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!

Plein Air: Dana Peak Park (Belton, TX)

First sketch at the park entrance.

I risked the overcast skies and high chance of rain to get in a few sketches at Dana Peak Park today. It’s always a question mark in my head,”Do you really want to do this?” as I drive there, but as soon as I start down the entrance trail, I know it was right. Every time. The thick atmosphere really set the hills in the distance back with deep blues, contrasting to the warm greens of the cedars around me. In five minutes, I was roughing in the most simple statement of the scene, as I’m learning in class in Nathan Fowkes Schoolism class. Fourty minutes later, I put in the last touches and was off to explore more. It was fun seeing people pose at the far end of the trail, hoping to be immortalized in the sketch. 
Second sketch. Named “Clarity”

 I’ve started a series on an Instagram account (@sw_abstractions) that will explore slowly pushing myself into the abstract expression I see in nature, more directed by what I feel than the literal scene. In fact, I name the sketch for the emotion it portrays before I start, stopping myself frequently as I paint to ask, “Am I painting this emotion?”. Often, I’ve gone too far trying to copy the scene and half of my time is spent painting over my careful rendering, back into abstraction. Today I found a deer trail leading off of the main path and almost stepped on a prickly pear cactus almost tucked away in the grass. I saw the big thorns and noted how I focused so closely on those, that the rest of the surrounding grasses faded away. “Clarity” was the feeling I was greatful for, those times in life when everything else in the mind clears and you are in the moment. I think I painted the grass about five times, getting it just right, then seeing I’ve lost the softness and scribbling over it. Good lesson.

Third sketch, old oak skeletons.

After “Clarity”, I walked about four miles over the hills, dodging the Sunday mountain bikers, and found myself just enjoying the exercise. Sensing I was done for the day, I walked toward the entrance when a brief glimpse of sunlight hit some big oak skeletons, weathered and clear of their bark, showing the smooth silver layer underneath. The background hills were still in shadow, so the warm sunlight lit up those oaks brilliantly as if they glowed. I gave myself 45min for uber-fast sketching and really paid attention to catching the boldness of the trees in relation to the softness of the brush around it. A lady stopped by, liking my easel set-up and I had a chance to explain how it’s just a Walmart easel, modified to be much more useful along with my other cheap, rigged gear. It was so fun to see her realizing with a big, excited smile that with about $40, she can do this, easel, brushes, paints paper… everything. I live for those moments to witness a spark of inspiration. So satisfying, and a perfect end to the day.

I just finished varnishing a commission painting and will post that up tomorrow.

Plein Air: Last sketch on Sedan (Weimar, TX)

Well, I was tired of waiting for a sunny day and decided it was a good challenge to paint a gray, overcast scene. What it lacked in color, it gained in atmosphere and subtle colors. Unfortunately, my days of painting along the roadside around here are now done. Two ladies pulled up alongside me and said they were the owners of the property. The ranchers along the road are extra cautious and pulling out their guns because they’ve had a lot of vandalism and people tailing the women as they drive home at night. Hard to believe this happens in little Weimar, TX. Sad. I told them my family ties to Weimar and about what I do with on-location sketches as an artist. They understood, but warned me that it may not be safe for me to do that right now and then called off the police. Last comment the lady made was that she had to get inside because she’s making sausage and it’ll burn. Ha. This is definitely Weimar. Glad she was relieved to know I was one of the good guys. 

As for the technical artist chat side of the experience, it was fun to use an “earth colors” palette as a part of my Schoolism course. Rather than pure color, I used red oxide, yellow ochre, ultramarine blue and titanium white. The point of it is to force me to use the color complements , like red vs. green or purple vs. yellow, to make them stand out next to each other. I made the background trees slightly more purple than they were to make the foreground greens and yellows of the grass stand out. Those greens and yellows appeared almost a flat gray on my brush, but looked right next under the background. Also, the differences in value (light/dark) are that much more important because I don’t have striking colors to stand out as a design element. Tough lesson, but I learned a lot from it! 

Plein Air: Quick study of a sunlit alley (Weimar, TX)

In Weimar, there are still un-paved alleys between houses. The light and shadows cast across them in the last hour of the day is perfect for a quick study. In the class I’m taking in Schoolism, Nathan Fowkes spends the first two lectures drilling in the concept of seeing the scene in a simplified way and capture that first. In this scene, it’s about the light cast across the alley and onto the bush in the middle ground. After laying in a rough sketch, I pulled out the big brush and did full, dramatic sweeps of shadow colors across the paper where for the shadows were and then one single big blob of dark, cool green and brushed upward to be a “bush”. Next, laying in the sunlit streaks over the shadows, the basic drama of the scene was set in the first five minutes. The rest was just detail added onto the foundation. I thought about finishing a background, but it’s just a sketch and the concept I needed was there. 

It’s such a relief to be inspired by a scene, such as this dipslay of light and be able to start out getting the “feel” of the scene as the backbone, then overlay the detail. I guess an analogy would be getting a burst of energy while jogging and jump into a sprint just to feel like flying, rather than think of which foot to start with and how long my stride should be (the details). The details are important. Nobody should start a sprint with both feet forward at the same time or even think about it. That’s nuts.  So, when painting, let the first foot be impression, then the next, representation, then just fly as the two come to a balance.

Plein Air: Broken Down House (Weimar,TX)

It’s shorts and t-shirt weather here in Weimar with full sun. Hard to believe it in the first part of January, but I’ll take it! I rode my bike down the frontage road to I-10 and found an old run down house crowded in some trees. I don’t normally paint houses, but it’s a good challenge for this year. There’s too much potential for painting run down homes around here. Might as well step out of my comfort zone and learn to paint them! 

After watching a video tutorial by George Strickland, I began to see the very subtle shades of reflected light on the white, chipped paint. Blues, greens, yellows… it’s amazing to see something that didn’t appear to be there before. Kind of unreal.  He teaches to emphasize these variations to add interest to an otherwise flat wall. The green-blue reflected light under the roof of the front wall, and the bright yellow under the eve of the side room near where the sun hits, are examples. In his video, he works back and forth, adjusting the colors from cool to warm and back again until it just looks right. His work is amazing.

I battled my fast-dry acrylics today with the unually dry, warm air. The piles of paint formed a thick wall on the outside as it dried so I’d have to push my finger on it to make some fresh paint ooze out of the bottom side. By the time I finished mixing, I’d have one swipe with the brush before my freshly mixed paint was dry. Time to break out the slow-drying acrylics or just move to oils! Either way, it made for a fun day. 

I’m also learning video editing and hopefully I’ll be able to start up a YouTube channel and start posting some of the adventures. 

Plein Air: Wax Pencil Sketching 

It really helps to do a lot of value sketches to see and really “sink in” to your subject. In painting, there’s a lot of thinking going on with color, brushwork, and other technique issues. So many times in my paintings, it was an issue of forgetting to focus and observe my subject. My brush is moving, but I’m not taking the time to look and record. Sketching will re-focus you into accuracy, squinting to get the values right and also, you can let go and let your mind work out the patterns needed which would be a disaster in painting. In painting that’s a straight road to overworking the subject until it’s color is mute and looks dead. 

A new “toy” I’m using for this is a wax “Sanford Peel-Off” pencil used for marking metal (welding pencil). The other two pencils are a white General charcoal pencil and regular 0.5 Bic mechanical pencil to lay in the undersketch. The wax pencil has a benefit over charcoal in that it’s keeps the tip sharp easier and you can use the eraser to blend it out. The more you erase, the thinner the coat is until it’s like a transparent layer. Perfect for edgework to soften edges far from the focal point. 

If your up to practicing this, start by marking four values on the bottom corner, dark black, light black (wax pencil with lighter touch), leave the tan to be the next lighter value, and finish with the white charcoal. Draw in your subject lightly with the mechanical pencil, then shade in the white and darkest darks. This should help you define the focal area well since it normally has the highest contrast. Next shade in the rest and don’t forget to leave the tan paper blank where it’s already the correct value. When you finished shading, if you want to soften up the edges away from the focal area, use the eraser to move the wax around. You might need to scrape off the eraser if it builds up. Keep erasing until it looks right. You can go back over it with the wax pencil if needed, but the white charcoal will not work over the wax. So, make sure you keep away from the white. Have fun! 

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: Exploring Watercolors

I’ve been testing out watercolors in the past weeks around the area I work at in Columbus, TX as a new way to do outdoor sketches. I see it with “Urban sketchers”, in James Gurney videos, and many illustrators who use gouache, a opaque watercolor (ex. Mike Hernandez… awesome). Also, other bloggers in the WordPress art community are trying this as a challenge. Thanks for the inspiration, Martha! I thought I’d write down some thought I’d had while doing these studies, making all the mistakes I could as I went (which is a good thing).  As a rookie, now I have a HUGE appreciation for the works of master watercolorist like those seen in this article “Famous Watercolor Artists” (check out John Singer Sargent!).

Here are a few sketches I’ve done, each with a description and date.

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What I’ve found so far is that watercolor isn’t as limiting as I thought. I had figured, less pigment in a watered down form… meh. However, the light colors such as yellows, green and light blues have a luminescent quality because they are transparent over the white page, making a glow effect seldom seem with acrylics or oils. As I adjusted to this painting style, I’ve found it follows all of the same rules in painting, just in a different way of applying the paint. Design, lighting effects, values, edges … all the things that are used to represent the scene, don’t change. Rather than laying down a dark shadow color, then layering light color over it in acrylics and oils, it goes light to dark, adding the shadows last. Either way, matching values (how light or dark it is) is key. For example, the wood pile was much darker than the brightly lit background grass. At first, I had made the wood pile much lighter and it seemed to look bland, but going back into it with a darker grey-brown really gave it a realistic punch. Edges, the line between two object, can be hard or softened by loosening it up with water to let it spread a bit. At the end, when all the lights are darks are painted, there is a white tube of watercolor paint in the kit. Even though it’s limited in power because it’s fairly transparent, it can help to give a little definition along an edge. For example, “Gray” the dog, had bright hair along his feet and hairs on his face. Going back in with the white really helped contrast the feet from the dark hair.

The best bonus I can see with watercolor is the small size of the painting kit. I’ve seen kits that can practically fit in your jeans pocket, perfect for a backpacking adventure where weight and size are crucial. It’s a great option to have!!

Plein Air: Columbus, TX

I did a bunch of sketches today. The day started with a hazy, overcast sky, which greyed down everything, but it also enhanced the appearance of trees in the background looking like they were miles off rather than just a few hundred feet. I drove up to a scene right outside of Weimar, TX and had some trouble with all the colors being so close to grey, but it was a good warm up:


I went and worked for a couple of hours and saw the lighting just get better by the minute. The Weather Channel app was calling for rain three days in a row starting tomorrow, so I went out to do some quick studies hoping I’ll have some good ones to enlarge tomorrow as an “artist in residence” in the Columbus Art Center. I drove just outside of the Columbus city limits along the highway and tuned off on a road that said “no outlet” and was full of cracked pavement with a lame attempt to fill it with gravel. Perfect. It led to a gate along a fence with a scene full of depth. Here’s a couple small studies from that area:


I like the dark shadows and more saturated greens of the close trees versus the blueish shadows and more muted greens in the distance.

That went much quicker than I thought, so I headed back to the highway, and somehow found myself in a Beason Park, in Columbus, a place I’ve painted before. Huge oaks! I set up to do the same thing with close up trees and distant trees, but I’d be in the oak grove with soft spotlights through the leaves on the green grass. When I checked the distant trees closer, I saw the tower of the famous courthouse poking through the tops of the trees like a postcard image. It was a no-brainer. After a 5 minute value sketch and a ten minute color study, I got out an 11×14″ canvas panel and tried my luck. It would be a perfect scene for tomorrow! After about 2 hours, here’s what I ended with:


“The Columbus, TX Courthouse Bell Tower” 11×14″, acrylic

It could use a bit of adjusting, but this will work! I’ll start a 16×20″ or larger of it tomorrow in oils. Another fun adventure.