Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Snowy Week

Nashville got a few inches of snow this week. Living in the South, I welcome snow as a rare treat, and I decided to savor it while it lasted by going outside and painting. Here's my painting from this past Monday. I spent about 2 or 3 hours outside, wearing LOTS of layers and constantly drinking instant café Vienna. The scene shows a stand of trees in front of the entry point to the woods behind my house. I love walking in those woods, especially when it snows.

 "Entry to the Snowy Woods" 6x8

 The next day was even colder and windier. I wore more layers, and kept refilling my mug with instant café Vienna or cocoa. My feet gave me the most problems ... tennis shoes and two pairs of socks were not enough to keep them warm. Of course, on that harsh day I had to pick a subject that was tedious to paint. I selected a zig zag tree in the woods behind my house, and took care to include all the zigs and zags. I spent 4 hours outside on this one, not counting breaks. Here's the underpainting:

The finished painting is below. I love using the palette knife to suggest little details, like the fence wires, which would be impossible for me to do with a brush. The mass at the base of the tree is the brush pile where I dump my fall rakings and branch trimmings each year. The pile always seems to stay the same size, probably because the leaves decay about as fast as I pile on new ones. 

"Snowy Woods" 6x8

Snowflakes accumulated on my palette. They kept getting mixed into the paint and not melting, giving the paint a gritty texture. It didn't seem to affect the final painting, though. (click to enlarge)

Here I am with all my layers on ... hopefully I won't catch a cold. I did have a terrible headache all day today, probably from yesterday's exertion.

The little bird in my front yard looks cold, too. 

City-fied Painting

In late November I met with a few Chestnut Group members to paint in a Nashville area called "The Gulch." I felt intimidated by the fact that cityscapes are filled with my artistic enemies: straight lines, perfect right angles, the need for flawless perspective. In order to feel safe, I picked a spot that had a comforting stand of trees in the distance. To my surprise, I ended up with a painting I'm pretty happy with. Another pleasant surprise–I had very little trouble from passersby, even though I was painting on a sidewalk. Very few people walked by, with the notable exception being an ex-army guy I will call Mr. Talkative. His chatty presence actually didn't bother me, because I like to listen to either music or talking while I paint, and my iPod battery was dead at the time. So as I learned about the life and interests of my new sidekick, I painted my first cityscape:

"Two Hour Parking" 5x7

Kevin Menck's November workshop

Day 1

I came into this workshop determined to take my painting skill to another level. I was going to wring every bit of knowledge out of Kevin that I could. I started off the workshop by simply copying him as he painted, hoping to pick up some new secret that way. The main thing I noticed is....he paints so FAST! I could barely keep up. I painted so fast I was barely aware of what colors I was mixing, and didn't have time to look at the actual landscape to judge how he was coming up with those colors. The hardest item to copy was the large tree in the near center...I just could not figure out how he was giving it volume and the feel of light passing through it. My tree was basically a big cluster of blobs. Here is the result:

Next, I painted the scene from life, rather than from Kevin's painting. I still had a hard time with the large, focal tree. I got Kevin to paint it for me. I'm still mystified at how he got it to look so....tree-ish.

Below is a photo of Kevin's assistant scrutinizing my methods.

I call this location the "donkey field," for obvious reasons. (It's in Leiper's Fork, south of Nashville.) Those burros are unbelievably mischievous. Last spring a small, brown donkey took off with a wet painting, which I had to grab out of his mouth. This fall I got my arm and hand chewed on a couple of times.

Now that we're being sidetracked by donkeys, I'll post a couple of videos to further illustrate why I call this location the "donkey field."

Then a donkey broke Kevin's easel. Just kidding...he and a workshop student were doing some adjustments to his easel. You can see my easel on the left, handmade by my dad.

Back to painting...we are still on Day 1. Again, I tried to uncover Kevin's secrets by copying his painting. Did I mention he paints very fast? I don't know how I (or he) did it, but I feel this painting really captures the evening light on the barn. Coincidentally, this painting was painted on Veteran's Day, and there's a US flag hanging in front of the barn. I created the illusion of stripes by averaging the red and shadowy white, resulting in a solid block of mauve. The mind fills in the stripes. (click picture to see more detail)

Day 2

Here's a painting that I didn't copy. I painted a barn right on the edge of town in Leiper's Fork, in walking distance of Puckett's Grocery and Leiper's Creek Gallery. I used Kevin's technique of creating feathery shapes to suggest the clusters of dead twigs on the trees. 

After a long lunch break, I decided to paint a scene that looked terribly daunting. See those wispy gray trees in front of the rust-colored trees? The crowns of those trees have no discernible edges or shadows. So, that sounds like a good scene to tackle.

First I sketch in the main masses.

Then I start addin color to each major mass. At about this point I ask for help with the gray trees.

Kevin paints directly on the canvas...doing can be a better explanation than saying. First of all, I've broken up the orange trees too much, and made them too saturated. He dulls them down a bit, and masses in the major light and shadow. Then he masses in the gray trees, darkens them at the base, and uses the handle of the brush to scrape in some trunks. You can see in the painting below how sections of the gray trees are transparent, allowing the orange trees to show through. I'm still going to need practice with this concept of ultra-simplification. Next, I painted the rest of the scene on my own, including the row of green bushes, the field, sky, and the distant area. I can't take credit for the focal tree area, but overall, this painting collaboration really captures the feel of slanting sunlight on a fall afternoon in Tennessee. I think it captures the light better than the photo, which appears too harsh and flat.

Day 3

Again, I played copycat, but this time I made sure to make plenty of comparison between the scene before my eyes and the paint on the canvas. (I was using the actual landscape for reference as much as Kevin's painting) I also spent a lot of time looking back and forth between the outdoor scene and Kevin's painting, trying to understand the way he was translating real life into little textured patches that looked just as real and three-dimensional as their outdoor counterparts. As a matter of fact, some elements of his painting, particularly the crowns of trees, looked more three-dimensional than what I'm seeing out there. My eyes perceive the trees as flat, dark silhouettes against the sky, and my tendency is to paint them that way. But Kevin interprets these flat shapes as masses with volume, and he adds subtle highlights to show the light striking from the appropriate direction, which enhances the rounded shape. So it seems like I need to paint even more than I see, to achieve convincing realism. (But at the same time I paint less than I see, because I'm averaging millions of twigs and leaves into round, scruffy shapes.)


On a side note, while the other students and I were painting this scene, we were standing in front of a stand of woods with a creek. Kevin told us the story of seeing a table and chairs getting set up IN the creek water, and lighting and chandeliers were hung from the trees. He found out that some residents of Leiper's Fork were setting up for an in-the-creek dinner party. At these parties, guests arrive in formal dinner attire, and sit in the chairs in the creek water, with the hems of jackets and skirts flowing in the current. They eat and drink wine late into the night, illuminated by the chandeliers in the trees. I felt like he was describing a vivid dream, and soon the mad hatter would make an appearance. But no, these creek parties are real...just one of the eccentricities of residents of this quaint little town of Leiper's Fork.

For my lunch break, I had a delicious meal from Puckett's: barbecued beef brisket, baked beans, potato salad, and blackberry cobbler. Then we headed back to the donkey field. A wind started whipping up, bringing in storm clouds and smatterings of light rain, but we kept painting until it was too dark to judge color. I didn't do any copying on this one, and I managed to get a couple of donkeys in the scene. They stopped bothering us long enough to go eat some hay.

Now the workshop is over, and I hope I will continue to apply what I have learned to future paintings.