Camping Castles: #1

My friend Branden took a picture of Tyler and I playing Castles of Burgundy on the last day of our camping trip. I liked the photo quite a bit, and decided to paint it.

The original photo
Cropped, changed to B&W, increased contrast.

First, I cropped the photo, and edited it to strengthen some of the shadows and contrast, and then made it black and white in order to better be able to discern the value structure.

Value Studies


I sketched the image in my sketchbook in pencil, first drawing the major shapes, and then using the side of the pencil to cover everything but those parts that would be bare paper. Then, I went back a little darker in the areas that needed deeper values, and continued like this until I was sketching in values as dark as the pencil would allow.

This helped me learn about the structure of the image, and introduced me to some of the challenges I would need to face when I painted it.

For one, The bridge was drawn in the wrong place. I needed to move it to the right in order to better match the photo, and to give more room to the fire.

Secondly, I drew the base of the fire pit too small. I would need to widen it. To remind myself, I just drew references with big old arrows pointing at them.

I also realized that the camp fire didn’t look like a fire, it just looked like a light blob of light dirt. I knew I would want to paint an active fire in the fire pit, but since it was day time, the actual flames wouldn’t show much. So, thinking of the smoke in some of Joseph Zbukvic’s paintings, I decided to try that when it came time to paint.

The other challenge I noticed was that the trees were all much the same values, and felt very flat. I knew I would want to keep the value structure, because I felt like it was integral to the light in the picture. So, I would have to think about other ways to give the impression of depth and mass to those distant trees.

The biggest challenge I saw was how the tall tree trunk would compete with the focal point, which is Tyler and me playing the game. There is a picnic table in the picture behind us, and adding that table along with the stuff on it made the focal point overly busy, and complicated the perspective. So I figured I would just ignore the picnic table.


The next day, I painted a value study. In the past, these have been throw away items. Hurdles I felt I should jump through. This time, I decided to take my time on it, and paint it as if it was going to be a finished product. This was a great idea. Not only did I learn a good bit about the values, I also got to start strategizing how I wanted to paint it. Rick Surowicz talks about “problem solving” at this stage, and I very much took that mindset in the value study.

The biggest problem was going to be the trees. They just blur into a mass, which normally would be ok. In this circumstance however, some of the trees need to be in front of the covered bridge, and others need to be behind it. If I paint all the trees the same, that extra sense of depth would be lost. Knowing that I would want to find a way to communicate depth without changing values, I decided to play with edges. The distant edges would be soft, or lost. The nearer edges would be sharper, and larger. This seemed to work reasonably well, but it needs work.

The last problem is the way the smoke ends up looking like another tree, which splits the composition in an unpleasant place. I would need to move the fire pit.

Warm and Cool

Next I tried to look at where the warms and cools would be without losing site of the value structure I identified. I noticed a few important things here. 1) The trees on the right should be warmer than the trees on the left. 2) The figures need to be masked so I can paint the branches evenly. 3) There are a few pockets of deep shadow: at the bottoms of the bush on the left, and at the base of the tree.

Color Study/Rough Draft

For the next iteration, I tried A kind of rough draft. I started with some masking fluid, which I often use too much of. I tried to be reserved here. I masked the figures, and the tree, the fire pit, and the roof of the covered bridge only. This worked well but I placed the tree in competition with Tyler, I need to be mindful of that in my painting.

I also needed to convey depth in the grass. In order to do this, I decided to exaggerate the value contrasts, very dark at the bottom and much lighter at the top. This was successful.

Finished Painting: #1

Preliminary Washes

I forgot to photograph the first wash, but there wasn’t much to it. I first masked off the same things as I had before, and used a very light T3b blue grey for the sky. On the left I added grey green T3w washes, and a slightly warmer T3w on the right. For the grass I used a very light T4b warm green that I pulled down and blended into a cooler F4w green.

Then I masked off some more branches among the trees with my homemade fine line masking bottle, and sprayed the painting with clean water from my spray bottle. I then added some darker greens and yellows, nothing much stronger than a coffee thickness for the pigment. I tried to get the brightest yellows at the edges of the trees, knowing I wouldn’t be coming back to that part.

Testing Shadows and Fire

My niece asked to paint, so I let her use the last square.

I decided to mask off more branches and glaze in some more shadows in the trees. While that was drying, I stood back and decided I wanted to try to paint shadows of the trees and figures. Instead of a noon-day sun, I wanted to try to drop the sun on the horizon, and render some longer shadows. I thought this would add interest and drama to the foreground, and maybe give me a chance to portray a hint of the fire itself. Even though I was already halfway through the finished painting, I grabbed the value studies again and experimented with adding those shadows and the fire. I discovered that painting the shadows all perpendicular flattened the painting. If instead, I paint the shadows converging on a vanishing point, I can emphasize the perspective and add to the sense of depth.

I also learned that the fire didn’t need to be anything more than a few drops of yellow and orange loosely mixed on the palette and allowed to blend on the page.

Lastly, I saw that painting some highly contrasting stones around the fire pit helped it to read more like a fire and less like a tree.

I haven’t used value studies like this before – as an opportunity to experiment when I’m halfway through a painting, but I think it’s wonderfully valuable. It only took a few minutes, and I got to see the results of my idea, so I didn’t have to test them on the real thing. The shadows and fire in the bottom right are what I was thinking of doing in the final painting, but I think I’m going to use the strategies in the top right instead. This gives me more confidence in attempting this on the final version, so I’m glad I did it.

Trees and Shadows

I added another layer of masking fluid branches, and painted in some F3b greens and golden greens. I tried to only slightly darken the values, and only add to the exterior edges of the trees. I used warmer colors on the right, and cooler on the left.

Then I let it dry, and added a third layer of masking fluid branches and painted some more into the trees, this time leaving the inner edges alone. The idea was to gradually darken the values in the trees as I moved from the bridge, where there are fewer branches, to the edges of the painting, where there are more trees and branches behind casting more shadows and blocking more light.

Then, I made a shadow color For the trees by mixing the green-grey with red and purple to get a deeper warmer grey. This was dappled in on the right and a slightly cooler mix was made using Indie Blue which I dappled in on the left.

While that dried, I added some shadows in a light purple grey using a touch of moo glow and some Quin Purple. I painted those shadows, trying to converge them on one focal point. I then dropped a single drop of straight Indie Blue at the base of the wet shadows and let it dry.

To add some dimension to the shadows, thinking it would help give the impression of grass interspersed among the shadows, I went back and painted them with a greenish grey in a few spots. I didn’t want to recolor the shadows I had placed earlier, I wanted to create the impression of the shadows hitting blades of grass. I wasn’t entirely sure if this helped or hurt, it was hard to tell with all the masking fluid on the painting.

Then, I painted the legs of the figures, and chairs and table, and added thin lines at the edges of the masking fluid on the table, and under the brims of the hats. I was curious to see if that would give a sense of shadow when I went to remove all the masking fluid, which came next.

Fix Smoke

I stood back and looked at it and was displeased with the way the smoke bent. I wanted it to look like a breeze had come in, and shifted the column of smoke, but I saw at this point that by painting both sides of the smoke, it ended up just following the trees. I thought about trying to lift some at the top after removing the masking fluid to see if I could make the smoke appear to disperse and fix the line, but I was nervous that I’d just get mud.

Instead I painted in some leaves before removing the masking fluid to cover the line. I really was excited to get all the masking fluid off, but felt delaying that in order to fix the smoke line was important.

Remove Masking Fluid

I’m giving this its own section even though I didn’t paint anything at this step because it’s such an enjoyable part for me. I feel like I’m discovering the painting when I remove the masking fluid. The painting is nearing completion, and I’m fighting tunnel vision pretty hard at this point. When I remove the masking fluid, I get to see it for the first time again, which helps break me out of that tunnel vision.

Because I enjoy this so much, I find myself sometimes in a hurry to get there. I want to quickly rush through the stage that comes just before removing the masking fluid because I can’t wait to see what it looks like. In this case it was especially hard to be disciplined because I was adding masking fluid to so many different layers of the painting. I was really very curious to see the results.

By far, this is always my favorite part.

Final Details

To finish the painting, I added shadows and painted in the figures. There really wasn’t much to do here, so that’s all she wrote. At the end of the day, I’m glad I tried the idea of masking off the branches, but it really didn’t work. I think all the added detail in the trees ends up flattening the painting considerably. I’m going to give this one another try.


This painting didn’t work. But I learned a lot.

The Good

The grass in the front worked well. I like the texture in the foreground.

Perspective on the shadows was the right move.

Cool on left, warm on right worked, but should be exaggerated. Painting so many layers in the trees ended up reducing the contrast, and doesn’t make the lighting effects I was looking to create.

Gestures of the figures feel believable.

Simplicity on the bridge worked well. I painted this with just two washes, and I think that was the right move.

The Bad

These are bad because they are sinful. I should know better.

I didn’t sit back and monitor what was happening with the smoke line. This caused a problem that could have ruined the painting entirely.

I overworked the shadows by going into them twice. I should have left them as a single color and painted them with more confidence.

I ruined the value structure on the figures by revisiting the shirt colors. I should have left them brighter, instead of trying to silhouette them as much.

I decided to change the lighting in the middle of the painting. Though I am glad I stopped to test the shadows, I should have just kept with the light source where it was and experimented with changing it on the next version. As it is now, the sky feels like noon, and the rest feels like dusk.

The composition is split too closely to the middle with the sky making it feel unbalanced. The dark trees make the image feel very top heavy.

The Ugly

These were experiments that didn’t work.

Masking branches in layers did not work. This added too much texture to the background and ended up bringing them forward and flattening the image. Blurring more of the trees will help create a sense of depth.

The very bright tree might work in a different painting, but it’s wrong here. The light from the left should be casting the tree in shadow. I wanted to explore with this technique of painting the tree with wet in wet and allowing the middle to be very light. I like the effect, but not here.

Finished Painting: #2

I was disappointed in the first painting, so I decided to try again. It was only 10 so I figured I could get another whack at it before going to bed. This time, I wanted to take all that careful planning and throw it away. I got distracted in the first painting by trying to be too careful. I psyched myself out by trying to make a good painting. This time, I would just jump in. The results weren’t much better than the first, carefully planned version, but there is something about it that I like. The trees are flat again, because I overworked them. I lost all my soft edges and didn’t get the depth I’m after. The figures are about half as big as they should be, and the shadows are confidently painted, but the pigment is too timid. I decided to try another rough draft, this time experimenting with depth by letting wet in wet washes live and not get crowded out by details.

Rough Draft Again

This time, I’m committed to letting the wet in wet washes do what they want. I didn’t sketch this time, hoping I that would help me loosen up. Here is the beginning, just the washes. That smoke is much more believable, I created it by not thinking about the smoke when I painted the wash on the left. While it was still wet, I added a drop of clean water and pulled it down, letting it push and pull and cauliflower wherever it wanted. That’s much, much better.

The thing I love about watercolor is how uncontrolled it is. How it has a mind of its own. I want to embrace that, and not fight the paper or the water, but dance with it. The other two paintings tried too hard to control the paint and the values and the colors. This time, I’m going to try to take the lead by choosing which pigments will be there, where the brush will go down, and how much water will be there, then I’ll let the paint and paper and water take over, let them be a part of it too. Let the uncontrolled chaotic and unpredictable qualities do whatever they want.

This is a bit much, I know, but this makes me think of the act of creation. When God created this world, it chose a being with free will, and placed us here, leaving us free to do what we want with it. We screw it up a lot, but God doesn’t intervene much. It lets us be what we are, and the world is what we make of it. Maybe the act of painting is the same in some ways. I chose a medium with free will. If I try to control it, I kill it. I just turn it into something it’s not, and everything turns to mud.

Once those washes dried, I painted that big tree on the right. Again, I wanted to let the paint do what I wanted. I tried to just choose pigment, water content, and brush placement, and then let the painting go. Because I’m painting darker values, the water isn’t moving as much, because there is less of it, but I tried to add a drop here and there to give it a breath of sorts – so it could move. Next come the figures.

Turns out, I was wrong. I painted the stones on the fire pit, and then found out that in this place, there’s a happy little tree over there on the left.

The figures showed up.


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