Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Sketches from Havana


Last month, I had the good fortune to spend a week in Cuba with some artist friends. Wow, what an incredible experience! Havana is a vibrant city rich with history and culture, from old American cars zipping around, to people dancing in the rain, to magnificent crumbling architecture... a paradise for painters. 

I can't possibly describe all that I saw and experienced and felt in a blog post,  I'll just share with you the plein air sketches that I did during the week. 

We were on an organized tour, but each afternoon, we had two to three hours blocked out so that we could paint. There was just so much visual interest everywhere we looked, it was a challenge to just to decide on something.

The first one I did - the painting of the blue corner above - I was set up on a sidewalk, and there was constant flow of traffic and pedestrians. The Cuban people are very friendly, and curious of what we were doing in their neighborhood.  I had a small crowd behind me almost the entire time, talking to me and with each other in fast Spanish....most of which I didn't understand, but it was still fun to show them what I was doing. 

The light and shadow pattern changed very quickly as the foreground shadow grew, and crawled up the building. The light on the building and the ground was gone in about 30 minutes. This was anticipated, so I basically established the light / shadow pattern very early, and continued to work on the drawing / value / color refinements long after the light was gone. 

When painting en plein air, you can't chase the light, or you'll never finish a painting. So deciding on the pattern from the get-go and committing to it, is an important strategy. I typically work this out in thumbnail sketches before I put brush to canvas, so I had a very good sense of how the finished painting would look. Knowing where you want to end up makes the journey much more efficient than just following paths without any idea where it leads, right?

The one thing I didn't work out in the beginning, in terms of design, is where to put the little figures. I knew these would be there, and that they provide crucial accents in the composition, but didn't decide exactly where I'd put them until I had the environment worked out. I placed the brightly lit figure in white as the primary focus, and the others around it to create a "tempo" of sorts, making sure that they varied in shapes and colors, but none overpowering the first figure. 


Another afternoon, another painting. I started out painting a parked car, but it drove away before I got very far so I started over with another parked car. That drove away, too. After that, I just resigned myself to painting a moving target. I would wait for a car to drive into the shaft of light, (there were many old American cars) tried to memorize some aspect of it (shape, placement, angle, etc) and put it down on my canvas, then repeat. Many times. Consequently, my yellow car is a composite of many Chevys, Fords, and Plymouths, and not a specific model. Still, I hope I managed to capture something of a character of the old American automobile. 

Everything else is just loosely suggested. The car isn't all that tightly rendered either, for that matter. 


This car, on the other hand, stayed put, so I was able to get more of the details accurately. I'm not a car guy so I have no idea what year / model this one is, but hopefully I didn't butcher it too badly. 

This was painted in the "poorest neighborhood in Havana" -according to our guide. Indeed, the poverty here seemed even more dire than some of the other neighborhoods we visited. Still the people came over and talked to me with big smiles, very interested in seeing this car materialize on my canvas. 

A fruit vendor parked his cart next to me and he wanted to trade me a bunch of bananas for my painting. I might have made the trade but at that time I was only halfway into the painting and it looked terrible. By the time I was done, he'd moved on. 

This painting is different from all the others in that the scene is all in diffused light. There are no strong light and shadow patterns to define the structure of anything, so I really had to pay attention to the subtle value shifts to carve the form. Drawing was obviously tricky, so it took a while before the painting started to work. The surrounding environment is, again, merely suggested. However the strokes that describe the linear perspective–the curb–were laid down very carefully. 

This painting was done in Las Terrazas, a rural village outside of Havana. Nestled among the densely forested hillsides, it was a peaceful, sleepy place. I was able to find a great vantage point that had a nice view with interesting shapes, angles, and contrasts, and in nice open shade, too, with a pleasant breeze and a little village cafe nearby where I could get espresso.

I really liked the variety of greens, the perspective, and the juxtaposition of the man-made structure against the organic mess. The red roof provided a ready-made focal point in the sea of greens. 

Drawing the house in perspective wasn't as tricky as one might think - it's just a matter of making sure all the parallel lines converge to a single vanishing point. The tricky part, for me, anyway, was painting the palm (banana?) fronds. I wanted them to be gestural, but with just enough sharp edges to define what they were without getting too tedious.  Pretty happy with the result.

On the beach outside of Havana.  The water was beautiful. The view reminded me of some of Winslow Homer's paintings. I decided to make the palm trees a little bit more expressive than they actually were - a little more wind.

Here's a shot by my friend Liza, of the sketch in progress. I worked on loose pieces of linen taped to a piece of board. The wet paintings were taken off the board and taped down to pieces of foam-core, and stacked with spacers in between paintings for transport - a pretty good system when you want to reduce the weight of your suitcase.  I still had to pay extra because my suitcase ended up being over 50lbs. That bottle of rum pushed it over.

 This is the last sketch, done on another beach. I was standing next to my friend
Tim Horn, and we pretty much painted the same view. Interesting watching him work on his painting while I worked on mine. I could see that we have different approaches to solving the same problems.

the color of the sky had a slight violet tinge to it, which threw me off a little bit. I don't normally go for literal translation of the colors I see, but I was very interested in the sky color here because it was not something I was used to.

Anyway, we only had an hour and a half to paint here, so I didn't get too fussy.

When in Havana... Cigars and rum, and music at the fabulous Hotel Nacional with artist friends. From left to right; me, Amy Williams Beers, Tim Horn, and Philippe Gandiol

All in all, Cuba was amazing and I would love to go back and spend more time exploring and painting. 'Hopefully the new administration won't make it more difficult to visit!