Down Hill at Dawn: #1

Well, this blog is nothing if not honest. Tonight I painted a truly wretched painting. Which is a shame because it’s such a nice photo.

My God, what have you done?!

While this painting isn’t at all what I was hoping to create, I am very encouraged by it, because I think I know exactly where things went off the rails. And knowing what went wrong is a good sign that I’m improving.

The biggest issue I had here was tunnel vision. I got stuck in the fiddle bits as I painted, and tried too many different approaches to the same problem.

It started off badly. That’s not a good sign. I painted the sky, but didn’t capture the effect of the dawn light in the clouds, so I overworked it right out of the gate trying to fiddle with what came out into the paper in a misguided attempt to turn it into something it didn’t want to become. It’s not terribly obvious here, but watch what happens to the sky when I go from a nice fresh wash, and then I try to gussy it up by adding more shadows, and some warm tones to the clouds.

The sky goofed. But it really isn’t a huge problem because it’s such a small part of the composition in terms of focus. I knew it wasn’t what I wanted, but I also knew it could be overlooked if I were successful on the rest. This mindset put a lot of pressure on the midground… and instead of succeeding under pressure, I shit the bed.

When I painted the midground I thought:

  1. Soft edges
  2. Cool tones
  3. Dark values
  4. Warm tones in the nearest areas.
  5. Don’t forget about ambient occlusion!
  6. Wait, you want to practice that lifting thing.
  7. Leave a tiny little highlight around the figure, you’ll need it for scale.
  8. Keep the darks against the lights so you get a good amount of contrast.
  9. Remember, it’s morning, the light is highly filtered, so tonal contrasts should be subdued.
  10. Try to get a nice blossom to suggest a tree somewhere.
  11. That worked maybe? Try it again… and again… and oh shoot.. stop stop stop!

See? There is just too much theory there, and not enough artistry. All of the things I was thinking are valid, but when I let all that theory drown out my instincts, I just end up with an overworked patchwork of attempts to appease a cacophony of voices.

This is especially noticeable when you consider the source photo. There is essentially nothing going on in the midground! I fretted so much over all these little details, and it was completely unnecessary. The midground should really just be a dark triangle. Maybe use two colors so it adds a bit of interest, but that’s all you need.

I did like how this looked though… until I ruined it.

When I got to the house, trees, and bushes – I almost righted the ship. The first pass at the house wasn’t actually that bad. I got the tonality about right, and the lack of tonal contrast. I even like the way those trees came out above the bushes. I wasn’t sure if I was going to like that or not, but it worked here, and recalled the source pretty well.

Which is probably why I tried (unsuccessfully) to replicate that with the tree on the right. I should have left good enough alone. Hopefully that’s a good lesson – know when to stop, and trust your instincts.

Those stylized branches in the trees on the right didn’t quite work as I had imagined, so I figured I could try my new lifting technique. After all, I used Bloodstone Genuine on the trunk – and that pigment lifts like a champ.

But nooooooo! Lifting all that pigment just created a big puddle of mud!

At this point, the painting was sufficiently ruined, so I just experimented with some things in the foreground as I wrapped up.

It’s a disaster of a painting – but at least I learned a lot.

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