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! 

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Madrone Trail (Canyon Lake Park): Plein Air Painting

Old tree just off the Madrone Trail by the lake side. 6x8ish. Acrylic on paper
Old tree just off the Madrone Trail by the lake side. 6x8ish. Acrylic on paper

What started off as a cold Saturday, turned out perfect with the warm sun shining through the clouds.  I got back out to Canyon Lake to find a scene on the Madrone Trail. This 8-9mile loop is on a long peninsula with some amazing views of the clear, cerulean blue lake. In the first mile, I found a side trail leading to the lakeside and found this old, gnarly tree. At first I dismissed it, but after looking at it for some time, I realized it was a perfect study in values and edges. The shadows and sunlit sides of the trees really stood out from the background shoreline and surrounding soft grasses. When I looked even closer I thought of something my friend Russell Cushman said about seeing color in the shadows. I could see all the colors in the shadows lit up from the golden grasses beneath it shifting the otherwise cool shadows with areas of warmth.  While painting it, I wanted to feel the dramatic gesture of the posing tree and took time to get the paint just right for a single, bold brushstrokes following the twists and turns. It was amazing how the brushstrokes seemed to come to life. In doing this, I began to see the tree in front of me as brushstrokes. Heavy gobs of paint strokes, light and dry strokes, delicate lines… it made sense.  For a random old, dead tree, it sure had plenty left to say and lessons to teach. I was lucky to see it. When you get out next time, look at all the colors in the shadows and how the ground around it paints it with warm light.  It’ll transform the “mundane” into “beautiful”. (Thanks Russell!)

Here’s the reference photo of the area:

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Artists Chat:

Titanium White, Ultramarine blue, Napthol Crimson (any orange-red will do), Cad Yellow Medium. After the initial sketch, I covered it with clear matte gel to prevent the paper sucking up all my paint as I laid down brushstrokes. (Thanks, John Poon!). I found my darkest area and lightest area where my focal point was on the tree and gauged all the other values from that. I quickly blocked in the sky, background, and foreground grasses around the tree sketch, just barely going over the edge of the sketch (~15 min). I then spend a lot of time really looking at the tree and thinking of getting the most out of the fewest brushstrokes and spent about three hours just on the tree. Really take notice of the warm and cool grays in the shadows. The last hour, I laid in detail on the grasses, keeping the edges soft and occasionally adding that color some place on the tree for color harmony. Lastly, I added some rock to the foreground to draw the eye into the painting towards the tree, keeping the rock somewhat muted to keep it from being a distraction.