The BLOG: Lifestyle

In plain air: The spectacle of looking

They tease me, the Italian men walking in twos along the corso. And the young couples coming in and out of the café pause for a while to have a look. Their children are the boldest and also the most shy, coming close enough for me to hear their quickening breath, yet they say nothing. I know that my behavior invites the attention; I knew this when I woke up with the thought of painting this particular view of the street, but I’m doing it anyway.

In the Umbrian region of Italy, the Medieval city structure of Orvieto sits at the top of a hill. Most mornings it’s surrounded by a moat of thick fog that covers over Ovieto Scalo (the surrounding area of the town below), and creates the effect of a city suspended in cloud. Just after 8 a.m. and already very bright, the rows of buildings and the strings of triangular flags form jagged, angular shadow shapes against the street.

I am sitting near the café’s entrance, at a small outside table that teeters against the uneven surface of cobblestones, periodically spilling the foam of my cappuccino. I pull the plastic tray of watercolor paints from my leather bag, set the brushes face down in a used pickle jar of fresh water, and blur my view of the street way in order to break down the basic shapes of the shop buildings, apartment doorways, restaurant awnings and gelaterias. This first look is the work of translation: from a sea of color to the articulation of value. I am looking for the darkest blues and the lightest earth tones.

“La artista, eh?” a man says with tan skin, especially wrinkled around his eyes. Next to him is another man with a leather jacket and tweed cap. Together they are mischievous and daring. They speak loudly to each other and perhaps also to startle me into responding. Their tones are bold, no pretense of subtlety, leaving me embarrassed and shy. I imagine the meaning of the other Italian phrases I hear and can’t understand.
“Is that your picture?”
“So you’re trying to paint our street, is that it?”

It’s these times when I feel most like a foreigner, an intruder even.

Orvieto is made of intentional beauty. From its vast Gothic Duomo to its quintessentially Italian vineyards, and the pale tufa stone comprising both the cliff foundation and the buildings throughout the city, there is plenty here to paint. Is the cliché of a tourist with a paintbrush what makes painting in plain sight such a spectacle?

In his work, Beauty, Irish Catholic priest and scholar of Celtic Spirituality John O’Donahue writes:

Each person is the sole inhabitant of their own inner world; no one else can get in there to configure how things are seen. Each of us is responsible for how we see, and how we see determines what we see. Seeing is not merely a physical act: The heart of vision is shaped by the state of the soul.

Seeing is the private work of the soul. Yet in the act of creatively responding to the physical world, is there not something of the inner world that emerges on the canvas? If so, I wonder if what attracts passersby to a live painting is the intimate moment between painter and world that everyone can see, and if this element of exposure is what people find so irresistible.

Some mornings are better beginnings than others. On my best days, I wake up as the possessor of a great secret. It’s as if somewhere someone is saying, “Pay attention, or you might miss something.”

Susanna Young

Susanna Young

Susanna Young studied fine art and creative writing. She has a strong curiosity about other people and a tendency to haunt coffee shops and find excuses to travel as often as possible.