Painting from life with Denise Melvin

Photo by Marta Morotti

Nature and Beauty: the artistic journey of a classically trained teacher in Rome

It is rare to meet a person who is so inspired by art and beauty to dedicate all her life to achieving that aesthetic perfection but, sometimes, it happens. When I meet Denise Melvin, I have the feeling I am about to discover a woman who is deeply committed to her passion.  

I walk down the stairs that lead to her figure painting class at PADASOR (Painting And Drawing Art Studio of Rome), located just off one of the main roads in Trastevere. I draw the curtain to the side to access the painting room and I am transported back in time, as if I could bump into one of the great artists of the past.

In the basement of the art shop, a dozen wooden easels are tidily arranged one next to the other, looking over a semi-circular carpeted stage. The model has just gotten off but the students’ brushes keep moving right and left. Calmy but continuously. As every painter has captured the model from a different angle, each of them tells a different story.

Denise is looking at her students’ works, reminding them to keep their brushes clean if they want to get the right colours and shades. Some strokes of summer light filter in from the basement windows, shining on the fresh oil paint. The atmosphere is serene, it reflects Denise’s calm manners.

Photo: Marta Morotti
Leonid Ilyukhin, a visiting artist at PADASOR. Photo by: Marta Morotti

Her kind green eyes tell a story of love and search for beauty through visual creativity. Denise tells me about her decision to move to Italy about thirty years ago, and why she chose Rome. Born and raised in the Philippines, Denise is half Filipina and half American. From a very young age, she wanted to study art to work as a painter but, as it happens, her parents were not so keen and she started a career in communication while trying to cultivate her passion for art. “It must have been 1988 when I moved to Italy,” she goes back in time with her memory.

“Right from the start I knew this was my place.”

She came to Italy for her junior year and she loved it. Then she came back for the summer, and that very same summer she met her future husband. But it is not only love the reason she moved to Rome.

“I loved Italy. Right away. Even when I was in Florence, it was so beautiful. And for me, beauty is the centre of my life! Also, I have a Spanish language background so it was easy for me to learn Italian. It took me only two months to know the basics, to be able to have a little conversation.” For Denise, not only the language felt close to her origins, but also she found that Italian culture was warm and welcoming. “The culture somehow felt familiar, especially the South of Italy. It is a bit similar to Filipino culture, very, very family-oriented, very warm, very social,” she opens into a genuine smile.

“From the first day I came to Italy, I knew this was my home. I hope my work brings you the warmth of this amazing country – so infinitely varied in its beauty and always inspiring.”

Photo: Marta Morotti

While Denise was able to keep developing her true vocation while working in the international development sector, in 2015, she took a three and half year break from work to study full-time in Florence. “The training was intense, usually 8 hours a day, on your feet, drawing and painting from life. I then went to study portraiture for a term with Charles Cecil in his amazing studio in Florence.”

I imagine it must take lots of patience and resilience to follow her artistic path. For two years, all she did was draw. Paint came only in the third year of her training. Since graduating in Florence, Denise has continued pursuing her career toward becoming a professional painter under the philosophy of the Classical Academic Method. For Denise, learning how to paint is like “learning to play an instrument. You can only get to one point without a teacher.” In a way, painting is like “a slow food,” it needs time and effort to be cultivated, to be fully appreciated.

Italy can offer breath-taking natural scenes and endless inspiration from the great painters of the past

Denise’s favourite creative place in Rome is the beautiful Caffarella park. Almost every weekend, she has her spot in the green and she can enjoy en plein air painting, surrounded by the colours of nature. “I love painting outdoors – landscapes, trees, etc. I think this is because it brings together my two loves: art and nature. I also love painting Italy, and indeed, one of my goals this year is to take a long trip around Italy – from North to South – and paint it. “ She thinks that Sicilian landscapes are special, “especially the light” which is different from Rome.

Over the centuries, many painters have come to Italy and painted (for example as part of the Grand Tour). Denise would like to paint these traditional vedute of the Renaissance epoch. “There is an amazing feeling when you are painting from life in the same spot as some of your favourite past painters. It is as if you can speak with them and the centuries disappear,” she says.

Stone House in Sicily (2019) ©Denise Melvine

Denise is part of a community of painters who strongly believe in the classical painting method

As we speak about the different art schools and national traditions, I find out that, since the late 19th century, many groups of painters are returning to the classical method.

Timothy Joseph Allen, American painter and founder of PADASOR, joins the conversation and it is clear that he and Denise share the same idea on what art exactly is. “We do believe in structured training. We work from life. This means that we want to achieve a likeness and there are rules to follow. To make great quality paintings is our main objective.”

PADASOR’s students are very dedicated and they also enjoy the international vibes at the school. Italians like to chat in English with Tim and likewise, foreign people are interested in picking up new Italian words and ways of saying while drawing and painting. The city of Rome is the perfect place to learn or teach figurative arts, according to Tim. Compared to the United States, Italians do really appreciate art and its knowledge is widely shared. Everyone, starting from the taxi driver to the most educated, knows who Caravaggio is and where to see his paintings for instance.

“A portrait done from life captures something that cannot be seen by the mechanical eye of a camera.”

We finish the interview with a reflection on the importance of drawing and painting from a young age. Spending two hours or an afternoon in a creative environment such as PADASOR, means a complete detoxication and regeneration from our fast-spaced digital lives.  Too often we forget to observe nature and the beauty that surrounds us.

Find out more about Denise Melvin and PADASOR Studio:

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest news, events, and insights from Rome

By subscribing you agree with our privacy policy.

Tags from the story
Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *