On exhibit at DeBruyne Fine Art in Naples is new work by Alabama artist Donny Finley. While several are oil on canvas compositions, Finley is one of those rare realist painters who work in egg tempera.
Egg tempera is a terrific medium with many advantages. First and foremost, the colors produced by egg tempera are clear, bright and pure. Moreover, unlike oils, the pigments don't yellow, darken or grow transparent over time. But you cannot apply thick layers of pigment with egg tempera or it will crack. Thus, the medium requires the artist to work in successive applications called glazes. While egg tempera dries quickly, each layer must be allowed to cure or oxidized so it won't be picked up by later layers. As with any quick-drying paint, smooth, blended effects take a great deal of work. But it's trade off Finley is willing to make.
"[The medium] allows me to tell a story better than oils," Finley observes. "With oils, I tend to be a bit more impressionist. I have a tendency to romanticize more with oils. With egg, I'm more literal. More realist."
Two paintings from Finley's show tell particularly mesmerizing realist stories. Night Lights (Paris) shows a section of La Ville-Lumiere reflected in the shimmering waters of the Seine. Quiet depicts a dark-haired woman reclining, book in hand, on a concrete bench adjoining a below-street-level walkway at the river's edge.
"As I was doing the studies for Night Lights, I noticed a girl reading on a bench near the river's edge. Since I was standing on the other bank, she was too far away to draw, so I took a picture with my phone instead. When I got back home, I got my daughter to pose like the girl on the bench so that I could accurately portray the subtleties of her hair, clothing and posture."
But while the figure on the bench may be the focal point of the composition, it is not the literal, realist story told by Finley in egg tempera. That narrative appears in the layered glazes that Finley used to produce the huge blocks of cut stone that form the wall connecting the lower walk from the roadway at street level.
"There's almost a medieval quality to this area of the painting," Finley says in his distinctive Southern drawl, sweeping the pads of his fingers over an area of wall above and to the right of the reclining girl. "See how the purples and yellows of the underpainting emerge in the final glaze? See how the light playing off the stone warms the girl's face and blouse" and even her ankles and feet? The transition from cold to warm is repeated in the blocks that line the lower sidewalk, which morph from shady, shadowy grays to sun kissed, dappled ochre.
The hows and whys aside, what's remarkable about Quiet from a genre-based vantage is how photorealistic the composition appears. Not all of it. Finley employs a dose of impressionist romanticism in the girl's blouse and the blanket on which she lays. But that just serves as juxtaposition for the Vermeer-esque clarity and accuracy of the stone walls, mortar, bench and blocks that make up the balance of the composition.
And Finley uses just the smallest hint of color to create another layer of contrast. "There's just a hint of red in her hair, a small swatch of blue in the blanket and a hint of white slip" between the hem of the girl's black skirt and her bare feet. Truth be told, however, the girl's raven hair, jet black skirt, flat black book cover and lamp black boat tie provide stark contrast for the browns, tans and ochres Finley uses everywhere else.
So what at first blush appears to be a very simple, straightforward and quiet composition turns out to be a complex story that operates on multiple cerebral and visceral planes.