Winter 2008 AMERICAN ARTIST MAGAZINE, Drawing Edition by Linda S. Price
Canadian artist Tony Luciani reveals much about his life in his detailed drawings, which meld images from his imagination as well as from on-site studies.
Art as Self-Portrait
“Drawing is a lost art,” Tony Luciani says regretfully. “A gallery owner once told me many students come to see him with their portfolios filled with finished paintings—only. With digital photography it’s too easy to take a picture and just copy it exactly without much thought. Often young artists today seem to want immediate satisfaction—it’s too tedious to stand in front of a subject and draw it—so they miss the gratifying process of starting with an initial idea expressed in a few thumbnail scribbles, proceeding to a compositional sketch, then on to a detailed study, before even considering the completed painting. Each work should ultimately be a self-portrait that must come from within. If it’s the product of simply copying, the work becomes merely a decoration, detached from who you are as an artist.”
Luciani’s drawings and paintings, on the contrary, reveal a great deal about who he is and what’s going on in his life. When his marriage dissolved he embarked on his Family series. Drawings of partial heads and views of backs of the artist and his two children reflected what he was feeling—ashamed, embarrassed, and in hiding. Eventually the series evolved into each family member standing on their own. This gradually became the Body Parts series on the theme of coming out of the darkness and revealing oneself again. Next came the Window Scenes series in which, as Luciani explains, “There is a glass barrier between you and the world. You can observe but can’t participate.” Finally, after four or five years, Luciani became whole again, and he started doing sky paintings, so colorful and free-flowing they prompted a friend to comment, “You’re back.” Until then, the artist had no idea how closely his work reflected his life.
The Lost in Transition series originated with a dream; the artist dreamt he was lost in a tall cornfield where everything looked the same, and he had no sense of direction. At the time he’d moved to a farm where he felt he didn’t belong. “I was an artist of Italian heritage living in a predominately German/Dutch farming area, so I stood out,” he explains. He is the mannequin in this series, wanting to belong but always out of place. The nude female form is vulnerable with nothing to hide. In 'Gossip' he is plopped down in a field of cows. Behind his back, a large black crow sits whispering rumors and falsehoods about the newcomer. In 'Bound' the question is whether the birds are wrapping or releasing the twine around the misplaced mannequin while the artist’s cat intensely watches from atop one of the surrounding hay bales. This series ended abruptly when Luciani moved to a beautiful little town populated with other artists, musicians, and poets, a place where he finally felt at home.
Another unique series grew out of his time on the farm, but rather than being a profound comment on his life, it revolved around intriguing abstract shapes. Luciani had made many trips to the county dump and, although the image of mounds of discarded tires stayed in his head, it was months before he realized he wanted to draw them. And so began the Re-Tired series. “I asked the groundskeeper if I could hang around and do sketches of the tires,” he recalls.
“The man took a step back and hesitantly agreed. While I walked around taking reference photos and doing thumbnail drawings, I could see him pointing me out to people and making the crazy motion with his finger.” Luciani squinted to see the abstract pattern of the tires and how the light hit them. As he drew he didn’t hesitate to change things, including the patterns of the treads, to suit his artistic purposes. “I try to capture the feeling I get from the mental visualization of my subject,” he says. “Subject matter is less important than mood and feeling, both of which come from within me.”
Regardless of his subject matter, Luciani’s more complex paintings always begin with charcoal drawings. He starts with quick sketches that he likens to one-minute gesture drawings in life-drawing class. The first sketches are abstract line drawings that establish the positive and negative shapes, as well as the dark-light pattern. Luciani may move objects or add imaginary ones if the arrangement requires it. In this stage the artist is working out compositional problems in his drawing—making sure that the viewer’s eye will move around the picture plane without making the eye path obvious or the composition too structured or static. If he is dealing with architectural subjects, Luciani may do more detailed sketches of selected parts of the building for later reference.
At one time he did most of his drawing on site, but as he grows older he completes about half his finished drawings in the studio, relying on quick on-site sketches, memory, imagination, and reference photos. But he emphasizes, “I’m not copying the photos. They are just a reminder of certain aspects that intrigued me initially. It could be the light, the mood, atmosphere, or perhaps a striking color. After blocking in the completed composition, I rip up the photograph because I don’t want to be influenced or restricted by it. I want to be free to work from my imagination, create light and shadow, add elements, or take them away.” As an example, he points out 'Rooster’s Perch', which began as a photo of a local building in the snow. Most of the objects inside and outside of the shop were products of the artist’s imagination. “The painting,” he says, “shows the organized chaos of living in a small town where most of the residents are recycled. They come from other places and have done other things.”
Once he has resolved his composition in sketches, the artist begins his finished drawing on heavy-duty, smooth, acid-free paper that he coats with watered-down Golden molding paste to give it a tooth, and to provide the visible brushstrokes he likes. He draws the main lines and fixes them with workable fixative. Then, with soft, wide chisel brushes, he smudges high-quality vine charcoal all over the paper, making it as dark as possible without losing the lines. (If the drawing is intended as reference for a painting he makes a tracing of the original drawing before he tones the paper so he can easily see the lines.) Luciani can then go lighter using a kneaded eraser or go darker with charcoal. He prefers Wolff’s carbon pencils, ranging from HB to 6B, for details. He likes this brand because they are more consistent, with fewer annoying hard spots. Although they look like charcoal, they have some graphite in them, which makes them smoother. He blends some areas with cotton balls, tissues, or his fingers to achieve the desired tone, working over the entire sheet of paper and building up areas gradually.
He often looks at his drawing in a mirror to check for compositional errors, tonal weight, and proportions. One of the reasons the artist likes to work with charcoal pencil is because it’s correctable.
If a finished drawing is not going to be used as reference for a painting, Luciani fixes and frames it. If he intends to continue on to a painting, he transfers the image to the canvas by covering the back of his sheet of tracing paper with charcoal, placing it on the canvas and then going over the lines of his drawing with a pencil. To preserve the transferred lines he goes over them in pen-and-ink, and then glazes over the canvas with an earth tone that allows him to see the lines underneath. His preferred paints are Old Holland oils.
Sometimes his drawings are exhibited with his paintings, but he says, “Many galleries, it seems, don’t have the space or inclination for displaying drawings these days. People like color and paint, so most galleries prefer higher priced items to hang on their walls. But I’m stubborn. I’ve never been discouraged by that. I love drawings because you can see the artist’s thought process, and that’s intriguing for me. Ultimately, paintings may be the end result, but I like to see how they were arrived at. And drawings that are carried to their fullest potential are major artworks themselves.”
About the Artist
Tony Luciani was born and raised in Toronto and became interested in art at a very early age. In high school he took an intensive art curriculum that included four years of life drawing, as well as sculpture, art history, graphics, and illustration. With the intention of going into advertising, he enrolled at Sheridan Community College, in Oakville, Ontario, but was so far ahead of the other students in his course, that he became restless and left after a year. When he applied to the Ontario College of Art, in Toronto, they took a look at his portfolio and advanced him to their third year of the fine-arts program. He spent a post-graduate year off campus in Florence, Italy, where he studied the great masters of Renaissance art. Returning home at the age of 21, he found gallery representation immediately and has been painting full-time ever since. Luciani is represented by Loch Gallery, in Toronto, Winnipeg, and Calgary.
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