I took a walk in the Wooster Memorial Park after work one day this past summer looking for something to paint. As I wandered around the creek, I saw a rocky outcrop about twenty feet up a hillside. Just then, my daughters FaceTimed me, and I waved the phone around like an idiot, showing them the creek and the rocky outcrop. I told them there was probably treasure up there… because that’s what Dads do.

So, with my phone in one hand, and my easel on my back, I scrambled up the dirt and leaves talking to my girls not even thinking about how awful it would be for them to watch on FaceTime if I slipped down the hill and broke my leg. At least someone would know where to find the body, I guess.

Much to no one’s surprise, there were a couple of beer cans up there, but no treasure. So, I said goodbye to the girls and took a few minutes to catch my breath. I thought about painting the creek from up there, but the ground was too sloped to set up my easel. So I took this photo along with several others and scrambled back down.

For several months I’ve had the photo sitting in my list of things I’d like to paint, so I decided to give it a shot.

Because I still seem to think I’m a savant, in spite of all my experience telling me otherwise, I figured I could just get some paper and paint it, without a plan, a vision, or even the suggestion of a study. As you can tell, that’s a bad idea.

I watch a lot of videos on YouTube of people painting, and the ones I really like usually start by painting a disaster of color on the page, and then they somehow turn it into a work of art with a few extra slashes of pigment. I have seen this happen about a gazillion times, but I have no idea how to do it successfully. The above is a demonstration of how awful I am at that.

I saw what a disaster this was, and scrapped it.

Wow – that really looks like a turd.

Still deluded into thinking I don’t need to prepare, I tried again to paint this without any kind of study. I told myself that spending the time on a study would just make me bored with the image, so I just went for it.

About halfway through, I decided to try to paint this as if I were drawing it with a pencil. I kind of like the effect, but it’s something I would need to do intentionally from the beginning.

I quickly recognized this as a failed painting, and scrapped it as well.

That’s when I realized that drawing the image first might take some time, but it’s a hell of a lot more encouraging than a series of failed paintings. So, I ate my vegetables, and drew it out.

Funny how sometimes you don’t want to do something at all, until you start doing it. Then – it’s the only thing you’ve ever wanted to do. That’s how it was with this sketch. I didn’t want to draw it out, but I did because I realized I needed to study the image. Then, I found myself really enjoying the process of drawing it out. The drawing was really enjoyable for me, and I got to know the image a lot more.

One thing I learned was how complex the image really is. Yeah, it’s just some rocks. But, it’s a lot of rocks. And it’s dirt. And cracks. And ferns. And trees. And… well you get the idea.

Because this was so busy, I edited the photo on my phone trying to turn it into something as simple as it could get. By increasing the contrast, removing saturation entirely, and playing with the other settings, I ended up with this:

The nice thing about this is how much it simplifies the image. All the subtleties of tone and value get thrown away, and I can see the big shapes. This is something I struggle with, seeing the basic shapes, and I think I’ll be trying this more often because it really does help.

After this, I printed it out on my crappy home printer, and sketched it out again. I need to photograph that sketch, but right now my cat is sleeping on my legs, so I don’t want to move. I’ll update when I am done… but if I forget, this paragraph here should remind me at some point.

It worked! I remembered.

After sketching the image in my sketchbook, I sketched it again on my watercolor paper. I usually am very restrained with my initial sketches, but this time I decided to sketch it in more detail before starting. I was worried that the graphite would muddy the pigment, but it didn’t. And it doesn’t really show through in the final painting – I think that extra bit of info on where shadows should go is helpful and I’ll probably do it more often.

At first, I just left the sketch like you see it up there. I was feeling lazy, and figured I could get details of the lower rocks during the process of painting. Fortunately, I changed my mind and spent some more time on the initial sketch.

I’m glad I did. Not because I ended up being a slave to the details in the sketch, but because it helped me to better understand the planes and curves in the rocks. Unfortunately, I didn’t take a photo of the more detailed sketch before painting. But you can see most of the updated sketch below.

I started painting with the trees. I knew I wanted them to be very subtle and distant. One of the mistakes I made in both of the first attempts was painting those trees too dark. This time, I decided to keep them very light in value and painted into wet paper to make sure I got soft edges.

Then I painted the ground. In the original photo, the ground is very reddish, so I used a very warm color for the base.

When that dried, I used some thick pigment and painted some calligraphy lines (starting on the right, because I’m left handed) to suggest texture and shadow. I warmed the color of these shadow lines as I worked my way to the left, and started using that warm color to paint negatively around some rocks I imagined. This worked REALLY well. I need to do more of this.

I then worked my way slowly up the rock face with a variegated wash. I would have had better results if I had started at the top and worked my way down – I should know better by now. Fortunately, I had added ox gall to my rinse water, so I had extra time before the pigment really dried.

My goal here was to keep in mind that although the crack makes two pillars of rock, both pillars should consist of the same strata. The exposed rocks are layered one on top of the other, so I needed to make sure that the layers in both pillars match. Not only are the horizontal layers continuous, but the density of each layer is continuous. So, some layers should be very hard rock, and other layers are softer, and more eroded. This makes the pillars feel more dynamic, as if the strong rock stacked on the softer rock appears tilted. This also adds to the illusion of mass on the strong rocks.

Just as the horizontal layers need to be continuous from pillar to pillar, so do the vertical cracks. I tried to keep this in mind as well, and made sure to paint the vertical cracks between the layers, mostly skipping the softer rock layers. This really helps drive home the gesture of these pillars.

Once that dried, I removed the masking fluid. I usually mask way too much – and I think I did a much better job with that this time.

Once the masking fluid was gone, I added some greens for the ferns, and then added some more green trees and vegetation on the left hoping to create a midground. This worked well.

Once everything was dry, I glazed on some red, yellow, and orange onto the rocks, and called it a day.

That’s all. There’s my painting of the rocks I found at the Wooster Memorial Park. If you have any feedback, critiques, or suggestions, I’d love to get some comments. (I’m really just curious to know if my comment widget is still broken.)