I drive through Spiker Park three times a week, to take Norah to swim, or Winnie to dance. The West Branch of Nimishillen Creek goes through Spiker Park, and I drive over it on the way. Almost every time I do, I am struck by the strong contrast in the reflections on the water. When I think of the creek, I see a winding conglomeration of puddles of black, and iridescent blue. A few weeks ago, on my way home from dropping off the girls, I stopped and took a photo.
The black water that I see in my mind is not present in the photo, but if you look at the part of the creek nearest to the horizon you’ll see what I think has given me that impression. It’s amazing how different your mental image can be from a photograph.
I wanted to paint this scene, and I wanted to focus on the reflections in the water, and the fall leaves.
Here’s my first attempt. Wow. I mean seriously – what can I say? Perfection. I mean, it doesn’t get any better than this. I’m surprised the Louvre didn’t contact me immediately after I completed this asking for my hand in marriage.
Of course, by that I mean – it’s shit. Oh well – that’s how these things go. I wanted to explore this image a bit, and I didn’t really concern myself with making a great painting… at least, that’s what I’m saying right now.
While this is a steaming pile of donkey shit – there are a few things that I did well here, that I decided to try to replicate as I went on. First, the sky is not over worked. Sure, it is insanely simple, but that simplicity gives the rest of the image some room to breathe, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Secondly, the distant trees are showcasing some of the juicy, wet-in-wet blooms that I love so much.
The rest is shit.
I tried to mask off the water in an attempt to preserve whites, hoping to emulate that stark contrast that I remember, but I ended up painting around the masking fluid a little too much, and in the end it just felt ragged and disjointed. I wasn’t sure if that meant I should avoid masking fluid altogether, or if it meant I should use it, but with more trust.
So I painted it again.
This time, I used the masking fluid to keep some of the tree trunks bright, and also relied on it to create some reflections in the water. But when I removed the masking fluid, the image felt like it was just covered in masking fluid – so I had to paint over some of those areas again. When I did this, I killed the contrast that I wanted to get on the water, and it just ended up feeling like a bright stripe through the image. I think the rocks in this one came out really well – thanks to me not over working them. I also really like the leaves, they are full and soft, and they evoke that feeling of fall that I’m after. But my favorite thing about this painting is the purple cloud right in the middle of the sky. I just love the way that blooms down toward the horizon. It only works so well because I let the paint do its thing… I am convinced that if I were to be confident enough, I would allow the paint to do this more often – and my paintings would all be that much better for it.
This image is supposed to be about the reflections though – and this version drew too much attention to the trees, so I tried again.
Here you can tell I was trying very hard to reduce the emphasis on the trees. I love that soft pillowy purple and yellow on the horizon, and I love the soft washes of green in the grass. I also like how that contrast of lost edges on the NW quadrant juxtaposed with the found edges in the NE quadrant plays so well with the found edges in the SW, vs the softer wash in the SE. This just reinforces the emphasis of the creek in the image. However, it simultaneously flattens the image, because those found edges in the distance are so bossy. Overall, the diagonals in the image lead the eye in the path that I’m after (along the baroque… SW to NE.) But, ideally the image would feel more distant in the NE. Because I used hard edges in both the foreground and the background, the image feels very flat.
So I tried again.
This time, I softened everything except for the foreground. This definitely draws the eye, but it also makes the rest of the image feel unfinished and wanting. I do like how the reflections came out in this one though. As I painted I thought about the fact that when I look at reflections on water, I can usually see a dark ring around the reflection, and the highlights are usually almost completely washed out. So, I decided to paint the reflection in green and blue, and then went back and outlined the reflections with darker colors to try to achieve some of that effect. It worked – sort of.
Unfortunately, the highlights in the reflections are basically the same size in the foreground as they are in the mid ground, which flattens the image. Instead, I should have small highlights close together in the mid ground, and huge highlights in the foreground. Big shapes up close, little shapes further back… it’s simple when you think about it.
So I tried again…
At this point, I got bored – so I painted this instead. That’s all I have to say about this one.
Then I went back to Nimishillen Creek.
When I painted this one, I decided to try to honor the photograph a little more than I had in the past few attempts. I don’t like the mess of scrub and drain pipes in the foreground, so I imagined some rocks there instead, but the rest is pretty accurate to how I remember this scene. I’ve also exaggerated the s-curve of the creek a bit, but I think this greatly contributes to a sense of depth.
In the end, I feel like there is room for improvement on this one, but I really am pleased with how the reflection came out. I didn’t rely on masking fluid at all in this one, instead I just “drew” some blotches on the creek with cerulean, raw umber, Quinopthalone yellow, and quinacridone red. Then, I went back into those patches with a mixture of indanthrone blue, raw umber, and quinacridone violet, outlining the patches and drawing some zig-zag lines to indicate the reflections of the distant trees. This worked quite well, and is something I look forward to exploring more the next time I need to paint reflections.
I tried to paint the trees in the mid ground with a combination of wet-in-wet, for bloomy lost edges, and then went back when the paper was dry to get some crisp edges near the horizon. This contrast pulled the trees forward a bit, and ended up making the image feel a lot more three dimensional than when I had soft edges only in the mid ground.
Overall, I’m happy with how number five came out. If I do it again, I’ll try to rely on fewer pigments in the trees. I tried to honor the values that I saw in the photograph, but in the end I think I used too many colors – it would work better as just greys and yellows. I may try again sometime in the future. Right now, I think I’m done with this image – not because I think I nailed it, but because I just don’t want to paint it any more.