I spent countless hours as a kid walking through a ravine near my house, sometimes with my brothers and sister, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends. It was always a place where my imagination seemed to yawn open and suddenly thousands of worlds were possible. We spent days cooking salami on coffee cans, or trying to catch snakes and frogs, or building dams, or just exploring. I still think back to the peace I would feel down in the Ravine as a kid, and really want to capture some of that in a painting.
I wasn’t able to capture the memory here, and I doubt I ever will, but this does a few things right.
I started by doing a number of value studies trying to get the picture in my head down on paper in an interesting way. At first, my value study was very busy, and I don’t think I realized how much I needed to simplify it until after the third study.
I want to try this again, so I’m going to talk a bit about the value studies to try to figure out what went wrong.
In my mind, I’m picturing a specific spot in the Ravine where there is a deep pool right before a small waterfall. I remember my brother slipping into the pool once when we went down in the rain the see the Ravine when it was flooding. (It was the 80’s, ok?) In my mind, I see the pool of water in the distance, barely visible between the top of the waterfall and the horizon. To the right is the path we would take, and to the left is a shore we explored less because it was full of brambles. In this value study, the upper pool is too dark, the rocks on the left feel like cardboard cutouts, the trees on the right are too far apart, and the rocks in the stream are poorly aligned. The waterfall is the greatest point of contrast, and becomes the focal point. It also lies right in the center of the image, and that needs to be fixed.
I tried to separate the closest rock (lower right) by moving it away from the hill, and making it darker. I also tried to lighten the upper pool of water and the distant trees and shores. This forced me to actually darken the waterfall, which I’m fairly certain wouldn’t translate well when painted. I thought moving the tree on the left would make it feel more like parts of the woods were hanging over the creek, but it just ended up looking like a shadow of one of the distant trees.
I then thought about what Rick Surowicz always says about painting large shapes first. So, I started another value study, trying to focus on the lines in the composition only. What are the big shapes in this image, and how do they interact or counteract each other? I want the viewer to feel like she is covered by the canopy of unseen trees, and I want the light in the distance to cut through the trees at the horizon. I realized that the two shores in the distance with their trees made for a very busy background. I thought I could balance this out by simplifying the foreground, but that just brings the background forward and makes it feel top-heavy. I didn’t go any further with this one, the shapes just wouldn’t work.
I tried to simplify. I realized that the waterfall was forcing me to have too many competing shapes in the image, so I cut out the waterfall. The result felt very flat, and I didn’t feel like the viewer was under a canopy of trees any longer. I also realized that the composition had the viewer standing in the middle of the creek, which felt like a mistake even though that’s where we spent a lot of time when we were in the Ravine. There are fewer shapes here which helps the composition, but I felt like something g was needed on the left to give that sense of an overhanging canopy.
I figured I could paint a bunch of stones in the foreground to try to bring it forward by adding detail. This also bent the creek, which added some interest and more interesting lines to the composition. I wanted these stones to be dark to allude to trees out of frame casting shadows on them. This is a much simpler composition, and should make the final painting less busy. I still had the big tree hanging over the water, but it now felt like it was just getting in the way.
I simplified even more by removing the tree and lightening the image. I didn’t realize until now how much lower the field of view is in this study, which I actually quite like. It’s not something I captured in the painting, but I think I’m going to try to in the next one. Overall, I think this is the most interesting composition, and I’m going to try to capture this in the next go.
I started by masking off some areas, but was a little too rushed with this. I need to remember, use masking fluid intentionally, or not at all.
Then I laid in some initial washes. I felt hurried and anxious for whatever reason, and paid no attention to my pigment choices. The primary wash was very muddied and already the image is overworked. I would realize this and try to calm it down, but it’s really hard to fix a mistake like this in watercolor. Only God can create something from mud.
I didn’t want to give up on it so quickly, so I started painting in some shadows. I wanted to allude to a dark canopy above the viewer, so I darkened the canopy in the distance (even though it should be more brightly lit) in order to “tell” the viewer that the canopy above him is dark. I tried to keep it lighter in the woods under the canopy to tell the viewer that he was in the light part of the image. This feels reversed and didn’t end up doing what I wanted, but it’s a neat idea I will maybe play with some more.
I then painted my mud ground details. I really like how the rock popped out, but the water looks awful. I am not using any of the lessons I learned about painting water! The shadows of the trees all feel wrong on the left. I want the sun the be almost directly in front of the viewer, but that’s not what most of the value structure implies. It implies the sun is on the right. If I had made the shadows all point to the right, then the viewer wouldn’t be under the shadow of the canopy, she would be in the light of the sun, which is exactly what I don’t want. I tried to fix this by exaggerating the shadows, but it didn’t move the sun, it just made for bad shadows.
By now, I knew things were thoroughly ruined, but I wanted to try to paint my stone shore. This was actually my favorite part of the image – and it wasn’t even in the first value studies! I painted these rocks by painting the shadows between them and leaving the initial wash untouched for the rock faces. I’m surprised by how well this worked. I then decided to play with some colors, adding some perinone orange to the large rock (which added interest, but destroyed the highlights, and flattened it.) I also decided to paint over the wrong shadows in the background, which made more mud. Mud mud every where, and not a drop to paint!
So there it is. Not what I wanted at all, but I can see where I went wrong at least – I’m learning.
For the next iteration, I will bring the eye level down, blur the distant trees, use the techniques for ripples water from Ron Hazell’s book, and try my damndest to not overwork the shorelines in the mud ground. (I’m secretly hoping that lowering the field of view will hide them for the most part so I don’t have to worry about it.) I also want to dedicate some time to detail in at least one spot in the foreground, though it would be neat to “shrink the F-Stop” and have the immediate foreground out of focus as well as the background. I think I’ll definitely experiment with that.