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. 

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Plein Air: Cliff by Garden of the Gods (CO Springs)

   
  
    

 About the Scene:  This scene is just north of the Garden of the Gods entrance on the opposite side of the highway. Around 2pm, the light hits the tops of the trees, brush and tips of the cliffs producing amazing shadows and form. The shadows of the cliffs are lit up by the sunlit grass giving a luminous warmth along with the cool colors. There was details I couldn’t achieve with the rough canvas surface, but that’s solved by just going back out with a 16×20 canvas and giving this another go. From a personal standpoint, this was a bitter-sweet experience. I find so much personal inspiration in these mountains that it’s just feels like “home”. However, it’s been a real challenge to keep employment with limitations with word comprehension and numbers resulting in misunderstanding of instructions and mistakes. I understand this just how my brain functions now, but it means I’ll likely need to leave this amazing, inspiring area to go back home for another year or two until I can find some way to have financial stability. Im hopeful learning web development may be a solution. We’ll see. 

Artist Chat: Shown above is the process I’ve found works well for acrylics, doing a grayscale underpainting (which dries quickly), then finding the right colors in that value. This allows me to see the composition and make changes before introducing color. 

Studio: Colorado Springs Winter Scenes

Here’s a quick update with some snow scene’s I’ve been busy working on from plein air studies. It’s amazing how many colors are snow! I thought, “Well, it’s white…”. Wrong. It’s reflected blues of the sky, greens from trees and grays. The only thing that could be “white” is the parts that reflect the sunlight right at your eyes. After scouring through many Josh Clare and Clyve Aspevig’s master works, I’m slowly coming to understand how to show the roundness and ripples in snow.

The first work is of a scene along Sandy Creek I saw a few weeks back. After a snow, a shallow part of the creek froze over mostly with some icy parts. The grass poked through the snow, reflected reds, bronzes and yellows. Pretty stunning to see against the blue backdrop of the Rockies.

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“Winter Gold along Sandy Creek”, 16×20, acrylic on stretched canvas

About two weeks later, I was invited to a small family cabin near Woodland, CO. The snow was so deep, snow shoes were pretty much mandatory off the path from the road to the cabin. So, I experienced snow shoe plein air for the first time. (Thanks for the snow shoes, Sean and Holly!). After a semi-quick sketch, I later scaled the scene up to this 16×20:

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“The Mikulas Family Cabin”, 16×20, acrylic

I loved the shadows of the trees running up the hill towards the cabin and that deep yellow of the cabin against the cobalt sky.

The next week, I was antsy to get back in the snow shoes and went out to Palmer Park after another great snow. I found some huge snow covered boulders and then noticed this bush with dried up orange-ish leaves that stood out brightly against the deep blues of the background snow. It somehow seemed intimate, like a portrait, so I dove in. After freezing my fingers, paints and water basin, I had enough information to finish at home. Warmth. Ah.

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“Snowfall in Palmer Park”, 9×12, acrylic on hardboard panel

I’ve since been out to Garden of the Gods… (I HAVE been busy!)… and, well, I’ll leave that for the next post. : )

These paintings will be available from my website: www.stephenwilliamson.com.

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,”Refrigerator 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!

Plein Air: Colorado Springs, First Snow on Pikes Peak

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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.

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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.

Studio Work: Helen Hunt Falls

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This is the scale up of the plein air study posted previously. It is always fun to put in all the details you couldn’t fit into a little 6×8″ study outside, but try to keep that “fresh” feel when painting in front of the waterfall. It needs to feel fun when you look at it. I discovered a new tool to do just that… a silicone spatula sold in the painting section at Hobby Lobby. It spread on the paint thick for the rocks for great texture in the initial first stage of blocking in the main colors. Later, using a smaller pallet knife, I could overlay the brushed on water to make the appearance of water spray. Lots of little discoveries in the several weeks doing this work make it seem more like playing.  This image was taken with my cell phone and there is a glare on the left side, so I’ll try and put up the professional image after it sits on the wall for a while.  Sometimes, when the mind has time to rest, an improvement will pop out at you. So far it’s helped twice. It’s been another week and nothings jumping out… it might be done (and possibly sold!).

What I’d like to do next time is work with oils and try to emphasize more emotion in it. Clyde Aspevig is a huge inspiration and he relates his paintings to a symphony, where the different aspects of the music orchestrate, or harmonize all the details into one unified tone.  If you have a chance, google his name. I bet you will “see the music” in his work. Amazing.

Plein Air: Colorado Aspens

Over the past three weeks, I’ve been busy getting out to study the famous aspens here in CO.  They show for a short time, then it over, so there was little time to blog. Here’s the studies with a quick caption of the setting for each:

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This was the first study in one of the groves along the Seven Bridges Trail (Colorado Springs, CO). I was trying to see how the silvery-white bark reflects light off of the surroundings and the glowing leaves. If you’re ever under a tree with light bark, look at the trunk on the shaded side and you’ll see this. The back-lit leaves were like those glow lamps and make a huge impact of what you need to make this tree look real on canvas.

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A bit down the trail is a towering rock about a 100 feet tall (~30 meters) that has a purple tint, surrounded by dark spruce and pine. The few aspens looked almost alien, standing out so much. I think that actually was a problem. When painting, it appears as though the painter doesn’t know how to make it look natural, super saturating color and overstating the aspens, even though it’s what the scene is like.  I definitely pushed the limits of my paint.

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I wanted to study a group of aspens on the canyon side with a view of other mountains in the distance.  I thought, “this is going to be easy”. Nope. I mashed on as much bright yellow and green as I could until it looked like huge splotches of paint in the middle of a forest. By the end, I found that by layering different hues of yellows, yellow oranges and green, it sort of make the trees distinct, but I came to a point that I was in over my head. Plus a thunderstorm with rain and hail ran me off. My tiny collapsible umbrella was the gear of the day.

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Going back (a week later) to the canyon, I took a different route and times this scene perfectly. The light was just peering over the edge of the canyon wall, lighting up the top of the aspen with the rest in the shadows. It sort of add a dramatic effect when looking at it. You’ll notice many professional artists use this in their scene to add drama and emotion to their paintings. At this point, I was starting to realize I can’t just use a single brush stoke to say “leaves”. For aspens, the leaves look like little flickering dots as they move in the wind, so it’s necessary to show at least some dots of varying color to get that look (or there is just something I don’t understand yet).

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Along this same path, there was a rock slide where the moving gravel prevents most plant from taking root. There was a single aspen just begging to be painted.  I loved the background with dark trees and distant mountains.

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And finally, after many studies, I got on the road and headed from Divide, CO to Cripple Creek on Hwy 67. This is famous for the amazing aspens with scene overlook and pull-off all along the way. In fact, the speed limit is only 35 to 45 because so many people are leaving and entering along the winding road. Dangerous. I was advised by my roommate, “You’re going to want to pull off and paint before you get to Cripple Creek, but don’t do it.”. I pulled off just before Cripple Creek not knowing it was just about three miles away. I tried, but the aspens were calling. I put everything I’d learned before into this scene and it all helped. Now I have more confidence I can pull from these studies and produce a large scale studio work that’s build on composition, rather than sticking directly to a scene.

I think I have about one more week to immerse myself in these amazing trees. You can bet I’ll be doing just that. I think this is the “bluebonnet of Colorado” as an analogy to Texas. When I think of Colorado, I think “aspens”; Texas, I think “bluebonnets”. Its there for a short time and the entire state love it.

Artist Chat: I could write a short book about everything I’ve been learning, but I’ll summarize it into bullet points:

*To make the leaves glow, saturate the color of the leaves but mute the other colors and lean them away from yellow towards purple or blue (cool grays).

*If you can, paint a scene where the tree is somewhat back-lit.

*Use at least two colors for the leaves; one for the shaded side, the other for the highlights. Even though you may not see it well, emphasize a lit side to give it form. Hansa opaque yellow is a great “gold”. Lemon yellow mixed with white is the best highlight.

*For green aspens, a mix of phatho blue and lemon yellow and white really “pops”, if the surrounded trees are dark, muted greens (like spruce and pine).

Plein Air Colorado Springs: Palmer Park by the Stables

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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:

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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.

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Me with my painting kit with Cheyenne Mountain in the background.