Gammel who studied with William Paxton in Boston. Paxton had studied with Jean-Léon Gérôme in Paris and the training I received is basically just a 19th-century French Academic training filtered through 100 years of American painters. We were given a rigorous drawing education, which meant a year of cast and figure drawing before we were allowed to paint. The most important lessons were seeing values and actual draftsmanship. The historic colors and medium were also useful for my technique.
I mentioned the word ‘classical’. It seems to me that your approach is akin to classical music, as opposed to the pop of some other forms of art. Would this be a fair comparison?
Yes, it’s fair. I think most contemporary art is the same as pop music. Hype-driven, marketing-based and utterly commercial. I find it interesting how the media opens up to these artists but has such contempt for any form of contemporary traditional work. Even though, to my eye, there is such an interest on the part of the public.
We have an ongoing interest at nlp in the current state of art school education and the apparent paucity of life drawing and other forms of traditional teaching. There seems, in the UK anyway, to be a move away from the transfer of technical skills towards an emphasis on creative freedom, expression and, in the words of one art school prospectus, ‘visual thinking’. What do you feel to be the role of the art school and how do the systems in Italy and the US compare?
Italian, American and UK art schools are probably all the same. I studied art in an American University and they didn’t teach us much. I think the ‘artistic freedom’ method is a real cop-out on the part of the teachers, many of whom actually lack real technical skills of their own. After 100 years of modernist nihilism in art, almost all working painters are self-taught. They have to re-invent the wheel each time when training students.
Early on I studied art in California with a teacher who attempted to give us a formal training in drawing. I realized later that, despite his good intentions, he really didn’t know how to teach academic drawing and was winging it. There were functioning methods for teaching artists that were developed by some of the greatest minds in history over hundreds of years. This knowledge was lost during the last century. It survived in small pockets such as the Repin Academy in Russia (which was sealed off by Communism in 1917), and America, which was conservative and something of a cultural backwater for much of the 20th-century.
A good friend and fellow artist recently gave me a copy of The Craftsman’s Handbook ‘Il Libro dell’Arte’ by Cennino d’Andrea Cennini. I guess you will be well familiar with this marvellous book, written in the 15th century ‘for the use and good and profit of anyone who wants to enter the profession’. We may use fewer hares’ feet or thigh bones from gelded lambs in making our work nowadays but I feel there is still something to be learnt from these old texts. What do you think about this and do you use any particularly antiquated materials or techniques?
Many older techniques are still better than modern ones, especially if one is concerned about the longevity of the painting. We still use rabbit-skin glue for preparing canvases, but the new glues are made from the leftovers of other animals and not very good. I still use a cuttlebone instead of sandpaper to sand down a dry painting. The cuttlebone was the old method. I read every now and then how an art historian thinks so-and-so historical painter was using calcium carbonate in the whites. In fact it’s probably just residue from their ‘sandpaper’.
In addition to your own painting, you do quite a lot of teaching. What effect, if any, does this have upon your own work?
Teaching forces a painter to think about how they are doing something, in order to explain it later. This can be helpful. For me, the main practical advantage to teaching is that it makes me less reliant on galleries for my income, so I can work longer on the paintings and produce better work.
What are the most common errors you find your pupils making and what are the most important things you try to convey to them?
Values are the thing that most beginning painters get wrong. They see two values close together only in relation to each other, and not in relation to the whole. In landscapes, I was taught to ‘key the painting off the sky’ and I believe that is the best way to keep control of the overall painting. Also, many students abandon drawing once they start painting. I think it’s important to draw all the time.
What advice would you give to any young people hoping to make a living as a painter?
To find a good school and really master the materials and the technique. At the same time not to forget that the training is a means to an end. Once you master your technique, the most important thing is to have something to say.
You can read more about Marc – and see more of his work – at his blog here.