Malta painter Andrew Borg found beauty in a historical salt manufacturing compound. He explains his plein air process and the site’s history below.
“The Salini site has been developed by the Knights of Malta a few hundreds of years ago, and the complex includes the salt manufacturing pans, processing and storage structures (now just restored), and also a military redoubt and a fougasse of the same period,” reports Borg. “The open spaces presented by this location made it even more challenging. Essentially the place is a seashore location, very flat, with the restored salt making structures as a backdrop and far hills giving depth to the scene. Looking out, there was also the classical Mediterranean Sea view, with its particular blue hue, small boats, and 17th-century towers peppering the coast. It was a morning session, so while the sunlight stabilized, I looked around to see what could make a good subject.
“I wanted to capture the open space, but avoid a ‘big sky’ subject, which could really have worked as well, but a bit more ordinary,” Borg continues. “I also wanted to put the ‘flatness’ of the salt pans on canvas, but in a kind of different way. I was using a more contemporary square canvas format, so some experimentation with abstraction would also fit in. I also wanted a simplified painting, one subject, but it also needed to capture the fresh and crisp morning light. I balanced these ingredients before figuring out how the scene could fit it.
“It’s quite usual for me to spend time doing these mental deliberations and designs before touching brush to canvas. For me, this process is more than 50 percent of the total effort. Sometimes the subject is staring you in the face, but I’d rather challenge myself and find that offbeat subject and angle, which is in itself a problem-solving exercise, but which will result in a unique and striking angle to an otherwise mundane topic.
“The main tool is observation, of course — a sliver of light somewhere, an elegant structure, angle, or shape, a particular color combination, these are all anchors to my compositions. I do use the usual finger-frame method to search for ‘frames,’ but since the advent of the phone camera I am also using my phone’s camera to find these frames.”
Borg continues, “I work with both watercolor and oils in plein air, and having a relatively large canvas, I had to work quickly to fix the light as much as possible. I figured that the black salt manufacturing structures would make a good subject, noticing their elegantly angled roofs. Black is also a bit unusual for a building structure, which would work well in this composition. I settled on a ‘pushed’ composition, where the main view is at the top 20 percent of the canvas, supported by a reflection in the salt pans, taking up the remaining bottom part. I could play around with some abstraction on this bottom part, but at the same time remain true to the scene chroma.
“I was very careful to duplicate the scene colors on canvas. This is what transmitted the freshness and crispness of this clear winter morning. I exaggerated a bit the far hills’ aerial perspective — this gave me the opportunity to make the black building structures more prominent and give the painting more depth. I had to eliminate one whole horizontal salt pan wall to avoid splitting the painting in two.
“I use both brushes and palette knives, the latter to get the straight edges. The top part done, I needed to introduce a sense of space by adding the slightly abstracted bottom reflection. Even though this is the best part of 80 percent of the painting, it’s still well balanced. The total execution time was around two hours; by 10 a.m., I saw the rest of the Plein Air Painters of Malta organizing themselves for wine and beer, a further incentive to close it off.”
Borg points out, “Malta is a small nation state archipelago, in the middle of the Mediterranean, brimming with historical sites dating back 7,000 years. We are spoiled for choices on what to paint, with everything accessible within half an hour’s drive, from dramatic cliff faces to turquoise blue sea to magnificent baroque architecture. I’m lucky to live in such a plein air artist’s paradise.”
This article was originally published in 2017