I have always loved fruit trees. Growing up in the midwest, there were mostly apple trees to admire, which always made autumn extra special. Now I suppose, it's not surprising as I thumb through early memories, how vividly I can recall a kindergarten field trip to a "pick-your-own" apple orchard; my grandmother's persimmon trees in the side yard; and picking buckets full of cherries from my neighbor Virginia's sour cherry trees.
I suppose there has always been a bit of magic in picking fruit off a branch, rubbing it clean on your shirt, and eating it right there in the orchard, still warm from the sun. Magical. And to me, supremely beautiful.
All of this love for fruit in its natural habitat came full circle for me this past year in Italy, where the abundance of produce cannot be missed by any traveler passing through.
September 2013 through May 2014, I had the great good fortune to live in various parts of Italy. For the first three months of my stay, I was living at the American Academy in Rome on the 2013 Alma Schapiro Prize fellowship. While the Academy has innumerable wonderful things I could write pages about, I think it is safe to say my favorite part of campus was the Bass Garden.
The Italians have loved their produce for centuries. "The Painted Garden" of the Villa Livia (30-20 BCE) is an entire frescoed dining room from the home of Livia Drusilla, wife of Augusta Caesar. These wall paintings continue to be a great source of inspiration for me, and I spent many, many afternoons sitting with and studying them.
After spending winter studying in Florence, we returned to Rome. Back in the garden at the AAR, my fruit painting frenzy really took off. I had never seen, or smelled lemon blossoms before. I was enchanted. The blooms are the most beautiful pink and the smell is heavenly. We then traveled south from Rome. Southern Italy, to my mind, is the Land of Lemons.
I made a pilgrimage to Sorrento, where the lovely limoncello producers allowed me to set up in their grove. It was absolute heaven to be completely surrounded by lemon trees and even an allergic reaction to pollen and a swollen right eye didn't stop me from painting until sundown. From Sorrento we would journey to the island of Capri and finally to Priano (a small town on the Amalfi coast) before returning home to the states. I painted lemons the whole way. Fruit trees are just everywhere in Italy, on the street and in back yards. It was very easy to find someone that would let me sit with their trees all day and work. Italians are wonderful about letting you trespass to paint.
I painted field studies and I clipped samples to paint in my temporary outdoor studio(s). I'm not really so much of a traditional landscape painter, though all of these studies were done "en plein air." I much prefer painting in gardens and manicured places, and like to focus my subject matter on something more attainable (for me, that is) than a vista - such as a couple of pieces of fruit on a limb or a single tree. It is important to my working process to experience the environment of my subject matter, particularly if I am painting nature.
Why so many lemons? I have loved lemons since I was a little girl. I will eat anything with lemon as a main ingredient and my husband often gets on me for "cooking with too much zest." But I didn't make all of these paintings just because I love lemons (although they brought me much joy). All of these paintings are studies and references for a large painting I am working on. So, each painting I made was serving a particular purpose - whether it was to do a study of the leaves, the blossoms, the light on the fruit, or the entire tree. Personally, it helps keep me motivated to have a goal I'm working towards, especially when one study doesn't go so well.
I have been painting fruit for a long time. When I began still life painting, my first subjects were fruits and vegetables. It was a great learning tool. Organic subjects prove to be a little more forgiving than manmade objects, as the drawing doesn't need to be so precise - i.e. an apple verses a wine glass. Produce also gives you a wide variety of color and is generally simple enough in shape to aid in understanding of light, form, and paint handling. I am really excited to be instructing an upcoming still life workshop at GCA and I think it will be a great opportunity for beginners who want to explore technique as well as more advanced artists to explore color and composition. It should be a really fun three days of admiring these earthly delights!
Katie Whipple leads "Painting Fruits and Vegetables" a 3-day Still Life Painting workshop at GCA March 20-22, 2015. Learn more and register.