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Painting and Drawing with Umberto Torricelli

Umberto Torricelli

by Brenda Murray

Umberto Torricelli is one of those artists. You know the type. His art-making is not compartmentalized into “studio time” or “sketching time”. He makes art almost every day. He’s always sketching. He draws on paper napkins and tablecloths. A restaurant near his home in Milan has a collection of the drawings he’s made there. 

“You can always find a way to be artistic every day,” he says. Umberto appreciates beauty. He loves cooking. His wife relies on him to arrange the food artistically on the plate so that it will look the most appealing.

I’m curious to hear his story. At the risk of sounding like AskReddit, I want to find out what it feels like to be an Italian artist. To be surrounded by art, to study art and to make art in a country that is renowned for being the birthplace of western art and culture and the home of so many of the world’s greatest artists. To the outsider, it feels like the entire country is an art museum. 

Umberto studied traditional oil painting at a small private school. His master, Vittorio Viviani, was very old. He had a long white beard and a strong personality. He was very intimidating for young Umberto. “He taught me to be aggressive in front of the canvas,” Umberto explained. “He taught me to dominate the canvas and the brushes. I learned more about attitude than technique from him.” 

Viviani believed in doing things the traditional way. “It took forever to actually start painting because first we had to prepare the canvas.”  The canvas frame had to be constructed, the canvas stretched and prepared with a traditional rabbit glue and chalk mixture. The media had to be mixed as well. 

As a result of his experience, Umberto is privy to historical techniques not many people know anymore. It was a great experience and Umberto learned a lot but he was well aware that there was a risk that the student would become a clone of the master. And he prefers a less traditional style of painting. See Umberto's painting (left).

When Umberto teaches, he prefers not to teach technique. He teaches people about story, for example, and about page composition. 

“I don’t want people to imitate me,” he explains. “I’m not saying that technique is not important. I’m always experimenting and copying the masters. You have to learn the techniques and then forget it. Keep it in the corner of your head. It comes out when necessary.” 

In painting, Umberto loves the work of Alberto Giacometti (pictured above), Emilio Vedova (pictured below) and Piero Manzoni. He prefers abstract painting to hyper-realism and is inspired by Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock.

Umberto teaches drawing workshops for Urban Sketchers. He has a great appreciation for the Urban Sketching manifesto. 

”Lots of people start from zero and improve in a short time. Urban Sketchers is a very friendly environment and that really helps people to express themselves and not worry about how good they are. You don’t need to be a great artist to be an urban sketcher.”

Umberto is more expressive when he paints than when he draws. Drawing is different, he explains. Drawing is an exploration of the subject matter. It’s a kind of meditation. It’s a way to see objects as if he’s walking around a map of the objects. When he’s drawing he thinks, “Ah, now I am finally seeing the object.” 

Umberto recalls meeting Riccardo Mannelli, one of his drawing heroes. He travelled to Rome to see Mannelli’s studio and was thrilled to be invited to chat. They drank a few beers and talked about art for four or five hours. Mannelli draws for magazines and newspapers. His subject is mostly human figures rendered with incredible detail and shading using a ball point pen. Umberto shows me his sketch by Mannelli of a nude pregnant woman. The sheer mastery of his media--a ball point pen--is extremely impressive.

Unlike Mannelli, Umberto’s lines are clean and precise. His full-colour images idealized and happy as you can see in his Chicago drawing below. 

So what does it feel like to be an Italian artist surrounded by so much art and beauty? Obviously, it has had a big impact on Umberto. He has had the opportunity to study from an old-school painting master and to rub shoulders with great artists. He lives it and breathes it. It’s part of who he is. 

Check out Umberto’s Alfa Romeo 1900 Disco Volante drawing below. Disco volante means “flying saucer” in Italian and Umberto was inspired by its sleek lines. The Disco Volante is one in a series of experimental racing cars produced between 1952 and 1953 by Italian car manufacturer Alfa Romeo in collaboration with Milanese coachbuilder Carrozzeria Touring. 




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