Louis Guarnaccia distinctly remembers a day in first grade when a teacher singled him out. “We had a homework assignment to draw something. The teacher taped the papers to the board and later called me up to the desk,” he remembers. “I thought I was getting in trouble, but she said, ‘You know Lou, your drawing is much better than everyone else’s and you could be an artist.’” Two years later, his grandmother bought him a painting set. At nine, he was already painting with oil, starting down a path that eventually led him to become a celebrated maritime and landscape painter.
Over the years, his style and subject matter have ebbed and flowed. He was classically trained at Paier College of Art in Connecticut. He painted abstractly for about 10 years. At other points, he did illustration, graphic design, and advertising.
An ardent sailor, Guarnaccia’s first visit to Nantucket came by accident on a sailing trip. “As we were going into Nantucket Sound, we stopped to catch some bluefish,” he says. It was rough and the boat was tossing around, and one of the crew accidentally ended up with a fishing lure in the face. “What started out to be fun ended as an emergency. The coast guard brought us to Straight Wharf. As we were riding in an ambulance up Main Street, I thought, I’m going to move here. I just felt it.”
He kept his word, moving to Nantucket in 1995. The physical beauty of his new home was immediately reflected in his art. “It was all about the light—that light just drives me crazy,” he says, describing his change in artistic direction. “That light made me say, ‘I can’t capture that in abstract painting. I need to go back to representational work.’” Guarnaccia went back to his classical roots, painting predominantly maritime and landscape works. Given his background, the choices clearly represent a work of love as well, and Guarnaccia’s maritime works are prized for reflecting a sailor’s accuracy. “I know how to sail and I know how boats are built,” he says. “My depictions of the boats are beautiful, but everything is also dead accurate.”
Despite this realism, his paintings are not exact renderings of a particular time and place, but rather joyous celebrations with majestic skies and glowing halos of sunlight. Guarnaccia’s art is unabashedly romantic. “I really go for the beauty,” he says. “The paintings are very glorified and idealized.” He admires the Hudson River School painters, artists such as Frederic Edwin Church and Sanford Robinson Gifford. Above it all, he glories in the paint. His work is loose and painterly, featuring brushwork inspired by the intuitive, free strokes found in grass-style Chinese calligraphy, a nod to his interest in Eastern philosophy. “When I’m fully present and painting, I have reached the point that I allow the canvas to tell me what it needs and I do it,” he says. “It’s kind of like this Zen state; I’m almost invisible. I’m just the medium that it goes through.”