My mom has a friend in Arizona who wanted a painting of a photograph that her daughter took of a place where she likes to camp.

It was a challenging photo, but I’m pleased with the final results.

The photo is beautiful, and a really interesting composition. This is very different from what I normally do because the composition is so symmetrical. The horizon is at the halfway point, the fire is in the center, and the trees are split evenly on each side. I love the way this comes across as a photo, but I worried that it wouldn’t work as a painting.

The biggest challenge comes from the fact that almost the entire image is a single value. There is no value distinction between the foreground and the midground.

As a very first step, I tried a quick sketch of the photo on a quarter of a quarter sheet. I often do this when studying a new image: I take a quarter sheet of paper and then use thin masking tape to divide that into quarters. I then can paint four images on one piece of paper.

I like how the mountains came out, so I felt confident that they weren’t going to pose a big problem. I just needed to find the right tone and value, and then a fairly dry brush slipping across the paper would give the impression of snow capped mountains that I’m after.

The distant tees worked, but I feel like they could use some more finesse. I think when I go to a larger size, they’ll be easier to paint the way I want.

The reflections are the first genuine challenge. They need to be darker than the distant trees, because reflections are always darker than the thing they are reflecting, but they can’t be too dark, because if they are, they’ll come too far forward, leaving no room for me to bring the foreground to the front. I also want a lot of detail here, just because I love painting reflections, and yet this painting is about that fire, so I’ll need to fight the urge to add too many details to the reflections, otherwise they’ll upstage the fire.

The fire itself is a huge challenge. It goes from dark to white in a snap, and that amount of value gradation is really hard in watercolor.

The near ground is a challenge because it needs to feel like it is receding from in front of the fire toward the shore line, and yet there are no real lines of perspective to help achieve that.

Lastly, I’ll need to figure out what to do about the rocks under the fire, and the trees. Both need to be very silhouetted, but I need to find a way to bring the rocks forward, and keep the trees back.

After the first study, I tried a sketch in pencil. Pencil is really useful for value studies because you apply pencil in subsequently darker layers of value, just like you do with watercolor.

I tried to explore making this into a composition almost reminiscent of a logo, because it was so balanced. However, I don’t think I like how it came out with the exaggerated oval shape to the water.

Next, I tried messing with the composition with a quick study on my quarter sheet that was divided into fourths. I removed a tree to create a cantilevered aspect to the composition, and tried to balance it by shifting the mountains. The fire I kept in the middle, but tried to use lines of light cast from the fire to create the perspective in the foreground. I liked this idea, but the perspective was wrong. It looks like I’m standing directly over the fire, and I want it to feel like I’m sitting on the ground looking at the fire.

Next I tried to move the fire, just to explore some alternate ideas with the composition. I don’t think this really did very much benefit. But I did a better job alluding to a lower perspective with the cast light lines. I realized how important that foreground perspective was going to be.

Next, I tried to simplify even more by removing the trees from the foreground, and simplifying the dirt in the foreground. I also tried softening the distant trees a lot more. There was something that I liked about this, but it’s so simplified, I don’t think it is capturing the feeling of the photo. The photo gives the impression of being tucked away, cozy and isolated in the woods.

Next, I tried really exaggerating the cast light lines. This ended up drawing too much attention to the fire, and the perspective was still wrong. The fire needs to be lower in the image, or the lines need to be nearly horizontalv.

Next I tried exploring an interpretation of the composition in landscape. This allowed me to move the fire to one of the golden corners. I kind of liked it, but this didn’t match the sense of seclusion in the photo. In the photo the fire is close and intimate. In this painting the fire is far away from the viewer, almost as if the viewer is intruding into someone else’s space.

I tried another landscape version, but once again, it doesn’t convey the sense of intimacy and isolation that the photo conveys. I like the distant trees, I like the texture of the foreground, and the fire itself is closer to what I’m after. At this point I thought I was at the point where I knew how I should paint the different elements, I just needed to figure out where to paint them.

At this point, I texted a few of these studies to my mom’s friend to see what she liked and didn’t like. From her response I gathered that the composition of the photo was important to her, which matched what I was learning from the studies. So – I went for it and tried going back to the original composition.

And here is the final result. I really like how the fire came out, and the play of light and shadow in the foreground works well. I think this brings that fire back into the correct space, making it feel close and intimate once more. The mountains are much more saturated than in previous studies because my mom’s friend wanted more emphasis on them. I was worried this would bring them too close, but it really didn’t. The value is dark, but the hue (being very cool) keeps them in the distance.

I tried to suggest the distant trees, instead of painting them with intricate details because I needed to keep them in the distance. I knew there wouldn’t be many hard edges in the fire (which is the focal point) so I didn’t want too much detail in the distant trees. I wanted some lost and found edges there, as well as in the fire.

It was important to get value changes in the foreground, because that was the easiest way to communicate a depth of field in the foreground. So I painted the ground lighter between the fire and the shore, and darker near the viewer.

I ended up keeping the reflections in the water lighter than the objects that create them because this change in value helps push the water into the background, and gives the impression of depth that I’m after.

The part that I’m most pleased with is the fire, and the rocks. The fire was created by using water to clean the paper as I painted. For example, when the water was painted, I “cleaned” where the fire would be with clean water. You can see this very clearly just above the fire, giving the impression of smoke. Then, when I painted the foreground, I again cleaned the area where the fire would be.

After everything dried, I used clean water to wet the paper where the fire would be. I dropped reds and yellows into the wet paper at the bottom of the fire, and allowed it to progress up the paper via osmosis. As the paper dried, I added drops of brown to the yellow areas and purple to the orange areas to suggest coals.

When this was finished, I painted the rocks using a mixture of reds (to suggest light coming from the fire) and very deep greys (made by mixing Indy Blue, Cabrazole Violet, Hooker’s Green, and Carmine) to paint the shadows of the rocks.

Finally, I covered the water and the paper by holding a sheet of Bristol paper about two inches from the surface of the paper, and then used a tooth brush to spray browns, reds, and greys into the foreground. Holding the Bristol paper a bit above the image helps protect areas from paint splatters, without creating harsh sharp edges. (This is something I got from my time in the dark room, when you dodge and burn, you hold the card stock a few inches above the photo in order to avoid crisp lines.)

Lastly, I blocked everything except for the fire with Bristol paper once again, and used a tooth brush to splatter bright reds in the fire, as a suggestion of sparks. This really made the fire come alive, and I’m very happy I had the courage to try it out, given I hadn’t tried this in any of the previous studies. It could have ruined the whole thing, but it made the image much better instead.

So, there you have it… Collette’s Happy Place. Now, I just need to get it in the mail.