Southwest Art Magazine - February 2012
Landscapes of the Heart By Norman Kolpas
Heavy, brooding skies hung low over the Grant Narrows, a corner of the agricultural Fraser Valley some 25 miles east-northeast of downtown Vancouver, British Columbia. Storm clouds wreathed the nearby hills in wisps of white. Winds whipped the air. Yet, remarkably, the irrigation channels that crisscross the land and provide sanctuary to sandhill cranes and blue herons remained tranquil, sheltered by the tall earthen dike walls that control the waters of the nearby Pitt and Alouette rivers.
It was a morning in early autumn a year ago, and, as usual, Renato Muccillo was out strolling in the area. With him was his “studio buddy for the last eight years,” his greyhound, Ajax. “He likes to peel around on the dikes,” Muccillo says. “So he’s one of the driving factors for me to get out there.”
Suddenly, Muccillo was struck by the feeling that he was “the only person on the planet.” The saturated natural palette all around him—the gold of native grasses, the blues and grays of sky and water, the greens of the hillsides and of the algae that fringed the water—deepened his sense of glorious isolation. He took out his BlackBerry and snapped numerous random reference shots in what he calls “an exercise in memorization, to capture the mood and sense of place.”
Then, back in his 300-square-foot studio—which adjoins the Craftsman-style cedar home he built himself in the nearby town of Maple Ridge—he began to transform those impressions into a painting he eventually entitled SANCTUARY. Downloading the photos to his laptop, he combined “bits of this, bits of that,” until he achieved a concept that captured not so much the physical reality of what he had seen as the emotional impact it had on him.
That done, he began to paint directly on a 36-by-36-inch canvas of double-oil-primed linen, without so much as the barest sketch to block out the work beforehand. “As soon as pencil or charcoal goes down,” he says, “I feel it’s very restrictive. I lose the painting’s fluidity.”
Fluidity is essential. As he does for all his paintings, Muccillo began with “one big monochromatic wash of color, moving paint over paint, rubbing back, and forming imagery in that base—primarily with a brush but also rags, Q-tips, or anything to aid in making marks. It’s all very primal.” This process produces what he describes as “a very basic composition,” but it also serves to harmonize all the colors that follow. And it endowed the painting with a mood that prevailed as, over the course of weeks, the artist continued painstakingly to build up his final image with at least 10 thin layers of oil glaze, sometimes deepening the water or sky, sometimes suggesting an entire field through just a few carefully portrayed and strategically placed blades of grass.
The results of this process, which he follows on as many as 20 canvases he may be working on at any given time, are meditative, moving, minimalist landscapes in a style that the artist describes at first as “a deeply controlled impressionism.” Then, resisting pat labels, he goes on to term his work variously as tonalist, acknowledging late-19th-century American painters like George Inness; luminist, first applied in the 20th century to the nature scenes of 19th-century American painters like Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Church; and the broader traditionalist and classicist, acknowledging that he paints largely realistic images that serious collectors have long found desirable.
As that hard-to-pin-down checklist of styles may suggest, Renato Muccillo stands resolutely apart from art-world conventions. From the earliest manifestations of his talent to the present day, he has blazed his own unconventional trail.
Muccillo was born in Vancouver in 1965 to immigrant parents from Campobasso, a small, 13-centuries-old city in southern Italy’s Apennine Mountains. “To understand my father and mother,” says Muccillo, “gives a little insight to why I am the way I am as an artist.” He describes the couple, now in their 80s and still thriving, as “salt of the earth, and their key drive in life is survival.” To this day, his dad, a retired cement mason, and his mother, a homemaker, remain “hard-core gardeners,” and his mother still cans the bounty from the expertly tended patch behind their East Vancouver home. In addition, his father has always loved to fish, and he still hunts pheasants every autumn.
So, from an early age, Muccillo was taught to “do things by hand, forge your own path.” And, though it sometimes bewildered his parents—who wondered how he could make a living at it—young Renato was “very, very driven to draw and paint.”
He remembers rising early on Christmas morning, before the age of 5, to create drawings as presents for his family. The one prize pheasant his dad kept each year from the hunt to have stuffed and mounted as a trophy, Renato would also depict in a colored-pencil sketch, “simply because my father loved [the pheasants].” On weekends, when the family headed out to the Fraser Valley to take their dogs on field runs in preparation for hunting season, Renato brought his paints and set up his easel amidst the grasses, creating imaginative landscapes not necessarily related to his surroundings. By the time he was 10, he was selling his paintings through a local art-supply store.
Yet, Muccillo never received—and didn’t seek out—any special art lessons to help hone his talent. Instead, he names his third-grade teacher, Rosemary Mack, as a critical influence, who simply accepted him for who he was: the “hyper-bouncy, usually distracted” boy who was forever drawing and coloring. “I felt she understood what I was doing, that this was my gift, and she was so caring and nurturing.”
Meanwhile, his parents encouraged him to seek a more practical trade he could rely upon. With a passion for cooking nurtured by his family’s dedication to self-sufficiency and gardening—“You ain’t Italian if you don’t love food,” he interjects with a laugh—Muccillo first set his sights on becoming a chef, working in local kitchens while still in his teens. Then, with even more practicality, straight out of high school he landed a clerical job at a local Bank of Montreal office, where he stayed for seven years.
All the while, he painted in his spare time. “I knew I wanted to be an artist,” he says. “I just didn’t know how to get there.”
What eventually got him there was witnessing the rise of Canadian naturalist and wildlife artist Robert Bateman, whose realistic paintings, lithographs, and books had become phenomenal bestsellers by the mid-1980s. “I remember coming across his images, and stories about how financially successful he was, and thinking that I could do this.”
Still clerking at the bank, Muccillo began painting his own highly lifelike images of Canadian animals in the wild, starting with a close-up of a great horned owl. He then made quality photographic color prints of his paintings and started selling them to his coworkers and friends. Then, a loan officer at the bank introduced Muccillo to her son, who worked for an art-publishing company in Toronto. “‘We’ve got a lot of artists, but I’ll take a look,’” he remembers the man telling him. “Then I opened my portfolio. His eyes opened wide, and he said, ‘I think we can work together.’”
They did. Muccillo left the bank in 1993 and began producing around half a dozen “really tight, photorealistic” animal paintings a year, specifically designed for high-quality color lithographic reproduction. He might have continued doing that were it not for the rise of giclée prints, which offered superior art reproduction on a mass scale using digital scanning and large-format inkjet printers. “The market suddenly flooded,” he says, “and I found myself competing with hundreds and hundreds of artists.”
Frustrated, in 1996 he stopped painting and returned to a desk job, working in an administrative position at the Law Society of British Columbia. “It was a great job,” he recalls. “My life was set.” But Muccillo’s creative impulses couldn’t be suppressed. An art collection decorated the walls of the Law Society’s offices, and soon he’d been granted permission to add some of his own canvases to the display.
The style of his works began to change after he visited a late-1990s show at the Vancouver Art Gallery on the Group of Seven, a band of artists who revolutionized painting in Canada after World War I by portraying the nation’s landscapes in works that ranged from lyrical impressionism to vibrant, emotion-packed expressionism. Seeing these seminal works, says Muccillo, “set me free and made me look outside of what I was comfortable with. I went from über-realistic wildlife [paintings] to landscapes approached in a much more abstracted form. I wasn’t used to laying out a particular brush stroke and leaving it. Slowly, I whittled away things I didn’t need and honed my particular style to what it is now.”
By 2002, his landscapes were being shown—and selling—in group shows at the Federation of Canadian Artists and a local gallery. Solo exhibitions soon followed. Since 2003, Muccillo has been painting full time—and this time, with multiple awards and booming sales, there’s no turning back.
As he has throughout his life and his evolution as an artist, the 46-year-old Muccillo continues to be what he describes as “largely self-taught. I understand who I am as a person and what drives me. Especially with this artistic avenue, I don’t want to be influenced by any particular teacher. I want to intuit enough to learn myself what I need to know. This is my own independent journey through life, and I want to see how far I can go.”
Apparitions of the Narrows
Renato Muccillo, The Avenue Gallery, 2184 Oak Bay Ave., 250-598-2184, www.theavenuegallery.com, until May 23.
Renato Muccillo reports that his mother told him "get a good job. Do cement, like your father!" To judge by the lineup that awaited the opening of his show at the Avenue Gallery, following his own path was a good idea.
Muccillo lives in Maple Ridge, 50 kilometres east of Vancouver: "My valley," as he calls it with pride. Nearby Pitt Meadows was once a big marsh, the floodplain of the Pitt River, but a century ago the Dutch diked it and drained it and left a rich agricultural bottomland. Muccillo loves to paint this compressed, flat landscape and the huge vaporous cloudscapes that rise above.
The exhibit gives ample evidence that Muccillo can draw like a wizard, yet his pleasure seems to be in simplification. "Detail is not necessary in developing a strong painting," he told an audience at the opening. He called his style "a very controlled impressionism."
I call it the Dutch masters brought to a New World. His extreme sensitivity to atmospheric effects is translated through oil glazes tending toward warm golden tones reminiscent of the treasured canvases of Ruisdael or Cuyp. Never shy to add a few dots of colour, Muccillo sometimes dots in the lights of an industrial site in the distance to bring his vision up to date.
By Robert Amos, Times Colonist, May 17, 2009 7:49 AM
Boulevard Magazine Article
The paintings of Renato Muccillo at The Avenue Gallery (“The Quenched Land”)
Written for “Front Row” column - Sept/Oct 2004 Boulevard magazine
By Kate Cino
Renato Muccillo paints lush, atmospheric oil paintings that are a response to his love of the natural environment. From his home in the southern section of Vancouver, he has access to the marshy flatlands and rolling rivers south of the city. He skillfully paints the big moody skies that tower over our rainy West Coast. Muccillo’s artwork conveys a sense of peace and serenity. The landscapes seem timeless and traditional, flowing with washes of light and colour that draw the eye into the soft mystery of the scenery. Subtle shading and muted tones let the eye rest gently in the moist, near miraculous landscapes. Never garish, the paintings reveal their secrets gradually, becoming more familiar and interesting with the passing of time, like an old friend.
Heather Wheeler, owner of The Avenue Gallery, is pleased to be hosting Muccillo’s first solo show October 7-20. “We’ve had a terrific response to his paintings,” she says. “People are moved by the unique vision and painting style of the artist.” Muccillo is also appreciated by his peers. A member of the Federation of Canadian Artists (FCA), he received three awards in 2003 at juried shows hosted by the organization. At the Changing Light show, he was awarded both a People’s Choice Award and an Award of Excellence. The artist also won an Award of Excellence at Altered States, the federation’s abstract art exhibit.
The artist’s landscapes are gradually becoming more abstracted, with more emphasis on colour fields and less on details. He comments that he is constantly striving to perfect his skills as a painter and understand how colour itself can have such a profound effect on the viewer. Muccillo has incorporated the classical techniques of 17th- and 18th-century artists into his large-format oils. Painters from that era used a palette limited to three or four colours, and strove for balance and harmony in the overall composition. “These techniques help me capture the dramatic essence of a landscape,” he says. The artist uses strong pools of light and darkness to focus the viewer’s attention on the turbulent beauty of cloud-swept skies and the verdant warmth of moisture-laden fields.
The artist paints at least eight hours a day, six days a week, and he greatly appreciates the opportunity to do what he loves for a living. “It’s a privilege to do this reflective and fascinating work,” he says. For the artist, painting has always been a “necessity” in his life. When he was very young, he used his art as a way to communicate with his Italian-speaking parents. When he was 10, he sold his paintings in a local store in exchange for art supplies and cash. And now as an adult, he sees painting as a kind of first language, his most fluent and expressive mother tongue, as compared to his second language—that of the spoken word.
Abstract painter and fellow member of the FCA, Michael den Hertog, also uses the medium of paint to communicate. When people see his work hanging in his studio-gallery on Granville Island, they often ask: “What is it?” So he replies: “Well, what do you think it is?” “Then, usually, some interesting dialogue unfolds,” says the artist. Den Hertog has long been interested in Muccillo’s artistic development. “I was impressed with his most recent series of paintings,” he says, “the deep, rich, brooding colours convey strong moods and emotions.” Den Hertog also noticed Muccillo’s skillful handling of paint. A lot of good painting is “happy accident” he comments. But, artists need a certain mastery of the medium before they can loosen up and produce soft, unrestrained brushwork with a sense of spontaneity. As Muccillo’s artistic journey continues, he strives to create art that is both simple and powerful. The worlds he creates are outside of time, fleeting moments in a mysterious and ever-changing universe.
Magazin Art Publication
Article by Richard Waugh, Magazin Art (Winter 2003-2004) courtesy of the publisher.
Very few painters achieve artistic success with painting styles as diverse as high realism, impressionism and abstractionism. Yet Renato Muccillo’s masterful use of monochromatic palettes and diffuse light that filters through his uncomplicated landscapes – causing them to fade in and out of focus while capturing the essence of the images – created a surreal atmosphere and near-hypnotic effect on the patrons who attended the White Rock Gallery’s recent group exhibition, On Solid Ground.
Born in 1965 to Italian parents who immigrated to Canada a decade earlier, Muccillo grew up in one of the many ethnic, working class neighbourhoods that give East Vancouver its distinctive cosmopolitan flair. When he was 10 years old, his sister brought him home some oils from the neighbourhood art store where she worked. To encourage Muccillo’s early development as an artist, the proprietor agreed to sell his paintings at the store in return for art supplies and cash.
A self-taught artist, Muccillo attributes his natural inclination to paint as something that developed out of necessity in order for him to communicate with his parents, who spoke very little English when he was a child. “Painting was just something I always did, something that came naturally to me,” he recalls. “For me, it has always been like another mode of communication or expression, much like a language acquired very early on in life.”
Muccillo achieved early success as an artist when an international publisher of limited edition lithographs hired him for his dramatic portrayals of wildlife in a high-realism style. He continued to paint in his detailed, high-realism style for various galleries when he moved to Kelowna in the early 1990’s. However, the meticulous detail required to paint his wildlife scenes began to drain his creative energy after a few years. “The industry was very market-driven at the time,” he recalls “and I began to feel that my artistic expression was being restricted by having to paint only those images that could sell the most lithographs.”
Having lost his inspiration for painting, Muccillo returned to Vancouver and began a self-imposed hiatus. “I had lost all my joy in painting and actually stopped for a few years,” he says. “I just couldn’t bear to be told to paint another wolf, or tiger, or loon … regardless of the royalties.” During that time, he experimented with different styles and expressions, but he was not yet ready to show his work to the public. It was not until 1997, when he attended a Group of Seven exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, that he rediscovered his passion for painting. The Group of Seven exhibition revitalized Muccillo’s career and inspired him to experiment with pure impressionism. “In high realism,” he explains, “the tight, static images make them appear almost unreal. But I soon realized that nothing in the world really stands still.” He began to paint softer, more simplified images that concentrated more on achieving the effect of atmosphere and light through the use of colour, and then using his ability as an artist to decipher and record those effects. In the absence of detail, his objective became to take the viewer to a sense of time as opposed to a sense of place. “To achieve a sense of time,” he says, “you don’t necessarily have to see everything.”
While there are obvious representational contrasts between high realism and impressionism, Muccillo argues that from a technical perspective, the two opposing styles are surprisingly similar. “Both involve taking a literal image in front of you and playing with it,” he says. “You can take all the pieces sitting in front of you and make whatever you want from them, either a literal or an experimental representation. What I’m trying to achieve is a simple image, with my own translation of that simplicity, while trying at the same time to take the viewer into a state of tranquility or surprise. Whatever the message, I try to keep it as simple and as easy to understand as possible.”
More recently, Muccillo has started to implement the techniques of the English and European masters. He begins by underpainting a white canvas in grey scale or tinted monochrome, and then applies thin glazes of colour over the underpainting. This technique lends itself well to landscapes with heavy atmospheric qualities, especially autumn scenes. Within a few minutes, he has an accurate monochromatic foundation for the painting. He tries to keep his palette fairly simple and save most of the detailed brushwork for the focal point of the image. Like the Masters, Muccillo limits his palette to three or four colours, while striving to maintain a look of balance and harmony. “This limitation of palette wasn’t a conscious decision on the part of the English and European Masters,” he explains. “It was a necessity of the times. Pigments were limited and costly. This limitation has always intrigued me in the sense that, regardless of the absence of colour, luminosity and the effects of colour itself could still be achieved.”
The technique of working on grey-tinted canvases works best with early morning or late evening paintings. It requires Muccillo to look directly into the sun, when the effects of high contrasts and silhouetting come into play. At that point, he determines the overall atmospheric colour and temperature, and then applies a heavy glaze of the colour over the entire canvas. The result is an overall base of colour that helps to harmonize the entire painting. He then mixes a tinted version of the base colour and begins to cut in the basic shapes of the composition. This process allows him to see how the composition is coming together – without the distraction of detail – and to focus solely on the abstract form, shape, and rhythm.
Muccillo describes his style as “somewhere between pure abstractionism and pure impressionism, with an occasional hint of high realism.” He is constantly striving to perfect his skills as a painter, in any style or medium, and to understand how colour itself can have such a profound emotional effect on the viewer. However, an ongoing challenge for him is to see beyond the realm of the obvious as he experiments with abstractionism. As his artistic ability continues to evolve in concert with a path toward pure abstract thought, he is discovering that his personal opinions and insights toward his subject matter are becoming looser than and not as literal as they were earlier in his career. This transformation is evidence in many of the paintings from On Solid Ground. “During the past few years,” he explains, “I have been particularly drawn to rural and urban landscapes, to try to capture the essence of beauty of what remains of the farmlands and rivers. In contrast, the particular vulgarity of heavy industry has also captured my attention. I have been intrigued by the simultaneous offensiveness of the plumes bursting out of smoke stacks with the intense beauty of sunlit smoke.” This is another duality, like contrasts general, that appeals to him.
What ultimately appeals to Muccillo is the working environment and how it pertains to today’s society, whether it is quaint scenes of rural cattle farms or the giant steam plumes of heavy industry. “I am trying to capture the underlying visual beauty of something that would normally be considered unpalatable as far as paintable images go. Those viewing my paintings may not always realize the underlying reasons for the subject matter.” The pieces he is working on for his next exhibition also represent the efforts involved in redeveloping some of the retired industrial sites, particularly along the north arm of the Fraser River (which has also been the subject of his previous paintings) and ultimately celebrating the efforts of those responsible for making those changes. “In doing so,” he says, “I can only hope to make a lasting impression with an accurate representation of this point in history.”