Backrun Exercises

I was surprised to find this exercise result in some pretty neat little paintings.

I wanted to explore some exercises to learn more about how I might be able to control and use backruns.

What is a Backrun?

Call them what you want: blooms, blossoms, backruns, cauliflowers, it doesn’t matter, we are all talking about the same thing. (You could argue that a back run is different. Fine. Be that way.) I tend to call them cauliflowers, and that’s probably the word I’ll use throughout this post, but if you ever see me talk about blooms, blossoms, or backruns – this is what I’m talking about. Simply put, this is what you get when you let water push pigment, and then dry.

Usually, I’m trying to avoid these – they destroy a flat wash, and upstage the focal point all too easily. But, they are such an interesting and delicate texture that I often find myself wanting to coax out a cauliflower intentionally. Sometimes, I get a big blur of color. Sometimes I get a feather-edged white hole. But when it works, I get what I’m after-a maze of itsy bitsy tunnels edged with crisp, bold color, like the cauliflower on the left in the image above.

I wanted to explore using these to define a line of distant trees at the horizon. This is a frequent element of my landscapes, and I think the texture of a cauliflower would be a really simple way to paint these if I could control them.

To practice, I cut a quarter sheet into sixteen blocks with some thin masking tape, and tried painting a line of cauliflowers along the middle. I’ll cut these into rows, and explain what I did on each row.

At first I painted the sky with a graded wash (dark at top, clear at bottom) ending at the horizon so everything below the horizon was dry paper. While that was still very wet, I painted a stroke of neutral pigment at the horizon. When that was nearly dry, I charged a small pointed round brush with clean water, and tapped drops of clean water into the horizon. If I managed to add the pigment at exactly the right time, I got the cauliflower I wanted.

Then I tried painting a graded wash all the way from the top of the section to the bottom, and painted a line of purple into the middle while the sky was still very wet. The only difference this time was that the paper below the horizon was wet. Once that dried to the magic consistency, I dropped clean water below the horizon. This absorbed up toward the horizon, and lifted pigment as it moved up. This gave me the cauliflowers I was after, but more water was involved, so the were a bit harder to control. These were also whiter in the middles.

For the next three rows, I tried the same thing that I did the first time, but instead of using Raw Umber to create cauliflowers, I tried using Quin Purple. I found this much more difficult to control, I think because Quin Purple doesn’t granulate as much as Raw Umber, so it didn’t create the cauliflowers with as much definition.

Next I tried a mix of Raw Umber and UM Blue to create the cauliflowers. The first time I tried this, (#5 above) I added the pigment when the sky was still wet. This is what I usually do to create distant trees, and it seemed to look the most like distant trees. But, I wanted to practice cauliflowers, so I kept going, this time adding my neutral grey into the sky at that magic moment. (#6) I then tried painting #5 and #6 in the same square. I thought it might give me soft very distant trees, and then more detailed trees in front of those. This almost worked #7 & #8.

On #9 above I tried painting neutral pigment beneath the sky, and then pushing that up with clean water. After it started creating the cauliflowers, I used a dry brush to clean the area below the horizon, so I had white paper below the cauliflowers.

On #10, I waited too long before tapping in some people to make cauliflowers. The sky dried enough that the newly applied pigment didn’t displace the pigment that had been placed earlier.

#11 was done just like the first ones I tried, but with purple again. I was trying to see if the purple could make strong cauliflowers, now that I had a better handle on the timing.

#12 I tried added the clean water too early, and the cauliflowers got huge.

For these, I tried a mix of soft edges and cauliflowers, and cleaned the paper below the horizon with a dry brush. Of all of them, I thought the soft edges that’s normally do best represented distant trees.

Next, I tried painting the sky, and letting it dry completely. Then, I turned the paper upside down, and painted a bead of pigment at the horizon, trying to get a really wet bead at the horizon. Then, I used a clean, wet brush and wetted the pre-painted Sky (with the paper still upside down) and just barely tapped the bead in a few spots. I love the way this looked. So, I tried it a few more times.

It turned out that this technique gave me a really interesting mix of lost and found edges automatically – I really liked the results – so I decided to try it on something more like a real painting.

Finally, I used a thin pen to sketch a farm scene (top). My goal was to see how much control I could have over the cauliflower effect. It’s not something that’s very precise, the cauliflowers get bigger and softer with more water. So I drew some lines as a kind of target to see how closely I could get to them.

The end result was something that I actually really liked. I have never made a line and wash before, but I really enjoyed it. Oddly, I found myself less constrained by the pen lines than I normally feel constrained by pencil lines. I tend to struggle a lot with trying to force the pigment exactly where I want it instead of letting it roam and do what it wants. With these lines and wash exercises, for some reason I was much looser than I usually am – maybe because I felt like I could rely on the pen to literally “hold the line” as I painted loose washes.

I liked the top image so much that I decided to try a line and wash of the same scene in fall and winter as well.

The three paintings together actually turned out to be pretty interesting, and though it’s just an exercise, I’m actually pretty proud of it.

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