My friend asked for a painting of the house that they sold recently after upgrading to a newer home.
The picture she sent me is below:
The first thing I did was try to think through some of the problems I would need to solve:
- The house itself is fairly small in this image, I’ll need to crop it to make the house take up more of the composition.
- I love the shadows of the tree on the ground. And I love the rocks in the garden.
- The house is poker straight. Being straight-on like that doesn’t provide interesting diagonals, or leading lines to pull the elements in the composition together. Sure, driveway is a big leading line to the house, but it’s also pretty heavy in terms of composition. Because it’s the only thing of its color, and it takes up so much of the foreground, it’ll be tough to rely on that to being the pieces into some visual harmony.
- There aren’t really very interesting shadows on the house, I’ll need to invent some (which is always dangerous) or find another way to make the house feel dimensional.
(Because I never learn) I started with a full-on quarter sheet painting. You know, because I’m super amazing and I don’t need to sketch or do a value study or anything before I paint. I’ve been painting almost every day for the past 18 months, and my mom says I’m really good—which means I’m an expert now, and I should anticipate success to follow me like a wake follows a boat.
Uh. Where to start…
- This painting is an abomination.
- Tones on the house is incredibly wrong. It’s like a spray tan version of their house.
- The chimney thing looks like a misplaced snagged tooth.
- Is the door wearing a white fur shawl? Seriously, wtf.
- Look how perfectly the proportions match the source photo. It’s almost like I didn’t even try! (I did.)
- This isn’t a representation of their house as much as it’s a poorly-rendered representation of an analog of something that used to look like her house but it then spent the summers tanning in the noon Florida sun smoking menthols and letting gravity do the rest while telling scared children about that one time when she saw Donald Trump at Walmart.
- I need to study a subject before I can hope to paint it.
So, I tried again.
Ok. It’s clear that I need work on architecture. This painting is … better … but that’s not saying much. Let’s think through the image and find what worked and what didn’t.
- The distant trees on the left look like they really are in the background.
- The wreath on the door is neat.
- Everything else.
I really didn’t want to dwell on this for long, so I told myself, “Hydrox came before Oreos.”
I decided to try some sketches, and tried to angle the house to get some diagonals in there.
After doing these quick sketches, I realized I needed some shadows, and I needed to find a way to make the image feel more the dimensional. This convinced me to try doing it at an angle that’s what she said.
Because I don’t have a source photo to work from with the house at an angle, I’ll have to work from memories of when I’ve been there, and my own abysmal understanding of perspective. Should be fun.
Frankly, this painting ended up better than I thought it would. I really like the shrubs and I love that the driveway doesn’t command so much of the composition. That diagonal shadow adds a lot to the image for me. I would go into depth about all the things I don’t like, but why? Just accept it for what it is. The lighting is nice, and it feels like a cute little ranch house in the Louisiana bayou. (This house is in Ohio.)
I had shared my sketches with Mel, and she liked the straight on composition, so I decided I’d paint one more from that vantage point, but I’d really, really try this time.
I knew the two biggest challenges with this composition were going to be balance (because of the visual weight of the driveway) and depth (because everything is on its own plane.)
To balance the image I first took careful measurements of the house using the ruler tool on my phone. The house is one unit from the ground to the gutter. The roof is 0.5 units high. The angles on the roof are right triangles, each leg withstand length of 0.5 units. The house is 7.5 units long. From the right side of the house to the right edge of the first window there are three units. That window is one unit wide. The fifth unit is right in the middle of the door. The sixth unit is between the two windows. The left edge of the left-most window is at the 7th unit, and the house ends at 7.5 units. I jotted this down on my board to keep those proportions in mind.
to the spot between the garage and the window there are 4 units. From there to the door is another unit.
I then measured to make sure there was the exact same amount of space on either side on the house – because I wanted to embrace that balance and symmetry.
I also knew I wanted to work on balance and try to get some diagonals in there. So I used my ruler to carefully sketch out the house proportions, and then drew the driveway as a triangle. I decided to render the same triangle on the other side to try to balance the driveway. I thought I could find a way to work the shadows so that they offset the visual weight of the driveway.
I then carefully masked off some lines for the picket fence, the gutter, and highlights on the shrubs. I hoped this would allow me to lay in some loose washes, without losing the sharp geometry of the house. It would have worked if I had been more loose with those initial washes. I was maybe a little too careful to avoid the house, and I lost the looseness I wanted to incorporate to contrast the right lines, but I think it still worked out ok.
After painting the sky and grass and distant trees, I let it dry. When the sheen was off, I flicked clean water from a tooth brush to get some cauliflower in the foreground for added texture. Then, I flicked some brown into the bottom corner of the driveway, and some green into the bottom corner of the grass. I then painted the house with large washes, and returned to add shadows and gutters. The whole time, I was very cognizant of the diagonal line I wanted for the shadow across the house’s facade.
I was also very aware of the diagonals I wanted to allude to in the foreground. I wanted this to be very subtle, but I think I may have ended up making those diagonals a bit too subtle, I’m not sure they are even noticeable. But, I knew going back to try to punch them up would feel very artificial just due to the nature of watercolour, so I let it be. I decided then to offset the driveway by suggesting the top of the shrub in the front garden in the lower left-hand corner.
When that was all done, I went back with my pointed round, and literally used the one hair at the tip to add some dimension to the fence. I’m surprised by what a difference that made.
I continued making a few tiny tiny little details like that trying to add some depth and realism without screwing up the overall value structure. I fairly quickly realized I was fiddling perhaps too much, and I risked ruining it. So I called it a day.
There you are. Two paintings of Scott and Mel’s old house. (Which do you think they’ll take?)