I started painting with watercolors last year, toward the end of July, or in August. I painted a few very simple pictures, and did some exercises with learning how to put down a wash, but didn’t start in earnest until I decided to paint this photo of a farm house on a road near Berlin, Ohio every day for a month. I learned a lot in that time, and got very bored with painting the same thing over and over. After painting it 31 times, I moved on to other compositions, and tried to learn as much as I could in my “freshman” year of watercolor. (I’m not going to school or anything, but I think it’s helpful to think in those terms… of course I’m not where I want to be yet, I’ve only been painting for a year. I’m just a Freshman.)

The first farm road painting was done on September 4th. So today is the day before the one year anniversary of that painting. I decided I would like to paint that road again, to see how I approach it now, after doing this for a year.

My first rendition is here… and I swear to God, I really was trying. I was even somewhat impressed with the results back then.

And after painting the same thing every day 31 times, I ended up with this:

And here is the same painting one year later.

Step 1: Composition and Value Study

One very important thing I’ve learned this year is that I don’t have to be a slave to the scene. In the photo, there are several things I don’t like, and now that I know more about composition, I can change them.

First, I don’t like the way the image is cropped. There is no reason to show so much of the sky. This painting is about that house, and the road. So I switched to a landscape orientation, in order to put the house at a “golden intersection” and set the plane on which the house sits on the lowest third.

Doing this causes the distant horizon to cut the composition exactly in half. I don’t like that, so I’ll move the horizon down.

I also don’t like where the road is, it’s just kind of boring as a straight line. Instead, I’d like it to curve behind the house.

The second tree adds nothing to the composition, so I’ll remove that.

The little chicken coup adds something, but this painting isn’t about a chicken coup, so it might upstage our main actors – I’ll get rid of it.

The distant buildings aren’t important, so I could get rid of them. But if I did, this scene would be more isolated and almost lonely. That’s not what I’m after so I will leave them in. But if I keep them, they need to serve a purpose, so I’ll use them to help define perspective and the topography.

Finally, I want the viewer to feel like they are almost intruding into the farmer’s peaceful morning, so I’ll bring the fence all the way to the foreground as if to say, this here is the farmer’s land… look how close you are.

Because there are so many changes, I started by sketching the altered composition.

I learned a few unexpected things doing this.

  1. the fence is dangerously close to looking like a guard rail, I need the pickets to be thin in order to avoid that.
  2. The house should mainly be negatively painted.
  3. Making the grass taller than the road helps add to the illusion that the road goes down a hill.
  4. I need to have a lot of planes in the distance to make it look like a patchwork of farms on small hills. This will be difficult because everything is very much the same value – I will need some gradually decreasing value contrasts back there, as well as intentional color contrasts.
  5. If the foreground is too dark, it becomes bossy. I’ll need that to be a bit toned down.
  6. I painted that house 31 times, and this is the first time I’ve noticed the gable… it’s an awesome feature of the house, so I want it. But it’s not obvious, or I would have seen it sooner. I should think more about whether to keep that, or ignore it.
  7. The road needs to be negatively painted. I may need to rely on masking fluid for that.

So, there’s the sketch, and a few lessons from doing it. Now – on to painting…

But first, I might take a nap.

Step 2: Sketch, Sky and Grass

First wash

First, I sketched my composition on the paper, focusing on the major shapes only. The horizon, the farm house and tree, the road, and fence posts.

Then, I applied masking fluid very sparingly. Every single time I do this, I end up going overboard and adding too much. This time I tried to only use masking fluid to preserve whites, and only on manmade structures, and some rocks in the road in the foreground.

Once the masking fluid dried completely, I wetted the whole paper with clean water, and let it dry, almost completely. The paper felt dry, but was cool to the touch – this is in order to aid me in lifting pigment to paint the road.

I then mixed a cool green grey at tea consistency on the palette (UM Blue, Cad Yellow, Raw Umber, and Anthraq Red) then I added some more cad yellow to create a new puddle, and a puddle of the same with some sap green. When I was done, I had three puddles on the palette, one of a cool grey, one a warm grey, and one a cool – thick green.

Then, I painted the sky at T3d with the cool grey, light pigment at the top, and bringing it to the horizon with clean water.

At the horizon I added some of the cool green, and warm grey mixtures in horizontal lines, letting them blend with each other. It’s important that these be desaturated at the horizon to give a sense of depth, and they have to wash into one another to vary the landscape. As I came down the page, I thickened the pigment with the same puddle, just using less water in the brush.

When I got to the bottom, I warmed the green considerably with Anthraq red, and painted that to the bottom at milk consistency.

Then, I sprayed the bottom with my spray bottle to get some texture there.

After lifting pigment to begin defining the road.

When the sheen had come off, I used a fine tipped brush, and clean water to lift pigment where the road will be in the distance.

I then painted the road itself with a warm neutral (Anthraq red, Cad yellow, UM Blue, and Raw Umber.) I painted this much warmer at the front, and cooler as it approached the white portion that had been lifted earlier.

I touched the road to the wet grass in just a few spots to get some lost and found edges along the road.

This has to dry completely, so I’m going to bed. I’ll revisit this tomorrow after work.

Step 3: Distant Trees and Haze

This is a very overcast and hazy morning. To give the impression of far off trees and haze, I mixed a puddle of tea consistency cool grey on the palette, and then cleaned the brush very well. I then used clean water to wet the whole sky down to the horizon (this is important because it ensures I won’t get hard edges against the sky.) Once that absorbed a bit into the paper, and the sheen was gone, I dappled that tea mixture into the horizon line, letting it absorb upward into the sky. My painting is at a 15-20 degree tilt so the majority of the pigment falls to a crisp line at the horizon, and wicks up into the sky via osmosis.

I also added a drop of watered down Cad Yellow at the dot of masking fluid in the sky to give the impressqion of sunlight in the hazy clouds.

As that dried, I added a touch of Cabrazole Purple to the mix, and tapped it into the bottom in a few places to give the impression of some shadows. This was done while the grey was still quite wet, so it wandered around on its own as well. When I have done this in the past, I went too quickly. So today, I took my time at this stage, carefully dabbing pigment. I dabbed that same mixture down into the dry paper a bit to create some individual trees.

I then added a touch of Cad Yellow to my mixture, to warm it up a bit. Once the earlier part was mostly dry, I dabbed that warmer grey into a few spots, and painted some horizontal lines to give the impression of cultivated fields, and some more trees. I was careful to avoid the road while doing this, negatively painting around it to keep it as it was from the initial wash.

Finally, when that was all bone dry, I tapped in some darker neutrals in a few spots to add contrast and give the impression of some tree lines, making sure to keep the line for the closer hill in the midground unpainted, giving me a crisp lower edge to the distant trees. The sky and distance are now done, I am not allowed to touch them again, even though I see that the road in the distance is too wide… trying to fix that will darken all of the values, and ruin the background. I have to just let that be.

Step 4: Midground

The midground is the center of the stage, this is where my main focal point will be, so I need to make sure that the lines direct the eye to it, and that the temperature and value contrasts are strongest here.

The first step was to add some darker tree shapes to the midground. This pulls that part forward, and the crisp lower edges define the top of the midground hill. I was again careful to paint negatively around the road to keep that in the picture. For these trees, I used a touch of Anthraq red, and sap green to get a warmer brown, and made sure to paint negatively around the barn in the distance so I could treat that as a distinct shape.

Near the left side of the road, I used the same mixture with a bit of cad yellow to warm it up, because the light is hitting those trees. On the right, I made the trees a little taller and cooler to indicate that the ground was rising up on that side, and the denser trees were creating more shade. The temperature differences need to be very subtle. This is an overcast day, and the changes in temperature shouldn’t be dramatic because the light is heavily filtered by the thick atmosphere.

I also should mention that I am leaving the right hand side of the painting untouched, because that’s where the large tree will go. When I paint that, I don’t want to have to compete with the shapes in the distance that will just be covered up by that tree.

To define the hill just past the house, I chose a very warm color, at a coffee consistency. I painted this carefully avoiding the dark trees above, and warmed it up with a touch of red for some color variety near the house. I used the same color on the right side of the house, to define the land that will be visible beneath the tree.

Step 5: The House

This is the most nerve wracking part… the focal point. I need to be oh so careful with value and tone here. The house MUST stand out against the back ground, so it needs to be white. But I have to define the planes of the structure – which means I have to put pigment somewhere. The plane facing the viewer is in the darkest shadow, so I started there. I mixed a very very weak blue grey, and painted that. First, one careful line at the roof. This needs to be the darkest part of the house, so if my value is too dark, it should be ok there. The value looked right, so I used it to paint that side of the house. I used a very fine tipped round to paint in vertical strokes. The color was almost clean water, but that’s what I needed. I just wanted to barely tone the paper on that side. Then, I used an equally weak warm tone for the plane facing the sun. Once that was nearly dry, I painted thin lines of the same pigment, with a tad less water on the brush, and added thin lines at the roof. These wicked down the sides giving me the effect I was after.

Then, I painted the chimney and window using a dark thick grey. (I’m just adding pigments to the colors on the palette at this point, so I have no idea what pigments were involved, but it’s all a mix of UM Blue, Indie Blue, Anthraq Red, Cad Yellow, and Sap Green.)

When I painted the chimney, I used a lot of care to negatively paint around the roofline of the shed. It’s a tiny, tiny space on the painting, but sometimes these sorts of things are the most crucial.

I then painted a thin line of blue-grey at the bottom of the house and under the tree for a shadow.

Finally, I painted a very light valued warm neutral for the roof, and then added a tiny drop of red and green at the corner furthest from the sun. I left the sides closest to the light as untouched paper. Next, I have to paint the tree… hold your breath, this is where it could all go wrong.

Step 6: Tree and Foreground

For the tree, I painted with drops of blues greens, greys and reds and yellows in scattered patterns, letting them blend together. As I did this, the pigments would blend and create their own pockets of darker values. I then would blot cooler tones beneath these areas and leave the other areas alone. I continued building these shapes and patterns until I had filled the tree out fully.

When that was finished the house stood out too much, so I added some more cool grey to the shadowed plane to push it back a bit.

I then added some warm tones and cool tones to the grass in careful horizontal strokes. I defined the edge of the road with darker values neutrals, and added some cool tones to the bottom of the road just over the hill to show that it was dipping down.

I then very carefully added tiny dots and lines of neutral pigment beneath the spots of masking fluid in the road to suggest shadows beneath stones.

I then painted the fence posts with a dark values neutral brown, and continued with very small lines along the distant hill top to show the fence going behind the house and tree.

Once all that was done, I used a light valued warm brown in ragged strokes to bring the bottom of the road forward, and let that dry. Now, I’ll let it all dry, and see if anything needs another touch of pigment.

Step 7: Jewelry

To finish the painting, I removed the masking fluid, and added a few touches of darker pigment. I used a warm brown to bring the grass in the foreground a bit closer, and applied thick purple grey to the tree to reinforce it as a silhouette. That’s it. Not too much jewelry, or it’ll get ruined.

So, there it is. One year later, the Farm Road.

The photo
One year ago