James & Verna’s Barn

My friend Branden grew up on this farm in Dalton, Ohio. His dad and mom, James and Verna, still live there, and Branden lives a few miles away. The last time I was with Branden, we went to his parents to get a live trap for a skunk that made its home under Branden’s shed. While we were there, I took some time to snap some Photos of the barn. I now have about ten trillion pictures that I’d like to paint one day. I decided to start with this one.

I decided to start with this one because it is the simplest composition. I figured, I might as well begin my exploration of this structure with a painting that will easily represent the subject. I like the way the shadow accentuates the geometry of the barn, and shades the mound near the entrance to the upper level. It also showcases the multiple doors of the barn that are seemingly always open. Sometimes, they have hogs, right now they have a few cows (and two new calfs.)

Anyway, after a quick study, I figured the biggest problem was going to be a the perspective. Since there aren’t very many planes to be concerned about, this is something that I thought wouldn’t be terribly challenging.

Ok… also, I’ve been saving for an iPad for a bit over a year and a half, and this weekend I finally bought one. This is the first thing I got to test out on it. I downloaded Adobe Fresco, and used the Apple Pencil to trace the photo. I know tracing doesn’t necessarily require the most skill, but it was really helpful for me. Tracing took away the need to measure and test proportions, and allowed me to focus on the structure and textures more intimately. Because I wasn’t distracted by making sure I got the proportions right, I was able to focus on what edges were most important. This was a really helpful exercise, (and it was fun.)

Next, I decided to further reduce the image into just black and white. I tried many different versions, because I was doing this digitally, it was easy to block in some shapes, then use another layer to block in other shapes. My goal was to end up with something that best represented the barn, using the fewest shapes. Sure, I could represent the barn with just one shape, but that’s not what I was after here, I wanted to really communicate the story of this barn as simply as possible. The version above is the one I ended up liking the best. Through this exercise, I discovered the shadow of the pole (or whatever it is) sticking out from the right-hand side of the barn. This thing, and it’s long shadow add a lot of interested the barn, so I’m glad I found them by this process. I also realized that although the roof is almost the same value as the lit side of the barn, it needs to belong to the shadowed side in order for the barn to read well.

Next, I got to painting.

In order to make sure that the barn was accurately represented in my first painting, I added a grid to the source photo, and used that grid to help me draw the barn on my watercolor paper. Basically, I just used the grid to identify where major elements started, and ended, and the played connect the dots. I don’t think the grid technique is new to anyone, so I won’t go into detail. If anyone wants more info on it, let me know and I’ll make a post about it.

After I was sure that the drawing was right, I went about painting it. Badly.

This painting actually started out really good. Then I decided to shake my brain out of my head, and just started playing in the mud. It all went south in the grass – I didn’t like how light the  grass was after my first wash, so I went back in with a second wash. As I painted that, I didn’t like how abruptly the grass stopped at the barn. So, I decided to paint the barn while the grass was still wet. Unfortunately, the grass was in the danger zone, and I wasn’t at all careful about the water content on my brush, so… well you get the idea. I effed it all up.

So… I flipped it upside down, and painted this on the back.

I actually like how this one came out. It’s funny, I really don’t like the first one, but this one I do like. Now that I look at them one after the other, they look fairly similar… strange that I feel so differently about them.

I wasn’t as focused on being 100% accurate. I skipped the grid all together—in fact, I didn’t even look at the photo when I painted this. That’s one of the best things about spending a lot of time with careful studies before painting, it kind of locks the drawing in my mind, and makes it easier to paint from memory. The result is sometimes a wretched disaster… sometimes it results in a painting on its own terms. Instead of trying to get it to match the photo exactly, I can paint what I think needs to be represented. For example, instead of feeling like I needed to paint every line on the lit roof, I could just paint a few hints at lines – and leave the rest alone. This resulted in a much better painting.

I also did a much better job of connecting shapes as I painted. This is usually the hardest thing for me, and I need to practice it more. I decided to focus more closely on it after rewatching one of Joseph Zbukvic’s videos. His ability to merge some shapes, and crisply define others is one of the things that I appreciate the most of his paintings. He knows exactly which edges should be lost, and which ones should be found… it’s definitely something I need to practice more.

After posting this, u/watercolour_women gave me some excellent advice, which I tried to implement before trying this painting again.

Ok only two things, not much on your actual watercolour technique itself as that’s ok to good – not trying to pay you a backhanded comment as we all of us have ever more to learn.

The first is compositional. You have a tangent point at the end of the building and with the trees behind it. You put the trees in yourself, they are not present in the photo, and that’s a good ‘artist move’ – to provide contrast between the light sky and the light roof. But the end of the tree line is at the very end of the building, it’s a tangent and throws off/confuses the viewer’s eye. You should have the front edge of the tree line somewhere partially up the ridge line of the roof.

The second is that the value of the main barn roof is wrong: it’s too light. I thought so looking at the painting, but when I saw the photo it only confirmed it. It’s a bit too dark in the reference and I can see why you wanted to lighten it, but it’s gone too far. The big tell is that the smaller roof, that is in full sun, should be much lighter than the main one, but it’s basically the same value.

I tried to make those changes, and I do think it improved the painting. Now I’m excited to try again.


I didn’t feel like that was enough contrast, so I went one level darker, and here is the final result:


And, in case you are curious, here’s a before and after GIF.


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