When I received an email from a woman in Switzerland, asking if I’d be interested in a commission to paint the site of her wedding (the Brazilian Room in Tilden Park) as a 10-year anniversary gift for her husband I said an enthusiastic, “Yes!” We agreed I would have the painting completed when she visited the Bay Area a couple of months later so that she could hand carry it back to Switzerland.
I visited the site, took photos and we agreed I would use the one above as reference for the painting. Since I shot the photo in late spring it wouldn’t really match the colors and light of her August wedding so I also used my imagination and memory of the park in summer to capture the warmth and strong light of August in the Bay Area. Below are some of the steps in the painting process.
I’m back on the blog after an intense week spent alternately deep in the bowels of a massive garage clean up/reorganization, and obsessively fighting the acrylic version of the watercolor sketch above. After finishing the garage on Saturday afternoon it was time to clean up in the house and studio and prep for my Sunday morning watercolor class (which went great with a terrific group of artists who left me feeling inspired).
Virtual Paintout: Hawaii
For the Virtual Paintout we went to Hawaii this month via the very cheap Google Air (just kidding—to participate you use Google Maps’ Street View feature to find your painting spot and all travels are virtual). Here’s the original scene:
The painting got off to a good start with Golden Open Acrylics. I was trying to work from both my watercolor sketch above in which I’d changed the colors, warming up the scene, and also from the Google photo which just has a blur for the foreground. I first painted the gate purple for fun, but nearing completion realized the gate was too prominent and acting as roadblock into the painting so I repainted it green.
Then I started fighting the foreground. Over and over I painted, repainted, scraped, repainted. Here it is in its current state with the foreground (and some of the fence) scraped off again .
Part of the problem may be the Utrecht Masters canvas panel that I was experimenting with. The canvas texture is too coarse and too absorbent so first I painted a layer of regular acrylic to smooth it out and reduce the absorbency (which is OK to do according to Golden). But then I had a paint adhesion problem, easily peeling off several layers where I’d painted thickly or repainted over not quite dry paint.
Since I wasted so much time messing with this painting and because I really love the top half of it I just didn’t want to give up. But to enjoy the second half of my vacation I’ve banished it to the closet and have gone back to working on a big watercolor of a tulip that is going great and makes me happy when I paint, not frustrated. I’m becoming convinced that I’m meant to be a watercolor painter and should forget about oils and acrylics.
When I bought my house 10 years ago it had been a rental for many years before that and the standalone garage probably hadn’t been cleaned forever. Then for 9 years my son used it to dismantle and rebuild his 71 Firebird, leaving grease, car parts, tires, miscellaneous junk, and bondo dust on top of years of grime, cobwebs, and worse (we found a literal rats’ nest made of fluffy chewed up shop towels in one corner behind a piece of plywood but no sign of recent rodents).
After moving most of his stuff out and the initial trip to the dump above, the real clean up began. I hired the smart, hardworking 15-year old boy next door to help me clean and we worked together most of Friday and Saturday. He vacuumed the wood walls and concrete floors after cleaning out the Bondo-filled ShopVac, removed and cleaned all my storage bins from the shelving units and then cleaned the shelving too. Meanwhile I sorted my junk and took a carload to the recycling/donation center and made another pile for the dump.
Finally the garage is ready for its new life as studio annex and multipurpose room. And I’m ready for my last week of vacation which I will fill with art fun, rest and recreation!
There are still openings in my watercolor class starting Sunday, June 27; click here for all the information. Ok, business done, now on to the painting above, another study from photos I took at the Kaiser garden.
I learned the hard way to do a study first, after time and again putting hours, days or weeks into a painting that was doomed from the start.
No matter how skillful the painting technique is, if the composition is bad (the viewer’s eye goes to a bright corner and then right off the painting), or you’re trying to work from a photo that doesn’t have enough information, or your colors or values are uninteresting, the painting isn’t likely to succeed. Sketching exactly what you see is great fun, but sometimes nature requires editing to make it a painting.
What made me want to paint this scene was the water feature and the bird sculpture but when I looked at my photo I saw big problems with the composition:
There is way too much going on, the two big succulent plants on the bottom left dominate, a big stem above them leads the eye out of the frame, and the composition seems divided right down the middle, vertically. You barely notice the water.
So I spent some time in Photoshop cropping, rearranging and revising things:
Before cropping off the left side, I cut out the bird, moved it to the right, tilted it and gave it legs. Then I darkened the remaining succulents on the left and bottom to use them as a frame for the water feature instead of competing with it. When I started sketching the composition in my journal I decided to get rid of the messy tree branches poking in from the right too.
Although Photoshop is great for preparing a photo reference, so are the scissors, glue, sketches and notes that I used pre-Photoshop. Along with learning Photoshop, I’m also trying to become a better photographer and compose more carefully. I can do that with my digital SLR because it has a viewfinder but my carry-everywhere little Panasonic doesn’t. In the bright sun it was impossible to see anything on the LCD screen, so I guess I’m lucky that I got something I could work from at all.
My notes for the painting are in my journal opposite the study, with reminders about colors and things that worked (or didn’t). I’ve transferred the drawing to the canvas and it’s just waiting for its turn at the easel. I have a feeling it’s really meant to be a watercolor, not an acrylic painting, so may do it both ways.
I accidentally arrived an hour early for a doctor’s appointment at one of Kaiser Oakland’s medical offices that has an amazing hidden garden. The building is an architectural treasure, built around a courtyard in 1912 by Julia Morgan as a hospital and home for unwed mothers (or so I’ve been told). Instead of reading old, germy magazines, I spent the hour in the courtyard sketching, wandering and taking photos.
After working out the composition and colors, I’ve got two paintings ready to start: a full-size watercolor sheet of the above image and a slightly smaller canvas of another garden scene.
Before starting a large painting I like to do a study first, getting to know the image more intimately, and experimenting with pigments and techniques so when I start the real painting I have a plan of action or at least a sense of direction.
Since I only recently began experimenting with opaque watercolor pigments after years of using only transparents, I made some discoveries with this study and took notes as I worked. Here are a couple that might be of interest:
Opaque pigments (Cadmiums, Cerulean, Yellow Ochre) are great when putting down an area of strong color and leaving it (such as when painting in my journal). But they lift too easily when adding layers over them, and become thick and unattractive when trying to mix darks. As I learned in oil painting, darks/shadows are best when thin so they don’t draw attention to themselves with texture. Seems to be the case in watercolor as well: better to use staining, transparent darks that won’t lift or get thick. For the dark green areas in the painting I’ll use Sap Green with Sepia and vary with a bit of Indigo, Winsor Violet and/or Alizarin.
The Legion/Utrecht 100% rag watercolor paper I’m using in my journal lifts incredibly easily. This is great when you actually want to lift paint but not so good when you just want to soften an edge and a bunch of paint lifts off instead!
Here are the original reference photo and the Photoshopped version. As you can see I got rid of some distractions and changed the proportions a bit.
Photoshop CS5 has some great new composition tools, such as “Content-Aware Fill” which I used to fill in the windows, white at top right corner and a tulip on the right margin. You just select and delete sections you want to replace and PS fills them with information from the surrounding area. I also narrowed the image to fit the proportions of the 22×30 watercolor paper using Content-Aware Scaling which preserves the proportions of the important stuff while squeezing in (or stretching) the other stuff.