Robert Venturi’s Rome


Introduction to the Watercolors

The architectural forms that captured Venturi’s attention are all revealed through the play of light and shadow. When Venturi saw these buildings, often for his first time, they were still enshrouded in the chiaroscuro of the layering of many centuries worth of soot, and the photographs he used (often classic views produced by the Alinari brothers) preserve them in that state. Today, many of the buildings can be seen in a more pristine condition, a result of the cleaning campaign that was first begun for the jubilee of the millennium, the year 2000.

The process of producing these watercolors is based on revealing the forms as perceived in the condition of strong light, just as they were in the original photographs. When strong direct light strikes the forms, shadows are cast by projecting elements, and enable a full understanding of the three dimensional form. In addition, the contrasting coloration of the material, from the stark white of pristine travertine to the darker tones, that often appear on recessed surfaces, due to the accumulation of grime over time, is accentuated in strong light.

Watercolor is a transparent medium, and the expression of light is the result of “reserving” the white of the paper. This is quite different from the technique of oil or acrylic paint, where the pigment is opaque, and the expression of light is dependent on the use of light pigments. This is what makes watercolor a highly challenging medium, and one which is particularly suited to the expression of the play of light.

The technique of producing these views of Venturi’s Rome is one of applying successive layers of transparent sepia toned washes, which communicate the gradations of natural light reflecting off of the architectural forms. An area of light or white tonality would rely on the maximum reflection of the white of the paper, and would be “reserved” free of the application of any wash. Conversely, areas that are in shadow or comprising a material dark in tone would receive successive layers of the wash.

This process can be viewed by looking at step-by-step images that show the evolution of selected works in the series. To see this, click on any of the images below.

© Stephen Harby

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