Plein Air: Springtime at Pergatory Creek Natural Area

Springtime at Pergatory Creek Natural Area (San Marcos, TX), 6 x 6.5", acrylic on paper
Springtime at Pergatory Creek Natural Area (San Marcos, TX), 6 x 6.5″, acrylic on paper

Last week I took only a pencil and paper to plein air sketch and re-learn to see the world in values (not colors). It really helped today. There was a very brief moment of sun around 3:30 and despite barely being able to put on my socks from a hurt back, I eventually found a comfortable postion in my truck and headed to Pergatory Creek Natural Area in San Marcos, TX. Hobbling from Dante’s Trail up to Nimrod Trail (all the trails are named after Dante’s Inferno series), I was amazed at how many college women were out jogging. I tried to straighten up and look manly, but then I sneezed wrenching my back and almost hit the ground. I gave up the manliness and hobbled to a spot that looked like it would be a good drawing. It had great contrast in values and, hey, it’s bluebonnet season. All painters know not to pass it up.

Quick 10 min sketch to see if it could be a good painting.
Quick 10 min sketch to see if it could be a good painting.

It had a nice design to it, so I re-drew it very quickly onto the acrylic paper and brushed Matte Media over it to seal the dry paper and sketch.  I also discovered that doing a pre-sketch helped to decide what format is best (rectangle in portrait, landscape, or more square).  That can make a big difference in the “feel” of the final painting.

Quick sketch onto the acrylic paper.
Quick sketch onto the acrylic paper.

With a solid sketch, and studying the scene, I was focused. I didn’t paint while saying,”How am I going to paint this?”, but just followed my own notes. My 6:00, it was done and that was a very good thing. Storm clouds rolled in blocking the sun and all the prancing college women darted down the trail to get back to the parking lot.  I kept a steady hobble pace and was glad the clouds of impending doom didn’t burst into a downpour.

The result under a thick blanket of clouds. If you look at the previous picture, you can see what it looked like before.
The result under a thick blanket of clouds. If you look at the previous picture, you can see what it looked like before.

Fun day! We’re studying values in the Virtual Art Academy online. No doubt now that it’s helping! I recommend it if you’re looking for a serious and structured way to learn.

Artist Chat: Titanium White, Ultramarine blue, Cad yellow hue, Orange, pthalo green, alizarin crimson red and yellow ochre. The pthalo green and alizarin crimson red make a very dark green-gray, which really made the light paddles of the cactus stand out. The yellow ochre, ultramarine and yellow made for the highlights in the cedars branches behind the cactus. I kept the cedar branches somewhat abstract because it was only supporting the main figures, which were the cactus and bluebonnets. It was tempting to make the grass much greener, but by muting it with some orange, it make the bluebonnet color pop a bit more. Oh, bluebonnets are actually a bit more purple than ultramarine, but I decided to keep it simple and just use mixes of ultramarine and white for the flowers.


11 thoughts on “Plein Air: Springtime at Pergatory Creek Natural Area”

  1. I hope my comment on the page went through all right- you know me and my two left thumbs on the computer. I do want to buy . Louise

    1. You’re two left thumbs are working just fine! :). This little sketch is only 6″ x 6.5″, so it looks like a dot from across the room. It’s meant to be a study for scaling up, like I did on the commission painting of the Colorado scene.

  2. Absolutely beautiful piece Steve. Good contrast and selection to have the prickly pear in front of the dark. Putting the lighter flowers in the center draws your eye in. Good choice to darken the flowers at the bottom. You have inspired me to get my paints out and paint at the tail end of fall here in Michigan. I think the acrylics work well for you. I am frustrated that my watercolors take so long to dry. I think I will switch to acrylics, so I can get the depth you are getting with yours. Do I remember correctly that you are using the Golden “Open” Acrylics? Do you use a wet sponge or wet felt under your palette paper? (is that the Masterson Palette?) Michigan’s not as hot as Texas, but my paints can still dry out.

    1. It’s taken quite a while to figure out how to get used to the fast drying acrylics. I only supplement with Golden Open titanium white and opaque hansa yellow when I’m having trouble with my regular acrylics drying in the heat. If it’s really baking hot, I’ll switch completely to Open in all colors, but that’s very rare. If you keep the paints out of direct sunlight, they stay fresh longer. Just by tilting the pallet to shade the paint will help. The acrylic I normally use are just the Hobby Lobby student brands. I’ve found it’s possible to get good quality out of them if used correctly. For example, in light areas, don’t lay down a really dark underpainting because acrylics will always be a bit transparent and light colors over the dark will darken quite a bit when it dries. More than normal. I tried the sponge in the mini Masterson’s palette for a while and just ditched it. It was wetting my paints too much and making it difficult to get thick, juicy brushstrokes. I just lay down big blobs of paint in the dish and if the outer layer gets a thin film over it, I push it down to squeeze out some that’s fresh inside of it. I waste a bit by doing this, but it’s really cheap. Oh, a tip John Poon gave me is to lay down a coat of Matte Gel on your canvas before starting to help seal the canvas (or paper). This helps a LOT to keep it from soaking up your paints when trying to make a broad brushstroke. Funny how many little things you learn over the years through trial and error! Thanks for the compliments. Let me know if I can help with anything. Have fun up there!

      1. Many thanks, for the reply, Steve! I look forward to seeing more of your work.
        By the way, my daughter and son in law lived in Harker Heights for a little more than 2 years. You inspired me to go find Stillhouse Lake. I was Amazed at the amount of deer I saw there! They were tiny, but it was quite a thrill to see deer. I got some decent deer photos, but will have to piece together the pictures of the lake. Those Texas lakes are quite different from Michigan lakes. The first time I went to Texas all I saw was Margaret Kessler’s paintings in my head. I have a couple of her books, she’s a good teacher. Her book, “Painting Better Landscapes” is for oils, but it is more like the importance of composition and art basics. It is one of the few art books I have read and I have used it over and over again. She asks excellent questions and gets a person thinking.
        Keep up the wonderful work!

      2. Haha. I thought the exact same thing when I saw the deer! “Wait… they’re small?”. Glad to hear you got out there and now have some photos to play with. I can’t remember when, but at some point in the year, the water “turns over” and become murky, but in mid summer with that white limestone base, the water looks emerald from on a high point.
        I have the same book with dog-eared corners. I just bought “Landscape Painting, Inside & Out” by Kevin MacPherson and it’s such a great teaching book for plein air! I recommend it if you’re ever looking for new material.
        Now I’m curious how different the lakes look in Michigan. Another one for the bucket list.

  3. Beautiful work! I love the way you captured the bluish purple of the flowers. I have never painted plein air before but you inspired me to go outside and paint!

    1. Awesome! Just remember to keep it simple. It can be overwhelming when you want to paint “a scene” and all of its details without knowing why. Get specific and choose one simple subject with good contrast and let the rest just support it. Good luck!!

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