Growing up in pre-World War II Italy, Corrado DePinto simulated an oil painting. Unable to afford oil paints, the 8-year-old mixed his watercolors with olive oil.
He used the concoction to paint his first seascape, a rendering he created on a piece of cardboard that he tore out of a shoebox lid.
"I made the paint like a salad," recalled DePinto, 75, of Bel Air. "And it worked. I was flabbergasted with the finished painting. I was so proud of it."
The painting remained with him throughout the war and was one of a few belongings he brought with him when he came to the United States in 1974.
Sixty-seven years after he completed the painting, it is being featured in his inaugural art exhibit -- a retrospective comprising about 41 pieces. The exhibit is being held through Aug. 19 at the Liriodendron Mansion in Bel Air.
The exhibit was a long time coming, said Nicholas Montanarelli, who has been DePinto's friend for about 43 years.
"He kept his talent to his family and friends," said Montanarelli, who owns four pieces of DePinto's work. "He would have been a much larger name in the arts in Maryland if he had exhibited his work earlier. But even without exhibiting his work, he is really a treasure for Harford County."
DePinto has assiduously sketched and painted seascapes, old buildings, landscapes, old bridges, rural West Virginia, Harford County, the New Jersey shore and Italy.
He prefers to work with watercolors, he said.
"If you make a mistake using oil paints, you can scrape off the paint and start over," DePinto said. "Watercolors can't be erased. All the elements have to come together -- the colors, the wrist action, and the reality of the scene have to come together. I like the challenge."
DePinto's introduction to art came at age 5, when he mimicked his favorite artist, Leonardo da Vinci. DePinto sketched anatomical depictions of body parts to sell so he could get paper to do his homework, he said. He wanted to create realistic renderings.
"To depict things realistically, I paint what I see," he said. "Sometimes, it takes 300 brush- strokes to get a small rock just right."
DePinto, a quintessential Renaissance man, said he excelled in school. When he came to the United States, school officials in New Jersey, where his family lived, told him he had all the credits he needed to graduate, he said.
"I told the principal that I couldn't graduate because I couldn't speak a word of English," he said. "So while my classmates were busy studying Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, I was learning pen, pencil and eraser."
DePinto graduated from A.J. Demarest High School, in Hoboken, N.J., and was one of five students selected from a group of about 650 who received a scholarship to attend the Newark Academy of Arts.
He attended the school from 1951 to 1954, and then he moved to Maryland and took a job as an engineering contract administrator at what was then the U.S. Army's Edgewood Arsenal. From 1958 to 1988, he worked for the Department of Defense.
However, DePinto said he didn't take his art seriously while in Italy. His attitude changed after he came to the United States. He sold his art for $35 to $40, though he never painted on commission.
"Accepting jobs on commission would have been a job," he said. "It's hard to be motivated by a job. I had to please myself first. I've never commercialized myself, or prostituted my art."
The detail of his paintings stands out the most, said Albert Beverati of Baltimore, who's known DePinto for 25 years.
"His work is very detailed," Beverati said. "A lot of watercolor paintings look like they are spread out on the canvas. His stuff looks realistic."
During the past five decades, DePinto said he has sold more than 600 paintings.
"I've always been fortunate," he said. "I've never had to have shows to sell what I paint. I paint it and people buy it. I've never accumulated enough art for a show."
The aura of artistry, music and architectural splendor of Italy served as his primary inspiration, he said.
"I take myself back to Italy when I paint," he said. "When you are born into a world of culture, it inspires you."
He takes trips to Italy every other year and sometimes he sings along with music CDs of Luciano Pavarotti or Botticelli, he said.
DePinto said he is inspired at all hours of the day or night.
"I've been known to awaken at 2 a.m. and paint for a half hour because I had to get something down before I forget it," he said.
In his free time, he plays golf, and for the last nine years he has taught Italian at Harford Community College, he said. To practice, he reads Italian books out loud.
"My wife tells people when they call that I am talking to myself," he said. "But actually I'm reading to give myself feedback. What I do is akin to the golfer who stands in front of a mirror to practice his golf swing."