The Tragic Poet: I paint many villas at Pompeii. One morning I go to Casa di Poeta Tragico (House of the Tragic Poet). I have already sketched a view of its family shrine located in a small peristyle garden (garden surrounded by covered walkways). Huge columns catch beams of sunlight. This casa is popular and is crowded by a steady stream of tour groups. Especially famous is a floor mosaic of a dog at the front entrance, and beneath the dog in Latin reads: “Beware of the Dog.” I discover a back entrance which is opened into the small peristyle garden. Visitors flow through the garden. They pass me hiding in a corner cubbyhole near the ancient kitchen and toilets. The sun is raking across the huge columns, so I am happy with the obscured view. In my hiding place, I can barely see colors of pigment to load on my brushes. But each pigment has its assignment place on my palette so I scoop up by rote rather than sight. Only later, when I review my work in my hotel room, do I happily discover that this blindly painted canvas turns out to be one of my best.
Apollo: I ask a guard to take me next to Casa di Apollo. There the guard latches the iron gate behind me as I wander inside the cool retreat. Several trees offer plenty of shade as I tiptoe in search of Apollo whose image I find at the far corner of the garden in a small temple. I climb steps onto a low porch and walk inside where I discover badly damaged frescoes. I have trouble seeing the figures, but I assume they tell stories of Apollo’s feats of bravery. The handsome sun god wears a crown of laurel and carries a lyre in one hand and a bow in the other. More important to me, he is god of Arcadia, the Greek garden of paradise.
I make charcoal sketches of the exterior of the temple. Small columns surround the porch so that the temple has an intimacy which seems to come alive. The sun glances on the columns and spreads across the low green hedges and onto a high Roman wall behind the temple. After drawing from several angles, I select the best site from under a shade tree and draw in the temple and garden on a small canvas. I also draw in the shapes of sunlight and shadows. I have been there two hours and the light has changed. The Apollo shrine is cast in deep shadow. I feel a chill from the soft breezes: Apollo must be astir. But I must complete the painting, so carefully I darken some of the colors on the temple.
I complete this painting by 6 p.m. I pack the canvas in my carrying case and crumple the paper palette soaked with wet paint which I will throw into a street trash can. I leave the lovely little garden with no trace of my presence and arrive at the gate as the guard arrives. He locks the gate behind us.
Sallustio: Orange light and deep blue shadows cover Pompeii. I am tired, but I duck into the nearby Villa Sallustio (Sallust) where I am charmed by the rounded shapes of hedges against the deep shadows on the peristyle. The hedges throw long round shadows like horseshoes. I believe I have only 40 minutes left of light, so I set up my easel and quickly concentrate on a painting of the intimate garden hugging up against the cavernous building.
I can’t judge the success of my work on location. Only later, when I line up my work of that day, am I able to see the shapes of hedges, light raking over the ruins, and the deep shadows on each painting I have done today. They are tiny cave paintings -dark, encrusted marble, cement and brick – so many textures which I can only suggest in quick plein air painting. I emphasize chiaroscuro (dark-to-light contrast) which differs from French Impressionists. (Pissarro and Monet made use of temperature changes – warm yellows and oranges contrasted with cool blues and violets to create a sense of sun-filled landscapes. They added white to most of their colors.) I describe these ruins in earth colors of umbers, greens, and blues in contrast to mid-ranges of yellow ochre, burnt Sienna, greens, and reds.
I use no white so my lightest pigment is Chrome Yellow, a rich warm pigment.
Anfiteatro and Necropoli: Sounds of mumblings tour guides and kids whining to their parents may mimic ancient Pompeii when crowds cheered in unison as the gladiators competed in life-and-death bouts at the Anfiteatro (amphitheater). I visit the inside arena and grandstands which are remarkably preserved. I walk through the covered corridors for shade from the intense sun out in the arena. I am looking for a view to paint, but I find nothing that satisfies me. I believe the real beauty of this drum-shaped building is outside where arched windows form dark notes into an otherwise bleached stone exterior. A long ramp slithers like a snake outside the Anfiteatro up to the top tier; I recognize this distinguishing feature which appears in ancient frescoes. Today, tired families limp up the incline – just to see what is inside. Sightseeing can be hard work and I prefer to sit under a lovely group of umbrella pines which line the avenue outside the big round building. Long shadows from umbrella pines play like musical notes on the theater and sandy road. My cool spot on a ledge encircling the Palestra Grande (athletic field) across from the amphitheatre is pleasant as I spread paint onto a small canvas.
After I place my wet painting in a carrying case and throw away the used paper palette, I still have an hour left to paint. So I wander to the right of the amphitheatre to a steep hill blocked by wire fences. From atop the hill I can see below Necropoli di Porta Nocera (cemetery) and a path winding through large mausoleums and pines. So, I lift my painting equipment through a small opening, and kneel and squeeze through. As I climb down the rocky ledge, I look out for security guards who might find my antics lawless.
Down in the Necropoli, I admire the lovely shrines aged in earthen colors. The shrines line up like small houses with doors or iron gates and red-tiled roofs. I walk along the path looking for a view which may never have been painted before. The late afternoon sun changes direction of shadows. Colors seem to disappear by the minute, so I work quickly and in 30 minutes, I have completed my work. This is, indeed, a painting of a first impression.
The sun falls below the horizon. I am tired, dusty, and ready for dinner. But to get back to my hotel, I have to climb back up the hill, through the fence, and past the Anfiteatro in order to reach the exit at Porta Marina.