Instead of attending the mandatory painting exam preceding the start of the semester at Lorenzo de Medici art school, I decided to have a picnic. The sun was glorious that afternoon as I sat sipping a cold Moretti, eating freshly baked rosemary foccacia and stretching my sneakers out in front of me, content to observe the piazza. A group of boys were kicking a ball around, weaving in between Gucci suits and frenetic pigeons, dread-locked university students were playing African drums and the constant foot traffic slowly fed the colorful human landscape. Technically I was hiding out; like an outlaw I was taking matters into my own hands. Being placed into the first level painting course, even by accident, was not an acceptable possibility. I had never painted with oils before but I was determined to attend Painting 2 and at least in the sun of the piazza confidence washer over me – everything would be fine. All of the materials were prepared, admittedly there were several items that I had found exotic and unfamiliar accustomed as I was to painting with acrylics but I repeated a mantra of self-assurance and took another cold gulp of Italian beer.
When the first day of classes began I felt slightly less assured. Strategically, I chose an easel towards the back where I was able to observe as many of the other students as possible. The instructor was a small, slender blonde from Finland who immediately made it clear she was serious about painting and expected the same level of focus and dedication from her pupils. Without so much as a round of “My name is…” she had a brush in her hand and in less than 10 minutes finished executing the under-painting for a portrait of an exuberant young woman. Watching the agility and confidence with which the image was created, my nerves started sending urgent signals to the rest of my body; panic-fear-danger-flight… When the model came into the room and the instructor directed us to make an “underpainting” it was all she could do not to confess my picnic. Only with the grace of my periphery vision was I able to mimic the steps of my peers and temporarily postpone the need to flee the room in shame. I had been painting for years and had successfully participated in several juried exhibitions. Although this only acted to enhance the blinding criticism of my ego during the first few studio sessions. The complete lack of communication between my opinion of myself as an artist and what my hands were able to produce in oils was almost intolerable.
Relief, finally…after two days when the class was asked to meet in a side room and spend an hour viewing slides of various Renaissance-era paintings. Before this I had been preoccupied with the thought of being ‘discovered’ and being relegated to the lower class – forced to endure tedious hours of lectures about complimentary colors, tints and hues. Sitting in the dark listening to the instructor masterfully network a range of topics – physics, religion, history and taste…into cohesive explanations of the images we were seeing truly inspired my. A whole world of cause and effect, of my love for philosophy and adventure instantly became relevent sources for my artwork, in fact vital sources. Leaving that dark room I no longer worried about being relegated to color wheels but instead I was desperate not to lose access to the brilliant insights of this unique instructor.
Resolved to learn as much as possible, an odd sentiment when considering that I was enrolled in the program to do just that, I instituted a new policy of self-control over my raging ego and decided wholeheartedly to remain open and curious. It did not go smoothly every session and there were setbacks, many of them, but the resolve remained. Several one-legged yoga postures and some Argentinian loose-leaf tea to keep me going, I spent many fruitful days in the studio watching the light shift on the model’s skin as hour after hour the Tuscan sun passed the skylights above my head.