Water Revelry

by Peter Federici

Adriano Manocchia paints landscapes, but to be precise they really should be called waterscapes. Whether he's painting a fisherman working a high-country creek or deer browsing along a wooded bank, water is at the center of his art. It laps and ripples, flows slowly toward a rocky dropoff in a trout stream, or beats in furious waves against an ocean beach. It reflects the light of the sky and the colors of its surroundings, but still has its own mass and bulk. Wherever it is, wherever it's going, the water in a Manocchia painting is very much alive.

Many artists find dealing with water an enormous challenge, but Manocchia considers it a joy. "It is the least tedious and difficult part of a painting for me," says the forty-six year old artist. "When I do a painting, I can't wait to get to the water. It's the part I enjoy most."

In that affection his art reflects his life. "I love to be near water," he says. "It's like Norman Maclean wrote in A River Runs Through It: 'I am haunted by waters.' I just feel reborn near water, whether it's a stream or the ocean. I love to paint water. In the last six or seven years I've focused a tremendous amount of effort on it. And it seems to be appealing very much to collectors."

Manocchia, a New Yorker who has been a full time painter for the last fourteen years, is perhaps best known for his fishing scenes. These paintings have been displayed at such prestigious venues as the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Manchester, Vermont. In June, 1997, the Catskill Fly Fishing Museum in Livingston Manor, New York exhibited Manocchia's work, along with the work of artist Mark Susinno, in a show called Above and Below. Manocchia also has often focused his attention on wildlife, especially the North American mammals that share his own watery and wooded habitat: moose, deer and wolves.

Increasingly, however, Manocchia is concentrating more on landscapes or waterscapes themselves. He is not entirely excluding the people or wild animals that inhabit his scenes; they are just growing smaller in what he considers to be their proper proportion.

"More and more, I'm appreciating the landscape for its own sake," he says. "It' a reflection of how we see animals in nature. You go into the woods and barely see animals. What do you see? You glimpse a whitetail running away from you. Or when you see a coyote, it's 300 yards away on a ridge. More and more, the animal or subject is less important to me because I want to focus on composition and light, and the dynamics of color. I want to evoke an emotion."

Manocchia came to painting by a circuitous route. The son of a well-known Italian journalist, he began working as a freelance photographer while still in college, and went into it full-time upon graduating. "I grew up in a family of journalists and it was a simple process to get used to going to events and taking a camera," he says. "I'm a visual person, I express myself through pictures."

Manocchia's camera was his passport to a hectic and glamorous lifestyle. He flew on Air Force One, photographed prize fighter Muhammad Ali and American playwright Tennessee Williams, and shipped out on the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz. He was a staffer for the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union and set up his own photo agency, freelancing for many leading magazines in the US and abroad. He has won a slower of awards and added to his visual vocabulary by constantly framing and composing new images.

In 1970 he met his wife Teresa while on a trip to Italy. In 1973 the couple married and had a son a year later. Manocchia soon found that the pace of traveling some 100,000 miles a year on assignments was too much, so he sought work that would enable him to spend more time at home. In 1984, he quit photography and turned to a new passion.

"I literally came home one day and said I wanted to be a painter," he says. He had no experience in it. "I've never been afraid of a challenge. I've always jumped into things without thinking I couldn't do it. And six months after I started, I closed the photography business. It was alot of naivete on my part."

Manocchia went to the library, read up on the old masters, practiced his techniques, and buried himself in his work. He estimates that he paints eighty hours a week, especially during the winter. Because of his love for the outdoors and his interest in conservation, he turned first to portraying wild animals in natural settings.

The first few years were difficult, but he found success with remarkable swiftness. By 1990 he had already garnered commissions from many organizations that liked his wildlife oil paintings: the Special Olympics, the New York Zoological Society, Oceans magazine, the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., plus numerous fishing and outdoor magazines. He was a board member of the Society of Animal Artists and exhibits at the Waterfowl Festival in Easton, Maryland.

Manocchia sells some limited edition sporting art prints through the British publisher Felix Rosenstiel's - his fourth print was issued this year. But he makes his living mainly through the sale of original paintings at galleries such as J.N. Bartfield in Manhattan, Trailside Americana in Jackson, Wyoming and The McEwan Gallery in Scotland. The fact that gallery owners and directors don't tell him what to paint is one indication of his success. He can follow his own artistic inclination, which increasingly is leading him toward greater simplicity and personal expression.

It's not difficult to tell the difference between Manocchia's early work and his more recent work. In the beginning he strove for extravagant detail. "When I was starting out, I wanted to make sure everything was included in a painting, so that I was pleasing every client," he says. "Now I no longer care whether every leaf is on a tree. It's a matter of gaining confidence. Only in the last few years have I come to understand that what a painting is not whether every hair is on an animal or every stone in a river, but rather the emotion."

One of his paintings, A Delicate Presentation, is a good example. An angler, his back to the viewer, artfully places a lure near the base of an almost horizontal tree trunk overhanging a creek. The trees on the far bank are summer-green. The slow-moving water, which takes up most of the scene, is stained brown with tannic acid, while ripples are brilliant yellow and pale green. A few splotches if blue in the foreground reflect the sky.

When viewed closely, the different colors of the water are almost abstract, but from a little farther away, the colors work together to indeed represent what the surface of a creek looks like - its restless and perpetual motion, its shimmering of pure colors. The distant leaves, meanwhile, are note portrayed in detail, but rather stippled in broad strokes that evoke the dappled light of summer in a deciduous woodland. And the painter has accomplished these effects with a limited palette of about seven colors.

Even as he has honed his style, Manocchia has broadened his geographic scope. He lives in New Rochelle, New York, which is near New York City and his childhood home. But almost every year he takes a trip out west, especially to Montana and Wyoming, where the trout fishing and the scenery are both sublime. "Seeing the West was a tremendous enlightenment for me in terms of light and color," he says. "Growing up on the East Coast, you don't realize how exciting the western landscape is until you get there."

The landscape is more expansive in Manocchia's western scenes than in his wooded, close-in eastern paintings; streams flow farther into the distance and the sky opens up and allows room for clouds, sunsets, fog and far-off mountain vistas. The colors of water and land alike are stronger; more concentrated.

On his trips, which regularly take Manocchia not only out west but to other favorite scenic destinations - including Italy, the UK, and Canada, - he tries to spend as much time outdoors as possible. "That's terribly important," he says. "There's nothing like standing in a river and watching a moose cross, or watching a whitetail in the woods. I've spent more time outdoors in the last few years, and that's been a key factor in my increased understanding of light and landscape. Why was Carl Rungius so great? He lived out in the woods and understood the way light plays on an animal. The brain registers the experience and it'll show in a painting."

Because of the extent of his travels - which now include a fair number of trips to gallery openings and museum shows of his work - Manocchia's schedule sometimes approaches the hecticness of his earlier photographic career. That's one reason he looks forward to the long hours he spends in the studio. In the field, he paints, sketches, and photographs scenes and, perhaps most important, records emotional impressions of landscapes. Those impressions are what he tries to re-create or evoke during the long autumn and winter hours he spends painting in the studio.

At his easel, he applies techniques similar to those used by the Italian Renaissance masters he venerates: sketching in the scene, underpainting a thin wash of burnt sienna or raw umber, blocking out large shapes with solid colors, then adding finer details. It's a matter of honing, of slowly figuring out what really matters, what lasts; in this, too, his art reflects his life.

In other words, Adriano Manocchia has learned enough to know that he's never going to stop learning. Nor is he ever going to stop trying to improve. "This is a career that gives me a tremendous amount of frustration, pleasure, and surprises," he says. "My dream and I will probably never get there - is to see one of my paintings in a great museum somewhere. That though is what drives me. It's a slow, tedious process, but that's the goal I set for myself."