Cows on Zuercher Rd: #1

A while back I went to my friend Branden’s house and painted in his back yard. I’d like to do it again sometime. When I left his house, I saw some cows in a field, so I called my Wife and asked if she would mind if I stayed out a little longer.

Graciously, she said it would be fine. I sat in the lot next door for a while and watched the cows. I walked up to the fence and took photos of them, and just generally enjoyed the evening light, and the peaceful summer air.

That last photo is actually the first one I took, but I put it last here because it’s the one I decided to paint. I chose this one because the cow looking at me was interesting to me. Honestly, I could probably make a nice painting out of any of these. It’s interesting how a good photo is often an uninspiring painting, but a great painting can come from a relatively ugly photo.

When I take a photo, I’m looking for leading lines and depth of field. I’m looking for a simple focal point, and a clearly defined lighting source. I want the subject to be at an intersection of thirds. I want crisp colors and high contrast between highlights and shadows.

I look for much of the same things in a painting subject. But I look for bands of alternating light and dark as well. I look for elements that can be moved or omitted in order to turn a busy photo into a simple painting. The ability to change the composition means that often I can take a photo with the light in mind, and not really care about detritus that takes away from the composition. This photo is a good example.

I don’t like the fence, so I can just ignore it in the painting. I don’t like how much is going on in the background, how defined everything is back there, so I can blur it all in the painting. I don’t like how many cows there are, so I can remove a few. And, I want a house in the distance to tell a story about a farmer who lives over the hill. I can’t put that in the photo, but I can invent it for the painting. So, a mediocre to poor photo can still be used to make an interesting painting.

Now, I have to put up, or shut up.

Step 1: Sketch and Wash

I’m blowing through paper lately, so this painting is on the obverse of another failed painting. I often reuse paper like this when I have a failed painting, and want to try a new thing. In this case, I’ve never painted a cow close up like this, so I’ll need to practice I’m sure. Before even beginning this painting, I’m considering it an exercise. I don’t intend to create a masterpiece here, I’m just trying to practice my craft.

First I sketched the major shapes in the scene. Joseph Zbukvic said that painting a horse is all about the ears. I’m taking that as though it applies to cows as well.

I should also point out that staging the cows so high creates a lot of space in the foreground. This bring the point of view much lower, making it feel more like the viewer is standing in the field with the cows. I could have cropped the composition to place the nearest cow closer to the bottom, but this would have artificially elevated the point of view, and had a negative impact on the perspective.

Lastly, I should have changed the placement of that nearest cow a little bit, to ensure that one of its eyes fell on an intersection of thirds, just as an attempt to be mindful about composition. I want to know if that point has a name, I’ll look around. If not, I think I’ll just call those four points the golden corners. If you cut the image into thirds vertically and horizontally, the four spots where they intersect (what I’m calling the golden corners, because they are the corners of that rectangle) are where I try to place my focal point.

One of the big concerns for me is to ensure I can get an S-Curve from the hills. This should help to exaggerate the depth of field. Other than that, there isn’t a whole lot to sketch.

I painted the sky with a light wash of UM Blue. I mixed in a touch of Raw Umber to neutralize it a bit. And, I left a little highlight for a cloud.

When that was still wet, I blotted in some UM Blue and Raw Umber grey, and some Quin Purple at the horizon. This wicked up into the wet sky and gave the impression of distant trees. These are much much too tall, but that’s ok because I’m going to have to come back into the horizon to paint some distant fields.

Step 2: Background

Next, I painted the trees on the distant hillside. The light is strongly contre jour, so those trees are very darkly silhouetted.

I had to be very careful to avoid painting the top of the cow, because this will be left white as a highlight.

I then painted some shapes and planes in the distance in order to give the impression of detail. I find this step to be invaluable in the final composition. I don’t want the distance to be crisp and busy. But I want to give the viewer the impression that there is a whole world back there. In order to give the impression of a busy distant world, a few blobs of value, and contrasting horizontal lines is all you need. More than this starts to get bossy. Less than this leaves the composition feeling neglected.

I’ve got a pretty nasty head cold today, so I’m going to tuck in early. I’ll revisit this in the morning to paint the midground grasses before work.

Step 3: Foreground

I chose a bright yellow green to raise the hill up a bit, and darkened that a little moving forward. I used very warm greens, almost brown, in the very close foreground. When this all started to dry, I sprayed it with my spray bottle. I painted the legs and some large values on the cow because I wanted her legs to blend into the grass wet in wet.

For the greens I used Hansa Yellow Light, New Gamboge, and Quin Yellow with UM Blue and Serpentine Genuine plus a touch of Anthraq Red.

Step 4: Cows

Now it’s time to put the actors on the stage. When painting the cows, I started with the largest, because she will need the most detail. I filled her in with a very light brown (UM Blue, Burnt Sienna, and a touch of UM Turquoise), leaving some spots of bare paper for highlights.

It was important for the highlight on the nearest cow to be bright white, because it contrasts strongly against the dark distant trees. This strong contrast drives the eye to the focal point. Without it, the image would feel less grounded and intentional.

Then, I used the same brown to paint all of the near cows.

I added some more UM Turqoise and Indie Blue to darken it to a near black, and used that to suggest cows in the far distance. These shouldn’t be much more than icons of cows. If you look closely, they don’t look like much more than blond. But, when I add shadows I think they will read as cows. I used the same mixture to dapple some shadows into the cow at the crest of the hill. That one is done.

I then lightened my black by adding some Quin Gold, and New Gamboge, and used this to paint additional details on the largest cow. I only painted with this in the areas that were in shadow, leaving some of the early lighter brown, at the udder and tail, and legs closest to the light source, and I painted negatively to suggest ribs. I used that same mixture to separate the two cows close together on the hill, and painted it into the cow on the far right. Finally, I used more of the same color to darken the values on the shadowed portions of the nearest cow.

I have to go to work now, so I’ll pick it back up this evening.

Step 5: Cows and Foreground

Turns out I was right to consider this a practice run. I was really liking this painting until the very end. That one wildebeest on the right kept getting darker and fatter and more and more blurred. No matter how much pigment I slapped down, it just wouldn’t turn into a cow. And that one monstrosity there ruins the whole thing.

FORTUNATELY, this is a practice run. So I am ok with that cow ruining things. I’ll spend some time practicing cows on some spare paper before I try this one again.

When I finishing bastardizing that cow, I used some warm yellows and deep blues to scratch up some blades of grass in the foreground. And then I made more. And then I made more. And before I knew it, it looked like a chicken had tried to claw its way into the painting with gold and blue paint all over its feet. Oops. Good thing this is a practice run!

What did I learn:

  1. Go ahead and add grass like I did at the end, but sparingly. Three or four blades in a few spots – that’s all that’s needed.
  2. Trust your instincts on the cows. Try to paint the large one in three layers, light, mid, shadow. The rest should be one or two layers.
  3. Save white for a house. Painting it with gouache at the end doesn’t work.
  4. Go ahead and fade the background more.
  5. Use lighter values in the background to make it appear more hazy.
  6. Keep the sky simple.
  7. Keep the highlights on the cows.
  8. Don’t worry about painting eyes on the cows – the viewer can interpret where they should be.
  9. Mask off some white for flowers. (Mask off the house while you’re at it. And heck, the cows highlights too.)
  10. Take your time. It’s ok to put the sky down and leave it until tomorrow. Make sure you have each layer totally dry before you print the next one.