By Mitch Neto
On a recent trip to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, my wife and I were walking along the sidewalk at Ipanema Beach when I noticed a group of plein air painters in the median strip between the different lane directions on the boulevard.
As someone who primarily paints on location, I had to go talk with them! I met a group of enthusiastic artists painting on large canvases — the size of which I almost never encounter when plein air painting in the States. I told them that I had brought some equipment with me as I was teaching art in the favela (ghetto) to under-privileged kids during my visit (a whole other story). They told me that they meet every Friday nearby and that I should join them next time. I did.
We met early at the local meeting spot (Teresa’s apartment) in the heart of Ipanema and shared a cab to Arpoador — the point, a large granite outcropping that separates Ipanema from Copacabana beaches and a popular surfing spot. Though I had not realized there was instruction involved, we met the master guiding these talented artists here. He had already evaluated the possibilities and made suggestions for subject matter. As we painted, the Brazilians on their massive canvases and me on my miniscule 9 x 12-inch, the master, Virgilio Dias, began sharing his insights.
Having enjoyed the good fortune of painting with many great plein air artists in the States, I heard Virgilio repeating many of the same principles that apply to composition, atmospheric perspective, etc. Hearing it in Portuguese and in the relaxed Brazilian environment seemed to click into different parts of my brain than when I heard them previously. What a treat it was. This man’s approach and style really started to resonate with me — and quickly. I consider myself an impressionistic realist and though his work is primarily figurative, his approach was perfectly aligned with my own preferred style.
He is an enthusiastic admirer of all the European classical art masters, with the Russian master Fechin being one of his favorites, and apprenticed with some of the greatest artists to ever come out of Brazil. He named a couple who had won a now-defunct government grant that used to send Brazil’s best artists to Paris and Florence to study for years, with all tuition and living expenses paid. He started in their ateliers in the older part of Rio and eventually built his own atelier in the classic European style, in the South of Rio at a place called Pedra de Guaratiba.
When I posted a picture of us painting that first day on social media, one of my Carioca friends (a person who lives in Rio) asked me, “Do you know Virgilio Dias?” I said, “Yes, we have become friends.” He went on to tell me how some of his friends collect Virgilio’s work and how fortunate I was to hook up with this local master. Since Brazilians tend to be some of the friendliest folks on the planet, I was not surprised to become quick friends with this fellow artist, but I was surprised to find he was so well-known and respected locally. He is represented by one of Rio’s top galleries, called “Dom Quixote,” with outlets in some of Rio’s top retail locations. They represent him very well.
After a couple more paint-outs around Rio, Virgilio invited me to come and visit his atelier. My wife and I took the subway as far south as possible, and Virgilio met us at the Jardim Oceanico station. We picked up his wife, Teresa, where they live in Recreio and proceeded to his atelier still further south. At this point, since I had Shelly with me, he began speaking in English. I had not even realized that he spoke English because all our previous interactions had been in his native tongue!
We arrived at Pedra de Guaratiba, where I took pictures of his work and we railed on about our favorite artistic influences. It was at this point that he began to discuss all the history of fine art and great artists in Rio that I had never been exposed to. I found that several of my social media artist friends were friends we held in common, including Brazilian artist Rodrigo Zaniboni, who demonstrated at the Plein Air Convention in Monterey a few years back.
Bottom line, I believe his style is masterful and reminiscent of Sorolla. He introduced me to a new and excellent technique I had never seen before, where you paint a huge shape of your darkest portion of the composition, then open up the light areas using a brush with a light coat of thinner on it. I found it to be a unique and effective way of painting large and quickly in the field. He paints larger than any oil-based plein air painter I know of and has insights and perspectives that I believe would be valuable to anyone wanting to think outside the (pochade) box about what can be created en plein air.
This article was featured in PleinAir Today, a weekly e-newsletter from PleinAir magazine. To start receiving PleinAir Today for free, click here.