Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Value and color study of a park scene

study of park scene Jun 10 2019
Color study, 5x7 oil on primed paper

I've been watching some new painting instruction videos with different demonstrations on ways to start paintings. I feel like I have a good handle on monochromatic tonal underpaintings and wanted to explore the simple color shapes approach.

I started by making a series of thumbnails to sort out the composition and values. If you're familiar with Edgar Payne's Composition of Outdoor Paintings, you can see how mine is a blend of steelyard and three spot. Then I used black, white, and grey paints to make a monochromatic value study to see how things would look on my panel. 

value study of park scene Jun 10 2019
Value study using oil paints in black, white, and greys


After finishing the black and white study, I was curious to see how it would look as a notan. I took a photo and adjusted the contrast to two values. I mostly liked what I saw, except now that I look at it again, I can see a few shapes that are the same size. My lesson here is to be willing to make changes if needed! I was pretty much in the mindset to keep moving forward, so even if I had noticed the mimicked shapes before moving on to color, I likely wouldn't have made adjustments.

value study of park scene Jun 10 2019-notan conversion
High-contrast value study to see balance of light and dark

For my color study, I didn't premix any colors, and worked with thinned paint for the initial block-in. This felt very different to me compared to the tonal underpainting style — looser and more exploratory. I'm not sure how it would feel if I didn't have the value study sitting right next to it for reference though.

It's been a few days since I was able to paint, so I really enjoyed getting this time at my easel in. Plus I got a new white glass palette to try to combat my overly dark and dull color mixes, and it was super fun putting the little blobs of paint around the perimeter of the clean, bright palette. We'll see if it's a good fit moving forward, but today it certainly brought me a lot of joy.

I'm not sure how much I like the highlights on the tree trunks in the distant trees. Thinner and darker marks would be better. I definitely don't like how one of them lines up perfectly with the shrub on the right. And I did the same thing above the shrub on the left… wow you have to watch that sort of thing like a hawk!

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Shadow shape study in front yard

plein air painting in front yard Jun 4 2019
Plein air study of shadow shapes, 6x8 oil on canvas panel
I didn't have plans to paint outdoors today, but when I took the dogs out after their breakfast I was blown away by the beautiful weather. I was very tempted to set my easel up outside to find something to paint, but there's always an accident to clean up when I leave them alone. I say "accident" but it feels more like revenge. In any case, I remembered something I heard from Matt Smith the other day (either in a podcast or one of his video courses I recently purchased) about listing his excuses to not get outside with his paints, and knocking them out one by one. It inspired me to get out there, even though I was certain I'd have to clean the floor when I got back inside.

Which I did. But it was totally worth it. It was perfect outside — not too warm, not too cold, and the sun was out, making a strong shadow pattern on the sidewalk. Since this shape established the structure of my composition, I quickly sketched out a thumbnail of it before it moved too much as the sun got higher in the sky.

Quick sketch of light and shadow shapes

I used a limited palette of ultramarine blue, naphthol red, cadmium yellow pale hue, and titanium white. A neutral grey would have been useful to lower the chroma of some of the colors, but I didn't bring one out with me. Plus it's kind of fun to see the vibrancy of the colors I mixed compared to the dullness of the photo I snapped as I was selecting my scene.

The view I used for my study

I started by blocking in thin layers of the average color of each shape, then went in with details and thicker paint strokes. There were patches of warmer and cooler colors on the sidewalk that I had fun playing around with because they added interest to those flat planes. And using the average local color block-in has been a nice change of pace from the monochromatic earth tone or complementary color style underpaintings I've been experimenting with lately. 

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Plein air mini challenge with soft pastel

plein air pastels collage
The order I painted these: top left, top right, bottom left, bottom right

My main goal with buying a few soft pastel supplies was to get outdoors to paint more. Ultimately I want to be painting more outdoors in oils, but the setup is more involved than soft pastels and there's not always time for that level of time commitment.

I put together a kit that fits in a relatively small messenger bag that includes a small set of soft pastels, some hard pastels, precut 5x7 Canson Mi-Teintes papers, a backing board to clip the papers to, and various supplies for sketching and cleanup.

When I got myself outside to do a few studies in our yard, being new to soft pastels was actually working in my favor. I didn't have expectations that they would turn out well, just that I wanted to get more comfortable with the process of making a thumbnail, putting the drawing on paper, and the general process of painting in the shapes of lights and darks. My limited palette of colors and the moving sun meant that I wouldn't have time to match my colors to what I was seeing, so instead I could focus on values and temperature.

This mini challenge (based on one Karen Margulis mentions on her Patreon page) was about choosing simple subjects in my own yard. As she puts it: poems, not novels. It was exciting to see the nuances in the shadows, the reflected light, the dark accents…and putting in those marks of direct sunlight really make them come alive for me.

My two favorites are the rock and the tree trunks. I love the warms and cools on the rock, and the dark accents that give it dimension. My favorite moment was adding the shadow on the lower left that grounded it nicely.

Soft pastels on Canson Mi-Teintes Moonstone paper

On the tree trunks, I enjoyed seeing how the trees on the left were bouncing light back into the tree on the right. And how the evening sun was dappled on the trunks, causing spots of high contrast.

Soft pastels on Canson Mi-Teintes Steel Grey paper
Having this kit is a good step toward doing more plein air painting. Now I just need to shuffle it aside in my crowd of art supplies!

Monday, June 3, 2019

Painting at Historic Yates Mill County Park

plein air painting scene at Historic Yates Mill County Park Jun 2 2019
Painting my view of the pond and trees at Yates Mill County Park

After moving to North Carolina (it was a year ago this weekend!), I joined the North Carolina Plein Air Painters group. Every once in awhile there's a casual paint out organized in the Raleigh area. Last September I attended one of the meetups, where I did my first plein air painting. The other day when I checked in on the events calendar I was excited to see there was a paint out scheduled at Historic Yates Mill County Park. This was a location on my list of places to paint, and luckily my Sunday was open, so I made the commitment to attend. Being an introvert, the temptation to skip it when the time comes is strong…but I got myself out there and enjoyed it so much.

The surface of the water changed often due to a gentle breeze across the top, making it look either almost white or a perfect reflection of the treelines.

I had a whole plan in mind for what procedure I would follow for my painting. Which quickly went astray after I began applying color. It started well — I made a value thumbnail to establish my shapes, and used that thumbnail as my reference for drawing on the canvas. After drawing it in with thinned burnt umber, I scrubbed in the shadows of the tree masses with thinned paint, trying to match the average colors I saw in the landscape. I wanted to see if I could get more luminosity by skipping the monochromatic underpainting to establish values and going straight to a block-in with average colors.

My intention had been to be very methodical, blocking in the shadows and then going back to block in the halftones and light areas. My thought was that this would give me an idea of the relationships between all of the colors, values, and shapes. But I quickly got hung up working on the trees, fussing around with their shapes instead of moving all around the canvas. It was much more overwhelming to be out there in nature painting than I anticipated in my head! Thankfully I had at least found a good spot in the shade, and there were very few bugs bothering me.

For my palette, I used ultramarine blue, burnt umber, transparent red earth, naphthol red, yellow ochre light, Winsor lemon, and titanium white. I didn't pre-mix any colors on my palette. I wanted to make continual mixes as I went along in order to vary my colors more and be more responsive to making adjustments. I'm finding that when I pre-mix, I get pretty dedicated to using those mixes rather than adjusting them to better suit the painting.

I didn't end up using the burnt umber, transparent earth red, or yellow ochre light very much. It was simpler to just use the red, blue, and yellow. I'm sure if I do more color mixing exercises in the studio it will make it easier to incorporate some of these colors for convenience.

There are elements I really like about my painting, like the bright green lily pads along the shoreline, the distant bridge, the warm and cool colors in the water, and the fact that I didn't overwhelm it with big lifeless dark areas (something I've been struggling with in the studio)

A few things I could be working on to make progress on the outdoor painting front:

  • Do timed paintings in the studio. I was very aware of the idea that the light changes fast outdoors, changing the light and shadow shapes. This awareness distracted me and made me feel a sense of urgency. I want to quiet that rushed feeling.
  • Get more practice by doing outdoor painting exercises. Things like monochromatic value studies, making color notes, and establishing light and shadow would be useful. The key will be to remember that they're not meant to be anything like finished paintings.
  • Make a checklist to stick on my pochade box to remind me what steps I want to follow. This could change each time, but if I at least have it there as something to guide me it would make me feel less overwhelmed.
  • Spend some time outdoors just studying the landscape, writing observations of what I'm seeing without drawing or painting anything — sort of like a mock plein air painting. I noticed that I rushed right into getting started without really understanding the scene I was looking at. Learning to look at the scene critically and connect with what I see would help the process be more enjoyable.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Wrap-up of 30 Days of Value Thumbnails challenge

30 Days of Value Thumbnails
Studying value structures and composition with simple shapes, mostly from photos but a few plein air in the mix

My 30-day Value Thumbnail challenge is complete! I've loved this project for so many reasons.
  1. Developing the habit of doing thumbnails to quickly see the strengths and weaknesses of the composition
  2. Great practice for breaking a complex subject down into simple shapes
  3. Got me more comfortable making decisions on the value structure of a landscape scene
  4. Gave me experience with troublesome or tricky value structures
  5. Taught me more about creating depth and atmosphere in a landscape
  6. Helped me appreciate the importance of the underlying shapes, values, and color relationships over brushwork, details, and color matching
  7. Lots of experimentation with the temperature of the light and underpainting colors

In general, it helped push me to try many different things much more quickly than if I had planned out full paintings.

30 Days of Value Thumbnails - mini color studies
Exploring color and atmosphere in little 3x4-inch painted studies

I also incorporated some plein air value thumbnails into the mix which I'm really excited about. Painting outdoors is something I want to do more of, but the mental blocks I have about it have held me back. I'm very grateful for Karen Margulis and all of the resources and training she provides on Patreon. Even though her primary medium is pastel, her approach to daily painting has been key for me: start with a plan (decide the why, create value thumbnails and good composition, select colors), then loosen up and have fun. I adapted this value thumbnails challenge from a combination of a few of her weekly challenges. She's excellent at making things that feel overwhelming and complex much simpler and achievable.

The project helped uncover some areas I'd like to work on developing:
  • getting the values of the dark shapes the way I want them (typically the upright planes like trees in landscape painting) when mixing paint colors
  • how to choose underpainting colors that support the mood of the painting
  • lightening colors without dulling them down
  • accurately reading the values of the colors I mix on my palette
  • mixing greens and choosing colors to use with them for harmony, interest, and atmosphere
I'm in the middle of the plein air challenge I started a couple of weeks ago, and hopefully I can be incorporating some of these other topics and working on some completed paintings as well.

Friday, May 31, 2019

30 Days of Value Thumbnails - Day 30

mini painting color study clouds and trees in the park May 28 2019
Mini color study, "Long Stretch", 3x4 oil on paper

I liked how the fluffy clouds stretched all the way across this view, combined with the simple shapes of the tree masses and grassy areas. As I painted them into my color study, I realized they were shaped quite a bit like snow-capped mountains.

One of my goals with this scene was to experiment with color mixing to get richer, more intense lights on the grass in the foreground. Sometimes my mixes get cooler and duller than I aim for and I wanted to try pushing it a bit. My eyes definitely play tricks on me when it comes to reading color intensity and value.

I'd change a few things if I worked with this scene again. One would be to decide if it's about the sky or about the land because currently it's basically cut in half across the middle, which I don't like. Another would be to create a greater value difference between the near trees and the distant trees, and take another look at the temperature of the near tree mass.

But overall there's a lot I like about this mini study! It's a scene I could definitely see playing around with it more and creating other variations.

Block-in using ultramarine blue, ultramarine violet, and transparent earth red on toned surface
Reference photo of a local park with early evening clouds
Value thumbnail of simple shapes
Black and white value check of my color study

Thursday, May 30, 2019

30 Days of Value Thumbnails - Day 29

mini painting color study grasses and trees in the park May 27 2019
Mini color study, "Soft and Fluffy", 3x4 oil on paper

I'm obsessed with mixing summer greens so I chose another photo from my pile that features trees and grasses. I also wanted to continue experimenting with cast shadows — making them more interesting and nuanced than a solid color, and making the color more intense where the shadow and light areas meet.

For my block-in colors, I incorporated burnt umber and ended up with some violet-brown mixes that I really like. It helps bring some warmth to the predominantly cool temperature of the study.

To create color harmony, I started by mixing few main color puddles and modified their value, temperature, and intensity based on their location around the composition. My main mixes included green, yellow-green, blue, and red-violet.

Block-in using burnt umber, alizarin permanent, ultramarine blue, and transparent earth red

Reference photo from a nearby park

Value thumbnail of simple shapes

Black and white value check of my color study

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

30 Days of Value Thumbnails - Day 28

mini painting color study evening sun on roadside trees May 26 2019
Mini color study, "Last Glimpse of the Sun", 3x4 oil on paper

Many of the country roads here in NC are thickly lined with trees, and always tempt me to pull over and take pictures when I'm out and about. But it's often hard to find a good spot to pull over. One evening I was on my way home and the sun was setting, illuminating the sides of some trees and part of the gravel road with bright, warm light. Lucky for me there was an ideal place to park and jump out for a few shots. I only got a couple of them taken before the sun went behind the trees and the light became much less interesting.

For my block-in colors, I thought about the primary value and temperature of each simple shape. It's starting to sink in that one of the benefits of a block-in is to have some color on the surface to respond to. I noticed that when I applied the first dark greens to the trees on the left, it looked relatively appropriate. But when I did the same thing with the tree on the right, the color was much too light. Which makes sense — the main tree mass on the left was blocked in lighter than I intended. (One of my big struggles with trees is that I swing back and forth between being too dark and too light.)

But I really like how the tree forms are modeled, so that feels like a win! The greens get more intense and slightly lighter as they get hit by more light, and I feel like they have a good sense of being in direct sun without losing the overall shape or getting disjointed.

Block-in using transparent earth red, ultramarine blue, alizarin permanent, and Winsor Lemon

I love the composition of this thumbnail and the mix of shapes — it would be a good candidate for turning into a larger painting.

Reference photo taken on the way home one evening as the sun was setting behind the trees

Value thumbnails of simple shapes

Black and white value check of my color study

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

30 Days of Value Thumbnails - Day 27

mini painting color study structure in the park May 25 2019
Mini color study, "Sun Seeker", 3x4 oil on paper

At the park where I took photos recently, there's a farm building from when the land was used for farming. I liked the way it was peeking out from behind this large tree, like it was trying to find the sun.

With this subject, I wanted to play with the colors in the shadows being cast in the foreground area. Instead of just plain dark, cool green, I used several colors of the same value including a cool grey, red-violet, and green. And at the edge of the shadow, where the light starts to hit it, I used a more intense green in a value between the grass and shadow shapes. Things got rather muddied up because I kept making adjustments to my colors, but I see the potential for some interesting things there.

I also thought more about color harmony, and how to unify the colors by using the same hues throughout the painting and adjusting their value, temperature, and intensity based on their location. So I mixed starter piles of blue, green, red-orange, and red-violet and tried to intermix with those piles rather than making all new mixes when I needed a different color.

Block-in using transparent earth red, ultramarine blue, and alizarin permanent

After getting my colors blocked in, I didn't like how there was a big open space right in the middle so I added another small tree on the left. It helped it a little, but this composition could use some additional exploration if I made a larger painting of it.


Monday, May 27, 2019

30 Days of Value Thumbnails - Day 26

mini painting color study roadside grasses and trees May 24 2019
Mini color study, "Just Passing Through", 3x4 oil on paper

I was driving home one evening and noticed strong low-sun light making these trees and grasses glow with warm colors. And the effect was heightened by some clouds that were passing through, but didn't drop any rain on us. I love the contrast between the warm light and cool clouds.

Before mixing up my colors, I blocked in the trees and grasses with a combination of transparent earth red and alizarin permanent, following my value thumbnail. I like how this warm underpainting color helped harmonize everything.

Photo reference taken by some roadside grasses and trees with evening light and a hint of dark clouds
Value thumbnail of simple shapes
Black and white value check of my color study

Sunday, May 26, 2019

30 Days of Value Thumbnails - Day 25

mini painting color study tree in the park May 23 2019
Mini color study, "Golden Light on the Meadow", 3x4 oil on paper

My main focus with today's mini color study was to incorporate violets and mauves with the greens in the landscape. And building off of yesterday's success with the tree underpainting, I wanted to experiment with a more colorful block-in. Since the main tree was in shadow, I used a cool green color for the underpainting, and a red-violet in the shadow area of the foreground.

Colorful block-in

But I really missed the warmth that the transparent earth red added to the tree. This cool green wasn't as interesting with the other colors in the tree, since it basically blended in and didn't add any contrast. A red-violet or burgundy might be good options to try. The red-violet peeking out from the lower portion is much more interesting to me. And during my searching around for a good sunlight-on-the-grasses color, I obliterated the red underpainting there.

One of my favorite things about exploring soft pastels is how pastelists seem to get much more adventurous with their block-ins/underpaintings. I'm not sure why that would be — perhaps there's a big reason oil painters do it differently that I just haven't discovered yet. It sure is a fun topic to play with though!

Reference photo from a local park
Value thumbnail of simple shapes
Black and white value check of my color study