While driving to and from work at an artist’s studio in Columbus, TX, I pass by many fields with cows. One field in particular is on the west side of the road and the cows hang close to the fence, back-lit by the sun. When I saw this young cow with the fuzzy hair on the ears lit up like they were glowing, I hit my brakes, rolled down the window and caught this pose just in time. A couple days later, I needed a painting to start on my Friday “artist-in-studio” sessions at the local Live Oak Center. I propped up my laptop on a table, and got started. That was a few weeks ago, and since then, this painting has hung around the kitchen at home. It seems if I see it around in passing, my mind works on it and when I see it again, I think “this needs a cactus”, or “I need to change the background cow’s color. The last time I passed it, it just seemed like it was done. I had the goal in the starting point to add color into the shadows on the main cow to draw interest and past that, I really didn’t care. It was a simple goal and if the rest of the surrounding parts support that cow as the main character, it’s a success. I was going to name it “Moo”, but I think a gallery would prefer “Afternoon Grazing”. Fun times.
I’ve been testing out watercolors in the past weeks around the area I work at in Columbus, TX as a new way to do outdoor sketches. I see it with “Urban sketchers”, in James Gurney videos, and many illustrators who use gouache, a opaque watercolor (ex. Mike Hernandez… awesome). Also, other bloggers in the WordPress art community are trying this as a challenge. Thanks for the inspiration, Martha! I thought I’d write down some thought I’d had while doing these studies, making all the mistakes I could as I went (which is a good thing). As a rookie, now I have a HUGE appreciation for the works of master watercolorist like those seen in this article “Famous Watercolor Artists” (check out John Singer Sargent!).
Here are a few sketches I’ve done, each with a description and date.
What I’ve found so far is that watercolor isn’t as limiting as I thought. I had figured, less pigment in a watered down form… meh. However, the light colors such as yellows, green and light blues have a luminescent quality because they are transparent over the white page, making a glow effect seldom seem with acrylics or oils. As I adjusted to this painting style, I’ve found it follows all of the same rules in painting, just in a different way of applying the paint. Design, lighting effects, values, edges … all the things that are used to represent the scene, don’t change. Rather than laying down a dark shadow color, then layering light color over it in acrylics and oils, it goes light to dark, adding the shadows last. Either way, matching values (how light or dark it is) is key. For example, the wood pile was much darker than the brightly lit background grass. At first, I had made the wood pile much lighter and it seemed to look bland, but going back into it with a darker grey-brown really gave it a realistic punch. Edges, the line between two object, can be hard or softened by loosening it up with water to let it spread a bit. At the end, when all the lights are darks are painted, there is a white tube of watercolor paint in the kit. Even though it’s limited in power because it’s fairly transparent, it can help to give a little definition along an edge. For example, “Gray” the dog, had bright hair along his feet and hairs on his face. Going back in with the white really helped contrast the feet from the dark hair.
The best bonus I can see with watercolor is the small size of the painting kit. I’ve seen kits that can practically fit in your jeans pocket, perfect for a backpacking adventure where weight and size are crucial. It’s a great option to have!!
I did a bunch of sketches today. The day started with a hazy, overcast sky, which greyed down everything, but it also enhanced the appearance of trees in the background looking like they were miles off rather than just a few hundred feet. I drove up to a scene right outside of Weimar, TX and had some trouble with all the colors being so close to grey, but it was a good warm up:
I went and worked for a couple of hours and saw the lighting just get better by the minute. The Weather Channel app was calling for rain three days in a row starting tomorrow, so I went out to do some quick studies hoping I’ll have some good ones to enlarge tomorrow as an “artist in residence” in the Columbus Art Center. I drove just outside of the Columbus city limits along the highway and tuned off on a road that said “no outlet” and was full of cracked pavement with a lame attempt to fill it with gravel. Perfect. It led to a gate along a fence with a scene full of depth. Here’s a couple small studies from that area:
That went much quicker than I thought, so I headed back to the highway, and somehow found myself in a Beason Park, in Columbus, a place I’ve painted before. Huge oaks! I set up to do the same thing with close up trees and distant trees, but I’d be in the oak grove with soft spotlights through the leaves on the green grass. When I checked the distant trees closer, I saw the tower of the famous courthouse poking through the tops of the trees like a postcard image. It was a no-brainer. After a 5 minute value sketch and a ten minute color study, I got out an 11×14″ canvas panel and tried my luck. It would be a perfect scene for tomorrow! After about 2 hours, here’s what I ended with:
I went out to paint close to sunset at an old ranch house surrounded by Live Oaks just down the road from me. In fact, it’s the same ranch with the barn I did a study on in an earlier post a week or two ago. What drew me to it was the bright white of the house lit up by the sun shining almost directly against it, in contrast to the dark live oaks. I had just enough time to slap down the color notes before the sun set and then took it home to finish it. I softened the edges of the trees and sky to give it a sense of mystery but maintain the peace you feel when viewing it.
I was curious what else is down this street since I now have about ten paintings just from the first three miles, so tied on the jogging shoes and did the full loop (7+ miles). I saw at least three more paintings and have seriously sore calves. Worth it!
I’ve been wanting to do this Plein air study for some time and tonight was just the right weather to get out there. There are amazing rolling hills just outside of Weimar heading towards LaGrange, TX off hwy 155. I set up, painted in the scene quickly, then waited until just the right moment when the sky was about 15 min before sunset and then it was off to the races. Paint flying everywhere. I had to be fast because I was hardly off the road with hillbilly trucks passing me at 65mph. They don’t slow down. About 1hr after set up, I was headed out back to the house to get the colors right before I forgot. I knew they’d look different in the lighting indoors than at sunset as you can see from the pic out there(bottom) and the one indoors (top). A few touch ups, and I have the color notes for a huge painting to come! Excited.
These are part of the Texas Wildflower Series of paintings (oil, 7×5″). They are painted on location and, if needed, finished back at the house. To select posts of only this series, click on the “Texas Wildfower Series” in the category links either above or below this post.
The first of the day was the Texas Thistle. It grows to about three feet and you may notice a huge white, fluffy ball about the size of a baseball when it’s releasing its seeds. While painting this, a hummingbird flew in and spent a minute or two checking out all the little florets, so if you’re one of those that like the hummingbirds on their spring migration, you might wait to chop this plant down until they pass through.
These are pretty easy to paint, being just a poof of purple-pink with highlights in the sun’s direction. Great flower to start off with if you’re wanting to paint wildflowers. I was lucky to find these with a huge clump of vines on a fence behind it, providing a dark background to really make the light of the flower stand out. It has prickly leaves, like those on a Holly Bush, but if you just make sweeping brush strokes to points along the leaf, it’s not hard at all and there’s very few of them near the flowers. By the way, if ranchers drive by looking at you in bewilderment, it’s because these are a pest in their fields and they won’t understand why in the heck you’d want to paint it.
The second of the day was a “Mexican Hat”. I was hiking down the road to find a ranch scene with distant views, huge oaks and cattle, but this flower was backlit from the sun in tall grass and really caught my eye. The unexpected surprises are the best ones. I’ve been having trouble getting the transparent yellows and reds to show up bright over a dark background. It ends up dull and muddy. I finally figured out I can wipe off the dark background to the white of the gesso and lay the red/yellow over that like a glaze. The light hits the pigment from the back and front making it appear to glow. Very cool effect! It must work, because another hummingbird flew in and only realized up close its not a flower. Best compliment I could get! Oh, and for the fun fact about this plant (odd), the “Zuni” people made a syrup from it to induce vomiting. Thanks, Wikipedia.
This is a scene of huge live oak trees surrounding a barn just outside of Weimar, TX. With about an hour and a half left of sunlight, I quickly sketched this scene. I really liked the way the oak trees curved up around the barn, sort of framing it.
Here’s the five minute value sketch to organize my plan of highlighting the barn making it a focal point:
And here is the scene:
As you can see, I decided to darken the sky and brighten up the right side of the barn. Doing the pre-sketch was hard since I was in a hurry, but past frustrations have taught me those five minutes spent with the gray markers will almost cut the painting time in half and save a lot of frustration.
About half of the way through, a random dog came up to me out of nowhere, barked and pooped ten feet from me before taking off. So, I spent the remaining time with that fresh scent. About an hour in, a man pulled up and said he lived on the ranch across the street and invited me to check out his huge oak trees. I put in a final 10 minutes, packed up and met him at his house. On the way I saw the dog in the road to the house with what looked like a grin. Ha. Mr. Janeske drove me around his property and on top of the hill is a huge, spanning oak grove with distant hills and trees behind it. Amazing scene! I told him I’ll be back for sure when the weather is right (it’s going to rain for the next week). I’m excited!
Update: I worked on the large scale version of this study yesterday at the New Ulm art festival and it sold before I left! Here’s an iPhone pic of the finished painting (I need to get a better pic later).
About the flower: This is the “Prairie nymph”, my 6th of the Texas Wildflower Series. It’s a part of the iris family and it pops up just above the grass line with its unusual three pedals. Somehow, this flower will know it’s about 9am and open up from a tight, curled up ball, bask all day, then around 5:30-6pm, close up for the night. It happens pretty quickly, so I’ll try to set my iPhone on timelapse (1 hr sped up to 1 min) next time I see one.
Notes of the day: Finally it was a sunny day and perfect temps after almost a week of clouds and rain. I was at work, but found open times to get the brushes flying. I began around noon, so the sun was directly above with the pedals shading the stems and grasses under it. I scumbled in a light watered-down background of greens, blues, browns and just finished adding in the pedals before getting back to work. By the time work was done, the flowers had bundled up, so I made my best guess by looking at the grasses and other little small, ground cover weeds around it. Not ideal, but it was enough to capture the feel of it. My top priority was keeping the pedals lighter then the grasses to stand out, but maintaining some balance with highlights of green here and there. When finishing up, I paid attention to the edges of the pedals, softening up those receding and sharpening those coming out towards me. Felt so good to paint again. Sometimes that last 10% of effort to “finish” a painting makes all the difference. I have such a hard time knowing when to stop, but I backed up and it just felt like it did when looking them in real life; not too bright, but noticeably unusual.
Here’s another one for the Texas Wildflower Series. This flower, called “Tickseed” is a flower that grows so thick, it can blanket an entire field. This was located in Columbus, TX on the property of another artist I’m helping with a project. It’s an herb, but unfortunately she said it stinks like something rotten when she mows.
As for the painting side of learning to use oils, I found out he hard way yellows are semi-transparent. I layered that cadmium yellow hue so thick, it wouldn’t even stick anymore, but found I had to let it dry at the house and add more layers a couple of days later. I think next time, I’ll just wipe off the underpainting to the white surface where the pedals go beforehand.
Onto the next!
These are part of the “Texas Wildflowers Series”. You’ll see a category link at the top or bottom of these articles. When you click this, it will spit out only the articles in this series.
The top sketch is the “Indian Paintbrush”. I also saw it was renamed “Texas Paintbrush” (by Texas) as a more politically correct name. Sorry, Lousiana. Also, Indians don’t use them to paint. As a fun fact, the roots tap into the neighbor’s roots and steal nutients. Reminds me of how back country college students in East Texas often tap into the TV cable/internet line of the parents house and then bury the cable because it illegal, right Jeremy?
As a painter, it was very hard to paint! Adding white to red makes pink, and yet somehow the actual flower is both bright and very red. The pure, rich color was impossible to match, so I made the background super dark green and smeared on the petals with as much pure pigment as possible to make them appear bright and luminescent. As is often the case, it’s hard to even get close to what nature presents us with.
The second painting is called “blue-eyed grass”, which forms in a clumps. It’s said that it’s useful as a laxitive and treats diarrhea, so… good luck with those odds.
These flowers would be a great introduction to painting flowers en plein air. The grass and flower are both relatively easy to color match and paint. It’s also a great lesson in using light and dark color in the flowers to show the roundness of the clump. The only trick is patience. That’s a lot of flowers.
Onto the next one!