Veduta ideata


Dear Artist,

On Easter Sunday, Pete Rose (not The Pete Rose) came into my studio and looked at the 36″ x 30″ on my easel. “Where’s that?” he asked. “Nowhere,” I said, “It’s a veduta ideata.” Puzzlement flickered across his face, but not for long. He was in for the Easter eggs. Pete’s six. A veduta ideata is a realistically conceived scene that contains wholly imaginary elements. It’s an Italian word that originally meant paintings of non-existent dungeons, or well-known buildings transferred from one city to another. Canaletto and Piranesi pioneered the form in the 16th Century. These days there’s all manner of visual morphing — insect beings, Martians and transformers acting and reacting in artificial environments. Veduta ideata is alive and well and living in video.

Robert and Dorothy, 2004

Robert and Dorothy, 2004

In my case I was bumbling through a pre-named acrylic called “Precious Islet.” Sometimes I title a painting first in order to focus on what I want to get across. I was trying to show the cozy, insular nature of a small island in Lake of the Woods. I know it may sound pretentious, but I was looking for the “essence of islandness.” At the same time the black pines had to be characteristic, the rocks local, the feeling of space and northern light to befit the place. But this was not somebody’s real estate. It was to be no island in particular and all islands in general.

Many artists come to the conclusion that most subjects need some form of modification — idealization, redesigning, solidifying, stylization. Something that we’ve learned from photography is that the plain truth barely flies unless there’s a sub-plot. Human imagination, however subtle or however outrageous — is the killer tool. It can happen with lens, brush, pen or chisel. Artist — omit imagination at your peril. The stuff in the picture may not exist. But if you get it right, the spirit of the stuff will exist in the picture.

Pete found all the studio eggs. “If you want it, I’ve got a chocolate Volkswagen in the fridge,” I said. Pete screamed at the idea. On our way to the kitchen he said, “You can mould anything you want out of chocolate.”

Best regards,


PS: “The real truthfulness of all works of imagination–sculpture, painting, and written fiction–is so purely in the imagination that the artist never seeks to represent positive truth, but the idealized image of a truth.” (Edward Bulwer-Lytton)

Esoterica: A useful exercise is to look at subject matter and try to see human qualities. “Anthropomorphic” means seeing human form in inhuman objects. Trees pray to the sky, brooks babble, bunnies giggle. “When a painter does a work that appears to be false and lying, that falsity may be the truth.” (Michelangelo)

This letter was originally published as “Veduta ideata” on April 20, 2004.

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“The truth is more important than the facts.” (Frank Lloyd Wright)



  1. Was this island the one we called Queen Mary’s Hat Island? I spent all of my summers between 1949 and 1961 at our “camp” on Keewatin Beach Road, four houses west of the public beach. We were across from this little island and Mackie’s Island. Did you know that Lake of the Woods is supposed to be the most beautiful lake in North America?

    I paint with water mixable oils: Winsor Newton, Grumbacher Max, Holbein Duo. I paint landscapes using pictures from calendars for models. I know professional artists say one should paint from nature, but my observation is that when one paints outdoors, the light is constantly changing. I am an amateur but I’ve been blessed to have had classes with Gordon Ladd , Michelle Sansregret, Patricia Ferguson, and Danielle Corriveau among others.

    I drew and painted as a child and came back to it when I retired. I prefer the water mixable oils because one can use water as a medium and clean up with soap and water.

    Thank you for sharing your expertise.

  2. Thanks, Sara, for sharing this lovely, truthful piece. As my own dogs insist on being underfoot in my wee studio, I am moved my Dorothy’s presence. (I also happen to live not far from Lake of the Woods.) Warmest regards…

  3. John francis on

    “Many artists come to the conclusion that most subjects need some form of modification…” When I was Pete’s age, about the only Latin I knew was ‘pax vobiscum’ and ‘mea culpa’. Of course, I am *not* referring to the baseball player. One of my most treasured books in my modest collection is ‘Piranesi – the Imaginary Views’. It was a gift from a friend during a time i made my living designing Sets for a small ‘Indie’ theatre company. There wasn’t enough room for ‘Architecture’, so designs had to evoke and suggest the world of the characters. There was never much room for ‘clutter’.
    Pete was right. So were Dali and Picasso. “You can mould anything you want out of chocolate.” Especially in your head.

  4. I love the photo! Robert with his chocolate bunny and Dorothy with hope in her eyes…both contemplating their next move.

  5. This is so helpful for my argument as to painting invented landscapes. Beforehand, some people would Bruch off my made up scenes as inferior. Now, you’ve given me language, a leg to stand on. Thank you, Robert from the other side.

  6. Love this one A LOT!!! It’s a battle of intentions when I paint. I start with a reference photo but know I don’t want to end up with a copy of it. I want to create an imaginary world from an idea. The whole endeavor has moments of falling into ruts of trying to be literal, to reminding myself I’m making something that is to have my stamp on it, not Mother Nature’s. ” Artist — omit imagination at your peril. The stuff in the picture may not exist. But if you get it right, the spirit of the stuff will exist in the picture. ” Thank you, Robert!!

  7. “Veduta Ideata” I have always wondered if there was a word(s) for this. Much of my work is along these lines. This is one of my most favorite letters to date. Thankyou!!

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CDLN 6Uncorking Your Creative Core: Paint, Write & Walk in Mexico

October 17 – 23, 2022

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Details at Islet, Desolation Sound
acrylic on panel
24 x 30 inches

Featured Artist

Shawn’s paintings evoke the feelings of the West Coast, its shores and islands, ponds and lakes.


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