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.
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!
This scene is from the summer days when I’d pass by a field of cows in Columbus, TX on my way home. It started with that initial glance of the lazy cows trying to find shade under a sparsely branched cedar. I shot a quick photo as I passed by. Months later, I was flying to Marblehead to visit my brother and his family and flipped through the photos on my phone looking to sketch on the flight. Seeing this photo, I was able to zoom in cropping the rest of it, focusing in on the heart of what I saw in that glance. Months later, I was flipping through my sketch book and thought I’d post it to my Instagram account (@teveman) and after watching a DVD of John Poon teaching his method, figured I’d give it a go. I did the small value sketch last night to both work out the composition more and find some good brush strokes. This morning, I woke up and it went quickly! I thought it’d be fun to mix up my palette a bit and colors I don’t normally use that leaned towards the warm size. As I went, I saw the need to make the cows tan, rather than white to really stand out against the green surrounding and remembered the cows I’d seen around my home. I took a risk, but it seemed to work out well. I thought the cows might need more detail, but then stopped. It’s usually better to have bold, defining strokes than a bunch of strokes searching for a way to say what one careful stroke can do. Fun study! The enjoyment really is in the process of the painting.
I highly recommend John Poon’s Landscapes DVD. He has great organizational skills and presents how to use a busy scene, clarify the focus and work through a four step process. He also works in acrylics, but it’s equally good for oils as well.
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!!
I’m anxious to get back out there now that I’ve sketched the scene and understand it better. Next post? We’ll see.
Painting a commission can be fun without all that pressure. I’ve learned if I take it a step at a time, it leads to a more enjoyable experience for both me and the client, plus a better painting. Hopefully it can help you too. And please add a comment if you have some tips for me and other readers! If you haven’t read the first two steps, I encourage you to do this first(they’re short posts).
I left off with a solid value study, deciding to follow the wisdom of Beirstadt in getting the viewer to move into the background view (thanks Albert — yes, we’re on a first name basis now, ha) with a dark foreground, light background. Now, it’s time to nail down the right colors at the right values. The sketch is still a small scale, rough draft worried mostly about color notes, not perfection.
Before getting into the painting, I’ll give the option of a bench just to see how it’d fit. I’m not so sure it’d add much. This is a perfect time to paint it in, take a pic and ask them!
Color temperature is a big deal with a color sketch. Cool muted colors (blue and green light grays) make up the distance hills, while the foreground has more saturated warm colors (ochre, deep browns, yellow greens).
I’ll wait to see if the client has any changes she’d like to make, but I feel pretty confident about scaling up to 18×24″ now.
I had an hour or two free while visiting relatives in Weimar, TX and sketched an old blue southern home being restored next door. It’s a nice change of pace from studio work on the Appalachian Series. I used acrylics like watercolors or gouache would be used and watercolor pencils were used for the thin lines.
If I’m going to trek 10mi/day and still get in some painting/sketches on the Appalachian Trail, I better get my body and mind set for it. I did this quick sketch on a 8-9mi hike. I had so much fun last time along the Lampasas River, I was looking for the perfect view as I traveled around the lakeside. There were okay views, but nothing seemed to jump out. Around 5 miles in (my turn-around point) I spotted some dewberries! Few things taste as sweet and hit the spot like the dewberry on a hike. I foraged a bit, pulled out a few thin thorns in my fingers and started heading back to the trail head. As I was leaving, I realized that was the moment. It wasn’t a grand view, it was the simple unforeseen gift. I sat back down next to a dewberry vine, which was in the sun against a dark background, and sketched with a pencil until I could see the composition. Out came my ziplock bag of cheap paints, detail brushes and the water mister. About 40 minutes later it felt like I had captured the sweet moment of the day. It really is the simple things!