When I think of a Francesco Lietti painting, I think of color. Gloriously vibrant, and often eclectic in choice, the architect turned artist has a knack for translating the energy and essence of cities and landscapes into wondrous multi-color. The result is striking to say the least.
From the rice paddies of Laos to the soaring skyscrapers of his hometown of Hong Kong, Lietti’s work hovers between reality and fantasy in a dreamy tribute to the beauty of Asia. Fresh off his turn at Hong Kong’s Affordable Art Fair, we caught up with the man himself to find out more.
“I just want to make paintings that people can feel happy about when they look at them, or [paintings] that remind them of their own stories about Asia and Hong Kong. [I want them to] take [my paintings] home and put them on the wall, and for it to be a happy memory. I want my work to give people a good feeling and good energy.”
What is your background?
I’m an architect. I studied architecture in Milan and Paris. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why my paintings have many buildings. I guess maybe I have an obsession with cities and cityscapes!
What made you decide to pursue art instead of architecture?
I worked in architecture for quite a few years, both in London and then in Hong Kong. I like architecture — it’s a very nice art. It’s probably a more complex art than painting. After many years, I got a little bit tired of the dynamics of the office. From an outsider point of view, people think there is a lot of creative energy in architecture — which there is a little bit. But there is also a lot of bureaucracy as well, a lot of things to do with clients and emails for example.
I think I was always more drawn towards the creative part [of architecture]. I always did art next to my architecture career. So it wasn’t really a switch, it was more like a natural transition because I had been painting for many years on the side.
“The problem with design is that my personality is [such that] I want to be in control of the product. If I do a painting, I [can] do whatever I feel like. Even if you give me a commission, you will give your input but mostly it is the artist in charge, and people respect that.”
Have you always been creative?
I guess I always have, yes. When I think back to when I was a kid, I always had a big imagination. I was always creating games for myself, and I was always drawing or trying to paint or create something.
How has your artistic style evolved over your career?
I think in the beginning, the paintings were a little bit more fantastic in the sense that they were created through imagination. Maybe over time I became a little bit more realistic, as opposed to something more fantastic and totally made up.
If I look at the paintings that I did about London before, they were a little bit more playful maybe, with a little bit more of a sense of humor, a little bit more lewd, and a little bit more an interpretation of the city.
Who knows what is better? Maybe I’ll go back to this style one day. Sometimes for artists, it is just a cycle. You need to go and test and try different things before then going back with more understanding. It doesn’t mean that ten years later you are painting better than you did ten years ago.
Have you always painted cityscapes?
Yes, I’ve always been drawn and attracted to cities. Cityscapes are very interesting for me. I like to try to depict the vibrancy, the energy, the essence of the place. I also like to do landscapes.
I haven’t really tried that much with people. I’m a little bit uncomfortable about going into that because maybe I’m concerned that my technical limitations won’t allow me to do a good job.
What has been your favorite city or landscape to paint?
South-East Asia is very interesting. It may be the first [place] that attracted me to Asia. I’m always trying to find the quintessential South-East Asian landscape that you find in Laos and Vietnam. Everywhere I go I try to hire a scooter and drive to find the perfect spot. This is actually not very easy because Asia is always very busy, with lots of construction and a lot of traffic. It’s very rare, but there are spots that are very beautiful. Philippines, Bali, Laos – I cannot tell you one place. All of these regions for me represent a very inspirational area.
I also really love India because of some of the buildings and the colors. [I like the] kind of orange dusky sunsets, and that dust in the atmosphere that makes everything look vintage. The buildings, those windows, and those kind of ornament shapes on top of the roofs – I’m very attracted to those as well. I have painted a lot of India, [but] I wish I could paint more.
What’s your process when you work?
In the case of travelling, of course I will take photos for reference and for memory. Generally, this is more about remembering. I think I enjoy these paintings more because in a way they are more free. It’s my memory, my take on the city or landscape. Not necessarily how it exactly looks like.
In Hong Kong, sometimes I need the help of photographs to check a different angle or a different view, so I’ll search on the internet. Or I’ll ride my motorbike and try to get a photo from Braemar Hill or somewhere.
I work with paint on canvas. I use acrylics because they dry quickly. [Otherwise], if you work in a small space like in Hong Kong, it’s very troublesome. Also, acrylic is better for my process because I like to layer different paints on top of each other. Sometimes I use bits of papers, magazines or even receipts from a restaurant to layer as well. I also use a lot of inks and pens and markers – anything I can find.
Is there an artist or painting that has inspired you?
I don’t know really. I always like very abstract painters for some reason, but I’m not sure if they’re related to what I do. I’m talking about people like Rothko. They just paint with lots of color, they’re very abstract. This is what really I like and [their paintings] give me a lot of emotion.
When I do fairs, I have the chance to see many painters, and sometimes there’ll be something that I like about their technique. I’ll then try and see if it’s a technique that could benefit my work. For example, I think I picked up the collage idea from someone; I found it worked for my paintings so I carried on.
Is there a strong community of artists in Hong Kong?
In Hong Kong I think there is, and it’s getting more connected. I have this project that I’m currently working on now which aims to connect this community. It’s a blog called ‘My Hong Kong’ where I ask a group of friends and artists to contribute with a personal story which details an unknown side of Hong Kong – maybe a cafe where they like to hang out, or an alley, or an experience, which has inspired their art. I want to collect maybe 25 or 30 artists, and showcase them alongside photos and their art. Maybe one day it could become a book or something big.
What would you like to achieve with your art?
One target is artist residencies in schools. I’ve already done 12 projects, and this summer I am going to Malta. During the residencies I get to work with children of all ages, and together we produce a big piece. It’s kind of give and take. [It’s an opportunity] for me to go around and do more works and to be seen, and also for me to collaborate with children and students.
The other thing I think I would like to do is another book, I really enjoyed the process of my last book (Colors of Asia), though it’s a long process. It took maybe three years. This time, I would probably focus more on my travels and how they inspire a painting.