Plein Air- Heather Farms

Last Friday, I went out and painted a couple of new paintings at Heather Farms with a number of the other local students from the Joseph Zbukvic workshop.  Heather Farms has a series of beautiful gardens, a formal lake with a fountain, and an additional space featured in these paintings- a more natural space with reeds, birds, and whatnot. 

We set up under an oak, and worked on the view across the lake.  For my first painting, I decided to include the tree as a framing device- the composition was a bit boring without an foreground.  For those who are local, that's Mt. Diablo in the background.

The tree in the foreground also helped create a light source, because there weren't many cast shadows in the midground, across the lake.  As is often the case, it was a 3 step process- First, I did a pale blue wash for the sky and lake, and then, after a minute or two, I dropped the mountain into the distance, wet-into-wet.  After it had dried, for the second part, I worked on the trees in the midground, building shape and value wet on dry all the way to the shoreline.  From there, I worked on the reflections, wet on dry, dropping colors into the form I'd created for the ripples.  Part three was a lot of dry brush work.  I put the tree in for the foreground- first the warm, sunlit brown, and then, once that had dried, the heavy dry brush work for the shadows.  I went into the trees in the midground, and built some trunks and branches, as well as some heavy values on the shoreline.  Finally, I laid down a few dark dry brush strokes into the reflections too, to give some form for the trees.  For that more abstract work, like always, I try to keep Chien's "Big, Middle, Small" and "No Sameness" in mind. 

For the second painting, I found this little cove to the right.  There were lots of geese flapping about and honking, and an egret sitting rather serenely in the shade above it all.  It's worth noting that I zoomed in here while on site, for the first pic, to better represent what I was seeing.  The second pic is the the first shot I took, without any zoom.  I mention it to reiterate how perspective and depth is a bit distorted when working from only photo references.  Also, it's worth noting how the photo has a hard time reading large steps between values.  Shadows tend to get very dark in photos, but retain a sense of light in real life.  This is often what I mean when I talk about "light filled shadows".  The HDR setting on your phone can help this, but it's also not quite the same as seeing the full range of values in person.  Nothing necessarily aesthetically bad about the difference, but it's its own thing, and it's worth knowing that.

zoomed in shot, better representing what I saw in person.

zoomed in shot, better representing what I saw in person.

first pic, showing what the camera sees instead.  distant object look very far away.

first pic, showing what the camera sees instead.  distant object look very far away.

I really liked that white shadowed egret sitting on the branch, the movement of the geese from shadow into light, and that streak of light on the island on the right.  That's what I focused on.  The sketch took longer than normal, perhaps 30-40 minutes.  I took some photos of the birds, studied them a bit, and went at it.  The egret and the island wasn't hard, but I started drawing the geese, adding one or two here for balance, a few there for depth, another there to bring some into the light, etc, and before I knew it had over 20.  Yikes!  But it felt needed.  I was going to have a big empty space otherwise.

I'm also not one to back away from a challenge.  I like the movement and shape of birds, they're around a lot, and I've been on a number of outings over the last few years where I didn't include fowl on the water out of fear of ruining a good painting. Pooh!  Forget that.  If Joseph can have cows in his meadows, I can have birds in my water.  I want birds in my paintings!  Little did I know what I getting myself into...

Here's the photo and the painting, side by side-


Despite the complicated nature of the subject, it was still essentially a similar 3 part process- first wash, midground wet on dry wash, and thick dark dry brush details at the end.  The first wash was Heaven and Earth, sky and lake.  There was a great deal of negative painting for the image, which was, frankly, a pain in the ass, but I wasn't sure how else to approach the geese.  I got part way through and "What the hell was I thinking!  There's way too many geese in this thing!"  LOL.  But what else was there to do but continue painting it? 

Once that was in and dry, I went to the top and worked on the far away trees, "stacking" my values wet into wet.  I brought that wash down into the water, building the reflections.  Like before, I tried to cut around the geese when possible.  I then went back up to the top and "stacked" the midground trees on the island on top of the far away trees.  Although the midground trees are very soft and wet into wet, and the background trees are wet into wet too,  you can see how the edge is hard and defined between them, which is your clue that they happened at different stages.  From there, I worked on my thick, dark values in the midground- building tree trunks, a shore line, and those shrubs out where the egret is. 

Finally, I approached the geese.  Much as Joseph might has said, the egret and the geese are the actors, but the truth is that the painting is really already done before I even paint them- the shapes are already built, and the actors are the details that tell a certain story.  One after another, I painted the dull yellow value of the body (I used some of the Jaune Brilliant No. 1, which has white in it, mixed with Yellow Ochre-- this help make it a bit opaque but light valued), and then dropped in dark details for the bills and feathers, wet into wet.  Then, quickly, in order to bind them to the water more completely and make them not feel so "pasted on", I dropped in their shadowy reflections, wet on dry.  For the geese more fully in light, I used more Yellow Ochre, to give them some warmth.  Painting the geese took quite a while, but I'm glad I spent the time. I think they came out alright! 

It's worth saying that I was really not very sure about this painting at the beginning.  I actually thought about not following through with it on site.  It seemed to complex of a composition with all the ducks, others were wrapping up to go to lunch, and I'd never painted something quite like it before.  But I went for it anyways, and carried on at those times when I felt a bit lost.  There have been many paintings where I kept going, despite my doubts, and was glad I did.  Dropping a painting before you're done is a bad habit to get into.  Of course, I do it sometimes too.  But generally I try to keep going.  I experiment.  I feel free from the need for success, because I already think the painting is crap.  And sometimes that leads to exciting places!  Even if I don't get a success out of it, I almost always learn something from completing the image, and that's critical to getting better.  You can't get better if you don't finish bad paintings.

Ok.  Enough preaching! LOL.  Here's the finished painting.