Saturday, August 17, 2019

Limited palette color study

limited palette study Aug 16 2019
"Early Summer Serenity", 8x10.5, oil on canvas panel

After a couple of weeks away from my easel, I was itching to get some painting in today. I've been doing more sketching and working on engaging my right brain during the process, which makes me enjoy it much more. My favorite way to sketch these days is gesture drawing because I approach them in a much more loose and carefree way.

Yesterday I pulled a photo of a local park out of my reference photo stack and did a quick sketch of it in two values. The foreground wasn't very interesting, so I experimented with adding a vanishing point on the horizon line at my focal point and made diagonal lines radiating from it. I added some interest along those lines to help guide the eye into the painting and activate the boring foreground. The sketch was the basis for this limited palette color study.

I used one of the 12x16 acrylic primed canvas panels from Jerry's Artarama, first dividing it in half and applying a ground of raw umber and titanium white acrylic paint in a medium-light value. For a square tetrad color palette of yellow-orange/blue-violet and red/green, I chose:

  • cadmium yellow (this Holbein color is close to a cad yellow medium on my palette)
  • alizarin permanent
  • winsor violet dioxazine
  • viridian hue
  • Utrecht White
To draw my shapes onto the canvas, I used a mix of red, green, yellow, and white to make a warmish grey. That didn't work very well though because the white got into the first colors I put down, which were in the shadow family. So those colors became too light and chalky. Next time I'd just use a thin version of a mix without white. 

After I got everything blocked in, I realized the canvas was split straight across. This is how my reference photo was, but it didn't look good. I added a small bush in the middle ground to break up the line between the grasses and the trees, but the shape of it isn't great. The grasses are longer than that area would indicate, and it feels like it's floating on top of them rather than growing up out of them. 

I had fun painting the foreground grasses, exploring contrasts of temperature and intensity. Although it was challenging to invent the mauve path of wildflowers because I wasn't using any reference images for that area. Not sure how well it reads to a viewer. 

I'm happy with the color harmony in this one. And it was so cool to be able to mix a good blue for the sky from viridian hue and dioxazine violet. I wasn't sure if I'd be able to get away with no blue on the palette for a landscape study, but it worked!

Friday, August 2, 2019

Limited palette color mixing study

limited palette color mixing study Aug 1 2019
Limited palette color study, 5 1/2 x 7, oil on canvas

A couple of months ago I purchased one of Barbara Jaenicke's excellent monthly lessons that was about color mixing for oils. It also included color palette selection for soft pastels which was great because I could see her thought process on both mediums as well as a demo from start to finish to see how her process differs between oils and pastels.

Purchasing the lesson includes an opportunity to submit a painting to her for personalized feedback. And I was really impressed with the thought and care she put into her comments about the painting I completed for the lesson! It was very thorough and covered things I did well, plus areas to improve. She obviously put a good amount of consideration into her remarks which I totally appreciated.

After getting this feedback, I did another version of the painting, both to incorporate her notes and to continue practicing my study of chroma. I've been learning a lot about how to control the saturation of colors better, and in my initial painting the colors were much heavier feeling than I wanted. Barbara helped me see that balancing the local colors of elements with the effect of sunlight on them, as well as adjusting chroma, would help bring more luminosity to the painting.

For this study, instead of a split primary style palette I used a limited palette of double complementary pairs (orange/blue, yellow-green/red-violet), along with cadmium yellow light for lightening the sap green and adding more of the sunlight effect:
  • transparent earth red
  • ultramarine blue
  • sap green
  • quinacridone violet
  • cadmium yellow light

I toned the canvas with mix of ultramarine blue and transparent earth red, and did a monochromatic underpainting with these same colors. I like that the neutral mixed from these colors allows me to have a value roadmap without overly influencing the color temperature. Lately I'm preferring something closer to a warm grey over cool violets or red-orange tones.

Left to right: mini color study from May, color mixing assignment from June, and limited palette study from today

I painted this same scene as a mini color study for day 24 of my 30 Days of Value Thumbnails project. So it's fun to see how my interpretation of it changes as I learn and explore. By doing multiple studies of the same subject, it's helping me see how the color temperature influences the quality of the light. For example, when I pulled back all the way on the warm reds and oranges (in the almost-finished stage below), it looked like a totally different time of day — more like mid-day instead of evening. Adding more warmth to the tree and adjusting the cast shadow made a huge difference.

Before adding the warm reds and oranges 

Another thing I tried this time was to stop looking at the reference photo for the final 15% or so. I looked instead to see what the painting needed to make it feel right to me instead of just trying to imitate the photo. Which isn't accurate color information anyway.

I enjoyed using this palette, and I do think it helped with color harmony. I especially like that I was able to gain some control over chroma with it!

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Day 20 of notans

Yellowstone National Park Waterfall
Notan sketches of a waterfall, Yellowstone National park

With this set of notan sketches, my focused practice project is complete! It feels good to have created 100 of them and to feel energized by it, not burned out on them. Having the 3-minute time limit definitely helped with that. Without it I would have certainly fussed around for a long time — not that spending more time on them wouldn't be useful. With more time, I could make them better, increasing the potential for making better paintings with them.

My original goal with this project was to design better notans for landscape paintings. I wanted to:
  1. design pleasing and interesting patterns
  2. make a variety of shapes with no two intervals the same
  3. create dark/light harmony to provide a solid structure for contrasting elements in my paintings
What I found was that the 3-minute timer went off before I could really make great notans that follow these three principles. But the cool thing was that I found a greater appreciation for the process of exploring different formats and compositions.

By quickly running through several options with one reference, I could eliminate some directions as uninteresting and focus on those that looked like they had the most potential. One of the things that trips me up when it comes to creating a painting is that I could do anything under the sun and that's just too many options! Having several quick studies to compare to each other provides context and makes me feel more confident about any one direction than if I hadn't taken the time to explore. (This is a lesson I've learned a thousand times since college. It gets overwritten by my desire to jump in and get started with the fun stuff.)

So while I can't really say my notan-making skills are solid at this point, I'm confident they'll get there eventually. The big win from this project was discovering a process for incorporating them into the preparation stage of painting, which is super exciting.


Focused practice project parameters: complete 100 landscape notans. 3 minutes per notan, 5 notans per session, 20 sessions to reach 100.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Day 19 of notans

Notan_Studies_Jul_26_2019
Notan sketches of Schwabacher Landing, Grand Teton National Park

For today's notan sketches I revisited a setting I loved at Grand Teton National Park. Schwabacher Landing has everything: water, views of the mountains, trees, meadow. And beavers if you're lucky enough to spot them. I had used this same photo as reference for the first day of my value thumbnails challenge back in May.

I explored the reflections of the trees and mountains on the glass-like surface of the water, but I don't really care for the symmetry created by the reflection. At least not as the main focal point of the composition. Balancing small spots of dark with the large dark shapes on the right and bottom made the shapes more interesting and harmonious.


Focused practice project parameters: complete 100 landscape notans. 3 minutes per notan, 5 notans per session, 20 sessions to reach 100.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Day 18 of notans

Notan_Studies_Jul_25_2019
Notan sketches of a pond and trees

I'm working on a study for my online course with Matt Smith — or put another way, I'm overthinking and over preparing for the study. Today's notan sketches remind me to work from large and abstract to smaller and detailed. When I look at these sketches they don't really look like "things", which is exciting because it's allowing me to look for the dark/light harmony more. Quieting the left side of my brain that wants to label things is definitely an ongoing practice! Getting back into gesture sketches would help, and I think continuing to include notan sketches in my painting process will help.

With only a few more days of this focused practice project left, I'm starting to think about how to incorporate notans into my workflow. I'm really enjoy how simple it is to make them on the iPad with Procreate! And using a timer prevents me from getting fixated on one solution before exploring others which I like.


Focused practice project parameters: complete 100 landscape notans. 3 minutes per notan, 5 notans per session, 20 sessions to reach 100.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Day 17 of notans

Notan_Studies_Jul_24_2019
Notan study of trees along the edge of a field

I had taken the photo that these notan sketches are based on one evening earlier this summer, when dark clouds were starting to roll in and create drama with the sky and light on the trees and field. There were intense orange- and yellow-greens from the evening sunlight, and with the purplish-grey of the sky it was a really interesting color combination. I played up the darkness of the sky in some of these to accent that edge between the sunlight trees and relatively dark sky.

This one would make a great study in creating color harmony with a palette made of split complements yellow-green/red-violet and yellow-orange/blue violet.


Focused practice project parameters: complete 100 landscape notans. 3 minutes per notan, 5 notans per session, 20 sessions to reach 100.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Day 16 of notans

Notan_Studies_Jul_23_2019
Notan sketches of trees in the park

I'm interested in the challenge of making a grouping of trees into an interesting pattern of light and dark shapes. So for this set of notans I explored enhancing the diagonal paths that I saw suggested in the photo. There's also a nice rhythm of the tree shapes moving into the distance that I like. This scene would make a great study in subtle shifts of color intensity and temperature since the subject itself isn't super dynamic.


Focused practice project parameters: complete 100 landscape notans. 3 minutes per notan, 5 notans per session, 20 sessions to reach 100.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Day 15 of notans

Notan_Studies_Jul_22_2019
Notan sketches of a farm structure at a local park

The late afternoon sun was creating some interesting shadows in this scene that I thought would work well for a notan study. I like the combination of structured form (the building) and organic form (the trees), along with the linear perspective lines of the shadows raking across the foreground. It was fun to play with the scale and placement of the structure — if I were doing these sketches on-site instead of from a photo I'd have even more information at my disposal for the placement and surrounding elements.


Focused practice project parameters: complete 100 landscape notans. 3 minutes per notan, 5 notans per session, 20 sessions to reach 100.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Day 14 of notans

Notan_Studies_Jul_21_2019
Notan sketches of a grouping of trees

I was curious to see what would happen if I chose a reference photo with overhanging tree branches in the foreground. I like how it activates the sky area, but I'm not sure whether it would actually read as foreground leaves in a painting. Another option would be to turn those shapes in the sky to clouds and blue sky.

I love how doing these notan explorations is helping me see the potential for completely changing elements into something that will make a stronger composition. I find it more difficult to make that leap when looking at photographic reference. But by removing the color and focusing on simplified shapes, it makes it easier to imagine other ideas in place of the specific subject in front of me.


Focused practice project parameters: complete 100 landscape notans. 3 minutes per notan, 5 notans per session, 20 sessions to reach 100.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Peaceful plein air morning

landscape study - plein air at Falls Lake Jul 21 2019
Fishing spot at Falls Lake

Despite a rocky start (forgetting my brushes and struggling to map the values and shapes of this scene) I eventually got into a groove and really enjoyed my time painting at the lake. The turnoff I chose today is designated as a fishing spot, and yesterday when I drove by there were many people here fishing. But this morning it was quiet, just a few other people including a couple launching kayaks. So it was very peaceful in this little nook I found.

I wanted to be sure to get some angles in with this one, along with water and greens. Although I totally did not need more paint, I finally broke down and bought a tube of sap green — with the goal of speeding things up when painting outdoors — and its complement, red violet. I also put ultramarine blue, cad yellow light, and cad red light out on my palette. I wish I'd brought transparent earth red or burnt sienna with, which would have provided a nice earthy red-orange to the mix.

I do think these tubes of green and violet helped me neutralize my colors faster which helped make the whole experience more fun than my typical plein air palette of the three primaries. I'm looking forward to playing more with my new colors!

Day 13 of notans

Notan_Studies_Jul_20_2019
Notan sketches of a local nature preserve

Today I did my notan sketches a bit differently than before by putting the reference photo under my drawing areas. This made the drawing part go more quickly and gave me more time to consider the dark/light balance. Working directly over the image like this isn't my ultimate goal, but as a tool for this exercise it sure made these notans a lot more fun to make! It freed up a little bit of my brain to focus on how shapes relate to one another instead of also stretching my drawing skills. And given the short time limit on these, that was very helpful.


Focused practice project parameters: complete 100 landscape notans. 3 minutes per notan, 5 notans per session, 20 sessions to reach 100.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

What heat advisory?

landscape study - plein air at Durant Nature Preserve Jul 20 2019
Painting outdoors at the Durant Nature Preserve pond

I was all set to spend a few full days painting outdoors, but the weather isn't cooperating. So I'm shooting for a few quick morning outings instead. I wish I'd picked a closer spot this morning because it took about 25 minutes just to get to the location, and since it was my first time there I had to walk around a bit to choose where to set up. But on the upside, my goal was to do a series of fast studies so the rising temperature helped hurry me along a bit. I just didn't get more than one in before packing up and heading home.

For this study, I had all kinds of trouble getting the tree shapes looking right. I think the main problem was that I was breaking the mass of trees down into too much detail too quickly. So I lost my way with them because the proportions were off. If I had kept the initial shapes much more basic, it would have likely made a huge difference. I'm happy with the overall value range and the water area.

One thing I'd like to adjust for next time is to choose a simpler scene so I can focus on color mixing. Or another way to tackle that is to make sure the scene stays as larger simple shapes until everything is blocked in at the colors I want, then add smaller shapes for detail.

Day 12 of notans

Notan_Studies_Jul_19_2019
Notan sketches of a country road with a farm structure

There was a lot going on in the photo I chose for today's notan sketches! It overwhelmed me to try to make quick decisions about what to include and what might work as a center of interest. But one of the best things I'm learning with this process is that even though three minutes isn't enough to create a completed plan for a composition, it's enough time to rough in a sketch to see if it's a direction worth pursuing. I find it's very easy to become attached to the first thing I sketch, without exploring other directions to see whether it's going to really capture my idea.

I recently enrolled in Matt Smith's online mentorship course and the first unit is on drawing. He teaches about the two basic elements of drawing as they relate to painting: proportion and perspective. With today's notans, I focused on linear perspective and how the angles of the fence posts and road head toward a vanishing point. I also made note of how the shrubs in the foreground can contribute to the feeling of depth, which is something I was excited to hear Matt talk about because it's not something I'd given much thought to before. But I can already see the potential of this as a powerful tool for creating interest in a large foreground.


Focused practice project parameters: complete 100 landscape notans. 3 minutes per notan, 5 notans per session, 20 sessions to reach 100.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Day 11 of notans

Notan_Studies_Jul_18_2019
Notan sketches of trees and mountains

Today's notan sketches felt like an exercise in what I don't want to do. For the most part, I ended up with walls of solid dark trees and lots of parallel lines. Perhaps it's simply a good example of how the scene as it's presented by mother nature doesn't offer a great composition, and it's my decisions as an artist that will guide it toward an interesting painting.

Though it looks super messy, the wide horizontal format in the upper right has potential. If I were to make a more interesting and pleasing pattern by improving the shapes of light and dark and arranging them better together, it could be a good structure for a painting.


Focused practice project parameters: complete 100 landscape notans. 3 minutes per notan, 5 notans per session, 20 sessions to reach 100.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Day 10 of notans

Notan_Studies_Jul_17_2019
Notan sketches of a creek in the forest

I love walking through the forest, and would like to be able to paint an intimate forest scene well. But it's such a complex subject — between the small shapes, textures, low value contrast, and all the neutral colors — that the task of simplifying and clarifying the shapes overwhelms me. This set of notan sketches felt like a good first step at learning to observe what's happening with a busy forest floor.

While I don't think these are particularly effective sketches, going through the notan process does help me start to see how mapping out a strong composition of light and dark can provide a road map for making sense of this feeling of chaos.


Focused practice project parameters: complete 100 landscape notans. 3 minutes per notan, 5 notans per session, 20 sessions to reach 100.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Day 9 of notans

Notan_Studies_Jul_16_2019
Notan sketches of a local nature preserve

When I was choosing a reference photo for today's notan sketches, this one caught my eye because I picked up a subtle S-curve in the light area of the grassy field. But in doing the sketches, that actually got reversed, and the dark areas picked up the S-curve structure. It wasn't what I was originally aiming for, but it could certainly work.

I like the possibilities with the square format, and I think this composition would work nicely with a dark-dominant balance which would allow the sun-struck field to be more of an accent.


Focused practice project parameters: complete 100 landscape notans. 3 minutes per notan, 5 notans per session, 20 sessions to reach 100.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Day 8 of notans

Notan_Studies_Jul_15_2019
Notan sketches of trees reflecting into a pond


Today was a good example of where my preconceived notions about the subject held me back from really exploring compositional directions. I thought I wanted it to be about the way those three shrub shapes broke up the light land shape and created a varied reflection in the pond. So that's what I kept focusing on. It wasn't until the final sketch — the vertical format in the lower right — that I broke into a new interpretation of the scene. This cropping feels more dramatic to me, with more visual tension between the two shrub shapes than when there are three. That visual tension is something I've read about but is always cool to experience doing myself. At some point I might be able to enhance that one by exploring the steelyard composition.

And in contrast to the vertical format, I noticed how the horizontal notans felt much more calm and tranquil.


Focused practice project parameters: complete 100 landscape notans. 3 minutes per notan, 5 notans per session, 20 sessions to reach 100.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Day 7 of notans

Notan_Studies_Jul_14_2019
Notan sketches of trees next to a field

With this set of notan sketches, I noticed that on the very straight-forward horizontal orientations it's been more difficult to avoid an evenly-split dark and light pattern. It seems to be a function of big areas of trees (dark) next to sky and sunlit ground (light) and the way I'm framing the scenes while photographing them. When I change the orientation or crop in, it automatically changes that balance. This was an interesting thing to note and should help me when selecting scenes.

I also really like how this project is helping me see shapes more than subject matter. I believe being more aware of that will improve my compositions.


Focused practice project parameters: complete 100 landscape notans. 3 minutes per notan, 5 notans per session, 20 sessions to reach 100.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Day 6 of notans

Notan_Studies_Jul_13_2019
Notan sketches of a country road

This set of notans was an interesting challenge. The photo I had taken on a nearby country road showed most of the scene in shadow, with intense evening sun dramatically lighting a group of trees. I had to figure whether to put the road, which was both in shadow and a strong geometric shape, with the darks or lights. I was glad to have these project parameters to encourage me to try it different ways.


Focused practice project parameters: complete 100 landscape notans. 3 minutes per notan, 5 notans per session, 20 sessions to reach 100.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Day 5 of notans

Notan_Studies_Jul_12_2019
Notan sketches of a scene from Yellowstone

For this set of notan sketches I used a photo from our Yellowstone trip. It's an impressive vista with mountains, rolling hills, dramatic clouds, and a road leading into the picture. The only thing it's missing is a family of bears!

The atmospheric perspective in the reference photo sets up some great blues in the distance that's in sharp contrast with warm gold grasses in the foreground. This is definitely one for the "paint some day" pile.


Focused practice project parameters: complete 100 landscape notans. 3 minutes per notan, 5 notans per session, 20 sessions to reach 100.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Practice mixing greens

green landscape study Jul 11 2019
Color study, 5x9 oil on canvas

This is a scene I did a study of previously, and I wanted to take another crack at it with some compositional adjustments and different palette colors. I've been studying mixing greens for the past couple of months by exploring different mixing approaches, and thought it would be fun to see how my methods are evolving.

I'm also working on making my colors less intense. After trying to figure out what was off about a recent study, I realized that a couple of things were going on: my colors were too saturated, and there wasn't color harmony. It's no coincidence that this occurred shortly after expanding my palette with a slew of new tube colors!

When I started with oil paints, I just used a red, yellow, and blue plus white to mix everything. Slowly I've been enticed by all of the other fantastic colors that so many artists find useful on their palettes. And have been struggling to keep them under control. So I'm thinking it might be a good time to reduce my palette again and get back to basics until I have more experience working with them. One tip I've read is to get comfortable mixing one limited set of colors, then slowly add in additional colors one at a time to incorporate them and maintain harmony.

For this landscape study, I used a limited palette that reflected the main colors in the scene and would give me options for neutralizing:

  • a mix of viridian + transparent earth red, gradated to a middle value with cadmium yellow light, then with white to the lightest value
  • alizarin permanent gradated to white
  • transparent earth red gradated to white
  • ultramarine blue gradated to white
I'm happy with the way the colors harmonized in this study. And working with this set palette helped me think in terms of warmer or cooler rather than trying to match a specific color. I'm working on exploring the way colors change depending on what's around them, and how I can control temperature and intensity to influence those relationships. 

Day 4 of notans

Notan_Studies_Jul_11_2019
Notan sketches of trees with dappled afternoon shadows

For my reference with this set of notans, I used a photo I took the park where I liked the way the strong tree trunks framed the scene, and dappled light was running through it. The way the sun hit the light green leaves made them glow, especially compared to the cooler, more purple colors in the trees behind them.

I was surprised about how much I like the square and wide formats. By raising the horizon line on the wide format, it put more focus on the dappled ground shadows. And the square format narrowed the focus to just one of the glowing trees.

I think if I were to paint this one, I'd want to find a way to not make the colors obnoxiously green. And I would take the time to make sure the shapes are better. More than 3 minutes, lol.


Focused practice project parameters: complete 100 landscape notans. 3 minutes per notan, 5 notans per session, 20 sessions to reach 100.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Day 3 of notans

Notan Studies Jul 10 2019
Notan sketches of trees in the park

I'm really liking how this notan practice is helping me think about how to add interesting passages in large solid areas. It's making me shift my mindset toward considering all of the parts of the composition instead of just concentrating on a focal point. Like with this scene, I'd want to spend time putting some more shapes in the grassy field so it's not just a single solid mass. Those shapes wouldn't necessarily be darker, but could represent temperature or intensity shifts that add some interest.

And I ran out of time (I think that's going to be a theme with this project), but introducing some contrast with the clouds in the sky would be great!


Focused practice project parameters: complete 100 landscape notans. 3 minutes per notan, 5 notans per session, 20 sessions to reach 100.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Day 2 of notans

Notan_Studies_Jul_9_2019
Notan sketches of a waterfall scene at Yellowstone

For this focused practice exercise I used a photo from our Yellowstone trip. The first notan I sketched was the vertical rectangle format, and it was super challenging to see this subject in any of the other formats! I'm glad I tried it though because it helped push me in other directions beyond my first response.

This subject has interesting angles and shapes, so it would be a great one for further composition exploration and taking to the painting stage. I see potential for studying color temperature and intensity with it since it has a relatively small number of colors.


Focused practice project parameters: complete 100 landscape notans. 3 minutes per notan, 5 notans per session, 20 sessions to reach 100.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Focused practice: notans

Landscape notan studies Jul 8 2019
Exploring shape, pattern, and dark/light harmony with notan

When I look back at my older posts, the focused practice projects stand out as some of my favorites. The list of things I want to practice is infinitely huge, but one topic I've noticed comes up a lot in my paintings is composition. Often times I complete a painting or study and then notice something about the composition I would like to have done differently.

The 30 Days of Value Thumbnails project (I didn't frame it as a focused practice, but in retrospect it fit the bill) helped me get quicker at spotting very dull compositions. But I still ended up with several that have uninteresting shapes, so I feel like a natural next step is to work on those shapes and patterns that form the structure of a painting.

Which brings me to notans! A year ago, during my focused practice project on values, I did a short section on creating 2-value notans. Those were based on in-shadow and not-in-shadow divisions of dark and light, and I stayed pretty faithful to the reference image. For this new project, I'm approaching it with a mindset of finding light and dark harmony, which means adjusting shapes when needed to make a pleasing pattern instead of just following the reference.

My focused practice goal:

I want to design better notans for landscape paintings.

This goal has a number of smaller problems I'd like to address:

  1. Designing a pleasing and interesting pattern
  2. Making a variety of shapes with no two intervals the same
  3. Creating dark/light harmony that will give me a solid structure for contrasting elements in my painting (values, temperature, intensity, edges, texture, details)

Time commitment:

15 minutes of practice time every day. Using one landscape photo that I took, I'll create 5 notans (3 minutes each). I should be able to create 100 notans in 20 days.

Day 1

I'm super excited to be using Procreate for this project. I can quickly draw and erase with it (important because these are just 3 minutes each), and now that the thumbnail template is created it'll be a snap to start each day's studies. A variety of formats (horizontal, vertical, square) and some basic prompts (high horizon, low horizon, mostly dark, mostly light) provide structure so I'm not staring at the blank page every day wondering where to begin.

Having the prompts to do mostly dark or mostly light has already proven very helpful: my tendency is to make things evenly balanced, and I'd like to be more intentional about adding greater variety. And the short time limit is going to help me focus on the simple shapes instead of getting bogged down in detail at this preliminary stage.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Another great morning painting outdoors

landscape study - plein air at Carroll Joyner Park Jun 30 2019
Happily painting away in the shade

It was a treat to be able to paint outdoors two days in a row. I went back to the same park and chose a new location to set up my box, next to a taller tree than yesterday for more shade. I intended to paint the pond but couldn't find an interesting enough composition that wasn't in full sun. Just down the path from the pond was a spot that caught my eye — cool, bright shadows raking across the grass, with a path leading back to a shaded area in the woods.

I liked the contrast between the trees in bright morning sunlight and the darker wooded area and positioned that as my focal point using the rule of thirds as a guide. The thumbnail sketch I started with helped me work through angles the foreshortened path and value structure. I almost skipped that step so I could just start painting, but I'm glad I didn't because without doing that bit of prep work I would have struggled my way through the whole experience.

I stuck with the same palette and block-in approach from yesterday, but changed my painting medium a bit. Instead of a 50/50 Gamsol/linseed oil mix, I used a tiny bit of Gamsol for the block in but mostly kept it on the dry side. And as I painted, I used linseed oil to loosen the paint. This texture was nice to work with and I want to try using it some more to see if it can give me better results. I'm learning that the texture of the paint is such a personal thing and what works great for one painter might not work as well for me.

color block-in - plein air at Carroll Joyner Park Jun 30 2019
Average colors and values blocked in

A couple of other things I want to experiment with are the color of my canvas and the color I use for the drawing on it. Today I used burnt umber on a white (untoned) canvas and didn't like how the cool shadow colors mixed with the earthy brown. It would be different if the cool colors were painted opaquely next to the earth color, but today they just mixed together and the shadow colors were dulled.

I'm curious to see how this average color block-in approach would work on a pre-toned canvas — like grey, burnt umber, burnt sienna, yellow ochre, or transparent earth red. I think I have some direction for my next several paintings!

landscape study - plein air at Carroll Joyner Park Jun 30 2019
"Bright Spot", 8x10 oil on canvas panel

Monday, July 1, 2019

Energized by a morning plein air session

landscape study - plein air at Carroll Joyner Park
Great view at E. Carroll Joyner Park in Wake Forest

The afternoons have gotten really hot and steamy in my area, so getting outside to paint early in the day is a priority for me. Evenings could work, but I've found it tricky to time that well with the setting sun. In the morning the heat starts to arrive, but at least there's enough light to work with!

I had an idea for a good spot at the great park near us that would allow me to study atmospheric perspective. I was super excited when I got there to find the perfect spot next to a tall tree that provided shade. Well, it provided shade for part of the time — after about an hour and a half I became aware of the fact that I was starting to cook out there. I was so absorbed in painting that it took me awhile to notice, but my nice shade tree was no longer protecting me from the glaring sun. I think it's time to order that plein air umbrella I have my eye on…

After sketching a thumbnail to get familiar with the shapes in the scene and the light and shadow patterns, I mapped out the basic shapes on the canvas panel. Then I blocked in some average colors that helped me see color and value relationships. I was dubious about that wall of blue-grey that represented the distant tree line, but I kept moving ahead with it to see what would happen.

Average colors and values blocked in

Those distant trees are my favorite part of the painting, so I'm glad I stuck with the color there. My intention with this session was to study the effects of light in the landscape and to mix reasonably good colors with this set palette I'm trying out. I wasn't too concerned with making a great composition, just wanted to paint a scene that I was excited about in general.

The palette I took this outing was:
  • cadmium yellow light
  • cadmium orange
  • cadmium red medium
  • transparent earth red
  • viridian hue
  • ultramarine blue deep
  • burnt umber
  • titanium white
  • ivory black
I found it pretty easy to use for quick color mixing. The transparent earth red and viridian hue made a good deep green. If I were going to do a big sky, it might be nice to add in phthalo blue. I have so many colors that I really like and are useful to have, but carrying all that weight on my back adds up! I can see how some parts of the year a different group of colors could make mixing more efficient. I'm imagining that in the fall and winter, having some purple and yellow ochre would be convenient.

landscape study - plein air at Carroll Joyner Park
"Park Vista", 8x10 oil on canvas panel

Aside from the heat near the end, this was a great session of outdoor painting. I felt less rushed and more clear about my process than some of the others. And one of the best parts was that by wrapping up at 9:30, I had almost the whole day still in front of me and felt energized by the feeling of accomplishment. Gotta remember that feeling!

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Just keep swimming

green landscape 8x10 painting
"Hide and Seek", 8x10 oil on canvas panel

I go through this cycle of painting something that doesn't turn out the way I want (quite often it's that things are much darker than I intend), then diving into some painting lessons to try to figure out a solution, becoming overwhelmed with options, and trying something new once or twice. And then getting frustrated when an approach doesn't work for me the first time. I thrive off of the learning part because it fills me with enthusiasm and generates ideas, but my patience runs out so quickly if I don't execute on the ideas well.

On that note, I'm toying with the idea of choosing one palette of colors and one block-in technique to use for several paintings in a row to help give me a fair chance to see if I like them. My brain knows it's nonsensical to think some new skill or process should be immediately successful, but I feel this sense of urgency to get these things figured out quickly. I try to keep in mind what I've heard on several painting podcasts, which is to slow down and savor the beginning stages of learning to paint — to enjoy this time because eventually the freedom of it passes and it becomes harder to just paint for yourself.

This week I started meditating for a few minutes before beginning my painting sessions. My goal is to help my body relax (I've developed a wicked knot behind my shoulder blade from mixing paints on my palette like my life depended on it), and get into a more open state of mind. I'm out of practice with meditation, and I spend most of those three minutes thinking about things I want to do, but at least I'm thinking positive thoughts!

For this painting, I started with a loose and washy block-in, aiming for cool colors in the shadows, warmer colors in the light, and the values in the right ballpark. This type of block-in appeals to me because by putting average colors in from the start, there's something to respond to. I was finding that with a monochromatic underpainting, it put me in a mindset of premixing colors and then sticking to them instead of course-correcting along the way. I'm not sure why that would be, but I hope I can work past that hurdle because I love the process of making a monochromatic underpainting.

In any case, I decided to start this painting in a generalized and noncommittal way. It felt very out of control, but also exhilarating. The thing I liked about it was that there was no question that adjustments would need to be made — it was total chaos! But there was something there to build off of. One thing I found remarkable was how very cool in temperature this initial stage was. I didn't notice it so much during the block-in process, but after taking a break and coming back into the room it really surprised me.

Thin, washy block-in

I had to remind myself to keep painting through the ugly stage. And I didn't put a time limit on myself, or worry about thin, transparent darks and advice to "put a stroke down and leave it alone". Maybe I would make mud, and there was white paint all over the canvas, probably making everything all chalky. There's a ton of sound advice I pushed to the side while I focused on painting in a way that felt good to me. It was fun to work in a lighter key with colors that were not so intense.

Now, on to planning that focused practice challenge! I may need to issue media ban for myself to stay focused and avoid shiny object syndrome…

Saturday, June 29, 2019

30-minute quick study

30-minute study, 6x8 oil on canvas panel

I liked using this photo during my 30 Days of Value Thumbnails project, and wanted to try a different take on it for this quick study. Since the last few timed studies got more detailed, I thought it would be an interesting challenge to cut the time in half to 30 minutes. This would force me to make sure I get the big shapes all in before getting sidetracked by smaller shapes.

When my timer went off and I stepped across the room to have a look at it, I was struck by how cool the color temperature is in this one. Especially compared to the little color study of it I did the first time!

Previous color study on the left, latest study on the right

A few things I'd do differently next time:

  • make the blue sky darker
  • make the trees in the distance lighter
  • add warmth to the sunlit sides of the trees and the lightest part of the ground

Friday, June 28, 2019

Evening road

Evening Road painting Jun 26 2019
"Evening Road", 6x8 oil on panel

To continue practicing the feeling of finishing a painting in 60 minutes, I chose this photo I took one evening on a country road. I loved the way the sun was just coming over the trees and lighting up the road and ground. It was also a good opportunity to incorporate atmospheric perspective, creating the sense of moving back into the distance.

For the most part it was finished when the timer went off, but I did keep working on details for about 15 minutes longer. The important parts were done though, which is what I'm trying to cultivate because outdoor light changes so fast. I went out to the front yard the other evening to paint a little section of grass and pine straw, and before I knew it the sun that had been raking across the yard was completely gone behind the trees. Needless to say, that study did not turn out great!

I'm still working on applying thicker paint for a variety in texture. But I am happy with the colors in this one. I concentrated on making subtle shifts in the greens on the right as the trees get further away.

One of the hard things for me at this point is learning to ignore the tiny details and focusing on the bigger color and value changes that describe the forms. I've noticed that when I get sucked into the little changes in darks and lights, my shapes break down and become difficult to read. Mostly this is because I try too hard to stick to the photo and forget about making good shapes. When I was initially sketching this one in on my panel, I made the reference photo on my monitor black and white, posterized it to 6 values, and reduced the size so it looked like a thumbnail. This really helped me see the bigger shapes so perhaps it would be a helpful technique during the rest of the painting process, too.

Value thumbnail of simple shapes

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Snow shadows and golden shrubs

snow shadows and golden shrubs painting Jun 26 2019
"Snow Shadows and Golden Shrubs", 6x8 oil on canvas panel

For the past several days I've been diving deep on color mixing exercises, and it felt like time to actually do a painting with some of what I've been learning. My drawer of oil paints is suddenly out of control and I used this little painting as a way to test out a plein air palette. My normal set of red, yellow, and blue hasn't been cutting it for me so I want to expand my selection, but not to the full gamut of colors I have available to me.

I was pretty happy with my ability to mix the colors I wanted with this set, which included:

  • cadmium yellow light
  • cadmium yellow medium
  • cadmium orange
  • cadmium red light
  • alizarin permanent
  • ultramarine blue
  • cobalt blue
  • viridian hue
  • yellow ochre
  • burnt sienna
  • ivory black
  • titanium white
I chose this scene because I liked the violet shadows stretching across the snow combined with the earthy golden shrubs. I started with a notan thumbnail of the shadow and light families, then sketched the drawing onto my panel. My goal was to paint quickly (it was a 60-minute study) with minimal detail and lots of paint. 

The timed part went fine, but I definitely didn't get the paint on as thickly as I wanted. Will have to keep trying on that! 

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Atmospheric perspective study

Imagined landscape study of planes and atmospheric perspective

I made up this simple landscape composition as a way to experiment with the principles of atmospheric perspective. Rather than be concerned with using a reference photo or scene from life, I wanted a simple setup to focus on getting using the prismatic palette to create depth and form in a landscape.

I was really trying to reduce the chroma of my colors but they're still very intense! It was also harder than I would have guessed to paint from my imagination. But I think the overall effect is close to what I wanted to achieve.

This exercise helped me see the importance of establishing the lightest area and darkest area. I started by blocking in the shadow sides of the trees, but when it came time to put in the mountains and treeline in the background, they were darker than the two little trees in the distance. Adjusting the values helped a little bit.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Early Evening Clouds

early evening clouds over the trees Jun 20 2019
"Early Evening Clouds", 8x6, oil on canvas panel

To help with the time restraints of painting outdoors, one of my projects is to practice 60-minute timed paintings in the studio. For this one, I didn't start my timer until after doing a thumbnail sketch and making a loose drawing of the shapes on my panel, but it was a happy surprise when I finished the painting stage in an hour.

I'm working with the prismatic palette, feeling my way through using it to create atmospheric perspective and adjusting the chroma of colors. Having the 10 value steps is helping me wrangle my values better, and the blue and grey color strings are allowing me to lower the chroma much faster and with less paint than by using the complements like I was doing previously.

The reference photo I took one evening in the park didn't capture the warmth I saw in the clouds when I was there. The relatively low early evening sun on the brightest parts of the clouds was really striking in person, and I had fun trying to capture that sense of warm light in my painting.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Front yard value study

plein air study in front yard Jun 20 2019
Black and white oil study painted outdoors

I went outside this morning to do a value study of the magnolia bush in our front yard. This bush is probably my favorite plant out front because this time of year it bursts into white blossoms and smells amazing.

My scene for this study

When I positioned myself in the shade of the house, I was able to frame the subject with a bit of the driveway and yard next door. I liked the way there was a dappled shadow going across that area. After sketching it out, I assigned the different shadow and light shapes values based on the 10-step value scale. For blocking in the major shapes, I used just a few values, and added more detail and form with the remaining values.

Seeing all of those values on my palette helped me remember to include the darkest and lightest values, and give structure to the scene by comparing what was darker and lighter relative to each other. It's a lot to keep in my head though! I had jotted value notes in my sketchbook for reference but I'm hoping that with some practice it becomes more automatic.

value study in front yard Jun 20 2019

The cast shadow on the driveway should be a little lighter to distinguish it from the grass next to it, and the part of the bush being struck by direct light could use some shadows to add more depth. But overall I'm pretty happy with how this one turned out. While painting it, I was frustrated by bug bites which made me feel rushed. Next time I need to remember to actually use the bug spray I pack with me every time I go out!

Monday, June 17, 2019

Painting at Falls Lake Dam

plein air value study in oil at Falls Lake Dam Jun 16 2019
My goals for selecting a scene were big shapes, atmospheric perspective, and shade. This spot fit the bill!

Yesterday we took a little road trip to Hickory so I could see an exhibit of pastel paintings at the art museum. And even though it took us forever to actually get there, I left feeling inspired! There was also an exhibit of paintings by the Blue Ridge Realists, and I recognized one of the artists from the North Carolina Plein Air Painters group I joined last year. Scott Boyle's landscapes were a treat to see in person, and he also contributed to a special little collection of plein air painting equipment and studies. After we got back home, I decided that in the morning I'd go out for some outdoor painting.

I wish I had stuck to the "morning" plan — instead I took care of some household chores in the morning and set out to paint after lunch. The problem was that it had gotten so warm out that as I walked around to find a good location for setting up, my energy got totally sapped. I packed it in and headed home. Except I took a wrong turn along the way as I often do here and found myself driving along the Falls Lake Dam. At the end of the road, there was a promising view of the kind of thing I wanted to paint (big shapes, tree masses layered into the distance, water) in a patch of shade.

I set up my gear and promptly lost all track of time. It was an enjoyable, although hot, plein air session, and I'm really glad I didn't go home empty-handed.

plein air value study in oil at Falls Lake Dam Jun 16 2019
Experimenting with an 11-step value scale to capture the effects of aerial perspective


This time I did a black and white study, leaving out the color element and just focusing on values. I did a few plein air studies last week that were total flops and the main reason was that I didn't handle the value structure well. It's one thing to look at a photo and determine a structure for the values, but doing it outdoors has been a much different experience for me.

I'm currently fixated on learning about using a prismatic palette to help wrangle my colors. I'd rather not do so much guessing and hoping that things will come together on the canvas, and one of the main characteristics of this approach is arranging colors by value and setting out equivalent steps of grey, blue, and green. This kind of organization appeals to the methodical side of me. And although I resisted it because it seemed more structured than I wanted to be, it may actually be an effective tool for learning the ropes of outdoor painting.

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!