Updated: May 7
Rita Scafidi painted the portrait above of a young man named Neil. It was in a life drawing open studio where the scheduled model did not show up. When one only has two to three hours to work, one has no time to waste waiting around. This young man had come to draw but was asked to pose instead. Scafidi's sure hand and keen eye went to work to capture not just a face, but a mood and the mystery of a personality.
The strokes are rapid. The paint smears and blends on the canvas. Accidents happen, but with careful thought, they are made useful. Look, for instance at the lower left quadrant showing the chin and neck. The tendons in the neck come forth as a dash of light paint, touched by a ruddy orange, and shadowed by gray, the same gray that defines the chin. The highlights show brightly, dividing the face into two sides, allowing us to see one eye clearly, while the other fades to black as might be seen in a film noir movie. The coup de grace is that little dash of cream colored paint on the chin that takes a quick flip upwards toward the cheek. And there it is, a face, a mood, a moment, all as fleeting as time itself.
Alla prima is an Italian term for painting wet-on-wet, or simply adding wet paint to a surface of already wet paint. The French are more direct in their name for this style of painting, calling it au premier coup, or at the first stroke. It is painting that is immediate and in the moment, allowing for the artist to capture that valuable first impression. In essence this is a very fluid style of painting that requires a special kind of endurance as well as nimble thinking. One of the 20th century's most famous alla prima painters was Francis Bacon, who would throw the paint on the canvas by hand then work it as he willed for hours until he achieved the look he wanted. His paint often looked smeered rather than brushed, and when brushed, it flew across the canvas, defining, blurring and blending as needed. The way Scafidi handles the paint in the area of the neck and chin in the piece above is reminiscent of Bacon's style.
In theory painting alla prima sounds easy, but in practice even finding where to start can stymie more than a few. When asked where she starts her portraits, Scafidi says, "I look for the most beautiful line." She says of herself, "I don't have the patience that most artists have. I prefer a small quick study, then move on to the next idea." That may sound too hasty to produce good portraits, but Scafidi has developed another critical skill: the power of penetrating observation. In portraiture the first thing considered, certainly by the sitter for the portrait, is does the painting capture the likeness. Scafidi does that with amazing accuracy in a very few of the first minutes in a three hour session. She describes her process by saying, "I like to take a close look at a subject and discover a relationship, or experience the beauty that I might not see if I wasn't studying it close enough to draw it." When she says draw it, she refers to making a quick sketch in paint on the canvas to find that "most beautiful line," which then becomes the underlying structure of the painting. From there she moves on to a visual dialog with the model, the mood, and the paint.
Above we have Elizabeth and Hannah, two quite different pieces, reflecting not only different physical looks but distinct personalities. The strong features and direct gaze of Elizabeth are moderated by the way her portrait rises out of the background colors, shades of which are used to make the planes and shadows of her face. While Elizabeth presents a more direct posture, Hannah looks to the side, perhaps dreaming of something far from where she is. Once again the background color echoes in the coloring of the face and even as a hint in the eye color. It also forms a sharp contrast to the pink, red, and blue violet tones in the hair color, another indication of a different personality. Though different, each of these portraits shows a quality of soulfulness that captures the imagination of the viewer.
Scafidi's adventures in art are not limited to the portrait. She takes on landscape, often through plein air painting (another method of painting in the moment). However, sometimes she simply chooses a palette of colors and "finds the painting." This rather Oriental approach is one I know from my own study with Chinese watercolorist, Cheng-Khee Chee (www.chengkheechee.com). It requires a deft touch based upon observation mixed with memory to create a plausible reality. Here blue, dark gray and white play off one another to create deep woods, mists floating on the waters, distant mountains with low hanging clouds, themselves touched by blue in the upper reaches of the sky.
The mists and clouds of a forest and river in the early morning can have the feeling of abstraction. It is only our knowledge of the look of mountains, rivers, and trees that immediately shapes areas of paint into landscape. Often, however, the beauty of a painting is in how the paint falls on the canvas. The artist can then shape it into an image or just add a few touches of texture and leave it alone, as done here in Lapis One of Diptych.
While Scafidi makes choices in her work, she accepts accidents and surprises as "extra fun." She likes to stretch her imagination to make something of these moments of chance.
The artist does not keep the joy of discovery in painting to herself. She has developed a YouTube following for her lessons in painting. Starting from the premise that anyone can draw and paint, she has devised a series of quick demonstrations that allow the student to follow along and end up with a piece of art. Originally designed as lessons for teachers to use, they have also been used in senior living facilities as fun and interesting activities that don't require a lot of preparation or previous experience on the part of the elder participants. The African Woman depicted here walks balancing the pot she holds with the tilt of her head and her hip, her graceful walk quickly and effectively captured.
So I leave you with a snapshot of the artist capturing the moment, looking for relationships of color, and working with happy accidents. Her final comment on the whole thing, "It's fun!"
To see Rita Scafidi's Youtube channel and to contact her, go to he