Studio: “Springtime in the Hill Country”

30x40" Spring Time in the Hill Country. This is an imaginative scene of a clear water stream typical of the Hill Country.
30×40″ Springtime in the Hill Country. This is an imaginative scene of a clear water stream typical of the Hill Country.

I wanted to have a painting I could donate to the Arts Fulshear Art Walk that would have a good chance of selling, so I went for a Hill Country scene in the March – April time frame. This is when the live oaks are “shedding” and get that golden tinge, the bluebonnets go crazy and fields are marked with a mixture of golden and green grasses. However, the main focus that drives the scene, appropriately, is that fresh, clear spring water that runs over the limestone winding through the foreground past the oak and bluebonnets, twisting into the background.  I’ve seen the clear, shallow streams hundreds of times and it never gets old.

In trying to design this painting, I had great artists to learn from such as David Forks, Larry Dyke, Dalhart Windberg and others. In fact, in viewing their paintings the theme was to typical, I wondered if my work would become “clique” and just another one. So, I personalized it. I gathered up a few recent plein air works, sketched a rough design and went to it.

rough sketch for design
rough sketch for design
Here’s a few plein air works that contributed to the painting. (There were others as well) The one on the left is at Miller Springs, in the middle was the Balcone’s Escarpment in Nolanville, TX and the bluebonnet scene was on the top of that escarpment.  A true mash-up.

Taking on such a detailed painting, I had to think simple. With a paper towel and acrylic paint, I wiped on a lose sketch after the design (above). The tree was a cotton ball, the foreground was a green smear ect. Simple. Over four days, I’d paint, stand back, go away, come back and then paint like crazy. At one point, I realized I needed more information for a background, and took off on my bike to do the plein air sketch about three miles away of the Balcone’s Escarpment, (the pic above) then immediately returned to paint it in using the color sketch.  I’m sure from an outside view, it’d look like I have no direction or schedule, but every part of it is necessary.  It’s a true journey of the mind on canvas where you have a set start, then find the rest of the painting along the way.

I hope this will find a home at the Art Walk and through the money raised, help a few others to find some joy in their own art journey!

Update: I decided to add a “work in progress” series of photos because it may bring in some helpful tips/comments.  So here’s my thoughts as I worked through the painting:

This is the initial value design sketch to the point where the creek and tree meet as the center of interest
Onto the 30×40, blocking in loosely trying to keep the values in the design and cooler temps as the background recedes.
I didn’t have info from a good background, so I went to get color notes en plein air.
I added in the color notes, but made sure the lower the contrast to keep the center of interest on the foreground. Everything need to subordinate to the center of interest.
Thought about adding a barn, but it lead the eye off as a distraction. Maybe I could have muted the color, but I’d rather eliminate anything unnecessary.
Big changes: The slope of the hill bugged me. I needed the tree to seem farther, and it was difficult to do with that slope. I added a temporary cow under the tree to keep my mind in perspective of how far the tree is when adding other elements. Another key change was extending the creek back. This also seemed to push back the tree and had better linear perspective. I filled in the water with a gradient warming as it got closer. I was curious if increasing the contrast of the background cliff would add to the painting, so I just tried it to see.
The cliff was a little to strong, so I started to push it back with cool colors. I intensified the colors of the foreground to push the background back even further. Also, I added a small bit of slope back to the foreground hill; a good compromise. I also darkened the closest foreground to push the eye up towards the tree and down the creek. I went outside to look at the colors of the creeks, and it was a darker yellow. This enhanced the contrast of the banks to water. I began to detail the tree.
I started really adding the bluebonnets to the bank and detailed the water to have underwater structure (the water is really clear). The tree was further detailed, but I began to see it’s blocking the background a bit.
Looking at picture of the hill country, I realized there’s always some wispy golden grass in there that contrasts with the green. The tree got a hair cut and I lightened up the shadow of the distant trees to make it clear the big tree is closer. I also decided to brighten the sky up to a “Austin” sky. Lastly, I subdued the cliff a bit.
I put the highlights on the main tree and went over the whole painting to add in anything that would support the center of interest. I added a thin line into the background, extending the creek back even farther, really connecting the background with the foreground. To the right of the main tree, I added in small scrubby tree/bushes to add some realism (but not too much).

6 thoughts on “Studio: “Springtime in the Hill Country””

  1. Great painting Stephen and you have a great grasp of composition principles. How do you know when adding colors that you’re maintaining the values of the value sketch? Experience? Make periodic black and white photos? Good move in eliminating the barn. It would be distracting. Lowering the hill, for me, seemed to widen the view somehow. What initially made you want to extend the creek back? Connect foreground to background? Good idea – and adding the dark line increased that connection many fold – it did add depth to the painting, drawing the eye further back. (how do you think of all these things?) I see you first block in the tree in the shape you want, then work in the branching, then go back and refine the foliage masses. Is this how you normally progress thru a painting of a tree? Darkening the foreground does increase the interest in the tree. Good contrast. Thanks for sharing your thoughts as you progressed through the painting.

    1. Thanks, Richard for letting me share what I’ve learned through your questions. When I’m writing these posts, I think,”What should I talk about?”. So, this really helps.

      How to maintain values?
      BW photos? Experience?
      #1 most imporant factor: Values. I’ve done a lot of focused studies on that. Sometimes I paint a B&W background, then, when that’s dry, paint color over it to make sure I’m matching value. Another trick is to put a photo under glass and paint the glass to match color/value as a learning tool for studying (not as good as plein air value studies). This works well with opaque acrylics. I have several B&W studies of my favorite paintings from master artists (Beirstadt, etc.) that I use to analyze their composition and how they achieved their concept through it. I look for the major blocks of value that direct the eye.

      What made you want to extend the creek back? How do you think of these things?
      Time spent outdoors. At some point, I have a “feeling” that something is too disconnected. My main driving force is the creek, and it solved that disconneced “feeling”. Usually the initial beginning bedesign solves this.

      Block in, refine follage
      Lately, I’ve been trying this to make it fit into the other colors of the painting, but sometimes I do the background first, tree later. I usually go for 2 to 3 values to give the foliage of the tree the tree’s shape/form.

      Thanks again!

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