One pencil, one sketchpad at Dry Comal Creek (New Braunfels)

30 minute sketch of a scene at Dry Comal Creek with a large tree and cactus.
30 minute sketch of a scene at Dry Comal Creek with a large tree and cactus.

This is a quick post of a great lesson I learned today. If you don’t like technical art stuff, you may skip this or use it to induce a powerful nap.  You were warned.

When you’re having trouble with your paintings outdoors, only take a pencil and a sketchpad to draw your potential painting. Do not paint. It’s very painful sitting in front of a scene full of color with only graphite, but it more painful to spend hours only to get a pitiful result … again… and not know why. The key here is to re-learn to see color in terms of value first.  Most likely, you will try a sketch and find it very hard because your subject is either too complicated or doesn’t have enough contrast to the rest of the scene. What results is a grey sketch.  At this point, don’t get discouraged.  This is when your “aha” moment can occur. As you start to look for a different scene, you begin to search subject you can draw, not paint.  You are now scanning the same scene, but seeing it in values.

The second point to drawing scenes is to re-learn to focus on the subject. How many time have you painted a scene and become lost in the details? You end up spending as much or more time on the background rather than the subject you’re focusing on. Drawing naturally re-focuses you to spend more time on the one or two main points in the sketch and let the background only support it. Here is the actual scene. Look how much detail there is! There are thousands of bluebonnets painfully, but necessarily being ignored.

If you like the drawing when you’re finished, then paint it and use the drawing for reference!!

The reference photo. Notice how value is lost or distorted comparing to the sketch.
The reference photo. Notice how much detail is left out on the sketch. 

I’m anxious to get back out there now that I’ve sketched the scene and understand it better. Next post? We’ll see.

Good luck and I hope this helps!

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Hinman Island Park: Plein Air Painting of a Waterfall

Waterfall by Hinman Island 6x8ish, acrylic on paper
Waterfall by Hinman Island 6x8ish, acrylic on paper

Here a quick post of a plein air color sketch from yesterday that I saw when going to Landa Park (see last post). I arrived after work around 4:30 and wandered around looking for the best angle, which ended up in the water. Then came the planning on how in the heck I’d paint there. Here’s a riverside view of the falls just as I arrived:

Side view from when I arrived at the falls.
Side view from when I arrived at the falls.

Eventually I found a spot only about four inches deep with good gravel near the bank and set up there. I’m surprised the easel didn’t take a plunge in the current! Over the next three hours, I silently celebrated the extra hour from daylight savings time and tried my best to catch the motion of the scene. The water was actually warm, matching the outside temps! Strange feeling when you expect a “cold spring-fed river”.  There were three or four potential paintings in there, but I decided to keep it simple with just one main rock, the foreground water and all the colors in the waterfall itself (it’s not just white!). In the shade, the water look light grey-blue, in the sunlight it was very white with a hint of yellow ochre and there were subtle hints of reflections too. Where the foam was, it was the brightest I could get – thick Titanium White right out of the tube. By the time I left, the scene changed dramatically with the setting sun, so I packed up to make the last changes at home. Here’s the scene from where I sat:

Scene from where I sat just before sunset.
Scene from where I sat just before sunset.

It always feels sort of uncomfortable when attempting a new subject. I’d done a waterfall painting in Miller Springs before, but got so frustrated I “Judy chopped” it like the West Virginia ninja. Trash.  In this city, it’s a scene worth learning to paint and I plan on doing a series of them. It’s my intention to attempt getting into a gallery by the end of the year, and New Braunfels loves their spring fed rivers! I just signed up for the Virtual Art Academy, a very structured online course that many of my art friends recommend.  Hopefully this will fill in some gaps in my art education and spell improvement to my ability to translate what I see in nature onto the canvas. My inspiration is so you can really connect with the feel, or concept of the scene as if you’re sitting there. That’s definitely worth investing in!

Landa Park (New Braunfels): Plein Air Painting

Landa Park, New Braunfels, TX. View down the river on a cold, rainy day.  12 x 16" canvas panel
Landa Park, New Braunfels, TX. View down the river on a cold, rainy day. 12 x 16″ canvas panel

At 2pm, it’s cold. Wet. Drizzy. Surely this is no time to get out to paint. 100% chance of rain with possible t-storms is what the Weather Channel App says.  With a heavy case of boredom and curiosity of what there is to paint in conditions like this, I remembered Landa Park has a gazebo looking down the river that might make for a good scene with a roof over my head.  As I drove past Prince Solms park, down the hill through Hineman Dr., I spotted a great little water fall tucked just to the edge of the golf course beneath the trees and shrubs, so I pulled off the road to check it out. As I video taped the scene for later, something caught my eye. There was a mist above the water above the falls. It was tempting to get out the gear right then, but if there was mist here, then that scene of the river at Landa Park would be incredible.  I quickly headed over to Landa Park, Bingo! Heavy mist lit up above the water around the cypress trees giving a wispy, mystical feel.  A cliff full of trees ran along the river on the left as the river bent to the right, fading away in the distance.  I dropped my usual small sheet of paper and brought out the big guns, a 12 x 16″ canvas panel.  This scene paints it’s self. I figured the scene’s lighting would stay the same, being overcast, but 20 minutes into it, it warmed a few degrees and poof, there went the mist. It was a totally different scene! I tried to stay with my initial lay in to hold true to the misty scene over the course of four hours, but it slowly changed to what I was looking at. Just when I was finished and put everything away telling myself I’ve given it my best shot, the temperature dropped and, Poof, instant mist! It was suddenly exactly like it was when I got first arrived! Ha. I took a reference photo to note the differences if I want to change it later.

Reference pic taken as the magical mist reappeared.
Reference pic taken as the magical mist reappeared.

With the mist, the foreground trees are a muted grey mass, slightly darker than the background cliffs. Not much color. It’s a very peaceful, yet mystical feeling. Without the mist, the tree’s have more contrast with definite lights and dark areas. Also there is much more color saturation, especially in the light spring green leaves.  It presents a more dynamic scene.

I has a lot to be thankful for. There were no t-storms and some city folk risked waking the path gave me a thumbs up as they went.  A very inspiring man named Diego stopped by to chat. He decided Guam was too small for him, so he packed his thing to travel the world and hasn’t stopped in 20 years. It’s his passion. He saw me and immediately recognized it.  I’d like to think my painting was inspiring, but realistically, anybody wanting to paint in these conditions is either nuts or passionate. I told him about my being a welder and he quickly dismissed it and said I should paint. Awesome compliment. Thanks, Diego!! It’s never boring on a plein air experience.

Artists Chat: Titanium White, Ultramarine Blue, Burnt Umber, Cad Yellow Hew.  With this scene, it was easier to start from the background and work forwards, keeping the background mid value and darkening as it got closer, holding the darkest dark for the foreground trees. The value changes with the disappearing mist really thew me for a loop, but the overlapping of the trees against the background really helped to keep the painting going. I actually had to throw in mid-value blues behind the foreground trees to help push them forward more.  The focal point is where the branches reach across to the little island clump of trees in the center, so I kept the lines sharp with a lot of contrast and tried to keep the rest of scene somewhat soft in edges.  The water was tricky, but using a big brush loaded with paint, using horizontal strokes really helped get the feel of it.  Mostly, I had to  remember, THIS IS ONLY A STUDY.  It’s so easy to over do it! This is enough information to go big now (18×24 or larger) using the photo references for details, but the painting for color notes.

Plein Air: Fall Colors in New Braunfels, TX

Fall Color in New Braunfels, ~8x10ish, acrylic on paper
Fall Color in New Braunfels, ~8x10ish, acrylic on paper   (Click image to enlarge it)

It’s been a while since I’ve had energy/time to get outdoors for some painting. Post turkey dinner and a good sleep last night gave me just enough of a boost to head out to my favorite spot in New Braunfels to paint, Cypress Bend Park.  The fall colors are amazing this year and the leaves of the cypress trees lining the edge of the river are now a deep burnt orange.  I’ve noticed a house at the far end of the park on previous visits. It sits close to the river nestled in the trees. Now with the fall colors and sunlight at just the right angle, it presents a fantastic scene to paint. The light color of the house really stands out in contrast to the foliage. Setting up, it didn’t take long to fall into my routine and I had a sketch down in about twenty minutes. I took some extra time to define the house and I’m glad I did! The sunlight changes quickly and I wanted to catch the shadows cast onto the house from the trees.

Hour one: I’m having trouble blocking in the basic colors as the paper is like a sponge, sucking up loads of paint. It looks like a dry, brushy indistinguishable mess.  When people pass by, they ask what I’m painting even though I’m pointing straight at the target.  It’s the awkward stage. Hour two: finally I have a “house” and little kids nearby can say, “Are you painting a house?”. It’s progress. Hour three: the house is more defined with the dark trees and sky starting to produce some focus to the painting. “Hey, that’s really … neat.”. I know it’s getting there if I’m up to the “neat” stage. Hour four: Now I’ve painted details like the shadows are on the house, the fall colors highlighted in the trees and rippled sky reflections in the water. A man with his kids comes over and tells me his story of being a lifelong salesman and says I should go to the house and see if they want to buy it. “Go around dinner time, so they are all there.”. Hmm. By the end of 15 minutes, he had my complete sales pitch revised and finalized. “For $49.95, you can have this or I can paint a larger size [for more money]. Half now, half later.”. Ha. You never know who you’ll meet. It’s all a part of the adventure and it did feel good to know I’d progressed past “neat”.

The light had changed so much by the fourth hour you can hardly see the house, but here’s the scene at the time I stopped. The warm, setting sun really cast a glow on the trees! Just another excuse to go back and try and capture that “glow”!

The scene by the time I stopped.  The light and shadows change so fast!!
The scene by the time I stopped. The light and shadows change so fast!!

Artist Chat: Titanium White, Cobalt Blue, Medium Red (orange), Cad Yellow.  It was nice using a limited palette with a complex scene. Even though the sky was more of a cerulean blue, it simplified things greatly to just use Cobalt. I spend the majority of time on the house details (and fighting my drying paint) rather then all the other details in the trees.  It’s so easy to get distracted by everything, but downplaying all the details of the river and reducing the trees to just smudges of fall color kept the focus on the house. All the color notes are about right, so it’d scale up nicely using these colors and adding more detail to the house with a reference photo.

Plein Air in New Braunfels: Cypress Bend Park

Scene from Cypress Bend Park ~9x6, Acrylic on paper
First plein air painting of Cypress Bend Park (9×6, acrylic on paper)

It’s been quite an adjustment these last two months, but I’m now living in New Braunfels, TX (45min south of Austin; 30 min north of San Antonio) and working full time as a welder.  My mentor in the welding company says, “This is the Dark Side, because once you start working here, you don’t get to do anything else” and placed a Darth Vader figure above our tool locker.  I laughed at first… and since then have been working. A lot. Saturdays, some Sundays, holidays, none can escape. Lucky for me, I love to weld. Now that my finances are balancing out (a little bit), the force is with me to take some weekends off. Hopefully, I’ll ease in a routine of plein air painting in between naps and rubbing sore muscles. This area is dead center of plein air heaven.  It’s famous for spring fed rivers surrounding the area making it a haven for tubers, fly fishermen and artists. An hour west, I’m in dry, rocky Hill Country; an hour east and I’m in the thick rolling grasslands near Weimar, TX with the enormous Live Oaks and Grace Ranch.

While I explore the different parks in the area, I found Cypress Bend Park, a favorite spot for fishermen.  Enormous Cypress trees line the sides, some with trunks that would take three adults to get their arms around.  The Comal River is 30-40 feet wide and 2-5 feet deep with crystal clear water.

Here’s the scene I started to sketch wanting to emphasize the trees the park is named after, but keeping the Comal included.

pre-sketch of the scene
pre-sketch of the scene

The sun came out, lit up the central tree and shadows moved shadows moved into the foreground.  I just kept getting better, so I adjusted the painting as I went! Nice when that happens.   It’s so scenic it’s very easy to want to paint every detail, but I kept the background trees and river somewhat obscure and cool keeping the eye on that amazing foreground tree.

Same scene as the sun came out and changed the lighting dramatically.
Same scene as the sun came out and changed the lighting dramatically.

There’s at least two more scenes I spotted from the river bank for future sketches.  Amazing area!

Artist Chat:

Palette – Titanium White, Cobalt Blue, Burnt Sienna, Cad Yellow, Alizarin Crimson.

My main focus was the main Cypress Tree and the rest was secondary, supporting that. This was key in my decisions. I limited the palette to make it easier on me to get color harmony as I worked those browns, greens and grays.  The foreground trees were very dull in color, while the background was full of bright yellows, greens, and full of detail. I muted the greens and yellow adding white and blue to cool it down. Meanwhile, I added a bit of extra warmth to the foreground trees and added sharp edges and contrast to pop it forward. The trees simply consited of working Burnt Sienna and Cobalt blue worked together into different hues, adding white to adjust the value.  Simple is good. I did add some yellow to the Burnt Sienna in warming up the trees a bit at the end.