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Lively Brushwork,
Purposeful Color
by Meredi t h E. Lewi s
Along a
County Road
2003, watercolor,
2 x 21
Collection Mr. and
Tom Francesconi points to his Italian heritage. I am always
gesturing with my hands, he says. So you can imagine what
happens when I pick up a brush! Francesconis direct and
energized painting approach helps him achieve a sense of
boldness and immediacy in his work. As part of his intu-
itive painting method, he relies on his instincts to deter-
mine both his color choices and how to apply the paint. I
try to let my color decisions be persuaded by what I feel
rather than what I see, he continues. A great deal of my
color choices are less about what is and more about what
could be or, based on the evolving painting, what should be.
This approach reveals as much or more about the artist as
it does about the subject, and for me, that is important.
Choosing the right colors for a paintingand then
applying them with a lively brushcan make all the differ-
ence in a works success. Francesconi keeps his work inter-
esting by uniting a bold brush with emphatic and purpose-
ful color statements. The most important thing is to know
what you want to say, he argues. If you can nail down
what your intentions are before you paint, your decisions
about color and application are more likely to be correct.
Making color decisions requires more than just knowing
the actual color of something and being able to paint it, he
continues. In fact, thats the least of it. Being sensitive to
the overall color balance of the painting is what matters.
Instead of asking, What color is a tree? It would be more
2002, watercolor,
2 x 21
2. Collection
Mr. and Mrs. Gary
Spring Runoff
2003, watercolor,
17 x 24. Collection
appropriate to ask, What color should the tree be, consider-
ing the colors that already exist in the painting and those
yet to come? Knowing what you want to say will play a role
in that decision. Color that is introduced into a painting
that is out of sync with the surrounding color chords will
look wrong, just as a sour note sounds wrong in music.
Francesconis color choices are independent of the way he
applies paint, but like his eye-catching brushstrokes, his color
choices are made with the viewers response in mind. Any
type of color change represents contrast, which draws the
eyes attention, he says. Such possibilities include comple-
mentary colors positioned as neighbors, pure color juxta-
posed against muted or grayed color, warm color against cool
color, and light color set against a darker color. In the case of
a light color against a dark color, the attraction is really about
a value change, rather than anything to do with color. If one
of the two colors were dramatically different in hue, tempera-
ture, or intensity, combined with the change in value, then
the attraction of the visual statement would become even
more profound. Considering these possibilities in the cre-
ation of a painting can allow the artist to facilitate eye move-
ment, and thereby orchestrate the viewers attention.
Francesconi is quick to point out, however, that specific
color choices are less important than establishing accurate
value relationships. Value relationships represent the
bones or framework of a painting, the artist says. Without
them, a painting couldnt exist. They are of core importance
to the design. Accordingly, Francesconi advocates the use
of a value plan, one that is carefully and thoughtfully com-
posed. Design takes what would otherwise be chaotic and
difficult to readand therefore uncomfortable to look at
and makes it orderly, recognizable, and a more enjoyable
viewing experience, he says.
Although colors pool and bleed and shiftalways beau-
tifullyin Along a County Road, this looseness is bolstered
by a solid ordering scheme that makes the painting easy to
read and easy to view. My initial attraction to this scene
was the cool shadow patterns in the snow set against the
rich red of the barn on a sunny, but cold, winter morning,
Francesconi recalls. I chose manganese blue (for its sedi-
mentary qualities) to represent the snow in shadow, and
cadmium red light for the barn. I painted in a direct fash-
ion with brushwork that was decisive and used pure color
to emphasize the drama I felt by the contrast of these two
elements. To bring the painting to a finish, I balanced the
large mass at right with the figure at left.
Another play of light and shadowsthis time across an
old brick buildingresulted in Alley Cats, a painting of an
alley on Chicagos West Side. I used the old abandoned
rails as a design element to direct the eye into the composi-
tion and tried to provide enough interest within the alley,
by means of color and description, to make the viewer want
to stay a while, Francesconi explains. I tried not to labor
the figures, as it was my intention to keep them a little
vague to promote more interest. Color notes, such as the
dab of orange on the garbage can at left, are intended to
add interest in that area and invite the eye to look.
Francesconi describes his work as loose and represen-
tational and admires paintings that demonstrate mystery
and invention. He notes that his work is edging toward a
greater looseness or even a semiabstract quality of repre-
sentation, particularly in paintings such as Rain Walkers,
wherein he explores wet-in-wet applications. For Rain
Walkers I presoaked 300-lb paper to encourage the paint to
Alley Cats
1999, watercolor,
4 x 21
4. Collection
Janice Dunteman.
Rain Walkers
2004, watercolor,
22 x 30. Collection
bleed and to promote soft edges while keeping my colors
muted, he says. This was all in an effort to help convey
the gray, damp atmosphere of the occasion. My brush was
loaded with pigment and little waterbecause the paper
was already saturatedand I applied the paint in a very
determined fashion. I had planned for pronounced color
statements and strong value contrasts in the area of the fig-
ures to secure their place of prominence. This provided the
excitement I was looking for, and in contrast to the sur-
rounding environment, it is a visual treat.
To demonstrate the significant differences between a
conservative, object-oriented approach to painting and the
freer, shape- and value-oriented painting method he prefers,
Francesconi created Boat With Pilings, No. 1 and Boat With
Pilings, No. 2. Boat With Pilings, No. 1 was an attempt to
portray the subject pretty much as I saw it: a dark-hull boat
resting in the water with a plain blue sky overhead and
green hills in the background, the artist says. My approach
was rather careful and straightforward, beginning with a sky
wash and progressing downward to the hills, water, and
finally the boat and pilings in the foreground. I waited for
each wash to dry before moving on to the next, adding the
darker values as I went along. I placed the horizon in such a
way as to divide the picture plane in half, a mundane begin-
ning. To add insult to injury, a dark-gray boat, grayish brown
pilings, blue water, and green trees are rather predictable.
For the viewer, there are no discoveries to be made. Careful
brushwork and my unwillingness to explore with color have
led to an uninspired painting effort. One could reasonably
conclude that I was more concerned about the depiction of
things than I was about creating a painting.
For the second composition, however, Francesconi made
use of energized and decisive brushwork, as well as richer
and more inventive colors. I attempted to convey my
enthusiasm for my subject with the hope of bringing about
a greater sense of excitement to an otherwise static compo-
sition, he says. Here, my thinking has shifted away from
a preoccupation with things to a more meaningful aware-
ness of color, shapes, size relationships, dominance, and
variety. I have embraced a change of attitude, one that is
bolder and more creative. Large gestural brushstrokes
infuse the work with a sense of dynamism and help keep
me away from the hesitant, careful handling of my earlier
attempt. Paint is allowed to mix and mingle on the paper,
as opposed to the palette. My darks are rich, juicy, and
more colorful, and they help to breathe life into the paint-
ing. I determined that a distinctive warm color on the hull
would be a striking change from the abundance of cooler
temperatures that would surround it. This decision, and
the more dynamic white of the cabin, elevate the boat to
one of greater visual importance and help fulfill its role as a
dominant shape within the composition. I believe the
approach seen in the second painting better illustrates
enthusiasm for the subject and invites the viewer to share
in that enthusiasm and become more involved.
Not getting too comfortable with what has worked before,
taking risks, and not being afraid to fail are among
Francesconis biggest stated challenges. So too, he says, are
embracing growth and keeping the world at bay to protect
painting time. Combining his intuitive color choices and
careful value plans with his characteristically active and lively
brush is not an easy task either, although Francesconis paint-
ings demonstrate that he is up to the challenge. How paint
is applied can make a difference, he says. A lively brush
can infuse a sense of excitement into a painting. From a vari-
ety of edges to a mingling of paint, it can encourage any
number of things to happen, all of which can provide more
interest to a work. It isnt the only way to apply paint, but it
can be a joyful experience for both the artist and the viewer.
And it can make the difference between an uneventful piece
of work and one that begs for attention.
Francesconi was born and raised in suburban Chicago
andstudied art at Eastern Illinois University, in Charleston,
before focusing his education on watercolor at the American
Academy of Art, in Chicago. He worked in advertising as a
commercial artist for 12 years before turning his attention to
painting and teaching. A studio painter who works from pho-
tographs and sketches done on location, Francesconi cites his
uncle, Raymond Kokkelenberg, as the person responsible for
lighting the fire and exposing him to watercolor and the
works of such luminaries as Rex Brandt and Robert E. Wood.
Irving Shapiros incredible paintings and valuable lessons
fanned those flames, he says. They have been raging ever
since. My first watercolor books were by Ted Kautzky and
John Pike, who greatly influenced me. John Singer Sargent
has always been an unreachable star. A winner of numerous
painting awards, as well as signature memberships in the
National Watercolor Society, the Northwest Watercolor Society,
and the Transparent Watercolor Society of America, of which
he is a former president, Francesconi has shown his work
nationally and has paintings in corporate, public, and private
collections around the country.
Boat With Pilings,
No. 1
2005, watercolor,
2 x 21
Collection the artist.
Here the artist used a
straightforward and
conservative approach to
render his subject. The
uninspired brushwork and
predictable color choices
conclude in a rather
derivative painting effort.
Boat With Pilings,
No. 2
2005, watercolor,
2 x 21
2. Collection
Mr. and Mrs. Tony
In contrast to his first
effort, here the artist
made use of energized
and decisive brushwork,
as well as a richer and
more inventive palette of
colors. His bold creativity
yields a surprising
excitement to an other-
wise static composition.
Reprinted from Highlights: Copyright 2008 by Interweave Press, LLC. All rights reserved.