A few days ago I headed out to my favorite painting spot, Miller Springs, in search of some inspiration. Normally, I wander down into the ravine where creeks and and marsh grass grow, over to the grassland with cacti and golden natural grasses of Texas or to the 50 foot limestone cliffs carved out by a past ocean. However, this time I stayed up top where people don’t often take notice. This area is dry, with limestone rock like a big table 10 acres across with soil so thin, half of the field is simply exposed rock; the rest has maybe 1/2″ of soil. Amazingly, pockets and cracks in the rock have spring water flowing through them making a consistent puddle 50 feet above the lake level, or 80 to 100 feet above the river level behind the lake dam. It doesn’t seem possible, but for the entire time I’ve gone there, there’s always been this puddle. So I sat and painting this intriguing aspect of the park.
The technical side of it gave me fits. Dry winds and fast drying acrylics makes it almost unbearable to paint. It was what I experienced with the last plein air painting in Gunnison, CO, but with TX heat. I was reduced to basically doing a watercolor study with transparent dashed of color in may layers. It’s like trying to use that really old tape that lost it’s stick years ago, but you’re too stubborn to let it go. I’ve since solved the dilemma with more expensive slow-dry paints that you’ll see in my next post. It’s worth every penny. When I noticed my arms getting notably lobster colored, I called it a day. Phew. This was a battle of wits! The results of my new farmer tan is going to have rave reviews at the beach. Look out ladies!
Perfect weather, hiking sandals, a pack full of paints and ready… it was time to get back and continue my Miller Springs series of sketches. This time I had a single goal: “keep it simple”, by that I mean something with a clear subject that I know I can paint in an hour. If you feel unmotivated, here’s an article I read from the website I practice figure and portrait drawing that will help: “New Year’s Practice Resolution”… which links to this article (also great): “Focused Practice: an Exercise for Real Improvement in 33 Days”. By the way, this is an amazing website! It’s deserves any promotion I can give it.
I went out looking for anything “simple”, and about 1/2 mile from the trail head ran into this Foxglove flower. It’s very noticeable and often found along a road-side (look for bright, thick multiple flowers along a stalk). I thought, “This is simple, and I can keep it under an hour”, then questioned, “What if people see me painting flowers?. I’d have to hand in my man-card, but wait, I can explain this is a “man-plant”. It contains a powerful medicine called digitalis that can make your heart feel like thunder in your chest… man plant. See? Do I get to keep my manliness?”. (Side fact: it’s also how modern drugs began, and yes, I talk to myself).
Just as I finishing up about to add some final details, an old man came hiking around the corner looking at me curiously, about to say something and realized he lost his truck keys. He had that look of doom. I packed up and we backtracked trying to remember where he went (lots of cross trails) and there was his key, in the middle of the path. Doom to elation in two seconds flat. Good feeling. I never lost my man card.
I wandered off to find a different “simple” scene and came across the “perfect” scene for the day. It was around 6:30 and the setting sun was reflecting off the golden grass that resembled a field of oats, highlighting their tips where the seeds were. A cactus patch was right in the middle, back-lit from the sun but lit up on the shadow side with the reflections from the golden grass. Plus, it had a dark background with the woods close by. I popped out me gear, saying, “Keep it simple, keep it simple.” and just as I sat down to make the first sketches, a enormous horde of gnats discovered me. They were in my ears, nose and always trying to get to my eyes. Not willing to give up this scene, I squinted and used the eyelashes to keep them out, blew them out of my nose like a whales blowhole and tried not to swat unless they were actually going inside my ear. I’m stubborn and this really was a fantastic scene. After about 40 minutes, I decided I’ve achieved “simple” and packed up faster than I ever have before.
Despite the gnats, it was a great day and although I can see how I could have done more, I achieved what I went out there for “simple”. Now, time to get some bug spray in my painting kit.
Palette: cad yellow, cobalt blue, alizerin crimson, mars black, titanium white (acrylics)
I drew sketches with an HB graphite pencil lightly while looking for values that were either “dark”, “middle” or “light” in order to emphasis the focus (the main group of flowers).
For the Foxglove: I blocked in color quickly (5 min) keeping it simple to about these three values, starting with the “dark” background, “middle” leaves and background flowers and then punched in “light” flowers. I kept everything just about black or white in case I needed an extra dark or white later. This base dried quickly. Then I mix up thick paint and carefully, but boldly apply details in the petals or leaves in as few strokes as possible.
Cactus patch and grasses: same process applied for this one, but I had enough time to get a bristle brush and flick on grass, lightly loading the brush and grazing the paper against the bristles. The foreground highlights were added with a liner brush for the “oat seeds” and cactus highlights.
Catching a break from the cold fronts, hordes of people piled out of their houses to breathe some fresh air and tire out their kids before bedtime. I did my best to get lost off the trail and found this area about 200 yards off the trail down a ravine. I was sure I’d found a sweet spot to hear the serene sounds of dribbling water coupled with lightly chirps of bird. “OH MY GOSH, LOOK! LETS GO DOWN HERE!!”. “DAD, WE WERE JUST HERE!”. “JASON, STOP. WAIT FOR US. [whistling] HERE BOY, DUKE! GET BACK HERE, $&#^(#! DOG!”. Yep, I had gone 100 yards off the trail, then somehow looped back 80 yards back toward another trail, and these sweet shouts were a recurring theme for 3 hours. Hmm.
Despite the hordes, it was a very sweet, sunlit spot begging to be painted. I did a quick value sketch (pencil and paper) to really nail down what I want to emphasize in the scene. I love the rocks, especially along the dark bluff. There were some great underwater rocks with gobs of green algae that would be fantastic in a larger scale!
I finished up, took some reference pics to see how the scene compared to the painting, and said bye to the endless screaming kids and the bad dog, Duke.
Artist Technical Stuff:
There were several good spots along the creek, but this had the best composition simply because the large, dark bluff with overhanging roots provided a great contrast to the sky and rocks. Most of the other scenes were good, but almost everything was about 50% value with maybe a few shadows under rocks. Not enough. The first impression of a painting to a viewer waking up to a painting is largely based on contrasting values, then colors. I used the same pallet:
alizarin crimson (red)
In scaling up, I may lighten up the background to push it back a bit and make it a cooler blue, but with this study it’s a pretty accurate depiction of the scene to tweak from. I constantly questioned if the rocks were brighter than the sky, but the sky was about a 20% value while they were the lightest in the scene (~10%?). That was perfect to get the greatest contrast in the focal area.
I got out for another day at Miller Springs to find another good scene. I think this has become a series now with four previous, recent plein air trips to the area. I didn’t have to go far this time. About a quarter mile at the start of the first ravine, I rock hopped down a bit into a area with boulders and trees. The sun was shining almost directly at me and give great back-lighting to highlight a couple of boulders. With the background cliff in the shadows, the highlights on the boulders stood out even more. I did a quick sketch of the scene to study the values (lights/darks) for 5-10 min, then started right into the painting.
Just as I started painting, a couple walked by and scaled down the 15 foot cliff face (impressive) I was perched on top of. I asked them if they’d mind climbing on top of the boulder I’m painting and they were happy to help! I took a quick reference pic and then they left, wandering on down the ravine, blazing their own path, carefree. I paused for a second and thought… rock climbing, bouldering and exploring with someone you love… I bet that happens a lot in heaven. I took another reference pic when they were passing through a picturesque area of the ravine., so it’s possible they be seen again here!
I painted the landscape of the scene in about 3 hours (below):
Then I got out my camera to look at the reference pic and put in the couple. The camera kept auto shutting off, so I ended up taking an iPhone pic of the camera screen, a pic of a pic. You gotta do what ya gotta do, right? It really gave a great sense of scale to the rocks in the area as well as a story, perfect for the day.
Usually, I feel a need to touch it up when I get home. I really felt the people deserved things like hands or feet, or even a shadow to show they’re not transparent ghosts. However, is just didn’t seem right to add anything later on. The story is told, it “feels” like the area and the even the day with all the new years resolutions to get outside being fulfilled. Another great day!!
It was cloudy yesterday with the promise of more clouds and possible rain. The problem with painting on a day like this is that everything looks flat. Hard shadows from direct sunlight give trees, barns… any structure some sense of form, so without it, it’s “flat”. Yet, there’s bound to be positives to painting when it cloudy, right? That was my mission. I found three very good reasons to pick a cloudy day to paint:
Colors are more vibrant since the sun doesn’t bleach it out,
Shadows don’t change as quickly,
Atmospheric perspective is better, making it seem like distant hills are even farther back.
About a mile down the trail, the sky was gray, but still very light. Soft shadows were under the trees, but the scenes definitely looked flat. Heading up towards overhanging cliffs to see what it looks like, it started to rain. I climbed up under the overhang and realized it look perfect! The sky was still bright enough to illuminate the the undersides of the limestone cliff, the shadows were there, but not changing as much and the colors of the hillside in the background were more muted creating a sense of distance. Finding a great spot on a boulder, but under the overhang, it was all set.
Sometimes the answers come when you least expect it and seem to present themselves to you. It was a tough, technical scene, but I can’t imagine a better way to spend a cloudy day.
Yesterday I beat the clouds again that rolled in today for another go at a shallow creek with grasses at Miller Springs. This scene was upstream of the last place. In fact, I’m up on the hilltop in the background of the last painting! There’s just something sweet about painting water and hearing the sounds of it gently rolling by. It’s so calming. An hour and a half rolled by in maybe ten minutes. It’s magic.
If you need some inspiration with viewing a master at this type of subject, look at Renato Muccillo’s work. He can take scenes like this into a world of poetry.
Here’s the quick five minute sketch I did beforehand to plan and see the design before starting. The reason it’s so effective is that it forces you to see the scene in values (light/dark) and is a perfect spot to emphasize how to say what you want the viewer to see.
After having so much fun mountain biking and painting yesterday at Miller Springs in Belton, I couldn’t wait to get back out there. A park ranger at the entrance happened to be walking by while I scanned the area map billboard and gave me some great areas to visit. There’s an entirely new section I didn’t know about with huge cliffs… another day! Today, I wanted to explore a bit especially in the spring fed creeks. At a very shallow crossing the rocks sky reflection lit up the water among the grass, reed and rocks. As I looked down near me, the reflection gave way and the algae covered rocks were visible. Great challenge! While painting, that Bob Ross video popped into my head today, so I dedicate this one to all those “happy little grasses”, thanks Bob.
I thought about getting a bigger canvas to fit in the detail, but the aim for this is to just get all the color and basic design. If it turns out, I think I’ll scale it up to a 18 x 24″, getting most of it done in the studio, then head out there at the same time, same place to get the final details. The studio definitely has it perks (constant lighting, loads of paint, big easel…), but there is nothing like being there. I want to catch the feel of it so close you can practically hear the water bumbling over the rocks and smell the wet grass. Hopefully it’ll work. Great day!
Oh, for the artists: you know what a fantastic little backpack transport is for your brushes? A wide-20oz. mouth Gatorade bottle! I had to chop off some of the ends of a few brushes, but it’s perfect. If I can figure out how to carry a wet-paint canvas in there, it’d be worth trying out those water-mixable oil paints! Any tips?
Here’s a pic after the light had almost set on the horizon (meaning the park rangers are going to kick me out):
I had a chance to get out to Miller Springs Nature Center to mountain bike the trails and get in some plein air painting. On a previous hike with the Belton Outdoor Adventure group, I saw a lot of potential for this area with fifty foot limestone cliffs, natural springs, meadows, forests… it has it all. I didn’t make it far until I parked my bike and set up to paint on a cliff side. I stood there looking at the views trying to figure out how in a heck to fit all the scene in on a little 6×8″ canvas panelwhen I looked down I saw blocks of the top limestone layer fragmenting off and grass growing up through the crack producing a neat design. Holding up my thumbs and forefingers into a frame to look at the composition, it looked good with the stones leading into the meadow and beyond. Plus, I look like some kind of pro to the people passing by thinking, “Wow, he MUST be good if he knows the finger frame thing!”. Just kidding. I’m sure most of the time parents tell there kids to hurry along and don’t talk to strangers when I do this.
Here’s the initial sketch and a picture reference:
The angle is slightly different from the view when I stand up and the lighting changed. All the more reason to get that initial sketch in at first!