Cottonwood: #2

Mud! Mud every where!
And not a drop to drink.

Tonight I decided I would try that cottonwood painting again after all. Once again, I wanted to focus on a limited palette, so I went with Prussian Blue, Yellow Ochre, and Ultramarine Violet. I went with Ultramarine Violet instead of Quin Purple because I figured it might give me more red… not sure if that really worked out that way, but it was the idea.

I’m working with very neutral colors, so I know there is going to be a good chance for a muddy result. (Yep.) To try to keep the mud down, I decided at the outset to try to paint everything with big washes as much as possible. (And then said Hell with that! Let’s get muddy! Right at the end.) It strikes me that this should be the default approach always… fiddling is just a bad idea.


This is the part I did at breakfast, before work…

First, I wetted the whole paper with clean water. As that settled into the paper, I mixed a puddle of Prussian Blue and another puddle of Yellow Ochre on the palette. Then, I used clean water to wet the paper again, I really wanted it saturated so the pigment would dance around easily.

Don’t fiddle, don’t fiddle, don’t fiddle…

I painted fairly strong (M4w) Prussian Blue into the top, repeating the same stroke three times. Then, I cleaned my brush, and quickly painted the whole page with clean water so it could wash down. I let that flow for about thirty seconds or so, before painting an equally thick (M4w) stroke of Yellow Ochre at the bottom of the painting. I then used clean water to paint from the bottom to the horizon, and let it dry.

Next, I used a clean tissue to lift some of the blue while it was still wet. I rolled the tissue into a snake, and lifted thin clouds at the horizon first. Then, scrunched it up a bit and lifted slightly larger clouds just above those. I didn’t want to many of these, just enough to give the impression of some perspective. Then, I really smooshed that tissue around to lift that large cloud.

As far as composition goes, I want to focus on two things: perspective, and opposing patches or bands of value. I want the cloud to be a big patch of light value in the upper right, which means I’ll want a similar patch of light value on the lower left. The tree will be to the left of the cloud, and will be pretty dark, so I’ll need a rather dark object on the lower right. This “checker board” of light and dark values should help lead the eye… at least, that’s the thought.

Once that initial wash wash nearly dry, I added another very thick band (M3d) of Yellow Ochre at the bottom, and flipped it upside down so it would travel toward the horizon. Once it started to feather at the horizon, I turned it right side up again, and let it dry.

With everything dry, I painted some calligraphy lines into the cloud with clean water, and then painted some light-valued (T2w) cool grey calligraphy lines on top of the clean water lines. Because I didn’t just trace the clean water with my pigment, I got some lost and found edges. I did the same thing within the cloud to suggest some puffy billows in the middle, and then dabbed some light-valued Yellow Ochre (T3w) here and there.

Then it was time to go to work.


Here’s what I did on my lunch break. (I’m pretty fortunate to work from home, so I can just go upstairs to paint during my lunch break.)

Oh that gloriously fresh and smooth foreground! Watch it get murdered…

I wetted everything from the base of the cloud to the bottom of the paper with clean water, and let the shine dry off before painting a stroke of purple-grey (F2d) at the horizon. I then let this all dry completely.

I then used masking fluid to draw some lines. (I have a small squeeze bottle with a thin metal spout that I made. To “close” it, I just keep a needle in the spout. This lets me get very fine lines, and I can refill it whenever I want.

I wanted to mask off the tree trunk, and add some highlights on the rock, which will becomes my dark values in the lower right. For the light value on the lower left, I want to lift, like I did with the clouds. But instead of making clouds, I’ll make a hill.

I waited for the masking fluid to dry completely. From here on out, I can’t use a hair drier, because it will make the masking fluid adhere too strongly to the paper.

There were some fairly thick blobs of masking fluid in the river, and on the rock, so while I waited for those to dry, I decided to paint the tree. The tree is supposed to be the focal point, so I figured I would paint it now.

Often, I save the focal point for last, and by that point, I feel like I’ve ruined everything. Instead of taking my time on the focal point, I just slap it in there and call it done so I can go on to the next painting. This time, I decided to render the focal point before ruining the rest of the painting. It turns out this is very useful because I established the lightest lights, and the darkest darker at the same time.

To paint the tree, I again made calligraphy lines with clean water, and then painted calligraphy lines, and dappled some spots of color to make the canopy. I’m not sure how well this description describes what I mean, here’s a close up of me painting that tree:

Can you see how some is just clean water? I paint that first, then paint with the pigment.

I used more Yellow Ochre at the left (where the light is coming from, and more grey on the right. In the middle, I used a deep dark blackish grey made from mixing all the colors.

Still doing ok…

At that stage I realized the tree felt too short. Being so short brought the eye level up very high, and ruined the perspective I’m after. So, I painted another tree next to it that stood taller.

After Work

Oh… wait.

After work, I packed my stuff for a weekend in Pennsylvania, hustled the girls in the car, stopped at a gas station, then McDonald’s, then Taco Bell, then drive two hours to PA. When we got there, I started unpacking the car. I grabbed Lego‘s dog crate, and THAT’s when I realized I forgot Lego.

So… I drove home to get the dog.

I got home around 10:00, and figured I would go ahead and finish the painting… this was a mistake. Everything from here out is a slow progression toward the big mud.

Oh god. What’s happening.

I again wetted the ground with clean water, and then painted a fairly thick warm grey into the foreground. I tilted the painting and let it wander around, and then used some thick purple and blues and yellows to suggest some texture. This was all done wet in wet. For the rock, I used a variegated wash. First I painted a spot of blue in the top right corner, then some purple or yellow ochre beneath it. I kept doing this, painting small blotches of color, letting them all mingle on the wet paper until I had painted the whole rock. I then lifted the hill on the left with a tissue, and typed this all up while waiting for it to dry.

It’s not dead yet…

My favorite part… removing the masking fluid…

There. Killed it.

In the last stage, I added some darker values to make those masking fluid lines a bit more cohesive. Somewhere in there my brain fell out of my ear, and I just slapped more and more mud everywhere. Hurray!

Oh well, it’s not what I wanted. Move on.

There is a lot that I did right on this one. I like the composition overall. That hill is pretty good, because I left it alone. And I do like the tree, which is nice considering it’s the focal point (or, it’s supposed to be).

Unfortunately, I got tunnel vision at the end, and turned a lot of it to mud. It was looking pretty good up till I came back to it tonight… and I really shit the bed when I added the details, (isn’t it always that way?) a

I just fiddled with it. Plain and simple.

If I do this again, I want to really honor that whole “clean fresh wash” approach. If I can do that, and avoid overworking it, trying to turn it into something it’s not, I think I’ll end up with something I’m genuinely proud of.

I’m still thinking this would be a good candidate for a large-format painting some day.