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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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):
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.
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.
Another great day!!
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).
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”.
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:
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!
This is Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs viewed from a main trail on top of Palmer Park. For two days, It’s been chilly and rainy with clouds covering the mountains. Basically, its the kind of days you don’t mind being indoors at work. Today, the clouds peeled away and revealed a snow covered peak. With the dry climate here, things far away look much clearer and closer than a humid area where it takes on a haze, so the snowy peak was spectacular with the contrast of bright show and rock. As soon as I got off work, I sped out to Palmer Park to get a good view of the mountain with a nice foreground of pines and grasses. As drove out there, I could see clouds starting to form near the mountain, starting to block the view of the peak. I was fast-walking and jogging up the trails and came to an unexpected spot showing now only Pikes Peak, but also a great view of Garden of the Gods in front of it! I dropped my gear, and within five minutes my easel was up, paints portioned out on my palette and I began sketching in a rough idea. Over the next half hour, clouds grew thicker wrapping around the peak like a blanket and creating a light show on the area of the valley below. It was like looking at a staged scene as Garden of the Gods and the area just in front of it lit up while most of the mountain remained in shadows. All of this was in perfect timing as I was just at the point of adding in the detail there. With shifting lights and shadows, its like a dance with nature and the painter. You have to lead, keeping your original scene with it’s shadows locked in your memory, but also be watchful and adapt as the scene changes, moving with it and loving the unexpected display as it unfolds. It’s in these small, unexpected moments that nature reveals a beautiful moment you don’t want to forget. As quickly as the moment passed, the clouds engulfed to peak and drops of rain started to hit the canvas. I packed up in record time and for the second time, I was glad I had my little fold out umbrella.
You can see in this reference photo the clouds had already covered the peak and put everything in shadow. At this stage of the painting, I usually back up and make final changes needed to get rid of distractions and pull all the element of painting together. However, with dark storm clouds spreading out, and hands as cold as ice cubes, I got outta there.
Moving toward a Studio Painting: I love the mountain and how the clouds add drama and the spot-lit area. Reducing the foreground and leaving it in shadow, will lead the eye to the spot lit area. Adding more highlights to the mountains could lead the eye up towards the peak, which should be like the grand finale of a fireworks show. The evolution of this studio painting from this study will be a future post.
Location of the Scene: This is in Palmer Park, the central park of Colorado Springs. In the middle of the park on the western side, there are some horse stables. Looking up at the cliffs from the stables, these towers are a striking display of yellow, bight tans and oches against a deep cobalt sky. Hard to miss.
The Experience: Today was perfect for getting outside, so Sarah, Luke, Aja (dog) and I went to Palmer Park. Luke and Aja stuck around the entrance to explore and Sarah and I headed out for about 5 miles of trails. Due to my superior, in-built navigation system, we got lost, wandered through a neighborhood, trespassed, fought brush and cacti to relocate a trail and by mile 7 were back at the car. Always an adventure. While on part of the trail I was familiar with, I spotted this scene near the horse stables. After Luke, Sarah and Aja left, I headed back. At 2pm, the sun was out and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. When looking up at the tans and whites of the cliffs, the angle of the sky at that viewpoint is a deep cobalt blue. This following picture of Sarah on some cliffs, shows how much darker the sky is compared to the cliffs:
Not able to find a shady spot was my first mistake. The sun and low humidity dried my paints so fast, many times the paint never left the brush onto the 6×8 panel. I’d look at the brush to see what happened and there is was, the pristine gob of paint, just the right value, hue and saturation, delicately mixed … and dry. I dunked my brush in the water, mixed the paint like a mop with suds and resorted to doing a watery color painting for the next couple of hours. It was an onslaught of silent swearing, and at the just the right moment of anguish, my tripod chair busted sending me to the ground in an awkward feet-out, head-down position. Luckily, mountain bikers were passing to make sure I was okay. Two inches to the right and I would have nailed a cactus. Phew. Forging ahead in a crouching position like a cat ready to pounce, I mopped on the last few bush strokes, throwing in some rocks in the foreground and called it a day. Frustrated, I remind myself, “fighting through the frustrations make me a better person”, then think “who says that??”. I gotta quit that goody talk and kick a rock like a man or something. This is when you know for a fact you love painting. Nobody in their right mind would return unless the sense of awe at nature and the hope of catching just a glimpse of that with paint was so much sweeter than frustrations.
Artist Chat: All in all, the little 6×8 study didn’t turn out bad. I wanted to capture the bold, bright cliff structure against the sky and bring it into perspective with the green-grays of the grass and brush. No doubt this will come in handy if I build a scene in the studio needing these color notes. My palette was ultramarine, yellow ochre, lemon yellow, red oxide and titanium white. Next time I’m going to try using only Golden Open paints aside from the red oxide. I really think the slower drying time will be a perfect match to the climate here (and avoid kicking rocks in frustration). The hardest part was figuring out the value and hue of the shadow side of the rocks. The layers in the rock switched from ochre to yellow to tan, each having a different shadow color. Then there was the indirect light producing yet another “glow” in the shadow. Finding the right value, then adjusting the color was the key in the end. It took a couple layers of paint to get it, but it worked. If nothing else worked in the painting, this was enough to make this painting useful as a tool.
Me with my painting kit with Cheyenne Mountain in the background.