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The process is as fascinating as the end result when it comes to Tony Falcone's large-scale murals.
That's why the New London Maritime Society decided to celebrate the artist's 40th anniversary with "Vision. Process. Finished Painting: the Creative Process of Tony Falcone," an exhibition at the Custom House Maritime Museum.
Falcone has painted a wide range of commissioned murals since 1974 when he discovered his love of the art form and left his job as a New Haven firefighter to open a studio in a vintage dairy barn in Prospect.
His biggest body of work to date is known as the "U.S. Coast Guard Historical Murals Project." In 2000, the Coast Guard Academy Alumni Association commissioned Falcone to create 10 large-scale oil paintings on linen that tell the history of the USCG - beginning with World War II and ending with 9/11. After he completed the project in 2012, Falcone was made an honorary member of the academy's Class of 1962, and was given the title, "Coast Guard Artist."
The Custom House exhibit focuses on the exhaustive research, intricate model-making and endless sketches, drawings and patterns leading up to the creation of two of Falcone's 10 murals that hang at the academy: "CG-36500 Rescues the Crew of the Tanker Pendleton near Chatham, Cape Cod, Massachusetts - February 18, 1952," known as the greatest small boat rescue in maritime history, and "Coast Guard Manned Landing Craft at Normandy, June 6th, 1944," which illustrates the Coast Guard's role in World War II.
Of the latter mural, Falcone says, "Nobody knows about the Coast Guard's involvement at Omaha Beach, so I wanted to bring attention to the Coast Guard's role and honor our veterans - and it's appropriate being the 70th anniversary of D-Day (this year) - why not show that painting and how I did it?"
Falcone explains that the process for these monumental paintings begins with research material provided by his patron - in this case, the Class of 1962, which spearheaded the project as a gift to the academy. He is then given the name and phone number of one or several people who will be his champion(s)-"someone who was totally connected with the scene," he says.
He interviews his champions at length, then sends them a series of thumbnail sketches, preliminary drawings and color studies, which accompany lots of discussion and note taking in between that leads up to the final drawing, made to scale.
"I then draw it very detailed, really clean the drawing up," Falcone says. "I love to draw, so I draw like crazy until I love the way it looks."
Referring to the 9-by-11-foot "D-Day" mural, Falcone faced the challenge of recreating more than 200 poses of servicemen on the ship and in the water. He decided he needed live models to do this.
"I found this guy who does re-enactments and has all kinds of gear. Seven guys came to the studio in vintage World War II outfits," he says. "I set up the studio with life size props - ramps, towers, a bridge like on a ship, searchlights. I wanted them to really get into the scene and play act. To make it come alive, I felt I needed to do that. I did a kind of script. I knew how I wanted them to move and pose. It was like being a movie director."
Falcone ended up with piles of sketches to use for the finals drawings of the men. An elaborate system followed for drawing the figures to scale and in perspective and placing each one on the canvas, exactly where he wanted them, before he began to paint.
"Painting is the fun part, (although) it's all amazing," he says. "When I paint, I go back to my color study and imagine the mood. There were so many guns being shot and explosions, the air was filled with sulfur and gray. I toned the whole canvas a sulfur-y gray color - then I started adding shadows, midtones and highlights."
'The best I could'
Falcone is an entirely self-taught artist.
"I never took any lessons. I learned on the job," he says. "I learned how to stretch canvas by doing it. I read a lot and study my favorite painters and look at how they painted - and practice; you've got to just practice."
In 2013, Falcone was commissioned by the National Coast Guard Museum Association to create a portrait of the Coast Guard barque Eagle. Another fully hands-on project, Falcone traveled from Jacksonville, Fla., to Bermuda on the ship with Capt. Wes Pulver at the helm. Falcone says it was a trip of a lifetime and really helped to inform and inspire the painting.
"It was like an open classroom," he says. "There were a couple hundred cadets onboard. The ship is as long as a football field with 140-foot-high masts."
The mural is almost complete and will be unveiled on July 10 at the New York Yacht Club in Newport. Fine art digital prints of the painting will be sold and the original painting will be auctioned off as a major fundraising initiative for the new National Coast Guard Museum in New London.
Falcone concedes that painting these murals is hard work that requires a lot of technical skill and patience.
"The fact is, I'm starting out with a blank piece of paper and it's never good enough to me," he says. "How can I make it better so it knocks my socks off? I'm always trying to please me, to be so happy with it that when I go back someday and look at it, I want to say I did the best I could."
The opening of the exhibit "Vision. Process. Finished Painting: the Creative Process of Tony Falcone," is from 3 to 7 p.m. today (Friday) at the Custom House Maritime Museum, 150 Bank St., New London. The opening follows the groundbreaking ceremony for the National USCG Museum earlier in the afternoon on New London's Waterfront Park.
The two completed murals featured in the exhibit can be seen at the USCG Coast Guard Academy in the lobby of Waesche Hall. Falcone will give an artist talk on Sunday, June 8, at 2 p.m. at the Custom House. Admission is $12; $8 for NLMS members. Seating is limited. Call (860) 447-2501 to make a reservation. The exhibition will be on view at the Custom House through June 23.