The Italian Influence


The Painting Process

It is really a privilege to be able to start with and idea and come out on the other side with a finished piece of art. Well, almost finished, as one of my professors used to say, paintings are never really finished. He was right, you just have to stop at a certain point, exhausted, the muse having moved on to something else.

Sometimes a painting is not meant to be finished when the painter is finished with the painting, so it lies around in a state of partial birth, waiting to be fully realized. The Paintings I call "The Risen Christ" and "The Deposition of Christ" fall into this catagory. "The Risen Christ" is a 5 foot by 3 foot canvas I began working on this past summer. It came at the end of another rather exhaustive painting session. I just ran out of steam and had to stop. "The Risen Christ", is a title that recalls past moments in Italian painting, as each successive generation of painters tried his or her hand at interpreting key moments in the Christian narrative. Much like each generation of jazz musician, tries their hand at reinterpreting a famous jazz standard.

While I was living in Italy I was completely taken with the many representations of Christ on the cross. Some of the canvases where huge and have hung in the same place for over 500 years. What a challenge it must be to paint on such a grand scale. I at least had to try to make one to see what it was like. While I was in Italy I had to paint small, because I knew that I would would have to carry what I painted back home with me. After leaving graduate school the luxury of having a studio also went by the wayside. To paint large you need a large space. Finding a model also became a problem. The Italians and any one of the thousands of art students in Italy, were quite willing to pose for a painting, but for some reason posing for a painting of Jesus was a responsibility few were willing to take on. If I found someone that looked like Jesus I could not get him to pose as if he were hanging on a cross for my camera. Then there was the problem of finding a cross or something that might work in it's place. At one point I found an Italian carpenter that was willing to pose for me, but I needed a cross or something to hang him on. I called on the Franciscan brothers, at the ancient church of Santa Croce in Florence were Dante and Michelangelo are buried. I used to attend mass there on Sundays. I thought there might be an cross there I could use. The Abbot patiently listened as I tried to explain myself in Italian. He said no at first, then relented, and said I could use the ancient court yard to take my photo. My model never arrived so that was the end of that.

The problem was not solved until I returned to Los Angeles. I was working as a "stand-in" on a short lived TV show called "Pearl", staring Rhea Pearlman of "Cheers" fame. The show was about a middle aged woman who returned to College to get her degree. I had recently graduated from college myself, so I felt right at home there. One of the young men who came in every week to play a student had long hair. I asked him if he would pose for me and he agreed. It just so happened that he was half Jewish, which I thought was perfect to lend some authority to my painting. It was also good that he was rather athletic, because instead of hanging him on a cross, I made him climb on a 20 foot high schoolyard cyclone fence and hang there while I took his photo. The sun was blazing bright and the shadows were perfect. It was also a few days before Easter, so no one took much notice of a guy hanging from a fence in a loin cloth. Remember this is Hollywood. On any given day there are hundreds of film companies shooting all over town. There are also hundreds of would-be actors having their picture taken, for what they call "head shots", which they will use to hand out to casting agents. There are also film students from the many Colleges and Universities dragging around their equipment to make their student films.

The photo's were prefect for my purpose. In fact the image of Christ hanging on the schoolyard fence was so provocative I painted a small painting as it was in the photo. It came out rather well, but it was not large enough. Rummaging through my storage unit I found a 5 foot by 3 foot stretcher that I had made myself when I was in graduate school. The stretcher is the wooden frame the canvas is stapled to. I would find lumber, take it to the school woodshop, and using the table saw, make my own stretchers. This way I could get the exact size I wanted and save some money in the process. The larger the canvas the more it costs. There is also something very satisfying building a painting from the ground up.

"The Risen Christ" languished unfinished for six months. I had to decide what I wanted to do with the hands and this gave me some time to think about it. I thought that if Christ's hands were nailed to the cross, they would be contorted in some way or partially clinched. I tried out different hand positions by putting my own hands on the scanner in various ways. Now I know why most artists did not use contorted hands, they just did not look right.

I painted the Christ figure first without the cross using a field of light blue as a medium tone background. I used the body of my friend from the from the TV show, but decided to make up the face of Christ myself using elements from historical representations of Jesus I researched. I even went to the Shroud of Turin, and recreated the image of the face of Jesus on my computer, but decided even though it may be the true face of Christ, it is not the face we are used to. I found a website with thousands of faces of Jesus on it. I looked at as many as I could and just went to the canvas and painted. I was surprised by the results. To me it has elements of the all the faces we are used to seeing, but it is also different as well.

I decided that Christ with his arms stretched out, was the cross. The wooden object was not necessary and would only take away from the inate simplicity that the painting possessed. I also began to see the image as triumphant rather than suffering. Christ without the cross, seemed to be rising in the heavenly blue. This also solved the problem with the hands. If his arms were open in triumph, I thought his hands should be as well. I put my hands on the scanner and printed them out. Christ has my hands. In regards to the painting as a whole, the paint is applied in what they call a painterly fashion. From far away it looks like a body, but when you get close you can see the brush strokes. This image is not trying to be a photograph.

"The Deposition of Christ" is an another painting with a portion of the Christian narrative as a theme (16 x 20). It has been hanging in an unfinished state for over a year now. It is a study after an absolutely gorgeous Peter Paul Rubens painting hanging in the Getty Art Museum in Los Angeles. It is called the "The Entombment" (circa 1612). I call mine the "Deposition of Christ" because the way I painted it, it seems to me that Nicodemus is taking Jesus off the cross. As in any painting with the word "Deposition" in the title, it is about Jesus being taken off the cross. Many artists have made paintings with the "Deposition" as its theme. Who could resist, with all the potential drama connected with this part of the story. The magnificent Rubens is a large canvas with nearly full sized figures painted so exquisitely that I find myself absolutely humbled before it.

I did the study to learn something, and also to add something of myself to the composition. Much of my work, that is not straight portraiture, falls in the Post-modern category. In a nutshell, Post-modern work borrows (appropriates) heavily from works of the past. I alter it slightly by putting the image in a different context to shift the meaning in some way. Very often the artist uses an image from the past to make a social statement about the present. The definition of Post-modern is rather complex and still evolving, so nothing here is written in stone. In my opinion this has always gone on in the art world. Like the oral tradition of storytelling, this is the way art is handed down from one generation to the next. In paintng, this has been going on since the cave men first painted on cavern walls.

In my work I often borrow a technique from photography known as "cropping" In this way I can paint a large image on a small canvas and reduce the figure or the scene to it's essential elements. This is what I had to do with my "Deposition" I put the scene in close up, so the story is told on the faces of the people in the scene. I also changed the faces of some of the key characters. Rubens has Mary looking up to heaven. I use the face of a friend as a model for Mary's face. I have her looking passively into the eye of the viewer. Nicodemus cradles the lifeless Christ in his arms as he is taken off the cross. I use the Rubens figure as my model, but my brush stokes are quick and violent, which in my way reflects the horror inherent in the scene. In the Rubens painting there is a figure between Mary and Nicodemus. She is in the shadows grieving. She was too passive for my painting. I needed someone to show what I felt is the horror of this senseless killing. For that I chose and image from my youth which came right out of LIFE magazine. I am sure I will remember this photo as long as I live. It comes from the incident that occurred as Kent State University, when the National Guard opened fire on a student demonstration. The photo is of a young woman shrieking in horror over the body of a fallen comrade. "She seems to be screaming in disbelief the word "why". Why indeed? In my painting she makes the same lament for Christ. To me it works quite well. I think Rubens would approve. D. "Darteo" Sommese


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