“Midnight Passing” — © Jed Smith 2020, oil on canvas

Two solid months of steady work on a large canvas yield results.

Well before the current health crisis and home confinement I’d decided to use my paints to render Venice night scenes. I’d already chosen four or five subjects and I’d dutifully sketched out the first one on my last large canvas (29.5” x 59″). Normally, a painting of this scale and detail would be a six-month project. Normally, life would have looked very different these past few months and I would be doing the usual dance between multiple creative projects. So, once I got past a bit of internal petulance at the inconvenience and limitations of being required to stay housebound, I commanded myself to “Get moving!”

The gift of time and focus in the midst of upheaval.

Starting this series of nocturnal paintings in Venice was something I knew would be an ambitious undertaking. Before this painting, entitled “Midnight Passing,” I’d never attempted a nighttime scene. If you study the paintings in my online gallery, you’ll see that through my paints (watercolor and oil) I gravitate to daylight-infused scenes. Painting light at night, especially lights that glow from artificial sources, causes a shift of planning in my engineering process.

My love of the Floating City motivated this new series. And I’m always intrigued by the mood of Venice at night. So, I had vision and passion. I also knew this wouldn’t be a slam dunk. I could fail big. I needed uninterrupted painting time if I wanted to explore this direction with any measure of success.

Looking first to the master of nighttime scenes, Edward Hopper.

Edward Hopper (see several of his paintings here) is one of my top five all-time-favorite artists. His paintings are full of emotional mystery. “Nighthawks,” an iconic American masterpiece, was an immediate reference point and a source of inspiration. Before putting paint to canvas, I studied his technique and how he rendered shadows of different colors. I looked at how he emphasized the placement of light to draw the viewer’s attention.

I saw a wonderful exhibition of his work at The Whitney in New York fourteen years ago. I was in awe, not only in the power of his work but in the unique visual voice of this man.

Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world.”

— Edward Hopper

Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" was an inspiration for me to paint Venice at Night

Let the games begin!

I’ve been taking images of Venice night scenes for a long time. Creating successful nocturnal scenes with photography is its own gnarly ball of wax. It’s not easy. My successes are spotty. But, when taking images that I intend to use as a visual reference for a painting, I’m a lot looser with my trigger finger. I’m not trying to achieve a photographic masterpiece. I just want enough detail to help guide my efforts as I paint night for the very first time. In fact, I’m glad that the rather muddied photo reference that I took for this piece forced me to reach into my understanding of light, color, and contrast. It wouldn’t let me use the photo as a crutch. Instead, it prompted me to use my imagination while reminding me, “This is your story to tell in the way you want to tell it.” In other words, trust my unique artistic voice to find its way through my hands, paints, and canvas.

I started painting. After a couple of days, I muttered, “Oh crap, what have you gotten yourself into?” Yep, this painting would demand more patience and care than ever before. But I had plenty of time on my hands to let this work evolve.

Plenty of pausing to close my eyes and remember “being there.”

I don’t want to be one of those artists who go on ad nauseam about his or her work. Instead, let it speak for itself. You know, don’t pollute the viewer’s mind with too much backstory. But I will tell you this. It was important for me to remember this summer evening on The Grand Canal with the heavy midnight boat traffic of a festival night. I remember the soft purr of boat motors as water taxis dodged each other. I can still hear the water lapping up again boat hulls and the foundations of ancient palazzos. I remember the eerie glow of softly-lit faces of passengers in other boats. I see the beckoning interior lights of exquisite residences.

I’m ready for the next in this series…

In fact, I’ve already sketched it out. This time a slightly smaller canvas. If this one goes well, I’ll tackle a few more ideas, and I’ll head out to Venice (now that restrictions are being lifted) for some additional inspiration.

But first, a palate cleanser. I need to give my creative brain a slight rest before I tackle another nighttime scene. So, I’ll do that with an abstract—something completely intuitive and non-literal. Good to shake things up a bit?

Stay tuned.