I’ve often thought about writing down the story of how a painting develops and I just had the perfect opportunity to do that last weekend. Three solid days of clear blue skies, sunshine, rising temperatures and no bugs! A plein air “paint-out” had been organized at the Paul Smith’s College VIC and I was one of seven artists who participated.
Day 1: For my first painting, I hiked out to the boardwalk section of the Boreal Life trail, checked out the views and then decided to go back to an old favorite – a close-up of that common Adirondack bog resident, a pitcher plant. It was still in the 30s and there was ice in the pitchers. I wish I knew more about these odd, carnivorous plants, and it was fun to focus on the small detail. By lunchtime I was ready for something bigger.
A few years ago when I got an iPhone, I became infatuated with the panoramic photo feature. I often use it to take wide photos of scenic views and then do paintings based on the photos, usually on 12 x 48” canvases. With three days of great weather in the forecast, I brought one of these panoramic canvases to the VIC.
I’d already hiked the Boreal Life trail, so after lunch cruised the Barnum Brook trail, checking out all the great viewpoints. I ended up at what I call “the view”. Whoever built that trail really knew what they were doing when they constructed a viewing platform at the spot where Barnum Brook empties into Heron Marsh. There is a large outcropping of moss-covered rock, a towering white pine and spruce trees growing out of it, and the beaver dammed brook pooling around its base. A perfect view! I’ve painted it in all four seasons and often take panoramic photos of this view, but today I resisted the temptation and just set up my easel to paint it.
My 12 x 48” canvas was prepared with a layer of pale yellow ochre paint. Many artists apply a colored tone so they are not dealing with a bright white background. I took a 3/4” wide, flat brush, mixed up some neutral grey, thinned it down with painting medium, and drew in the basic shapes of the landscape with the brush. From where I was standing, down below the viewing platform, closer to the pond, it was probably about 160 degrees from left to right, encompassing the entire view of the marsh, the rock outcrop, the brook and St Regis Mountain. It finally had warmed up enough to take off my fleece vest and I worked feverishly, comfortable in long sleeves, oblivious to the passage of time. I’d chosen early afternoon and since I was facing south, the rocks were in shadow, but bathed in the reflected light of the water. I quit around 6:30, when the shadows became long and harsh – and I was thirsty and hungry. I had most of the basic shapes painted in loosely, with much of the ochre canvas covered in the first layer of oil paint. When I got home, the entire right side of my face, neck, and ear were sunburned and bright red! I’d never felt a thing. I made a note to myself to use sunscreen the next day.
Day 2: In the morning I painted a glacial erratic with birch and hemlock roots embracing it, next to the first footbridge over Barnum Brook. I returned to “the view” at 2:30 pm, when the rock outcropping was again in shadow. Some people might think the early Adirondack spring a boring time to paint – no green grass or leaves, no flowers and most of the plant life dead and brown. Not so! The landscape is a wealth of subtle colors. From my painting location, St Regis Mountain was a pale purplish blue in the distance. The forested ridge stretching across the background was the loveliest purplish/pinkish grey as the hardwoods were just starting to get some color in the buds. The expanse was broken up by clusters of dark, dark green white pines towering above the hardwood canopy. In the transition area between forest and marsh were the tamaracks. Do you know what color they are in mid-April? A warm, brownish grey. In a few weeks the little pale green needle buds will start to pop out, but for my painting the tamaracks are brown. In a few places young spruce trees that caught the light of the sun were a brilliant yellow green. The marsh itself was a delightful pattern of rusty brown and tan grasses, broken up by patches of open water that matched the deepest blue of the cloudless sky. Then there were the rocks – the real focal point of my composition. They are basically grey, but I didn’t use grey to paint them. I don’t even have a tube of black among my paints. I mix colors to make the rich, luminous purplish, bluish tones of the shadowed rocks. I chose the afternoon light on purpose, as the edge of the unusually shaped free-standing rock in front of the main outcrop was backlit by the sun. The thick moss that curled over the edge of the main rocks also glowed golden green in the bright light of mid-afternoon. By late afternoon the moss was all in shadow, but I’d already painted it in light, so then I worked more on the background and the water. Leaving at 6:30 pm, the only interruptions had been the brief hellos with passing hikers and pausing to watch ducks take off or land in the marsh. I think the temperature got into the 60’s and I remembered to use sunscreen. I didn’t remember to drink a lot of water and was dehydrated and tired by the time I got home!
Day 3: In the morning I did a small painting from the elevated observation deck on the Heron Marsh trail. I was back to work on my panorama at 2 pm. The rocks and background were pretty much done. Today I concentrated on the trees growing out of the rocks, the reflection in the water, and got started on the trees on the right and left sides of the painting. Trees can be a real challenge to paint. Some artists, contemporary as well as those of the 19th century Hudson River School, meticulously paint in every leaf and branch. They often develop a stylized technique for doing that, making their paintings look similar. I can’t do that! It bores me to sit and paint every leaf, or every blade of grass, or piece of hair. I taught myself to paint, as an teenager, by doing “paint-by-number” kits and through that learned that all objects, animal, plant, natural or man-made, are all composed of colored shapes. So when it comes to painting trees, I look at the general shape of the tree itself, the colored shapes that it is made up of, the color, size and angles of the trunks and branches, and the shapes of the background, or sky, that show through the tree. I look for what is irregular rather than what is straight or perfect. Then I go back and forth as I observe and paint, sometimes working on tree shapes, sometimes working on the background shapes, mixing colors and making the shapes on the canvas match the shapes that I’m seeing. Many other plein air painters are much looser, using wider brushes to paint in broad color areas to represent trees. I guess I’m somewhere in between – loose, but attentive to details! And in case you’re wondering, it’s never easy. It’s hard work! Observing, mixing colors, painting, checking by observing again, painting some more, backing up and seeing what it looks like from a few feet away, painting some more. But I really love the process and it’s magical when it turns out right. Keep in mind too that I’m always working on the whole painting, so while I was concentrating on the trees, I was also still checking how the light was hitting the forest in the background or the grasses in the marsh and making adjustments to get the results I wanted.
Best of all, however, I was immersed in the environment. Smelling the smells, feeling the breeze that rippled the reflections in the brook, hearing the whisper of it blowing through the pine needles. Heard the first spring peepers. I don’t know what the actual temperature got up to, but I was standing out in the open sun in a t-shirt and I got hot! My dark colored wood handled paint brushes were actually hot to the touch from sitting out in the sun! By 5 pm I felt exhausted and my feet hurt from standing on a side hill all afternoon long with the sun beating down on me. So since I was three-quarters done with the painting, I moved back onto the viewing platform in the shade, lowered my easel, and actually sat on a bench for awhile to paint. I still had an open view of most of the landscape. I painted until 7 pm and still wasn’t done.
Day 4: I slept in, caught up with emails, and checked the weather. Sun and clear skies were supposed to prevail until mid-afternoon, then cloud over with rain in the evening. I headed back out to the VIC again at noon. I did some touch-up of various parts of the painting, actually slightly changing the color of the hardwoods in the distance and then tackled the large spruce tree slightly leaning into the composition on the left side and the smaller trees in front of it. By this time there were wispy lenticular clouds in the sky, signaling a change its coming. When I have overlapping layers of forms like this, I like to get all the basic shapes and colors loosely filled in. In this case, the marsh was painted in the background and now I concentrated on the leaning spruce, refining the roughly sketched truck and branches, sharpening the contrast against the marsh. A larger spruce tree on the left edge of the canvas overlapped part of the leaning spruce, then a young white pine in the foreground. All the trees required different shapes, colors and values to paint them, then touch ups to the background shapes. White pine needle clusters are very different from the spruce trees. It was fun to explore the color combinations that worked to highlight the features of each the best. The last thing I worked on was the light, the effect of the late afternoon sun coming across the marsh and how it highlighted certain things, clumps of marsh grass here and there, the edge of a rock, backlighting some of the spruce trees on the right side of the canvas. By then it had clouded over, so I kind of had to work from memory, but I’d been there four days in a row, so I remembered! I did note how flat the light was now, no cast shadows, and the water was now grey, with no blue sky to reflect. A flock of geese circled low over the marsh and flew right over me. I heard the soft whoosh of wind through their feathers.
Done. I think. I sat for awhile at the viewing platform studying my painting with the landscape behind it. The grayness of the day actually allowed me to look at both of them in the same light conditions. When I get home I will put the painting out in my living room where I can look at it often. How do I know when a painting is done? When nothing jumps out and says “fix me”!
This is the story of a painting. They all have stories that are part of how they are created. I have often told people that I don’t think a lot while I am plein air painting, and that is true. I don’t analyze the composition or make notes about what colors I see. I don’t do preliminary sketches. I just observe and paint. I listen and look and enjoy the whole process.
The other artists who took part in the VIC “paint-out” were: Nancy Brossard, Frances Gaffney, Catherine Hartung, Charles Atwood King, Diane Leifheit, and Edith Urban. Our paintings will be on display in the gallery space at the Paul Smith’s College VIC through May 31st. Come out, go for a hike, and see how they all turned out!
Paintings of Barnum Brook by Sandra Hildreth.