Cows on Zuercher Rd: #2

PLEASE NOTE: I am dead certain that the following post will thoroughly exhaust anyone who might try to read it. So, please, skim/skip through any and all of this. Honestly, I’m just trying to explain this stuff to myself so I can paint a pretty picture.


I decided that my last attempt at this composition was pretty close to what I envisioned, so I decided to give it another go. This one is also on the back of a failed painting, so I’m starting with the expectation that it won’t be a finished piece. That’s ok. That’s good. Practice makes perfect. Other motivational nonsense to justify the self-deprecating thoughts before they paralyze me into inaction.

This time I wanted to think a lot on composition, and I figured I would try to do a full write up of the sketch, before I paint. Normally, I just write “First I sketched it.” This time, I want to put a lot more thought into the sketch. I don’t necessarily want to sketch more of the details, I just want to focus on why I’m making the marks that I’m making. Why put a hill here, a cow there?


I know I want the large cow to be the main focal point. So I’m going to put her eye at one of those golden corners.

The “golden corners” are marked in green.

Because I’m focusing on composition this time, I decided to start by actually measuring out my thirds.

I know I want the large cow to be the main focal point. So I’m going to put her eye at one of those golden corners.

The upper horizontal third will be the top of the midground hill. The lower horizontal third will be the top of the foreground grasses. These won’t be strict straight lines, but I’ll keep these in mind to help the composition. The other golden corners I’ll use as intersection points to help with the subtle S-Curve I’m after, which I’m hoping will lead the eye into the painting, and add to the illusion of depth.

I always hear artists talk about painting/drawing large shapes first. So, that’s the approach I went with here. First, I drew the large cow – she’s the most important part of this painting and everything should be based on her.

Then, I drew the horizon lines. I wanted to allude to an S-Curve here, and wanted to have the lines run through my golden corners.

Before anything has begun, I’m focused on the illusion of depth. And paying careful attention to perspective and leading lines helps establish the illusion of depth, even at this rudimentary stage.

This is where the rule of halves and doubles comes into play. Something halfway between the viewer and the horizon is half as big, and there are double the number of them.

Though I’m constrained by the dimensions of the paper, I can allude to something much larger by playing to the viewer’s ingrained bias toward perceiving depth.

Imagine the hills are waves. The “wave” in front is X units tall. So the wave behind it (closer to the horizon) should be half as tall. And, the wave behind that should be half of that one. It doesn’t work out exactly, because the topography of the landscape is an organic structure, but I tried to keep that in mind. Just as the hills should be half as big, there should be twice as many. The first hill extends wayyyyy beyond the edges of the paper on both sides. The second hill only goes beyond the paper on one side. Same with the third and fourth hills. So, it isn’t until I get to the very farthest hill that a hill fits, lengthwise, into the composition. By doing this, I hope to tell the viewer, that thing wayyyy out there (Hill 5) is this big. The viewer’s built-in understanding of perspective should translate to the other hills. It’s safe to assume Hills 1-4 are all roughly the same size. So, once the viewer knows how wide hill 5 is, they should instantly understand how wide the rest of the hills are. As a result, the viewer “just knows” that this scene stretches far to the right and left. Though I’m constrained by the dimensions of the paper, I can allude to something much larger by playing to the viewer’s ingrained bias toward perceiving depth.

The last thing to note is that I’ve included 5 hills. It’s intentional that this is an odd number. If I had one more hill, it would make the composition feel divisible. When a composition is divisible, the mind almost automatically cuts it into equal pieces (probably a result of our proclivity toward identifying patterns). When the mind segments the composition, we see two compositions, instead of one contiguous composition. In order to really hit home that bit about depth perception, it’s important that the viewer perceive an unbroken relationship between Hill 1 and Hill 5. If there were an even number of hills, it would be easier for a viewer to segment the composition, thereby divorcing what would be Hill 6 from Hill 1, and this would detract from the illusion of depth.

Maybe I’m crazy, but add a sixth hill, and suddenly I see “three pairs of hills”, instead of “six distinct hills.”

Next come the cow shapes. The largest cow is the most important. Every other cow needs to allude to her.

Looking at the reference photo, I see that the cow:

  1. Has eyes right on the sides of her head. (Remember, I want an eye at a golden corner, so that’s important to note.)
  2. The cow is basically a big rectangle.
  3. The head is roughly twice as wide (ear to ear) as it is tall (crown to nose).
  4. The cow itself is roughly two and a half head-heights tall.
  5. She is roughly two head-widths long (nose to tail).

So, I draw a box for the head. That box is X tall, so the whole cow needs to be 2.5X from hoof to shoulder. The head is Y wide. So the whole cow has to be 2Y wide. Now, I have the proportions for the box that her body has to fit within. (And the proportions for all other boxes/cows.)

Writing it all out like this is tedious, but it goes very fast when I’m drawing. Im basically just trying to identify something to be the measuring stick, and comparing the overall shape to that stick. That way, if I draw the head larger than it is in the source photo, I can still get the other proportions correct. I’m just blocking things off right now to see where the actors will go. This way, if I need to move her an inch or two, I just have to redraw a rectangle, I don’t have to redraw the whole cow.

I do the same for the other cows, each of them is just a box, 2.5 heads wide by 2 units tall. One of the cows is facing the horizon, so she’s one head-width wide by 2.5 head-heights tall.

I should also talk about gesture. The cow in front is squared to me, her hoods are firmly planted and distinctly separate. This gives her an imposing presence. Her back legs are more relaxed, they come together to a point, indicating less readiness to jump and run. As a result, she appears both aggressive, and relaxed. The other cows are all much more relaxed, so I draw all of their legs coming together to a point. This gives them a more delicate gesture that suggests a more relaxed mood. By the time I’m drawing very distant cows, they are nothing more than inverted triangles.

Crap. She’s too long… I’ll have to fix that.

Next I give more dimension to the major shapes, and pull out my trusty eraser to fix a few lines. (Why bother with a sketch if you refuse to erase anything?)

For this stage of the sketch, I just blocked off the major shapes. I started with a goal of treating this like a stand-alone drawing, but it became clear very quickly that the rough tooth to the paper is pretty much a death knell for any detailed drawing. So, rather than load the paper with a grubby bunch of graphite, I just sketched like normal, using the pencil to place some landmarks that should help me when it’s time to paint.

None of this is supposed to be noticed by the viewer.

Once I finished that, I erased the unwanted lines (like the thirds, and any stray marks that I don’t want confusing me when I go to paint). I was tempted to draw in trees in the distance and rows for the fields etc, but those are all marks better suited to the paint brush. Maybe it’s best to use pencil just to get proportions right, and to anchor the most important aspects of the composition. Maybe.

None of this is supposed to be noticed by the viewer. If I compose the image correctly, they won’t ever think about an S-Curve, or leading lines, or the Feng Shui of odd numbers. Hopefully, they’ll just see a picture. Maybe, they will even think, “hey that hill looks far away.” Better yet, they might not pay any attention to the illusion of depth, and have a good-old-fashioned feeling instead.

So, there. That’s the most I’ve ever written about composition and sketching an image. Usually, I just say, “I started by sketching it out…”

I guess there’s a lot more to it than that.

Ok … phgrgbbbghbbb … time to get some brushes wet.

Or… maybe it’s time to just relax and read a book – I’ll paint tomorrow.


First, I cleaned my palette and water containers, and started with fresh water. I added a few drops of Ox Gall to the water, to help with blending and lifting. Ox Gall is a surfactant (I think) meaning it lowers the surface tension of water. This makes it easier for the watercolor pigments to float and intermix with each other. Imagine dumping flour into a puddle of corn syrup. The flour is going to move as the corn syrup levels out. If you add water to the corn syrup, to thin it out a lot, now when you pour flour into a puddle of watered down corn syrup, it’ll move a lot more. In that case, water is a surfactant for the corn syrup. Ox Gall works the same way, it “thins” the water. I use about four drops of Ox Gall to a quart of water.

My job is to make sure everyone sees a cloud. Their job is to decide what kind of cloud it is.

After getting things prepared, I used UM Blue and Yellow Ochre to paint the sky. I have to be very careful with Yellow Ochre, it tends to muddy easily. In fact, you can see how easily it muddies in this image, I pulled the sky way down to Hill 2 using clean water, and you can see how the Yellow Ochre neutralized all the way down to the hill. I don’t know why it works that way – maybe the pigment is very finely ground? No idea.

Anyway, I painted T4b UM Blue and Yellow Ochre into the sky, carefully dodging some curves to suggest a cloud. I only charged the brush twice, once at the top corner, and again to paint a long strip of color across the top. Then, I used clean water to pull that down the page all the way to Hill 2.

As that dried, I added some Raw Umber and Quin Purple to the mixture on the palette (T3b) and tapped that into the sky beneath the cloud highlight. I touched this to a few spots in the sky, to let the sky color break the edge of the cloud and flow down. I’m working at a 20 (ish) degree tilt.

Touching the sky, breaking the continuous edge of the cloud does a few things, it gives some lost and found edges, which the viewer will look at and their mind should begin to interpret what those lost edges mean. One viewer may see multiple layers of clouds, another might just see one cloud that softly broken up at the sky, who knows. The point isn’t to tell the viewer what to see, the point is to give the viewer who looks long enough a bit of an Easter egg when they find the cloud. Instead of just being a solid shape, they get to read it, and interpret it. My job is to make sure everyone sees a cloud. Their job is to decide what kind of cloud it is.

It also causes a cauliflower into the sky, because the sky is drier than the underside of the cloud where I’ve just added more water. This gives the edge a more smoky feeling, and suggests another cloud or another hill of the same cloud in the distance. It’s subtle, again, an Easter egg.

Then, I added some more Quin Purple to the mix and at F3d I painted some calligraphy into the underside of the cloud. The purpose here is to provide some mass to the cloud by shadowing its belly. This also begins to define the light source. The small spots of high contrast also draw the eye, ensuring that someone will find the Easter Eggs I’ve painted.

If I violate this, the cloud will be bossy and our eye will run to it, looking for lions.

I have to be careful here. Too dark of a value and I’ll have a lot of contrast, which will demand the mind’s attention. We as humans have evolved to recognize patterns, and see when things break those patterns. It is what helped Lucy see a Lion in the bushes. Because of this, our eye is immediately drawn to strongly contrasting values. If Lucy were looking into the shadows of a bush, and saw a large mass where the shadows were interrupted by a lighter color, she might infer that there is a lion hiding in the bush. The darkest values are the shadows not obscured by the lion, the lighter values are the lion. Because her eye drives her attention to the contrast in value, she runs. Lucy’s unfortunate cousin doesn’t run. Her cousin is lunch.

So, the we evolved a bias toward recognizing contrasting values. I can leverage this as a painter, and decide where I want the eye to go. I want the eye to go up to the cloud eventually, but not necessarily right away. So, I’ll include some contrasting values here, but not too many of them, and they won’t contrast too much. If I violate this, the cloud will be bossy and our eye will run to it, looking for lions.

Hill 5

Hill 5 is nothing more than a row of trees. These trees are very far away, and heavily obscured by the atmosphere. Each particle of air between the viewer and the tree scatters the light coming from that distant tree a tiny bit. Billions and trillions of these atmospheric particles lined up in a row will scatter the light substantially. As the light scatters, the edges are more difficult to define, and the light becomes more white. So, I painted Hill 5 with a light valued T4b grey, in a single line. I then used clean water to bring that line upward into the sky, blurring the edge. I then dappled some Cerulean Blue and grey into the bottom and let it wander as it wanted to. I let that sit for a moment, then Softened the bottom edge with clean water. I’ll come back when I paint Hill 4 to define that a bit more. If I leave a crisp edge here, I’m stuck when it comes time to define the upper edge of Hill 4.

Hill 4

Right now, I’m pretty sure this painting isn’t going to work because it’s just so damned muddy already.

Normally I don’t think all hope is lost until much later in the painting process. But in this case, I’m afraid that all the erasing and overthinking has damaged the paper significantly. Maybe part of the problem lies in the fact that this is reused paper, but I can see things going south quickly.

For Hill 4, I used a slightly warmer mixture of Quin Gold, UM Blue, and Yellow Ochre. I started by painting some lines to suggest a field on the face of Hill 4. It’s, far away, so the color contrast needs to be pretty subtle. And, I want Hill 4 to have fairly soft edges at the top. My attempts to do this by placing pigment, and softening the tops in a few places started causing confusion between Hill 5 and Hill 4. I have concerns. If I blur the lines between these hills, I’ll create the right kind of Atmosphere. But, if I blur them too much, I’ll lose the definition between the hills, and might end up with (gasp!) an even number of hills after all.

I decided that the atmosphere needs to be right. Maybe, the hills will differentiate from each other better once I’ve been able to paint more of the composition. We’ll see. Right now, I’m pretty sure this painting isn’t going to work because it’s just so damned muddy already. I’m going to have to just let that be, and hope things improve as I work toward the foreground.

Good thing I started with the recognition that this wasn’t going to be a masterpiece!

Hill 3

I’m having a hard time getting motivated to paint this one. I already feel like it’s a lost cause because of how muddy the background is. Garsh.

Anyway, the next Hill was painted a touch warmer than the others. I wanted the values to be pretty much the same to aid in the slow progression from distance to foreground. I used a warm tone on the hill side closest to the open area in the middle of the composition, and cooler tones on the right, since those are getting less ambient light (it’s being blocked by the trees on the crest of that hill.)

Maybe it’s ok that the background feels so meh right now – there’s nothing really interesting there. Normally, this would all be painted in ten minutes or so. For some reason I decided to paint four strokes, then write thirteen paragraphs on it. I doubt this will result in a piece of art worth appreciating, but so far it’s been really interesting for me. I find myself thinking about each stroke much more, demanding that every stroke have a purpose.

Hill 2

I didn’t fiddle around with it much, I just put the tones down where I thought they would best suggest light.

Finally! Some hope. The trees here turned out really nice. I used a blend of Sap Green, Quin Gold, New Gamboge, and UM Blue. Instead of mixing a single puddle on the palette, I mixed puddles of each separately on the palette at a milk consistency. Then, I painted these colors onto the paper in patches, and let them blend together on their own. Because I was doing this on dry paper, I then took clean water and painted the sky above the trees with clean water, and just broke the edge of the newly painted areas a little bit to create some lost and found edges. I didn’t fiddle around with it much, I just put the tones down where I thought they would best suggest light. Warm tones up high, cool tones down low. And let them do whatever they wanted.

This patch of trees needs to be much brighter than the silhouetted trees on the right, in order to indicate some directionality to the light. Whereas the trees on the right are very stocatto, these are much more fluid. I like these a billion times more. When I go to paint this scene for real, I’ll try to get the whole background with that more free flowing feel that I’ve captured here. I was being much, MUCH too careful until now.

Next, I’ll paint the grasses on Hill 2.

Hill 2 & 1

Here is the first wash on the nearest hills. I used the same colors here that I had used in the trees, and tried to use a very fluid wet in wet approach here like I did in the trees. There are two big problems: 1) These values are the same as the trees on the left, so there is little separation between these fields. 2) The two hills blend together so seamlessly that it looks like one large (and vertical) patch of grass.

I’m going to let this dry before addressing either issue. To fix the first issue, I’ll glaze a light wash of cooler tones on Hill 2 on the left, and warmer tones on Hill 1 on the left. This should separate Hill 2 from the trees, and communicate directionality of light, and allude to the curvature of Hills 1 & 2. To resolve the second issue, I’ll allow the cooler glaze on Hill 2 to dry before I paint the glaze on Hill 1, that should give me a crisp line between the two hills.

One more thing: because Hill 1 is in the foreground, we can now begin to see between the blades of grass. This means we should be able to see some shadows in the foreground, and these shadows are more defined than things in the distance. So, when my other two glazed dry, I’ll come back with a final glaze of stocatto shadowy colors to define the grass in the foreground. This should further define the perspective, and hopefully fully fix the second issue above.

The first glaze achieved what I was after by separating the hill from the trees. Now, I need to separate hill 1 from Hill 2 with another glaze. This will deepen values on Hill 1, which should also bring it forward.

turning the image upside down ensures that the wet in wet pigments will flow toward the horizon, and allude to the vertical.

First, I turned the image upside down. Until now, the grass has all been far enough away that the vertical height was obscured by the grasses in front of it. Now that we are at the foreground, the vertical height can be more clearly perceived. So, turning the image upside down ensures that the wet in wet pigments will flow toward the horizon, and allude to the vertical that I’m taking about.

I used a more saturated mixture of the same colors (R3b) and let them wander up the page. I then added an even thicker, warmer tone (mixed front he same colors) and quickly brushed this along the bottom at R2w.

I’m finally learning to let the pigment do its thing, so I resisted the urge to fix it.

While that wash wandered, I wetted the entire Hill 2 with clean water, carefully leaving a thin line of dry paper between Hill 1 and Hill 2. Then, I broke that line in a few places. At first, this terrified me, I thought I had ruined it completely with that green blotch running through the two hills… but I decided not to fix it, and trusted that it would sufficiently blend into the clean water I had painted on Hill 2.

Finally, I painted another strip of a warm neutral at the base of the image in one stroke at R3w. At this point, I was certain it wasn’t going to work. But – I’m finally learning to let the pigment do its thing, so I resisted the urge to fix it.

As the pigments dried, when the shine was off the page, I spritzed it with my spray bottle (three squirts) to create some blossoms for added texture.

I was pleasantly surprised when it fully dried.

Now, I need to add some stocatto shadows to the foreground, so it appears as though we are looking into tall grass. This can screw it all up if I do too much… cross your fingers.

I’m not altering value here, not tone. Which means using more of the same color, not a new, darker color.

Ok… I’ll have to leave that as-is. Any more work down here will ruin things. I painted these strips with a thick neutral pigment, the same color I had used in the earlier washes, it’s important to remember that I shouldn’t use a different color to create these darker values. I’m not altering value here, not tone. Which means using more of the same color, not a new, darker color.

Now, it’s on to the cows.

When in doubt, don’t.

Actually, before I paint the cows, I decided the grass needs some more definition. This was a mistake. I tried to bring the foreground closer by adding more pigment, which necessitated more strokes, which just confused things and led me to panic and try to “fix it.” We all know that’s a bad idea. Look at this image, compared to the one just before it. That’s what happens when you over work watercolor. I thought I’d go in and define these large fields of color a little more, hopefully bringing the nearest hill a bit closer. Instead, the two hills remain exactly as they were, and I just succeeded in adding a whole lot of mud and busy contrast to the area of the painting that ultimately I don’t want the viewer to pay much attention to.

Biggest lesson here: when in doubt, don’t.

This is sufficiently ruined.

On to the cows.

First I painted all of the cows with a light neutral brown. I then added some shadows and used wet in wet to mingle the shadows with that brown. The near cow I tried to define more, so I started the wet in wet shadows with the distant cows. That way, by the time I got to the near cow, it had dried a bit, and I got a few crisp lines. Now, I’ll let it dry and come back to finish ruining it later today.

This whole thing has been pretty demoralizing. I hope I learn enough to justify so much writing about what’s shaping up to be a pretty awful painting.

This morning I put the nail in the coffin. This is another failed painting, BUT the process of writing about every stroke, and every choice was really helpful. We’ll see how effective this exercise was when I paint #3. If this was a success, #3 will be better than #1 and #2. That’s the measure I’m using to judge whether or not this painting was a true failure.

In order for a painting to be a true failure, it must be unintended, and uninformed. This painting was informed, but unintended. By that I mean that the results I got weren’t the results I intended to get. But, it was an informed painting because I learned a lot by painting it. I have gone through and put the biggest lessons into quote blocks so I can more easily find them when I look back at this.

There we go. Cows on Zuercher Rd. #2. The longest write up I’ve ever done, but not the best painting I’ve ever created.

Now, let’s see if I can put these lessons into practice for #3.

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