I really was not happy with my NYC paintings, so I decided to go back to subjects that truly interest me, and that brings me to this barn.
A few weekends ago, I was driving home from a day on the lake, and drove through an immense storm. When the clouds cleared out the sky was a gorgeous mix of warm ochres and cool purples. I was having a hard time driving through the country roads because it was so beautiful. As I drove, I saw this barn in my rear view mirror with the light bouncing off the side and casting these wispy purple shadows on the side. I pulled into a driveway and turned around to see if I could find a place to park my car. I ended up parking in a neighbor’s driveway, and walked into the middle of the street to catch this photo as a truck drove past – I wonder what he thought of me… ha!
Today, I decided to try to paint this. It’s odd because I don’t have any connection to this barn, but it evokes some strong emotions in me because of that memory. Looking at the picture evokes strong feelings of some kind of tumultuous nostalgia. It’s like a feeling of everything going right, and everything jumbled up in a chaotic blur at the same time.
I knew I wanted to paint this in a style similar to that of Joseph Alleman, whose work I have really been entranced by lately. I haven’t studied his work enough to really get a feel for what makes it so appealing, but I’m struck by the way he captures light and geometry using crisp careful lines, and deep shadows strongly contrasted against almost soft wooden cladding.
My past paintings have all been bottled up inside layers of studies and technique, and draft after draft. This time, instead of trying a slew of studies and exercises before jumping into what I hope would be the final version, I decided to commit to the painting right at the outset. Instead of tweaking and overthinking everything, I wanted to just dive in and cross my fingers hoping to nail it on the first go. I am halfway through as I write this, so I’m not sure if that approach will pay off, but right now I’m happy with it so far. (Which means I’m about to ruin it, I’m sure.)
Step 1: Planning
I know I want the barn to consist of tight crisp lines, so I’m going to try masking off parts of it using masking tape, hopefully the straight edge of the tape will aid me in getting those crisp lines I’m after. Apparently, some people think this is “cheating.” I think that’s stupid. Use the tools available to you – that’s what I say.
I also want the sky to be a mix of warms and cools to try to capture that sense of light at dusk after a storm. I don’t want the sky to be the focal point at all, so I’m going to have to be careful to paint it subtly, but carefully at the same time.
The barn will be largely white, with soft purple shadows where I hope to incorporate some lost and found edges to tell the story of the light filtering through a tree that’s almost entirely off the page.
There are a lot of elements in the photo that I’ll omit, because I want to simplify the painting. The street, the telephone poles, and the power lines will all go away because they don’t add to the composition. This painting is about that barn – so I’m ignoring the things that don’t play to the barn.
I’m not going to add any figures, because there is a lonely feeling to this memory, and I want that to be preserved. It’s a comfortable loneliness though, a contentment with myself, a centered feeling.
I also want the field and trees and corn to feel organic and blurry/ragged. I’m going to try to mix a stocatto strokes with wet in wet blending to help define the space and pull the vegetation away from focus.
The light is coming from the upper left, and it will need to cast sharp shadows on the barn, and blurred shadows in the grass.
The painting should feel fairly warm in tone because of the amber light from the sun setting after that storm, but I’ll need rich purple shadows on the building.
Step 2: Sketch and Masking
To start, I sketched the composition a few different times. I started by just drawing the barn very lightly as one shape in a few different places. At first, it was off the page, but that forced me to move or omit the corn, which I want in the painting. So I tried the barn much smaller, thinking it would give a sense of scale with a large sky. That actually made the barn feel too small and unimportant, so I ended up putting the barn almost in the middle of the painting. The horizon at the upper third, and the window at the intersection of the upper right thirds.
I simplified several elements of the barn in the sketch, because I wanted to just define large boundaries for the biggest shapes. Once those are washed in I’ll try working the shadows carefully. The vertical lines for the cladding will be the hardest part for me, I think I’ll try to achieve that by using masking tape and dabbing light cool tones into a wet wash that buts against the tape.
Once the sketch was done, I masked off the barn from the sky, and started painting.
Step 3: Sky
The sky needed to be warm in the lower left, and cooler in the upper right. So I chose to ignore thinking about the specific pigments I was using, and just mixed colors on the palette. I also used some ox gall in the wash water in order to aid wet in wet blending on the paper.
After laying down very cool colors in the top right, I used warm ochres and pinks in the bottom left, and tried to preserve some whites in the upper left. I then used my spray bottle to mix the sky a bit hoping to get some subtle textures.
I let this dry, and then painted the tree. I relied on dry edges for the tree, but dabbed different tones into the wet parts, hoping to get that mix of stocatto edges and wet in wet fluidity. The tops of the tree needs to be yellow, almost white, so I used Naples Yellow there. I then mixed that with some warm greens and purples and reds to warm it up and then neutralize it closer to the horizon. I sprayed water liberally as I dried this with my hair drier to get some more randomized texture in the leaves.
Then, I peeled off the masking tape to better see how it was going.
Step 4: Grass
I still needed to preserve crisp lines for the barn to help it stand out from the grass, so I used masking tape again to aid in getting straight lines. I measured these with a ruler to try to ensure the horizontals were all parallel with the bottom edge of the paper, and the right hand verticals were parallel to the right side of the paper.
Then, I painted yellow corn in the distance, being careful to leave a tiny stripe of white between the corn and the sky. As I worked down, I mixed some purples in to get some linear shadows. These were painted wet in wet so I should get crisp edges and lost edges in the same shape. As I pulled this wash down further I tried to darken the values and cool them a tad. I still want that warmth there, but I’m hoping to make the barn warmer, and the grass cooler – I think that will help the barn to pop, without making it feel artificial.
Once that was done I removed the tape to see the image again, and decided to give it a second to breathe and relax a bit. With the tape off, I feel like the foreground needs to be darker in value. I’ll probably need to glaze this at the bottom, to darken it some more, but I’ll wait on that for now.
Next, I’ll need to paint the barn, but I decided to step away from it for an hour or two to help me avoid tunnel vision.
Step 5: Barn
Next, I painted the roof. At first, I used masking tape to keep straight edges. I have had mixed success with this in the past when taping over previously painted areas. In this case, I thought because I had given the sky so much time to dry, masking tape would give me crisp lines against the sky. But that was wrong. Either it wasn’t as dry as I thought it was, or you just can’t mask over previously painted areas. I’m leaning toward “it wasn’t dry enough.”
When I painted the roof and saw the pigment wicking under the masking tape, I immediately removed it, and painted the lines by hand. This wasn’t as hard as I thought, I still managed to get pretty good lines by standing up, using a large flat edges brush, and painting carefully.
I then used a palette knife to try to drag some lines – I didn’t like the effect of this, so I glazed the roof with some warm neutrals.
I then painted the near tree with a dark green/purple.
Next I painted warm T3b yellow lines to suggest the cladding, and then painted a warm violet over that to render the shadows.
Then I painted the corn. Like a complete moron, I just slapped paint down and said “be corn!” Unfortunately, that isn’t how you paint corn – so began the beginning of the end.
I finished by darkening some of the shadows and negatively painting around the windows to suggest framing. That window is easily the best part of this painting.
I tried fixing the corn, but gave up quickly – you just can’t fix Watercolor. Dammit.
It’s a shame too, I liked this one until I barfed that corn on there.