I drive through a park on my way to drop off Norah at swim practice, and I pass the same park when I take Winne to dance class. After we cross a small bridge, I like to go straight where Rachel turns right. Every time I do, the girls tell me not to, because they are convinced that Mom’s way is faster. (I’ve timed it several times – and they are correct. Rachel’s way is in fact 4-6 seconds faster.) What Norah and Winnie don’t know is that I go straight because when I go straight, I get to pass by this leg of the park, where this tiny stone bridge lives. I have wanted to paint this for a long time, and after the success I found in the Ray Hendershot exercise on a Field Stone Building, I decided it was a good time to finally try to paint this bridge.
I went to the park, and tried to paint this en plein air, but the sun was setting and I didn’t have enough time to do it well. So, instead I took some photos and went back home.
Here’s the photo I took. I actually took about two dozen pictures with my phone, but settled on this one to paint. As you can see, the light really is fading fast.
My first attempt at painting this scene was a good learning experience. I don’t like the resulting image much at all, but there are some things that I found very successful. First, I love the reflections. More specifically, I like the value changes, and what these add to the composition. The light valued reflection in the bottom left creates a nice diagonal to the light valued sky in the upper right. The darker valued trees and grass on the upper left are successfully bridged (do not pardon my pun) to the darker grass on the bottom right. The dark valued reflections of the trees nicely create a bridge of their own.
There isn’t much to get into regarding my techniques in this draft, because there’s not a lot that I did well. By the time I got to the bridge, the painting was so muddy that I just straight up quit, and went to bed. I tried to allude to the homes in the background, but I don’t think this actually does any benefit, so I decided to omit them in the next painting. I also used too many washes to try to render the distant trees, and they basically turned to mud. I did manage to get some nice vibrant greens in the grass on the left. Because I overworked the painting, it feels very muddy and quite dead. The image itself is also out of proportion – the bridge is much too large. These were all things I wanted to improve on in the next painting.
For my next attempt, I decided to start with a much much much more careful sketch. To achieve this, I used a drafting compass to measure the proportions of the elements in the painting in order to make sure everything was correctly rendered. To do this, I used my drafting compass to measure the distance from the bottom of the photo to the bottom of the bridge. I then used small tick marks to draw these on the paper. I then basically just “connected the dots” to render the image. The resulting sketch is above. As you can see, I tried very hard to accurately render the bridge and stones, the rest of the elements I wanted to be less in focus, so I didn’t sketch them as carefully.
Regretfully, I only took this one progress photo when I painted. I won’t go into detail on what exactly I did, just because I don’t think I can do it well with words without photos. But I should say that the biggest success here was that I relied on as few washes as possible for each element. I used a single wash of very light color for the sky. When the sheen was off, I used a single wash of color for the distant trees, varying the greens that I used as I painted them. When that completely dried, I added some more dappled brush strokes to suggest leaves. When I did so, I used clean water to soften the inner edges of the leaves. I did this because I wanted to have some crisp edges, and a lot of lost edges in order to ensure that the leaves read as leaves, but I wanted the lost edges to help push them into the distance. Too many hard edges would have resulted in highly detailed masses of leaves, but it would have brought them into focus. This painting is supposed to be “about” that bridge, so I wanted to make sure the rest of the image didn’t upstage the bridge.
The grass was painted in a single wash of color. The water was rendered with a single wash of color. I’m finally learning to paint as much as I can with simple washes of color – this “wet-in-wet” technique creates wonderful effects that you can’t get with any other medium, so I really do want to rely on the wet-in-wet as much as I can. I don’t think anything showcases the strength of watercolor more that those soft gradations between colors that you get with wet-in-wet watercolor.
When all of that dried, I painted the bridge, and touched up the reflections in the water a bit. I tried to render every stone on the bridge with a single color, and dropped a tiny but of darker valued color into the lower-right corner of each stone. I tried to leave white between every stone. As I painted each stone, I skipped around the bridge, making sure not to paint any stones adjacent to ones that were still wet.
I also resisted the urge to dig into multiple different colors on the palette. I think this was a big part of the reason the bridge worked well. I wanted to get variation in color for the stones on the bridge, but I didn’t want a technicolor bridge. Instead, I used green, orange, brown, red, and blue to mix a neutral grey on the palette. I used one green (sap green), one orange (perinone), one red (quin red), and one blue (indanthrone) to mix that grey in a puddle in the middle of my palette. I then added a bit more blue into one corner of that puddle, a bit of orange into the top of the puddle, etc. As a result, I had a large puddle of grey on my palette, and each corner of that puddle had more of the colors that were used to create the grey color. When I painted the stones, I then dipped a small round brush into the middle of puddle to paint the stone, then picked a corner and dropped a bit of that pigment into the lower-right hand corner of the stone. Each stone then was composed from the same colors, but some read as more brown, some are more grey. For some rocks I used more water, for some rocks I used less water. In the end, I got a bunch of rocks, none of which are the same color – but there is still good color harmony in the bridge itself.
When this was finished and completely dry – I used the smallest brush I own (it’s like 8 tiny hairs) and used this brush to paint incredibly thin lines of near black on the lower edge and the right-hand edge of many of the stones. When I did this, I covered over a lot of the whites that I had between each stone. I didn’t want to lose all those whites, so I didn’t paint that defining shadow on each and every stone. I’m really happy with the final result.
When that was finished, I decided that the reflections were too light in value, so I added another wash of blue to increase the value of the water. When that dried, I used the greys on the palette to darken the reflections, and splattered a bit here and there just to add the impression of reflected leaves.
I’m very happy with the results of this painting. I would like to try again sometime soon, and when I do I’ll try to do a better job with the near and far walls.