I’ve been wanting to get back to painting big, and have recently started doing so again after more than perhaps two years of smaller paintings. In today’s post I’ll share how I went from a roadtrip to a smaller sketch to this full-sheet image- “Before All Else Is Light”.
My daughter and I went on a 3-day roadtrip up the coast to Jedediah Smith State Park (out past Ukiah). The old growth woods are deep there, and the trees are OUT. OF. THIS. WORLD. Just absolutely lush and gigantic and prehistoric, ferns and vines and moss on the trunks. I really fell in love with redwoods all over again. After something like a billion photos and miles of hiking, we made our way home. And then the work really began. ;) The best kind of work. Art.
Step 1- Find a Subject and Crop!
Redwood forests tend to have two ways of approaching things, either A) huge vertical forms that catapult themselves out from the ferny forest floor below, or B) a crazy gobbledygook of ferns and vines and branches and fallen trunks. I decided to go for the second. In this sort of space, I’m hunting for contrasts- contrasts of value and hue- and an arrangement of shapes that I can I manipulate to guide the eye around and around the painting.
When I’m looking for a composition, you can catch me weaving around in the forest, shifting to the left or right, moving backwards, etc. Whatever is required to capture the relationship of forms I find most compelling. We start with something like the first photo, and then we slowly begin to zoom in-
The goal is always to direct myself inwards, to pay attention, and to remove what I don’t need. Of course, in the beginning, removal is almost all of what you do, after you aligned shapes. Here you can see how the visual pattern becomes stronger as I shrink the image down, so that the eye starts to travel like this-
Step 2- Work Smaller and Explore
This is the first version I did- a quarter sheet ( 11” x 15”). These smaller works are often a process of exploration. I find out if the piece works, I assess logistical issues I hadn’t thought of, hue shifts I’d like to implement next time, etc, etc.
These sorts of paintings take perhaps an hour and a half. There’s nothing to do but jump in and do it. When I’ve finished, I get a much better sense of what I’d like to do differently the next time. It’s hard to know what you’d like to do differently if you’ve not done it before! LOL.
Step 3- Paint Bigger and Decide What’s New
Hopefully, if I’ve done things right, when I paint bigger I atleast have some sense of how I’d like to change things before I even begin. This also means you need to know what you want to achieve.
The first thing I wanted to do was to shift my hues. I wanted bluer, cooler shadows (not just darker greyer ones) and yellower gold-green leaves that weren’t so cool. The goal is to make those leaves really pop! I started these transitions even in the first wash, and tried to keep pushing it through out. This stage is easy, fun, wet-into-wet painting. It’s actually pretty hard to go wrong. I wet the back (in my shower, with a piece of paper this big), lay it down on my Gatorboard, and get to playing…
Next comes the second wash. So tough! Here’s where we begin to cut edges and figure out how to massage the painting into the product we have in our mind. Forms begin to become apparent, but also mistakes.
Usually, at the end of this phase is when I see all the faults. Lights that have been lost. Washes that clearly should have been bolder and darker. Edges that are way too dominant. Shapes that don’t connect. This is where I’ve got to just believe and keep going. I preserve things were I think they’re working, and dig in to those areas that I need to push.
Looking back, I see 5 big areas where I wanted shift things-
1) I needed to connect the canopy of the trees more, to help the eye circulate more
2) I wanted to capture some light on the side of the left-side tree, which I did by mixing some body color (white + chosen pigment)
3) I needed to darken and cool off the shadows in the lower half, both to make the leaves pop and to make the circle of viewing” keep rotating around to the tree trunk and big focal-point leaves
4) similarly, I had to darken the tree against which the leaves are shining, which still keeping that gradient from top to bottom
5) I had to darken the lower half of the trunk so we feel the rounded form of the trunk and get that sense of blinding light
And then there’s always a point where I have to grab my own hand, pull it back, and call it quits. Painting watercolors is a philosophical experience. There’s only so much that you can remove. You’ve got to drop the paint it, manipulate it, and let it go. Every painting has things I wished came out different. Some are big, some small.
Often, the piece is just fine as it is— others don’t see my “mistakes” the way I see them, and my grump is really about desiring a total control I can’t achieve. When that’s the case, I know it’s time to let it go. Like a child, at a certain point the piece is what it is, and you’ve got to love it for what it is.