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. 

Plein Air: Ol barn in Weimar, Texas

Indoor pic
On-location picture

I had a chance to get in a quick sketch before the sun went down of an old barn with a raised water tanks used for the house or cattle back in the day. This is on the edge of town about two blocks over from my house (small town!).  What struck me about this scene was how the light on the red barn and rust of the tower contrasted with cool grey greens and blues of the field and background trees. It’s a simple composition, but if I play it right using deep, warm colors in the shadow of the barn, it can be a very dynamic, yet peaceful painting. The other aspect that draws me in is the softness in the grass and background vs the sharp edges of the barn and water tank. It was hard to catch this with the limited time (about 45min), but the image is cemented in my mind from studying it so closely.

Will post the studio version soon!

Plein Air: Nolenville, TX with Oils!

 

“Roadside Daisies” 5×7″ oil
 
This will be a quick note, but I got so tired of fighting with the acrylics drying and fading yesterday, I decided to test out some water soluble oils with a simple subject. It’s a lot different, but I love not having to rush to get the paint smeared on only to return to a dried pile of mix. I may return to acrylics at some point when I need to, but it’s a nice break. It seems that the oil blends so much better, I may be able to reach another level of expression in the subtle variations of cool and warm grays. I found a way to store wet panels very cheaply, and will show this in the next post. Can’t wait to get back out and try again!!

Plein Air: Rocky outcrop near Westcliff, CO

  
The scene: in an area about an hour north of Westcliff, I hiked along a ridge line to the top of a mountain with this rocky outcrop. In the background are the Sangre de Christos mountains. It’s a striking view to look at with the rocks in the foreground in contrast to the distant blues of the far mountain range, giving you a sense of just how tiny you are and yet honored to be even a small part of it. 

The experience: I’d hoped the sketch would be something I could give to my friends while visiting them at their mountain home, but it needed a lot more touching up back in the studio (the image you see above). A bit frustrated that the sketch wasn’t what I’d hoped for, I packed up and headed back for dinner not realizing my wallet had fallen out. Unfortunately, the spot I painted from was about two feet wide with about a twenty foot drop off on one side and a large, thin crevice from about ten to thirty feet on the other. The next day, I hiked back up and found the wallet at the base of the cliff with my credit cards and drivers license missing. There’s zero possibility of another person stealing it because of the remoteness of this place. What happened was a mystery at first… Then we discovered chew marks on my leather wallet. Pack rats living in the rocks likely took those cards into the crevices. If they wanted to take my identity and order an year’s supply of mouse food, they now have the finances to do it. I’m certain they left the chew marks as evidence just to mock me. : )

Before heading back to CO Springs, I saw a view from the owner’s porch that seemed like a great composition with golden grass leading between the cedars and pines towards the view of the mountains. Deciding to go big (16×20), a couple of hours later it actually turned into a decent sketch that they really liked. 

  
Turns out they had wanted a painting of that scene for a while and the colors in this sketch matched the colors in their home. Some things are just meant to be. They’ve now named the rocky outcrop with the devil-rats Williamson Rock. Ha. Good times and always an adventure.

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. 

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!

 

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,”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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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.