Joyce and Don Nagel: Artistic Italian Sojourns

On that morning in Burano, a small lace-making island off Venice, artists Joyce and Don Nagel stood a block apart, each mesmerized by the action unfolding in front of them.

Story by Carolyn Males

For Don, it was the sight of two women slowly escorting their elderly mother down the quiet waterfront promenade past the rainbow-colored buildings and boats bobbing in the deep blue lagoon that grabbed his attention. He raised his camera and took a quick shot to capture the moment before getting out his pen and working up a black-and-white sketch. Two weeks later back in his Hilton Head studio, he would bring “Walking Mama” to life in a large painting rendered with pastels.

Burano by Don Nagel
Venice Canal by Joyce Nagel

Meanwhile, from her vantage point, Joyce, watched early risers sipping espresso beneath a striped umbrella at an outdoor café before the tourist deluge would hit a few hours later. She too would first take a photo but she’d also capture the scene in situ with vivid pastels, which she would use as the basis for a bigger artwork upon her return home.

Later on that same trip, the Nagels would repeat the process for other streetscapes. Joyce would paint laundry strung on lines between windows against bright-hued walls and Don would portray locals greeting the day as they stepped out from doorways, the wind puffing out curtains that shielded the buildings’ interiors.

Over the years Joyce and Don Nagel have won countless awards and accolades for their city and countryside landscapes, portraits, and, of course, Lowcountry marshes and beaches. The couple, locals here since 1986, both have commercial as well as fine art backgrounds.

Over the years they’ve shared their expertise in design, composition, color, and techniques in classes they’ve taught for the Art League of Hilton Head’s Art Academy and in workshops they’ve held in France and Italy.


Both artists’ works are on view in Old Town Bluffton: Don Nagel at La Petite Gallerie (lapetitegallerie.com) and Joyce Nagel at the Maye River Gallery (mayerivergallery.com).

The Nagels teach classes at the Art Academy of the Art League of Hilton Head. (artleaguehhi.org)


When asked what compels them to pick up a pastel stick and commit the scene to paper, they both say “an interesting subject” and “the light.” Joyce remembers looking through a window of the farmhouse in Todi, Italy, where they were staying and becoming entranced by the late afternoon’s fading rays of sunlight playing on the mountainside overlooking vineyards. “I’d look up from my sketchpad to find that trees, buildings, or farm equipment would disappear or become indistinct shapes as shadows grew.” The challenge thrilled her, resulting in one of her favorite pieces.

an interesting subject” and “the light.”

Burano Walk by Joyce Nagel

Meanwhile, Don explains that this problem of shifting light is why plein-air painters usually wrap up a session in an hour-and-a-half. “I always take a photo before I paint and then after, knowing that as the sun moves, one part of a building that is lit up at first may end up in deep shadows by the end. That’s what I’ll need to work with when I get back into the studio.”

But sometimes it isn’t Mother Nature but people who quickly alter a scene. At one vineyard they spotted a patch of poppies, the bright red of their petals popping against the beige of an old stone house and the green of grapevines. Perfect! Then the farmer came along and mowed down the flowers. “Oh! The poppies!” they cried out. “Weeds,” he told them with a shrug.

Morning Coffee by Joyce Nagel

Clearly timing and a good eye is important in discovering a great scene to paint. But so is a sense of adventure––not to mention allowing for serendipity and a willingness to go with the moment. “One of the wonderful things that happens is when you set your sights on going someplace and find that you didn’t quite get there because you found something else amazing along the way,” Don declares. “We take the unknown path and don’t worry about being on any schedule,” adds Joyce.

On their daily wanderings, they move with great portability, carting small pads of paper, a few supplies, and lightweight stools for comfort during hour-long sessions. And they always break for a leisurely lunch in a local eatery. “Amazing food in usual places,” they agree.

And so, after a morning’s work, they pull up chairs at a colorful café and take their place among the interesting folks they paint.

(click on gallery thumbnails for larger photo)