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Spring Into Summer

John Muir Home and Orchard, ink, watercolor & gouache, 8x10"
John Muir Home and Orchard, ink, watercolor & gouache, 8×10″

After I filled the jumbo Moleskine watercolor journal I discovered I forgot to post several pages. From March! So here are a few of those sketches from early spring. Above and below are the John Muir home, with a bit of the fruit tree orchards and redwoods on the property. I sketched and painted these on site, with a little gouache added to the fruit tree blossoms at home.

John Muir Landscape, ink, watercolor & gouache, 10x8"
John Muir Landscape, ink, watercolor & gouache, 10×8″
Spring at Blake Gardens, watercolor, 10x8"
Spring at Blake Gardens, watercolor, 10×8″

Above is another spring sketch, painted directly with watercolor, of  magnolia trees and the pretty little flowers planted around the tree.

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Blake Gardens: Tulips, Tulip Trees: Sketches and Paintings

Blake Gardens Tulips & Tulip Tree, ink & watercolor, 7x5"

The tulip trees (Saucer Magnolias) and tulips were blooming when we painted at Blake Gardens on a sunny Friday a week ago. Of the multiple sketches and paintings I did of the scene, I think I’m happiest with the one above, done in my journal when I got home, from a combination of memory and photo. I clipped the text from their brochure and pasted it on the journal page.

Here is the final painting and below that are the steps in between:

Blake Tulips & Tulip Tree, Acrylic, 10x8" on Gessobord
Blake Tulips & Tulip Tree, Acrylic, 10x8" on Gessobord

After I picked my spot to paint and set up my easel, I did several thumbnail sketches (left below) to plan my composition. While each thumbnail improved on the one before it, none were great compositions and as a result neither was the plein air painting I did on site.

Journal spread with thumbnail sketches
Journal Spread with thumbnails

I was working with Golden Open Acrylics, my first time trying them outdoors. A Golden expert suggested I put a drop of Golden Open Acrylic Thinner atop each blob of paint to keep them moist when painting outdoors. Instead, thinking I was so clever, I mixed about 25% thinner with 75% water in a spray bottle and misted the paints occasionally.

But I should have taken her advice as my method didn’t work. She’d warned me that adding water to the Open paints will make them dry faster, which it did, and they started getting icky-sticky about the time I needed to quit and head for the critique anyway. Indoors they stay wet all day and in a closed palette, for a week or two.

The plein air painting was so UGLY that I’m glad I only expect my plein air paintings to be learning studies. My plein air painting goal is to fully experience and participate in a scene and embed my memories of color, light, texture, sounds and scents.

Very BAD Plein air study
Plein air study

And there were sounds and scents: not only were the many magnolias overly fragrant, but shortly after I set up, two gardeners fired up a gas-powered industrial-strength chain saw, cut down a huge tree and sawed it to pieces about 20 feet away from me. The sound was horrible and the smell was worse.

Below is a photo taken when I first arrived,  cropped into a more pleasing composition. I like the diagonals and the way shapes of shadows and colors lead the eye into and around the painting.

Photo at Blake Gardens
Photo at Blake Gardens

From my watercolor sketch and the photo above, I started working on a studio version of the painting. Below is the  underpainting with the main shapes and colors blocked in.

Underpainting in acrylic
Acrylic under painting

I liked just as it was and was hesitant to paint over it so I left it for a few days before working on it again until it decided it was finished.

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Blake Gardens Revised; Pondering Painting

Blake Gardens Revised, oil on panel 9x12"
Blake Gardens Revised, oil on panel 9x12"

When my sister looked at the original version of this painting (posted here) she told me her eye kept going to the bright area in the upper right. There was a lot that was distracting in that image, and I thought the ground was too dark and the two little patches of flowers on opposite sides of the path were distracting too.  But now maybe I lost some of the sunshine by lightening the ground and darkening that corner?  (see original below)

Blake Gardens Late Afternoon, oil on panel, 9x12"
Blake Gardens (version 1, click to enlarge)

So it was back to the drawing board…er easel. I spent some more time working on it and I think it’s done now. Which do you like better? Or do you think the revised version needs more work and if so what?

Yesterday I was out plein air painting in the funky little town of Port Costa, and because I was painting buildings, spent more time drawing than painting to get the perspective right.  (Which makes me realize I need to add one more point to my How to Oil Paint Plein Air List: # 5. “Get the drawing right!”). Today I tried to (but didn’t quite ) finish it. While I used to often spend a month or more completing a watercolor painting, for some reason I have the idea that an oil painting should be finished more quickly, like in one session.

Perhaps what bothers me is that when I paint plein air I work small, using a 9×12″ panel.  It seems like a waste of time to work such a small painting for days afterward, putting in lots of details (because I like details, darn it, even though plein air oil paintings are supposed to be simplified).

Maybe the trick is to paint the plein air painting as a simplified field study and then if I like it, if it has life and soul and the subject still interests me, grab a bigger canvas and paint big where I can really get into things like reflections in windows and other crunchy details,  instead of continuing to work on the study.

But for now, it’s back to overworking yesterday’s study since I just scraped off the bottom 1/4 of the painting and need to redo it before the paint dries.