Plein Air: Chalk Ridge Falls lots of Sketching

Some days are made for hiking and sketching outdoors and Chalk Ridge Falls in Belton, TX was the perfect place to go. Shallow spring fed creeks, hidden caves and waterfalls and enough places to roam that you can escape any hiking traffic.

I’m doing “abstractions of nature” as a series, which are patterns that you’d know immediately in context of a place, but when taken out of the setting, it’s beauty is set apart. I hope this will help others to take a closer look at nature in parts and as a whole. 

First sketch: “Submerged” (acrylic/paper, 4×4″)

In noticing the aquatic plants that have grown in a previously dry area, it was rich with warm and cool tones of every color there is. It has subtle shifts from the deep blues and purples into the greens and yellows and even reds as the plants emerge from the deep. Soothing. 

After that almost meditative warm up, I headed up the back alley, where limestone has been warm down by years of spring water eroding it into something resembling a quarter mile bob-sled track. I knew a tucked away place in an off-shoot of the alley where a tributary spring feeds into the main alley. This spot has a hidden rock wall with water always dripping down it and ferns bursting out of it at every crevice. Along one shaded wall, sun lit up one area and with a big branch hanging over the edge it appeared like I was in a cave. So I went after that impression for the second sketch, also somewhat abstract. 

Second sketch: “Entrance” (acrylic/paper, 4×4″ish)

On the way back to the main limstone alley, sun had fallen just enough to shade the offshoot part I had gone on, but the main alley was fully sun-lit. The contrast of gray-purples to the bright yellow white was amazing. It even had a small stream of water leading into the scene. 

Third sketch of the tributary and lit main alley. (a/p, 5×7″)

This is a picture of the alley.

It was time to head home to feed the grumbling stomach and I almost made it until I drove over the Stillhouse Lake Dam near the entrance to the park and saw the setting sun over the water. One u-turn later, my painting kit was out again. 

Fourth sketch: View of Stillhouse Lake at Sunset

Ahh, that hit the spot. What a great way to end a very full day. 

Plein Air: San Gabriel Park with Plein Air Austin group

First sketch (acrylic/paper, ~8×8)
The scene painted from

It was debateable if driving 40 minutes to join a painting group at sunrise in a fog was worth it. I arrived about an hour late and went to find the others. Nobody showed. Dang! So I set up my easel determined to make something of the day searching for scenes along the river. Around 9am, two painters show up and join in. At 10, another. At 11ish, an artist showed up and said a group of others had set up in the wrong area.  This is definitely a group of creatives. A 7am start time means 8am through 10am-ish in the park area-ish. Ha.  Although it seemed half-organized, they are dedicated and has been the starting point for several internationally renowned painters that have gone on to their fame and fortune. 

Around 8am when setting up my easel, almost as if it was planned, a few geese swam out into the scene I was checking out. I was wondering how to paint a scene with almost no contrast in this fog, and then, BAM, there they were. Out came the camera phone and I had the geese for reference to add to the scene at the very end. Nice when that happens! I set the background dark in value, careful to not let anything bright highlight in the plants shout out too loud. It played out nicely when the pure white laid played in with the geese. Done.

After about hour and a half, normally I’d finish, pack up and scout out another scene, but the other painters were all around. I really enjoyed talking art with them as we painted, so I just turned 180° and painted a small section of a scene that appears almost abstract at first glance until your mind find a way to reason what it is. It’s a fun twist. 

Second sketch of the day
The scene (the geese showed up!)
This scene turned out to be harder than I expected with all of the shifts in value between the shoreline and the water. In the foreground the bank is lighter than the water; further back, the water is lighter than the bank. Luckily, this is where acrylics excel in allowing layers of paint to go on until it’s right. I really like the flow of the leaves in the reeds bending down to the bank. When I see these patterns, it’s as if I could see music rather than hear it. Every leaf has a small, but important part of some bigger design, and it’s beautiful. Nature is eloquent. 

Great day!

Commission from Photo: Wedding Venue in Colorado

The finished commission, 24×18″, acrylic on stretched canvas
I finished a commission from photos of a wedding venue in Colorado, adding the final touch-ups and varnish yesterday. This scene had a lot of aspects going for it, a strong focal point with the lodge, the walkway to the left along the lake directing the viewer to the lodge and the distance with the background mountains. However, this painting was a tougher challenge than first expected because of something I overlooked in the photo; no shadows. The photo was taken with the sun directly behind the photographer. It’s was a great shot, but shadows give the illusion of an object being 3-dimensional for the painter to use. Everything looked flat, so it was an excellent way to learn alternative ways to show depth and form. Adding warmth to the foreground and cooling off the color with blues to the background gave a good sense of atmosphere. Overlapping the trees in front and behind others was a huge tool for front to back depth. To show roundness in the foreground trees, very subtle color shift were used to add the greatest warmth to the center and cool off the sides where the sky reflects more . Other tricks were to use the rocky places in the background mountain to form broken lines to indicate loosely an illusion of roundness. Similar to looking at a striped towel with folds, the stripes form curved lines leading the eye around the shapes. Fortunately, the client and her husband loved it. Now it’s being packed and it’ll be sent off to begin it purpose. I love it when the scene automatically connect the viewer to a great memory. 

Studio Work: Last Light

Acrylic, 20×24″, stretched canvas
This has been a long relationship sort of painting, working on it off and on over the past month. It started out with a few brush marks, noting colors in a sketchpad on the side of the road as the shadows rose to the top of the trees. I think they are either cottonwoods or elms, but the yellows and bronze colors of the leaves hit by the deep orange-pink light of the sun seemed to set them on fire. Just behind the trees the sky was bright with a slight green tint that made the reds, oranges and yellows of the trees pop out even more. In contrast, the area in the shadows seemed to loose all color with slight shades of green gray that brightened towards a blue-gray as it went back in the distance. Although there’s no road, it was needed to lead th eye towards the trees. Giving the soil a muted red gave just enough variety to the grasses without making it shout out for attention. I also remember the other mental notes I took there on the side of the road was the high contrast in the sunlight off the tree trunks that seemed to soften along the edges as they dippped into the shadow. Everything emphasized the explosion of color on the ridgline between shadow and light. 

There might be a few small changes as I set it aside for a while in order to look at it again later with fresh eyes. 

Studio Work: Afternoon Grazing

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14×18″ acrylic on stretched canvas, “Afternoon Grazing”

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.

Plein Air: Garden of the Gods 

 

first scene by the main parking lot
  
2nd study by parking lot 12.
  
notan and contour line sketches
  
color mapping
 
About the scene: I sold a small painting yesterday, and the women who bought it commented that she had the sense that she was there because she’s so familiar with the area. Her comment was exactly what inspires me to continue. I was so encouraged by this, I went out to Garden of the Gods to find some scenes others may connect to. The first scene was painted by the main parking lot just to the right of the large cliff face. The sun shone down from the left across the rock, striking those familiar highlights you see everywhere in this area. The red rock against the green grass and shrubs and against the cobalt sky was striking. I wanted to catch that feeling. 

After about an hour and a half, I was heading around the loop in the park to exit. When I got almost to parking lot 12, I saw a strip of rock was back-lit against the gray-blue haze of the mountains and the green of the trees in the foreground. I couldn’t pass it up. Round two. The tip of the rock where it juts out on top to the right side was an instant focal point to anyone who looks at the rock formation, so hopefully someone will see this sketch and know where it is. About another two hours flew by. It’s amazing how fast time flies when your totally immersed in the joy of the moment. 

Artist Chat: As a part of the studies, I wanted to try doing quick Notan sketches with greyscale markers, contour line sketches and a color map to really focus me on what and how to approach these scenes. There is so much visual information in a scene, breaking it down helps the technical aspects. When I finished these sketches, I did a quick monochromatic underpainting (fast dry), and followed this up with color matching the value of the underpainting. The result was that I actually spent less time than I normally do without these initial steps. The painting also feels much fresher with bolder brush strokes. 

Plein Air: East Plum Creek in Castle Rock, CO

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The Experience: It was about 4 degrees last night, but warmed up to at least 20 by 9am, so Jamie (local artist friend) and I went to a PAAC (Plein Air Artist of Colorado) event in Castle Rock, CO. The plan was to find scene along the East Plum Creek that runs through town and honestly, at first, I didn’t see much. There was a bunch of leafless trees with what looked like a frozen over creek. But when we walked around a bit, all the shadows in the snow and the dark contrast of the creek running thought it made for really neat designs. I guess the mind needs to shift into a different way of seeing opportunities in unfamiliar areas, and then suddenly there too much to choose from. I settled on a scene where a shadow was cast over the shallow creek with snow covered boulders alongside. Great combination and simple enough to really dig into the details of the scene and capture those deep yellows under the water. Anytime you see a deep yellow and light blue (snow) in a scene, it’s going to have a “vibration” that appeals to the eye.

After we finished, it was time for some grub, so we ate at the Taco (something) restaurant. Mmm. If you ever stop there, get the taco salad with Fajita meat. Awesome. Thanks for the taco salad, Jamie!!

Artist Chat: In snow scenes, I’m learning its a really good idea to first mix a light gray-blue and mat it over all the snow to ensure you have enough room to hit highlights at the end. Also, to gauge how “light” to mix the snow color, find the darkest dark and figure out how many steps in value it is between the snow and that area. The rest is just finding the shadows much as you would if you were painting a blanket. It ripples much the same way. To mix up a good snow grey, try using ivory black and ultramarine blue with titanium white.  Mixing this combination in different amount allows for most of the shifts I see. When another color, like a green tree, is near, there will be hints on that in there too. Hope it helps!

 

Plein Air & Studio: Snow at Palmer Park, Colorado Springs

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“A Moment of Warmth” 16×20. (Studio work)

Location: This scene is from Palmer Park, located in the center of Colorado Springs. If you’re familiar with this area, this is by the Templeton Trail entrance on the main path winding around the park towards Austin Bluffs St..

My Goal for this Painting: I wanted to emphasize the sense of a cold, crisp snow scene with the warmth of sunlight on the little tree.  I also love the contrast of light and dark snow provides and wanted to used the grass and sunlit snow to invite you into the scene.

The Experience: I’ve been drooling over snow scene paintings of Clyve Aspevig, Micheal Godfrey and a recent one from Kathleen Dunphy and had thoroughly reviewed the “how to paint plein air in the snow” articles from other artists. I was more than ready.  There was a snow storm last week and just enough snow left in the shaded areas to improvise a snow scene, so it was time to test the new winter gear. I was toasty in three layers of pants, five layers up top with a tshirt, thermal underwear, a wool shirt, puffy down coat and a shell jacket. My feet were comforted with liner socks, expedition mountaineering Smartwool socks in thick wool lined “pack boots”. To finish off, I donned a windproof fleece beanie. Like I said, I was more than ready. I also got to test out my new field easel similar to the one Joshua Been designed. Many thanks, Joshua! It works great!

After walking down a trail, feeling the snow crunch under well cushioned feet, I found this scene (but the little tree was lit up at the time):

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Although the actual scene wasn’t so dramatic, it provided enough information to express the “feel” of the scene in my sketch. I could see it in my mind and knew I had minutes before the sunlight left and much of that information was gone. In no time, I set up my new easel, hung my bag and scattered my painting gear randomly in the snow next to the main trail. Within ten minutes I had a sketch and background filled in, ready to figure out how to paint snow and focus on the tree.

The sunlight left and it was instantly cold. I put on my extra poofy down jacket and shell looking about twice my normal size. Of course this is when a group of trail runners passed by in shorts and one without a shirt. Feeling less than manly, I said, “Well, at least I’m warm” to boost my ego and get back to the scene.  Over the next hour and a half, I patiently added the tree and snow with deliberate brushstrokes backing up from the easel, mixing paint and then adding the stroke. It’s a very refreshing way to paint, rather than dabbing colors anxiously, unsure if it’s the right thing to do. After two hours, I felt the slightest hint of cold in my feet buried in the snow and my water dish for cleaning brushed was icing over. With a mark of approval to the new boots, I packed up and left smiling.

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The field sketch

Many people think it’s crazy or extreme to paint in these conditions, choosing to be comfy with the heater on in their studio, but there is simply nothing like painting while experiencing the scene. Every sense felt and seen somehow influences the painting and this little sketch was a product of joy. I liked it so much, I went home and scaled it up onto a 16×20 canvas before heading to bed.

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Another great day!!

Plein Air: Colorado Springs,”Refigerator Creek” on the Intemann Trail

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I went back to Red Rock Canyon Open Space (Colorado Springs) to get in another study of a scene I’ve been working on (to be posted later) and went to hike a bit further up the canyon after finishing. It was unusually hot and most people were carrying their coats they came out with. The dry air and intense sun creates a dramatic change from sunlit places to shade. Hiking into a trail section that head up toward the mountain behind the canyon, I passed scenes of massive rock faces that seem to dwarf a person to the size of an ant by comparison. Amazing. Noting the places for later, I continued on and found a mountain trail which could go all the way to the top of Pikes Peak called “Intemann Trail”.  Along the way up the winding switchbacks, I moved into a shaded portion of the mountains and came across a little creek with huge mossy boulders and a hand made log bridge (for those local to Colorado Springs, it’s just shy of Gold Camp Road).

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You know if when you get there because it’s like walking into a freezer and was called “the refrigerator” by a local couple. The cold water combined with the shade drops the temperature instantly. It was completely different from what I expected, but it was so unique, I scrambled down off the edge of the trail so I was looking up at the boulders and began to lay in the scene quickly. Within ten minutes, my fingers were slowing down and my fleece jacket was zipped up to my chin. Over the next hour, I enjoyed trying to capture the scene. When I was taking deep breathes to steady my hand for a precise line, I knew it was time to pack up and finish back at home. It was fun meeting hikers and mountain bikers who knew the area and found that I picked a well known spot.

In getting home, the painting changed! The cool sky color in the shadowed area on the trail had a tint on my panel and all the sudden it looked warm an somewhat cozy, like I wouldn’t shiver at all. Arrg. Over the next few days, I tried to add cool colors, but nothing seemed to work. Yesterday, Mark Boedges, an incredible painters send out a “monthly tip” email to his fans about this very topic with some ways to “fix it”. (For all artists, I encourage you to sign up for his monthly tips). He talked about keeping the scene as close as you can to the nature colors, but adding a bit more blue to the scene when you are painting on location. This will help to keep it “cool” at home in the warmer light. In looking over his paintings (for the hundredth time), I noticed he adds dashes of color to places that are way off “natural”, but when stepping back from his painting and looking at the scene it seems so realistic and fresh! All the sudden it snapped in my mind and made sense. I took out my study and mixed up some ultra bright sky color to add to the foreground rocks, and bingo, all of the vibrancy I remembered from when I was there came out! I probably overdid it a bit in my excitement, so in time I’ll tone it down a bit, but this adds a whole new tool to my sleeve of painting tricks. Now, when I look at paintings from other top tier from artists, like Richard Schmid, I see it in almost all of their paintings.  I realize that some may like the more subdued, natural look, but to me the impression, or “feel” of the scene is just as important as the accuracy of the scene itself.  Here’s a before I added the blue, cool highlights. It seems good up close, but from ten feet back, it looks drab, subdued and too enclosed, not what I actually saw and felt. After adding the blues, it seemed to open it up with depth and add that feeling that indeed, you are now at “refrigerator creek”.

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Plein Air: Colorado Springs, Sandy Creek

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This is a quick post of a little sketch I did yesterday of Sandy Creek, located just behind the house I’m staying at. This is the view I see when I sit in front of the bay widows in my room each day. Around noon, the sun hits the water just right for bright reflections lining the rim of the far bank. After watching some James Gurney YouTube videos, I couldn’t help but get out with acrylics and a little 6×8″ hardboard panel. Here’s the view so you can see the location:

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Artist Chat: One tip that was really helpful was to first do a grey-scale under-painting to make sure I had the rest of the painting dark enough to produce the super-bright reflections on the water. I recommend doing this is you see you’re having trouble with values. Its a great lesson!