This was painted yesterday out on location in Zion National Park. Once the trams stop running for the year, I can drive all the way back into the park with all of my equipment. Of course, the temperatures tend to be down in the 40's, but that's plein aire painting for you.
This particular location is at the "Temple of Sinawava" where a shaft of morning light passes between the major rock face and what's called the "Pulpit." There were just a few trees that had the remains of fall color on them, so it was an idea that I jumped on quickly as the lighting can change dramatically in that section of the park. I also added in the touches of snow on the background face to give me that wintery feeling. There was, in fact, no snow at all, but I had been over to Bryce Canyon the week before and they had snow, so I just borrowed some for this painting. Artistic license.
This painting was done almost entirely wet-into-wet, an approach that must be used in cases where drying times tend to be long. Learning to work with a "dry" brush loaded with paint on wet paper is a technique that can be rather touchy at times and as with most watercolor approaches, timing is critical.
A winter moon's glow reflects over a new layer of snow in this 8 inch x 10 inch original painting on wood panel. This image reminds me of the times as kids when we would go sledding until after dark. Then the surreal, magical scene walking home as the sparkling snow was lighting the way.
The painting has been coated with a protective gloss varnish. This art is ready to slip into a ready-made 8" x 10" frame only - no glass is necessary. It is very sturdy as it is painted on a wooden panel.
The finishing touches wrap up this painting. The minor bits of calligraphy help to tie everything together. A simple painting using only three colors (Yellow Ochre, Burnt Umber, and Black), but a lot of fun to do.
After the first wash was dry (above), it's now time to work on the subject.
Phase 2 - Step 1
The first thing to do is to repeat the original sketch, this time using a brush instead of a marker (see previous posts). The idea is to find a brush that will give me the same basic marks at about the right size. I use my 1/2" and 1/4" flats for this, making the exact same marks as in the original marker sketch, but this time using a richer mixture of Burnt Umber. Once the shapes were blocked in, I added a bit of Black to the Umber to make things even darker.
Phase 2 - Step 2
I repeat the process for the background elements (trees and bushes), and do a bit of scraping for the trunks and limbs. All that remains now is the details, the calligraphy which will finish off the descriptions of various items. I'll let the painting dry again, and then get to those after lunch.
Sketching boldly encourages us to paint boldly as well. The above sketch was done from my trip over to the ghost town of Grafton, here in Southern Utah. Now, I'd like to continue the process and make a very bold, graphic painting from this idea.
Pattern - abstract #1
To do this, I'm going to employ the idea of an abstract background, or "start." Above is an example of a vertically oriented abstract pattern, and below is what's called a "Frame-in-frame" background.
Pattern - abstract #2
The idea here is to create and under painting of shapes independent of the actual subject. To give you a preview of the concept, I've overlaid the sketch on top of the above pattern...
Sketch plus pattern
This gives you some idea of what's happening. To begin, I sketch out only the basic shapes on a half sheet of 140lb watercolor paper.
Pencil sketch on paper
No details and I don't want an intricate sketch here. Draw too much and this painting will tighten up way too quickly. I also don't want to use a ton of colors. The temptation is to dip your brush into too many colors. If I pick a color family, say brown for example, I can pick just one or two colors from my palette which will coordinate better. For this example, I'll choose Yellow Ochre and Burnt Umber. A lighter and darker version of brown.
Abstract under painting
I begin by wetting the paper on both sides (or you could soak the sheet). Using my towel, I surface dry the top side. I like to do these on what's called "damp" paper as it gives me control and soft edges at the same time. Starting with Yellow Ochre, I quickly block in the basic pattern, keeping an eye on the areas that I need to reserve as light shapes. I do allow the colors to bleed and cross through the pencil lines. Painting up to a line and stopping is what tightens up a painting, and I want to stay as loose as possible for as long as possible. BTW, I'm using a 3" wide flat brush to begin with. Switching to Burnt Umber, I start to lay in that color, working darker and darker in value as I go along. I also drop down to a 1.5" flat and then a 1" flat as I push the color.
Notice, I don't try to blend strokes out. I leave the brush mark. This is important as it gives life and movement to the background. Once the dark Umber is in, I go back in with some drier Ocher to push that color a bit more. Finally, I splatter with some Umber and plain clear water to give the piece some texture. That's it. Done. Time spent is about ten minutes. This has to dry before I can continue.
If you begin a painting boldly and with a bit of bravado, your work will stay away from those weak, wimpy watercolors so prevalent these days.
Previously, I talked about being bold when sketching (see previous posts). This concept begins with an understanding that although we might draw using line, we paint using shape and tone (value). What often happens is that we draw or sketch using a pencil and that gives us just an outline.
For some of us, this might be a quick field sketch and it certainly describes the buildings after a fashion. This method of drawing is usually the first method that we learn as we "wrap" a line around the shapes. The problem is that a line is a fiction and doesn't actually exist. We don't paint lines, we paint shapes that have tonal value (along with color and texture). With the above sketch, I would have to go back in and define the shade and shadow planes (more work), and most likely get into trouble later on while painting.
There is a better way...
Shape / Value Sketch
Above is what's called a "Shape / Value" tonal sketch. Same subject, but vastly different results. By drawing with blocks of tone (here using a chisel tip marker), I've set the stage for both shape and lighting by describing the buildings as they are perceived in light, shade, and cast shadow. I also have the opportunity to "checker board" the sketch creating an alternation of value across the piece. Notice that here I've described the planes rather than just the form outline.
All that remains to complete this sketch are a few notations about texture (the clapboards). This type of sketch more accurately describes the subject and most importantly, follows the exact same procedure that I will use to paint this subject. The marks that I made with the marker can be directly duplicated using a brush, something that can't be done from the simple line sketch.
Comparing the two types of sketches will show you not only the differences between methods, but which approach would be better for us to use as painters. I hope that you'll give this a try the next time that you're out on location sketching.
Here is the finished painting from today's class. I began this on a trip out to the ghost town of Grafton, UT, and completed the painting during a live demo. Once again, be bold in your use of color and design. This is more about how the location "feels" than it is about historical or pictorial accuracy.
If I want things as they are, I'll take a photo. However, if I want an expressive painting, then I have to take risks and push the boundaries a bit.
The one thing that I don't see enough of from students? Sketches! Unfortunately, the camera has somehow replaced the art of the sketch, and to our detriment. Don't get me wrong, I love photography as an art form, but as the basis for painting, no way. I prefer the old fashioned sketch, and definitely something done with a bit of bravado.
The issue with using photography (and I can tell which paintings are done from "traced" photos), is that it doesn't build any skills. You don't learn to draw or sketch from tracing a photo. This lack of ability shows its ugly head when out on location, where students don't have the capability to download, print, and then trace. No, when you are out in the field, you have to be able to draw and sketch or you go home empty handed. Which is why many "so called" artists don't work outdoors.
Tip: you want to know who in your group is a real artist? Take them outside and have them do all of the work there, where cameras are completely useless. You'll find out quickly who has the goods, and who doesn't.
Yesterday, I took a student out to the ghost town of Grafton here in southern Utah. It's the place where they shot part of the movie, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." I did a number of sketches to explain certain principles of abstraction, so it was a working day for me. I kept nothing, electing to give the sketching examples to my student. Since I have to continue the class today, I needed something to paint, so when I arrived home I dashed this quick sketch off in a few minutes before dinner.
I tend to sketch boldly, using markers most of the time. I grabbed a large, chisel tip Sharpie and went to town - Grafton. The idea was to use the old church/school house building and another structure in a more abstract way. We have several local artists who paint this scene realistically, so I want to avoid just another mundane duplication of facts in evidence and create something unique. I wanted to keep the flavor of my current paintings, so I blocked in the basic idea with a few, sure strokes of the marker.
Now, using marker can be a scary thing. There's no erasing. That mark you make is permanent, but that's the point. If you are painting in watercolor, you have to have a certain boldness in your approach otherwise your watercolors will come out weak and wimpy looking (and we already have plenty of that going around). Using a big marker will teach you to make marks that are expressive and bold, the same attitude that you need when holding a brush.
The point is, get into the sketching habit, ditch the camera, and be bold when you go outside to work.
I thought you might like to see what a quick draw event looks like...
Essentially, everyone begins with a blank canvas, or in my case a blank sheet of watercolor paper. That's me on the left in the green shirt and "Boony" hat. The artists (all juried into the event), are gathered together and given a specific amount of time to complete a painting (in this case 90 minutes), and then frame their pieces for an immediate auction.
Here I am, about 30 minutes into the painting. At this point I had everything blocked in and I'm working to define the various elements in the design.
Things can get a bit tense when you are painting under the clock. My hand was certainly not the most steady at times. One trick I have when trying to do precision lines is to use various pieces of cut mat board to "stamp" in a line rather than by using a small brush to draw or paint in a line.
This was probably taken right about the time I was putting the final touches on the painting at around the 1 hour mark. Even though I had an additional 30 minutes, the real trick is in knowing when a painting is finished. I don't want to over work the piece and the temptation is to continue working.
After a few minutes of contemplation, I decide the painting is done and sign it. Total time from blank sheet to finished painting was almost exactly 1 hour. Time to get some kettle corn.
The painting was framed and then went to auction and sold for $450, half of which goes to charity. It was a fun event to participate in. You can see the finished painting in my previous post.
One thing that is often overlooked is the amount of preparation and planning that goes into a painting. I will be participating in a quick draw event this weekend and I'll only have 90 minutes to create a painting from a blank sheet of paper (I'll be working on a half sheet at 15" x 22"). In order to accomplish this feat, I need to have my design all set and ready to transfer and then execute on location, en plein aire.
I just returned from a trip to Sedona, AZ, so I have a few ideas that I sketched out on location in and around that area. One of them is the sketch above. A quick 5 minute charcoal sketch, it's close to what I want, but it needs some additional work if it is to be used for this upcoming event.
The first thing that I want to do is take the idea and redraw it using pencil rather than charcoal. In the process, I make a few changes to the design, but I'm not overly happy with the cacti.
Taking the pencil sketch to the light table, I rework the design, substituting a windmill for the large cactus and making a few other design changes. I'm playing around with the shapes, pitting the rounds against the rectangular. A painting isn't so much about the subject as it is about the shapes within the design and how they interact with each other.
I like the new version, so I overlay a new sheet of paper and do a clean sketch using marker. A mistake made by beginners is to try to create a complete design using only a single sheet of paper. When I work, I might use between 10 to 20 sheets of paper, overlaying sheets, and re-drawing elements as necessary.
The advantage to this approach is that if you get off track, you only need to return to a previous layer and then pick up and go in another direction. You might use more paper this way, but you save time as you don't have to begin another drawing from scratch. You can also interject new elements into the design at any time without having to re-draw the entire piece. This requires a light table, an essential item in my professional opinion, and something that any artist can build in an afternoon with a few simple tools. My own portable light table cost less than $30 to make, a big savings from the commercially manufactured ones that cost quite a bit more.
My last step is to do a quick value study. By scanning the marker sketch into my computer, I can print out copies to play with. I return to using charcoal and stroke in a few tones using the wide pieces that I have for this purpose (see previous post). This painting will follow in the theme of my last posting on this blog (see post of Sept. 21st).
This completes the design, but I have one more detail to deal with before this weekend, I have to enlarge the sketch up to the full size of 14" x 21", and then transfer it to my sheet of watercolor paper. The rules of a quick draw event usually prevent me from doing this ahead of time (you must start on a totally blank sheet of paper or canvas). Generally, your blank paper or canvas is checked and then signed off by a judge before the event. This means that I need to have a way to transfer my sketch (#4), to my paper on site. I could just draw this again freehand, but I have a better way. I enlarge the sketch up to full size and tape it to a clear sheet of Plexiglas that I use sometimes for painting. Then, by taping my blank sheet of watercolor paper over this sketch and holding it up to the light, I create a light table that requires no power source other than the sun. Even on an overcast day there is enough light to trace from. With my design and my enlarged version all ready to go, I'm now prepared for the quick draw event.
It takes a bit of planning, but if you fail to plan, then you are planning to fail. I can now paint at the event without much worry - except for the 90 minute time limit of course, and the uncertain weather conditions, and the other things that can go wrong while painting on location.