Plein Air at Salt Fork: #1

I took this photo of my easel set up for Plein Air painting when I was at Salt Fork a month or so ago. Tonight, I decided to try to paint it, and I guess I’ll try to toss myself into the picture.

I don’t want to lean very heavily on the photo, which may be a mistake. We’ll see how it goes.

This photo offers a few challenges:

  1. There is little in the way of depth, the trees in the distance aren’t terribly far away, so I’ll need to exaggerate the depth of field a bit to give the impression of atmosphere.
  2. The framing is very light. It tends to be much easier to frame a composition when the objects in the foreground are silhouetted because watercolor is so finicky when it comes to layering light on shadow. This is why it’s usually easier to paint contre jour in watercolor. I’ll need to be pretty careful to preserve those golden hues in the foreground in order to allow those objects to frame the composition.
  3. The perspective is tricky. I stood higher than the easel when photographing this scene, so I need to make sure the perspective brings the eye downward, but not too quickly, or it will feel like I’m in a tunnel.
  4. The focal point is really quite small. Maybe I’ll need to edit the composition a bit to bring the easel a little closer, we’ll see.

Step 1: Sketch

I really didn’t want to lean very heavily on the photo, so I sketched this scene very briefly. I want to rely on memory as much as I can. I already think this is a mistake. The sketch is very minimal – I really should have prepared more before I started painting.

Step 2: Initial Wash

I started by laying a loose wash of cobalt blue into the sky, and dabbed some Quin Purple in a few spots to allude to shadows of clouds. The sky actually needs some golden tones to hint at it being dusk. I might try to add that in, but I don’t think I will – I’m afraid trying to do so will just result in some nasty greens in the sky. Maybe I should just leave it as it is.

The distant trees I tried to paint largely grey, to exaggerate the depth. It’s already looking muddied, so I don’t think I can fix it with more washes, or by lifting pigments. Instead, I think I’ll just let it dry and suggest some soft shadows to give those trees a little heft, hopefully that will give the impression of structure without overworking. Maybe it will spoil everything. I’ll probably try one pass at greenish shadows, and see what I get.

The perspective is indeed tricky. It looks like the midground is just as far as the foreground. I think I’ll need to carefully warm the foreground to add the depth I need, and some shadows just before the midground to allude to the slight elevation drop.

I didn’t save golden hues on the left or right, so I’m not sure how I’ll fix that. Maybe I’ll change the light source to be contre jour after all… that might be the only way to fix it. Maybe, I’ll be able to lift some of the areas to get the hues I’m after… not really sure. I definitely shouldn’t have skipped the planning phase.

What is working here? Maybe I should think on that so I can try to capitalize on the successes instead of trying to fix the failures of that initial wash – that sounds like much better watercolor advice. If this were an oil painting there would still be hope for saving the initial wash… unfortunately, I won’t be able to do that as easily with Watercolor.

So, what is working? Well, pretty much the only success I see right here is the midground where it meets the water. I do have a sense of depth there that I can capitalize on with some high contrast shadows. The sky isn’t actually that bad, it’s pretty busy, and a bit too dark in value. Right now the whole thing is one value, so I’ll need to start separating the planes by slighly deepening values in places. I’ll need to be pretty careful with this. The downside of this painting already being at a 3 out of 5 in terms of values is that from here on out, I only have two more values to use when making things darker. I should have been much lighter with those initial washes.

I feel like I’ve already ruined any chance at making this painting work. Oops. I’ll use this as an opportunity to explore “saving” a painting. First, I have to let this dry before I make any more mud.

I tried to save it a bit by adding some color to those distant trees, I was hoping this would rescue a little depth… I won’t know for sure if it worked until I’ve been able to move to the foreground. For now, I’m going to have to leave it – or I’ll just abandon any hope.

Step 2: Foreground

Ok, I tried to really heavily exaggerate the golden tones on the tree on the right, hoping some very high key colors would save the lighting. I then exaggerated the shadows on the left thinking that strong contrast would make the golden hues appear more vibrant. I won’t know it it worked until it’s all dried. This painting might be lost – it might work. I’ll leave it to dry and look at it tomorrow with fresh eyes.

Step 3: Give Up

I looked at it again this morning and decided to give up on it. I might revisit this one day, but for now I’m done. The background is far too busy, there is too much going on in the composition, and I didn’t plan this well. This is a failed painting, but I learned from it to be careful about planning my work before I begin. It’s a failed painting, but it’s not a failure.

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