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Watercolors : Is Rome a "watercolor" city?


"Rome is not a watercolor city" but rather one meant to be drawn and painted in charcoal and pastel. So says an architect and drawing professor whose pastels AND watercolors of The City I admire very much!

When I came to Italy, as a professor also, in August 2008, I had not worked in watercolor for quite some time. In fact, charcoal, color pencil, and pastel had been lifelong favorite mediums of mine. So, while I wanted to put my colleague's curious enet to the test, it took me a while!

Watercolor is arguably one of the most challenging of the traditional painting mediums, mainly because of its instantaneous drying time. In addition, one must not apply white paint -- but use the white of the paper surface and let the painting "breathe," as it were, in the process. This rules out moving backwards and making radical changes, as one might make in oil or the dry mediums previously mentioned. In essence, to paint a watercolor that has elegance and focus -- the artist must be about three steps ahead of the actual paint application (foreseeing clearly what he does and does not want to paint) and at the same time the artist must be open to the unexpected, spontaneous surprises of the water medium!
Continuing the exploration of the watercolor medium in the City of Rome, I ventured out to two of my favorite old piazzas. Interestingly, on this particular summer day I did not have with me the light-lead pencil (3H) I usually use to first "ghost in" the main elements of the composition as a guide for the color brush. Therefore I worked without pencil guidelines of any sort -- which is a test of valour, since the HUGE expanse of the white paper looks so daunting!

But following the advice long ago of my artist friend and Benedictine monk, Brother Stephen Galban, in Elmira, New York, I started with what he calls croquis, using the French term. (Nowadays one says thumbnail sketch.) And I began with a separate mock-up or very small color scribble, about the size of a large postal stamp, laying in the manchas  ("stains") of the composition to then transfer them with my brush onto the watercolor paper.

Again, I am indebted to another very dear friend, Lisa Rosen, for the name of the watercolor of the first piazza -- The Burden of Wisdom -- which she especially  enjoyed visiting on a recent trip to Rome. Apparently, Gianlorenzo Bernini (1600s), the sculptor who created the elephant bearing the Egyptian obelisk (symbolic of wisdom), wished to render the act of acquiring and bearing knowledge as the carrying of a burden. But Bernini's elephant is endearingly humorous, encouraging us to learn and live happily with what we learn.

While I worked on The Burden...., I thought about the importance of the blank space in the page. I thought about how much good watercoloring is not merely a manual or mechanical technique, but a moral or spiritual one. Students and even teachers nowadays do not like to "overburden" drawing students with what they consider extraneous reading. Instead, I very much think students of watercoloring should read and think about works like The Law of the TAO, by Lao_Tse, or even Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote -- these texts are all about the void! About absence.


Well, it turns out that one of the most fortunate friendships I have made in Rome 
since I arrived, that of artist Alicia Taboada, has helped me explore the 
Rome/watercolor question. One day after looking at my Rome sketchbook of pencil 
drawings, Alicia exclaimed: "Your thing is line, Jose. Forget color!" And she went on 
to explain about how colors can drown out the drawing or distort the equilibrium of 
a drawn form, in much the same way that too heavy a line result in the misreading 
of a form's relative size, texture, or place in a composition. Anyway, together with 
my colleague professor's categorical dismissal of the use of watercolor in Rome, Alicia's 
admonitions essentially made me go to war over this issue and to explore the 
watercolor medium's place not only in the Italian landscape but in my own work!

Leonardo da Vinci says in his notebooks that its is imperative for artists to see and 
critique each other's works in order to raise standards of excellence and inspire each 
other to work ever better and better in their field. I owe Alicia, an extremely gifted 
and outspoken artist from Mendoza, Argentina, lover of Rome and Italy like myself, 
and my other friend, the disbelieving watercolorist, whose body or work of Roman 
cityscapes is both beautiful and sound, the beginning steps of my return to 

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