Can Watercolor Painting Improve my Oil Painting Skills?

So I’ve been doing a lot more watercolor painting these days.  I find it a beautiful medium that is very difficult but I really want to master it.  With a few exceptions, I’m less than thrilled with the results I’m getting but I recognize that it really takes practice.  

Watercolor is beholden to the laws of physics in how water behaves. You have to learn to manage it, but you can’t really expect to fully control it.  It also requires a different technique because it is transparent, so you can’t paint lighter colors over dark and expect them to cover the dark up.  If you want white, you have to leave the paper white.  You can protect the areas you want to keep white with masking fluid, but that’s is a skill that requires practice, just like everything else.  

A few weeks back I set out to paint from a photo of one of our mountain streams.  It was a really pretty scene where the light was dancing through the leaves onto the forest floor and the rocks and water.  I had also just watched a video on pouring watercolors by an artist named Leslie Redhead.  While I recognized I am not ready to try pouring, I did learn a lot about mixing color on the paper and doing repeated washes to get deep rich colors.  I used some masking fluid to mask out white areas where the sun was coming through the leaves and some of the light on the tree trunks.  I ended up liking the deep washes, but not really the masked areas.  They looked too contrived.  I tried to fix this by adding some light colors (yellow and blue) but this didn’t really fix the problem.  I also ended up embellishing some of the light on the water with white ink.  The result was a good practice painting but nothing to write home about. 
Stream Study 1

Then I set out to try it again.   I changed the masking technique to do some spatter.  In both cases I applied the larger areas with a sponge, which in hindsight was probably part of the problem.  In this painting, I like the sunlight in the background more than the previous version. I left it white but painted in the light yellow leaves to make it look less contrived.  I did not like the effect of the light on the water.  The shape of the sponge was not correct for water flow.  I also didn’t leave enough areas white on the water, and lifting did not work.  I did not resort to white ink to add more as I did in the previous painting.  Once again, I ended up with a good practice painting, but nothing more.  I really like the foliage and the tree trunks.  I hate the water because it is too flat and does not show movement. 
Stream Study 2

Because I am impatient, I have a hard time leaving a watercolor painting alone while my layers are drying.  I need to find other things to occupy my time so while I was painting my second study I started doodling a version of the same scene on a small piece of paper.  I didn’t use masking fluid. I did some wet-in-wet, but didn’t so a lot of broad washes.  In some ways I like this one the best of the three watercolors. 
Stream Study Little

So what does this have with oil painting and the title of this post, you ask?  Good question!  
While I was doing these paintings I became very attached to the scene. I was also missing my oils.  While they are a greater time commitment and more difficult to set up and clean up I still know my oil painting skills are better than my nascent watercolor skills.  I decided to do a version of the painting in oils.  I also committed to use two things I’d learned from my watercolor studies.  First, I learned a lot about the scene and the way to capture the light.  Second, I decided to try something a little different. I decided to approach the painting more like I do a watercolor painting.  I primed the canvas in a light orange acrylic and then began by panting the white and yellow areas peeking through the trees.  Normally I would paint the tree trunks before the foliage and would then paint leaves over the trunks.  Of course you can’t do that in watercolor since the trunks are darker. You have to paint the trunks later, only in the areas where the foliage doesn’t cover them.  I used this same approach in the oil painting.  I painted the light leaves, followed by the darker leaves. I painted the rocks and the water and captured areas of the bare forest floor between the leaves.  The last thing that I painted was the tree trunks.  

The resulting painting was probably the most impressionistic thing I’ve done.  I think it really captures the dancing light and the peaceful dark areas of the forest while not focusing on realism. I really like the result, especially if you step back from it a few feet, not something a photograph really allows for.  
Stream Oil

So yes, what I am learning from watercolor does have the potential to improve my oil painting. I’m going to keep at it, and maybe someday I’ll be a good watercolorist too.  

15th Annual Falls Church Arts All Member Show

Falls Church Arts is opening a new gallery, and its just two blocks from our Falls Church home!  In the past they’ve always shared Art Space with Creative Cauldron, Falls Church’s theater group. So exited that they are getting their own space.  The grand opening is Saturday night with the 15th Annual All Members show.  
Show Announcement
The new space is in the retail portion of The Kensington, which is a senior living building that has just been completed in Falls Church. The building owners are very excited to have Falls Church Arts as a neighbor because they see it as a good fit with their residents.  

I have entered two paintings in the show. Depending on space availability one or both will be included.  I will also be at the opening gala!  Below are the two paintings and yes there is a vineyard theme :-) 

Afton Mountain Vineyard oil

Rockbridge Vineyard Chairs

Pollo Mexicano

I had such fun with this one!  These paintings were done from a photo taken by Joan Wells, a long time friend and former owner of The Queen Victoria, an inn in Cape May, New Jersey. Bill and I visited Cape May and stayed at the QV most summers and other times for a span of about 20 years, and during that time we got to know Joan and her husband Dane quite well.  A few years back they sold the inn and now they are happily retired and traveling the world.  The rest of us are living vicariously through Joan’s posts on Facebook.

I used to only paint from my own photos.  I thought it was wrong to paint from a photo taken by someone else.  Recently I’ve broadened my perspective. I have friends who go to so many interesting places and are wonderful photographers. I’m now allowing myself to paint from some of those if they inspire me, but only if granted permission to do so.

A few months ago Joan and Dane were traveling in Mexico and Joan posted a beautiful photo of a rooster walking along the edge of a canyon with a backdrop of cliffs and rugged mountains.  I knew instantly I wanted to paint it and asked if she’d mind.  Thankfully she said she was fine with me doing that.

First I did a watercolor study.  I’m not crazy about the background in that painting.  I’m still honing my newfound watercolor skills.  I do like the chicken.  Doing the study allowed me to study the scene and become familiar with the details of the rooster.
Pollo Mexicano WC

Then I did the oil version.  This is a small painting – it is on a 12×9 Belgian linen panel.  I had the paint the background a couple of times to get the atmospheric depth.  The earlier version didn’t grasp the feeling of the canyon because I didn’t capture the distance of the mountains on the other side.  I now feel I’ve captured that feeling.  I also love the rooster.  The red sets off the painting.  His plumage is quite colorful as well.
Pollo Mexicano

Finally, here is Joan’s original photo. I hope I did it justice.
Joan Wells Chicken
Falls Church Arts has a show coming up in a few months called Whimsy. I’m not really sure what that means. I think I will enter this to see what happens.  After all, what’s more whimsical than a free ranging Mexican chicken?

Speaking of Falls Church arts, I’ve entered the painting below, Carmel Sea, in this years’ All-Member show.   The show opens Friday, April 1st.  Unfortunately I will miss the opening because we will be in the mountains.  I hope others can go.  The Falls Church Arts All-Member shows are always very nice.

17 Mile Drive

Three Ridges in Snow

It was time to finish the last season of three ridges. I’d done summer, spring and fall.  I actually did do winter but with ice on top and clouds in the valley. It is also stunning in the snow.  The photo I did this from was actually from a few years ago.  Unfortunately, we weren’t in the mountains for the spectacular storm we had a few weeks ago.  It doesn’t matter though.  More than about a foot of snow (which happens fairly often) and the mountains become a winter wonderland.

This painting shows a beautiful clear, dark blue sky in contrast to the white, new fallen snow. The mountains in the distance have snow, but also the dormant trees making them an icy purple color.  The trees in the foreground were very red on the top – the color of the twigs, but the larger branches were covered in snow.

The fence on the right challenged my engineer’s brain. I worked hard to paint the shapes and colors, and not to focus on the thing it was supposed to be. I hated it while I was painting it, but the result was quite good.  It shows the shadows and light and captures the illusion of the deep snow.

I also had fun with the shadows and light in the foreground snow. The seedlings and grasses poking out from beneath the snow helped add to the interest of the scene.

This painting is 24×12 on canvas. Now the four seasons are complete. Does that mean I will stop painting Three Ridges? No way! It looks different in the color and the light of each new day.  I need to branch out more, but I will never tire of painting Three Ridges.
Three Ridges in Snow

A New Painting for My Fireplace

I mentioned in an earlier post that I was working on a new version of Three Ridges in Cloud to hang over my fireplace in our mountain home.  I finished it this week and I thought I’d share it.

This was an interesting experience.  While I paint the same subjects a lot, Three Ridges being a favorite, I don’t usually try to duplicate paintings.  Sometimes I’ll do a study in watercolor and then an oil painting, but that’s different because there is no chance they’ll be the same.  In this case, I really liked the original painting, but I needed a bigger version of it because of the space where I wanted to hang it.  I thought about painting from the painting rather than the original photograph, but decided against it for a number of reasons, not the least of which I didn’t want to minimize my creativity.

During the process of painting I found myself not liking the new one as well.  First of all, my brush technique has changed quite a bit.  I painted the original in January and February of 2015, which wasn’t that long ago.  However, I’m still new at this, so I’m evolving quickly.   In the last year I’ve read and studied books and sites, and I’ve taken a few classes.  Now I dab more and make fewer long strokes.  This difference is very obvious in the clouds.  I also liked the muted colors in the original, but I’ve been experimenting more with bolder colors, so I captured more color in the sky and the trees in the foreground.  When I finished it on Tuesday (my birthday) I decided I liked it better.  The additional color gives it an added richness.  I still like them both a lot – mostly because it’s a very pretty scene and a nice photograph.  I was lucky to be there on the day I took it.

Below are both versions with the most recent one first.  The original is 36×18 and the new version is 48×24.   It will look nice above my fireplace – much better than the print left there by the previous owners.  I consider it a nice birthday gift to myself.

Three Ridges in Cloud 48x24 Oil on Canvas

Three Ridges in Cloud
48×24 Oil on Canvas

Three Ridges in Cloud 36x18 Oil on Canvas

Three Ridges in Cloud
36×18 Oil on Canvas

 

Three Ridges Overlook in Fall

This is my latest work created in my Northern Virginia studio. It is a familiar scene – Three Ridges.  This was painted from a photo taken in the Fall from the overlook at the top of Devil’s Knob.  I “enhanced” the fall color a bit.  I also included the fence, something I didn’t used to do but now that I’m practicing more man made objects I’ve been including it.  This painting is 16 x 12 Oil on canvas.
Three Ridges Overlook in Fall

I’m also working on a larger version of my earlier painting of Three Ridges in Cloud in my mountain studio.  I want to replace the picture over the fireplace in the mountain house and it needs something big. It’s interesting redoing something that you’ve done before.  The original impressionists did it all the time. I really like the first one I did so I want this one to be just as good.  There’s no doubt it will be different. It is 48×24, so it will be my largest painting.  It will be a while before it’s done, but I will post it when it is.  Below is the first one I did (36×18) which I covered in an earlier post.
Three Ridges in Cloud

Class with Christine Lashley

Last Thursday I played hooky from work and took a plein aire workshop with a local artist named Christine Lashely. I found her because she was one of the chosen artists for the Bath County Plein Aire Festival, which I’ve been following because there is some overlap with artists that I know from classes at Nimrod Hall. I liked her art and noticed that she was local to Northern Virginia, so I got on her mailing list.

The workshop was held at Ross Farm in Dickerson Maryland near Frederick. It was a lovely setting with a view of Sugarloaf Mountain and lovely barns and buildings. The leaves were pretty close to peak and it was a beautiful day.

We started off with a watercolor of Sugarloaf. My watercolor skills are improving, but still challenged, and I got frustrated and put it away to start on an oil painting. Christine got me to bring it back out and provided some very helpful critique.  One of the first things you learn about her is that she sees purple in everything, but she’s right! She got me to tone down the orange trees on the mountain with purple, which helped account for atmospheric distortion from the distance. She also got me to put on more layers of paint in general, making the work bolder and brighter and more complex. Below is the finished product.

Sugarloaf Watercolor

I say finished, but as it turns out plein aire painting doesn’t allow for perfect. That’s part of what makes it fun. You have to take what you get because you have a limited amount of time and the scene is always changing. Even with the challenges it has many advantages to painting from photos. You see colors that are much more vivid and the depth of the scene is not lost to the flatness of a photo.

After we finished our watercolors we moved out of the wind a little – which was blowing hard enough to blow easels over. I chose to paint the big red barn and the brilliant orange tree that was next to it. I don’t like the perspective of my painting, but once again, plein aire doesn’t allow for perfect.  I do like the colors and the rest of the scene. Once again, Christine provided critique that much improved the painting. Of course we added some purple which once again improved the scene more that I would imagine. She also helped with a new brush technique to smudge the paint in places.  Below is the result of the oil painting session.

Barn Oil

Even a bad day plein aire painting is better than any day at the office. I need to do this more often!

Lake Bled

I usually paint from photos I take myself, but sometimes someone I know takes a photo that I find so inspiring that I ask permission to paint from it.  My sister Nancy, who lives in Italy, recently took a trip to Slovenia and visited Lake Bled.  She took a stunning photograph of the lake and the beautiful cathedral on the island in the middle.  The surrounding mountains were shrouded with clouds, but the sky above was blue.  This made for beautiful reflections in the water.  On the distant shore stands another church. Anyone interested in following Nancy’s adventures as an American ExPat in Italy should read her blog.  Here is Nancy’s photo of Lake Bled. I cropped it to get the scene and composition I wanted.
Lake Bled Photo

The nice thing about this photo is that it’s portrait orientation.  As a landscape painter, most of the scenes I paint are landscape orientation.  Many are panoramic – I like painting in a footprint that is twice as long as it is tall.  We have this electrical box in the hallway just inside the front door of our condo in Northern Virginia.  It’s ugly and I’ve been wanting to cover it up but it requires a portrait orientation painting that is fairly large.  I had an 18×24 inch board that I thought would be perfect for the job, and Lake Bled would look beautiful there.

The painting was challenging.  I wanted the star of the show to be the island in the middle, with its contrasting green trees and red roofs.  I also wanted to capture the image of that reflecting in the water.  This was very challenging but a lot of fun.  The water was not still, so I had to capture the ripples with a series of small horizontal brush strokes of the varying colors.  These also had to fade to the white of the clouds and ultimately the blue of the sky.  There are actually four different sections of color in the water in addition to the image of the island.  The area near the distant shore is almost white, the gray-blue reflection of the mountain, the white/gray cloud layer on top of the mountain, and finally the bright blue sky.  Interesting that you can only see bits of that in the photo, but it’s evident in the reflection.  I actually broke my engineer brain’s connection to reality when I was painting this.  I was focused on shapes and colors and didn’t realize the sky above was blue until I stood back and looked at the almost finished product (below).
Lake Bled

I am very pleased with this work.  It’s one of my best efforts to date.  Alas, it may not hang in the hallway at my condo, but that’s a good thing.

A few weeks ago I was at work.  My office is a gallery of paintings I don’t have room for.  I also like them because they remind me of my other life – what I’d rather be doing.  I was talking to Catherine, a colleague and she asked, “How can someone buy one of your paintings?”  I laughed and said “They’re all for sale!”  We continued talking and I mentioned that I was working on a painting of Lake Bled.  She announced, “I want to buy that one!”  As it turns out, Lake Bled was the destination of Catherine and her husband Mike’s first overseas trip.  She is looking for a unique gift for his November birthday and decided this painting would be it, sight unseen.  I shared a photo of the partially finished painting.  She still hasn’t seen it, but now that it’s done I’ll take it into work this week and if she likes it in person, it will be sold.  Fingers crossed.  I’ll post an update with the final result.

One of the things I’ve learned in my short artistic career is that people buy art for personal reasons.  Usually they choose a painting because it touches them emotionally in some way.  There is really no way to plan for that.  I paint for myself, and hopefully along the way my art will touch others as well.

Update:  Catherine did indeed buy the painting and she loves it!

Umbrian Hill Town

Four years ago we took a trip to Italy with my sister and her husband (who now live there) and some other friends.  We rented Il Casale di Mele, a farm house in Umbria, for a week.  It was a wonderful place with spectacular views.  From the table out on the back terrace we looked out over a town called Collazzone.  This painting was painted from a photo that I took of that town.

I had fun doing this, although it took a while.  I focused on the values.  By that I mean I looked at the lights and darks of the shadows and the brightly lit facades of the buildings.  It took several sessions to paint this and it was done in the mountain house.  That allowed each layer to dry before I began the next.  First I did the drawing, which took a long time all by itself.  I drew each building and roof. I painted the sky up to the roofline.   Then I painted the roofs. Then I painted the light surfaces followed by the darks in a separate session.  Then I painted the windows, doors, railings, chimneys and touched up some of the shadows along the roof lines.  Finally I painted the trees.  I’m happy enough with the result.
Umbrian Hill Town

This was a good exercise for me because it forced me to focus on shapes and colors rather than thinking about the “things” that I was painting.