My last post was a pretty big downer. I’m glad I wrote it because it’s honest. But it also highlighted how inadequate I have been feeling lately.
That post was titled “I can’t.” Today, I decided to paint and post again, and I wanted to title this one, “I can.” But that’s not honest. I don’t think I can yet—I can’t paint a moment the way I want to. So instead, I’m titling this “I will.”
Maybe I can’t paint the emotions that I’m trying to capture, maybe I’ll never be able to paint the serenity I feel when I see something beautiful. But I will try.
I can’t yet produce a piece of art that holds up to what I want to create. But I won’t let that stop me. Maybe I can’t. But today, at the very least, I will try.
It’s Thanksgiving, and I am sick. I was throwing up yesterday, but today I’m feeling a little better. Rachel and the girls went to Pennsylvania to have Thanksgiving with her family, and I stayed home so I wouldn’t get anyone else sick. I’m kind of glad it happened, because I think I needed some time alone.
This past weekend we went to Malone Thanksgiving with a bunch of my friends from college. It was a really enjoyable time, as it is every year. So I didn’t miss out on Thanksgiving completely. I’m so glad we keep doing this every year, I look forward to it for months before we go.
Anyway, while we were at the cabin for MT, I woke up early and went outside to take some photos just after sunrise. There was a thin layer of frost on everything, and it was quiet and peaceful outside. So I walked around and snapped photos. There are a lot of things I might want to paint, butI settled on this one.
I kind of wanted to just go for it, and paint this without any studies or sketches first, but I thought better of it. I’m glad I did because this allowed me to not only identify the problems I would need to solve, it also allowed me to try a few ways to solve them.
First, I painted a version like I would have if I had started out on a quarter sheet of paper.
Obviously this isn’t what I would paint if I were trying to make a finished piece, it’s more a glimpse at the techniques that I think I would use it I were to try to tackle this without any studies first. The sky would be a flat wash, the crops would be a wet in wet wash that blended into the sky. The fence would be quick lines with a dry brush, etc. While I didn’t try to paint this through to completion, I did succeed in “getting a feel for it.”
The goal here was to sketch the image, and see what was going to give me trouble. I quickly noticed a few things. First, that tree is bossy. It takes over the whole composition, and demands a lot of attention. The way I painted it doesn’t capture the tangled bunch of branches in the source photo at all. That is the first problem.
The fence is the second problem, it cuts a really interesting line in the composition, but because it is silhouetted it doesn’t have much interest. I’ll need to find a way to make it more than just dead black lines.
So, my two biggest problems are going to be the fence and the tree. I decided to focus on the tree first.
This time, I tried to paint the tree using a lot of lost and found edges. It’s interesting, but it’s still far too bossy. Maybe I should lighten the values a bit or paint it very softly. The fence I just slashed into place, trying to paint each post and bar with a single stroke. It comes across as far too one dimensional, and I need to try to capture the structure of the fence better. Instead of painting it as four horizontal lines with vertical lines spaced out, I should paint the vertical lines first, and connect the horizontal lines to them. Painting the fence in the order it is built should make it read more like a fence.
I tried painting dark values into very wet paper for the tree as an experiment to see if I could get soft edges and lighter values that way. It did not work at all.
This time, I tried to paint the tree with a mix of dark and light values into very wet paper. Again, this didn’t work at all.
The fence was more successful, I painted the vertical lines first, being careful to cut a tiny triangle out of the vertical at the top of the intersecting bar.
This worked very nicely, and it’s the first “solution” I have found for this painting.
I moved from this on to using masking fluid, but I later decided that I like this better.
I used masking fluid this time to help with the fence, it just looks like spaghetti. The tree I placed in again, this time trying to use light values. It just feels intrusive. I think because the trunk isn’t in the image, the tree starts to feel like it doesn’t actually belong here. As I thought more about the image, I realized that this painting is about the farm house, not about the tree. I decided to try this without the tree.
I think I like the composition better without the tree. This time I didn’t use masking fluid on the fence, and it didn’t really work. Maybe it’s hard to tell because I’m not actually finishing these images, but so far, I haven’t found a way to paint the fence that I actually like. The shadow on the ground is ugly as well, that’s going to require some attention as well.
Here I tried the composition without the fence. I thought I could simplify the painting, because I liked the results after I removed the tree. This isn’t as interesting to me though, the plants on the right look unconfined, and I miss how the fence helped with the perspective.
This time, I tried to paint the whole thing ala prima, to see what the values do to create a sense of depth. I realize looking at this that the midground and foreground are all basically the same value, and it just feels flat. I should explore the value structure more before focusing on the best techniques for the fence and shadows etc.
Here I decided to try to paint the image more as a finished painting and less as a sketch. I painted the other images four at a time. On the others, while I waited for the sky to dry on one painting, I would paint the sky on the next. I see now that this is a terrible idea. The whole point in doing these studies is to learn from the image. If I start the next image before I’m done with the first, I can’t really work all of the lessons into the next image.
So, I decided to slow down.
I tried to paint the sky as a simple wash, using only one stroke of pigment at the top to see what would happen. I like the results, but I don’t think it suits this composition. I also tried something a bit different on the distant hillside. I painted these with a flat wash of blue, then when the sheen was gone, I dabbed clean water into the wash to create some blossoms. I really like the results there.
I also like the fence more than some of the others. Painting the posts and bars with a dry brush gives me the values I want and still permits a good bit of interest, so it doesn’t feel like a bunch of dead lines.
This time, I tried again to paint the sky as a flat wash. I like this. It’s very simple, but I want to convey a sense of loneliness and cold in this image, and I think that sky works.
I tried to paint the distant hills the same way as the last painting, but tried darker values this time. I see the hills are fairly dark in the source photo, so I tried that here, but it just brings them forward and flattens the image. I’m going to go back to a cool grey. The barn is too dark all around. This is the focal point in the image, so it’s important that I don’t drown it out by making it muddy and grey.
I then wanted to see what this might look like in landscape orientation instead of portrait. The composition feels like it is being squeezed into place because there is so much room at the top of the painting, and it’s so busy on the bottom. So, I cropped the source photo just to see what it would do, and I like the results. I’m going to switch to landscape and keep sketching.
I brought the tree back for the next iteration, but I’m not sure if it works any better in this orientation. I took more care when painting the fence, and went without masking fluid, I think that might be the right approach.
The distant hills are the right value, and I really like that I thought to add some mist there. I really want this to feel cold, and that helps.
The grass however, is much too green. I’m torn between warming it up so it looks dead, and cooling it down to give the whole painting a cooler feel. I think I’m going to cool it down.
I will try to incorporate the tree again, but this time, instead of niggling around with every branch, I’ll try a variegated, light valued wash, and I’ll add a few branches here and there. I will probably need to mask off some branches in order to make it look like frost is on the tree.
So, the recipe for the next sketch:
- Landscape orientation
- Sky: R3w Indie Blue fading into T3w Prussian Blue.
- Distant hills: F3d (Prussian Blue + Yellow Ochre + Quin Red). Lift at the base for mist.
- Texture on distant hills: C3d water
- Dry grass on left: F2b Yellow Ochre.
- Grass on right: T3b Serpentine + Cobalt
- Farm House Roof: R3b Indie Blue + Raw Umber (Grass on the right should be a bit damp, lift some on the sides for mist.)
- Fence: R2b Raw Umber + Indie Blue (careful to cut highlights on the vertical posts).
- Farm House Front: T2b Cobalt leave it mostly white.
- Shadow on Front of Farm House: T2s Raw Umber + Indie Blue.
- . Shadows in Grass on Right: T3b Serpentine + Cobalt
- Tree Canopy: T4w Cobalt & Yellow Ochre & Prussian Blue & Quin Red
- Tree Branches: R2b Indie Blue + Raw Umber.
I adhered to the plan for the most part, but I did end up putting more detail into the tree than I wanted to. I think now that I’m going with landscape orientation, I can fit the tree trunk into the composition, which makes it feel more like it belongs, so I think the tree is back in.
The shadow of the fence is still giving me trouble, this time I tried to focus on painting the shadow so that it defined the shape of the ground, instead of just mirroring the shape of the fence. But, it still feels off. As the shadow nears the horizon, it needs to be shorter.
I also want to edit the tree in two ways, I want to move it closer to the horizon, so I have room to add the trees’s shadow, and I want to make the trunk taller, so it doesn’t take up as much of the composition. I think this will give more breathing room to the farm house, and help with the illusion of depth in the image.
I also want to move the light source from dead left to be more contra-jour so that the shadows will come toward the viewer, I think this will increase the perspective, and contribute to a sense of depth.
The rest seemed to work ok. I think I’m getting close to the point where I can move on to a full-size attempt.
I think I did a pretty good job on this one. I’m going to try a few more just to make sure I can repeat the results.
I like the changes that I made here, but I don’t like how the fence seems to run right into the door. I can’t decide if I should move the house, or the fence, so I’ll try both and see what works better.
I also don’t like the distant hills in this one. They don’t read like forested hills. Maybe I’ll paint them as just a flat grey shape on the next one to see how that goes.
This time I experimented with moving the house to the right. That opens up some space for mist in the distance, and it pushes the house a bit back, which is nice. But I don’t think it feels as accurate. What is the house doing way over there? The field almost looks lonely, and presumably, that is where the crops are.
I really like the white on the horizon, and how it mixed with the mist.
I also tried to use masking fluid on the branches, I think that worked well.
The fence is dead, because I went too dark too fast.
The hills in the distance are too curved, it feels trite, and doesn’t contribute to the feeling of depth all that much.
The shadow of the fence worked well. I painted the shadow with Serpentine green, and I think that’s the right move.
I still want more of a shadow from the tree.
Next up: move the farm house to the left of the fence.
Ok. That’s the one. A few things to change: move the house to the right, but keep it in that side of the fence. Keep viewers eye sight in mind when I paint the fence, here the fence appears too short, or the viewer is too tall.
Here’s the recipe:
- Sky: Wet the paper to the horizon with clean water. Get a puddle of Prussian Blue on the palette, then charge the brush with Indie Blue. Paint a stripe of R3w Indie Blue at the top, then charge the brush with T3w Prussian Blue, and pull the Indie Blue to the horizon. Don’t fiddle. We want a flat wash. Leave the area where the crops will go as bare paper.
- Crops: F2w Yellow Ochre – let it touch the sky. Dab Quin Gold into the Yellow Ochre in a few spots, but overall, go for a flat wash. Then paint the crops as rectangles between the fence, stop before you get too far to the right so there is room for grass. As you work toward the horizon, use more water to lighten the value.
- Grass: be sure that the crops don’t go all the way to the bottom of the fence, because you need to leave room for the grass behind the fence, otherwise it looks like the crops grow right up to the edge, and feels artificial. Paint the grass into the bottom rectangles of the fence, use a neutralized green, almost grey. Pull this color beneath the fence, and use a dry brush to swipe it to the left, dark value at the bottom of the page. Leave gaps of whites from the dry brush on the right hand side. Don’t leave white beneath the fence (that’s al shadow from the crops.) Switch to quin Gold, and use that to paint the grass near the horizon, leaving clear white brush strokes.
- Distant Hills: Mix a cool grey (T2b Prussian Blue + Yellow Ochre + Ultramarine Turqoise + Anthraq Red) Paint the distant hills as one solid shape in a flat wash. Careful to avoid the fence and the house. Blot with tissues around the tops of the crops. Leave empty space for the trunk of the tree. Then while it dries, mix a dark value neutral grey. When the shine is gone from the hills, tap F3d of that grey into the base of the hills.
- House: Use the grey to paint the side of the house. Careful to leave white for the gutter on that side. Let everything dry completely.
- Fence: use neutral grey to paint the top of the nearest vertical fence post until the cross bar. Leave a triangle of white, and paint the cross bar with the same color, leave the top untouched for a perfectly white line. Repeat for all the posts & bars. There should be a white line on the top of the bar, and a triangular white patch in the post where the bar meets it. There is no need to connect the bar to the nearer post, only the farther post. Dab Indie Blue where the bars meet the posts. Where the posts meet the ground, pull shadows from the bottom of the post into the grass using Serpentine. Try to define the shape of the hill in this side of the fence when painting in those shadows. Do NOT over work these. Just one stroke per shadow. If that stroke looks wrong, leave it alone.
- House facade & Roof: paint the shadow on the front of the house as a single shape in Cobalt Blue. As that dries, paint the roof, careful to leave white for the gutter and trim. Once the shine is gone, paint thin vertical lines on the facade with cobalt, and neutral grey.
- Tree: start by painting the trunk with very dark grey, paint up to define major branches. Let dry completely. Wet the whole area, add paint in slapping streaks to give rhythm and suggest leaves. Let it dry completely, then add branches, sparingly, with grey, and drop pigment into the branches at random to allow it to spread and concentrate randomly. Let dry, then lift pigment with stiff brush on trunk and in canopy to suggest shape and light.
Ok. Now that I’m getting consistent results, and now that I think I have settled on a composition, I’m going to go ahead and paint this at the quarter sheet size. If I like that, I might try this on a full sheet.
This version worked pretty well. I don’t like the way the fence highlights work against the shadowed side of the house, but I think that’s more because I’m working at such a small scale. I think when I move to a larger piece of paper, that will improve. I really like the grass beneath the tree, and the shadow of the fence. Overall, I’m happy with this. I’m going to sleep on it, and see the composition tomorrow with new eyes. Then I’ll make some final determinations, and paint a rough draft at a quarter sheet size.