2007, oil/linen, 36x36
Winter Meadow, Early December Snow
2007, oil/linen, 36x48
2006, oil/linen, 18x24
2006, oil/linen, 18x24
Winter Meadow, Sunset
2004, oil/linen, 30x40
The Artist's Magazine
A Certain Slant of Light
With his focused alla prima technique, Peter Fiore defies the convention of plein air—in his studio.
In Peter Fiore’s landscapes, the viewer happens upon that moment when light has just broken through— whether on a beach path edged with swaying grass or a snowy field bathed in winter sunlight. The effect may be soothing, evoking a kind of collective memory, but Fiore describes creating art as boisterously as composing music or choreographing a dance: “All paintings are artwork, but precious few become works of art—just as the fact that a pianist who can play all the correct notes doesn’t assure an inspired performance.” For him, vision and passion are just as necessary to a successful painting as paint and brush. And he doesn’t follow a plein air credo that says landscapes must be painted outdoors.
“Some plein air artists profess their works are somehow more valid because they were painted on location. If you’re a musician inspired by nature, does that mean you have to create a symphony out in the field?” he contests. He might do preliminary paintings in the field—he calls the 16x20 or 18x24 studies “rehearsals”—but he does the final painting in his studio, a separate building on his Pennsylvania property.
A focused alla prima technique, developed during his long career as a commercial illustrator, has become his forte and allows him usually to complete a painting in a day (the second day is for fine-tuning, and for a larger canvas, the process may take up to three days). “I like a painting to be fresh, clean and purposeful—to make a mark and not go back,” he says of his technique. “I want to own a motif so that it flows from my hands effortlessly. That way, it’s still spontaneous; I just know where I’m going.”
Fiore begins his work long before starting to paint by studying his chosen scene on-site, taking photographs. He also carries a voice recorder in case he needs to remember an aspect that his camera cannot, or to suggest ways of making a scene more dramatic. “Everything I do is directly from nature, but I re-orchestrate,” he says. After developing concept sketches in oil, he does a general color wash to establish the mood and then blocks in the shapes, important objects, horizon line and distant trees to help establish a sense of place. Starting with the focal area, he concerns himself with the drawing, color and value. When one area is complete, he moves on to the next, balancing color and value relationships so they stay “true.”
Most landscape painters aim to render a stream or a mountain range, or to suggest a horizon that inspires them, but the true focal point of a landscape for Fiore is light, and he may return to the same location repeatedly over the course of a year to observe its changing effects. “Different times of year, the humidity—all make a scene unique from the time before. I’ve painted a particular field dozens of times, and each one is different,” he says.
Fiore’s most passionate landscapes are his winter scenes, a fact that’s no coincidence, considering his Northeastern roots. He feels most comfortable and inspired in cold, crisp air, although warmer weather eases the arthritis he’s acquired in his hands and knees. For his purposes, the summer landscape is less accessible, shrouded in greenery; it’s a hindrance he likens to clothing on a figure. With winter, the barrenness reveals the bones of a landscape.
“I prefer the land stripped of its vegetation, when I can see the earth and its patterns most clearly. The light in winter is most varied; there are days when it’s clear and bright, carving the earth into light and shadow like a razor,” Fiore says. “Yet, at times, the light can be soft and quiet as a whisper, with color of the most intense chromatic variations anyone could ever need.”
He utilizes a wide variety of brushes— bristle flats, filberts, mongoose brights and sables— for effects ranging from delicate glazes to impastos. “I can use a toothbrush or a mop,” he muses. “There’s no magic brush that I wield.”
Fiore finds a use for tools that have acquired character. When a brush begins to lose its hairs, he saves it for fine mark-making, for blades of grass or the edges on a tree. When the hairs are no more, he turns the brush around and uses the handle for abrading. Just as important is the painting knife, which allows him to manipulate paint, to blend and scrape. “I’d be lost without my painting knife,” he proclaims. For his painting surface, Fiore prefers a double-oil-primed linen (as opposed to a gessoed or stretched canvas), which he mounts to a board. Since he’d rather spend his time painting than prepping, he’s begun to have the canvases mounted for him.
Observation is a fundamental step in Fiore’s process. “When I photograph, I spend a lot of time waiting for a subject to evolve. Yet, whenever I’m painting— whether on location or in the studio— my concerns are with the process at hand. I’m so focused on the progress of the painting that I’m not seeing the subject.” In fact, he “divorces” himself from his subject and worries about tonalities, delicacies and mood: what’s happening in front of him on the surface. When he teaches, he tells students to understand the value, color and chroma of a subject, instead of trying to paint a subject all at once. “If my students are painting a nose, for instance, I tell them to paint what makes up the nose: the under-plane and side-planes of the nose, the temperatures, and so forth. Paint those and you’ll paint a nose.”
Although he’s an accomplished artist who has illustrated the covers of best-selling books, such as The Glass Lake by Maeve Binchy and When Washington Crossed the Delaware by Lynne Cheney, Fiore still experiences the trials of life as an artist. He recalls a time not long ago that his work was chosen for a fine art exhibition in New England. He and his wife arrived at the reception to discover his works hanging unceremoniously in a dark hallway by the bathrooms. “First we cried, then we laughed,” he recalls. Upon arriving home, he found letters from two galleries wanting to represent his work. “The ups and downs make you who you are. There’s no end game here; there’s no pot of gold waiting,” he says. “It’s really just knowing that I lived my life as an artist and that I did it on my own terms. And I get to keep the lights on for another day.”
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--Lisa Wurster for The Artist's Magazine
Lisa Wurster is a freelance writer living
in Cincinnati, Ohio.
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