Working Larger

“Under a Big Sky”
Oil on Canvas

I’ve had the luxury of working on some larger paintings for the past couple of weeks. It’s always more of a challenge to make a composition work on a larger scale, but I love the impact a bigger painting can make if done well.

This painting is an enlargement of a 12×16″ study I did at the beginning of this year. I posted it here along with the Willa Cather quote that originally inspired my to paint it – the gist of it is how big the sky is out West, dwarfing everything below it. I liked how the study turned out, and wanted to explore it a bit further. In the bigger version, I pushed the idea a bit further, increasing the scale of the sky compared to the mountains below, and exaggerating the curvature of the clouds to add more movement. I also added a bit more complexity to the foreground and added some more of the city lights, just to underscore how small we all really are here.

On another note, this was the first painting I’ve done on canvas this year, and I HATED the surface. Guess my obsession with smooth panels will continue – now I need to find something suitable for bigger paintings…

I’ve got a few more of these larger paintings on the easel, and after a weekend of relaxing I’m chomping at the bit to get back into the studio and work on them!

Demo – Enlarging a Painting PART II

So, when I left off yesterday I had just finished a block-in of the major shapes and colors in acrylic paint. A lot of people ask me about the acrylic whenever I post these demos, and I know it’s a bit unconventional. When I do smaller paintings, or paint on location, I usually do a block-in of the major masses with thinned oil paint, then build up texture and detail on top of that block-in. I think a lot of artists work this way – it’s pretty normal. When I’m working on larger paintings in the studio, I often use acrylics instead for two reasons. First, the smell of oil paint thinned with mineral spirits gets to me if I’m working on a large scale, even though I use the best mineral spirits I’ve found to date (Gamsol). The acrylics don’t smell, and I can work on top of them with oil paint without any problems. Second, I like the fact that the acrylics dry immediately. I can work over them right away without having to worry about mixing with the paint underneath, which allows me to change and refine how I want.

Anyhow, once the block-in was done, I started to rework the painting in oil. At this point, I was using oil paint straight from the tube for the most part, using OMS and res-n-gel to thin the paint as needed. The first step was to put down the dark shadows of the pine tree:

I often work from back to front when I’m doing a large painting, but when I’m doing a more organic subject like this, I sort of go from dark to light and skip around the canvas a bit. So, once the dark shadows of the tree were down, I started to bring in the mid-tone greens on the pine branches and the general masses of the red tree behind it. I was blocking in major masses at this point, and wasn’t too concerned with allowing the sky to show through the tree quite yet:

Next, the “solidity” of the pine tree was distracting me, so I decided to go ahead and paint in the main tone of the sky, working the sky color back into the edges of the trees, and adding some sky holes throughout the mass of the pine tree:

Now that the top half of the painting was taking shape, I started to work downward into the foreground vegetation, starting with the willows at the top of the hill:

Then moving on to the foreground grasses:

Next, I painted in the rocky trail, and started to refine the foreground a bit by adding some of the red twigs/bushes:

At this point, I decided it was time to paint in the aspen trunks before refining the foreground any more. When I paint aspen trees, I often paint everything around them before tackling their trunks. I don’t really know why I do this, but I do know that if the painting is working around the trunks, it will only look better once I complete them. I usually paint the knots on the tree trunks first (dark to light convention), but in this case I decided to paint the light mass of the tree bark first:

Then I added in the knots on the trees, which are what really give aspen trees their character:

At this point, all of the main masses in the painting were complete, and I set it up on the mantle above the fireplace for a couple of days so that I could spot the problems before finishing it up. The uniformity of color of the red bushes in the foregound was really bugging me, and the rocks on the trail at the bottom of the panel were too black. I brought the painting back into the studio and did some rework on the trail itself, added some color to the rocks at the bottom of the painting, and brought some varying colors/values into the foreground grasses and bushes to add dimension:

I took a final photo of the painting at that point, and decided there was too much sky showing through the pine tree on the left and that it was a bit distracting. A bit of work to make the pine a more solid mass, and the painting was done:

So, here’s a picture of the OLD 16×20″:

And here’s the NEW 24×30″:

I prefer the new one, just because I think it’s painted better (a year makes a difference!), which is what I would hope for. I also think I achieved my goal of giving the composition more room to breathe, and painting the branches of the aspen trees so that they have a more lyrical quality and aren’t so stilted. Nate says he still likes the old one better, but we don’t actually have it around to compare, so who knows!!

Demo – Enlarging a Painting PART I

We all know I’m too lazy with photography to do demos of my work more often, but I’ve been working on an enlargement of an old painting for the past couple of weeks, and I actually managed to take some photos along the way that I thought I’d share.

I did the original painting about a year and a half ago, right after Aspen was born. Nate decided it was his favorite painting I’d ever done, so I kept it and it hung above our fireplace until about a month ago when a collector saw it on my website and got my gallery here in Winter Park to convince me to part with it. Here’s the original 16×20″ oil on canvas:

In the meantime, I had mentioned to the gallery that I wanted to paint the same scene on a larger scale and they had some interest, so I decided to go ahead with the larger painting. In enlarging this painting, I wanted to open up the composition a little bit to give the trees more room to breathe, and make the branches more lyrical.

I started with a loose sketch on 24×30″ gessobord – nothing too detailed, since the subject is fairly organic and I’m wanting the painting to stay loose:

Next step was to start the block-in. I used a thin acrylic wash to start this one, mainly because I wanted it to dry quickly to I could start working over it with thicker oil paint the same day. One of the main reasons I do a block in with thinned paint is to eyeball the composition, and I like it to be dry before I continue so that I can fix any issues without having to fight wet paint underneath. Anyhow, in this case I started with the darkest darks:

Next, I blocked in the midtones in the pine tree and foregound grasses, keeping things simple and loose:

Then I painted in the trail and the lighter grasses in the foreground:

Once the foreground was in, I blocked in the sky, indicating where the sky holes would be in the pine tree to give it more shape and dimension. At this point, I was just trying to get things in the right place. I wasn’t super concerned with my color and value being right on, especially since I was working with cheap acrylics!!

Finally, I blocked in the aspen trunks, indicating their main shape without doing much modeling, and locating where most of the knots would be. In reality, these trees had people’s initials carved into them all over the place. I could actually read the name “RON” on one of the trees in my reference photo, but I obviously decided to ignore it in the name of artistic license!

So, at that point, the block-in was finished and I was ready to start refining things in oil. And that’s where I’m going to break for now – the painting’s done, but “So You Think You Can Dance” is over (I’m SOOO addicted to that show) and it’s my bedtime, so I’ll continue tomorrow.

Oh, and sorry about the shadow from my easel at the top of the painting in all of these photos. That’s what I get for having my studio lights almost directly above my head…

A Few of my Favorite Things

“Approach to Lake Isabelle”
Oil on Panel

Every artist I know has a bit of an addiction to art supplies, and we all have our favorite paints, brushes, and surfaces. I’m probably not as knowledgable about art materials as I should be, but I get a lot of emails that ask specifics about the materials I use. I thought I might as well put my answers out here all at once, so that anyone who might be interested would have them… Sorry if this is long and boring!

1. Paint

I use Utrecht brand oil paint exclusively. I was lucky enough to receive a gift card to Utrecht as an award at last year’s OPA national show. I tried some paint as part of my first order, and I’ve been addicted ever since! The Utrecht paints are cheaper than most other artist quality paints, but extremely consistent and high quality. They have a great buttery consistency that I find workable without being too oily.

2. Palette

My palette consists of titanium white (or utrecht white, which is a bit less stiff), cadmium yellow light, cadmium lemon, cadmium orange, alizarin crimson, quinacridone red, burnt sienna, and ultramarine blue. I occasionally use a bit of thalo green to get the brightness I’m after in a sky, but otherwise I shy away from having green on my palette. My workhorse colors are the ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson, cad yellow light, and cad lemon. I keep the orange and sienna on my palette mainly as an easy way to grey down other mixtures. The quin red is only there for when I need to mix a brighter purple or orange. I lay all of these out in the same order every time I paint. I use a glass palette because I have problem with letting paint dry and it’s easy to clean with a razor blade!

3. Medium

I typically start a painting using paint thinned with mineral spirits (I use Gamsol odorless mineral spirits), then work the rest with paint straight from the tube. If my paint is stiff and I want to loosen it up and maintain the texture of my brushstrokes, I use Weber Res-n-gel as a medium. It’s thicker than liquin, less smelly, and as far as I can tell doesn’t yellow. I like it because it makes the paint flow while maintaing thickness and texture. When I’m reworking a painting, I’ll occasionally use liquin to get a wet-on-wet look when I’m working over dry paint (I paint a thin layer of liquin over the area that I’m correcting, then paint into it, allowing for softer edges). When I was pregnant, I pretty much worked with paint straight from the tube and used walnut oil for cleanup. It wasn’t ideal, but it eliminated all the stinky mediums from my studio!

4. Brushes

I’m not much of a brush snob. I’m hard on brushes, so I don’t like to spend a lot of money on them. I paint exclusively with flat bristle brushes, and I usually just order Blick or Utrecht brand brushes. I order Utrecht size 1 sabeline rounds specifically for signing my name on paintings, and use those occasionally for tree branches or detail. I don’t think I’ve ever spent more than $10 on a brush, so I’m probably no help if you’re looking for a great brush recommendation!

5. Surface

I’ve been painting on Ampersand Gessobord for most of this year. I don’t particularily love the texture of canvas showing through my paint, so I prefer to work on a smooth surface. I like the smooth finish on gessobord, and I have yet to see one warp (I’ve used up to 24×36″ panels), so it’s become my preference when working on hard panel. For anything larger than 24×36″, panels get heavy, so I still use canvas. I usually buy Utrecht pre-stretched cotton canvas (their stretchers are extremely sturdy, and the canvas is always stretched tighter than other vendors), and add a couple coats of gesso to fill in the weave a bit before painting. I don’t have the time to stretch my own canvases or do a lot of panel prep, so I buy things ready-made. Gives me more time to paint!

6. Varnish

I’m often sending paintings out the door within a week or two of finishing them, so I don’t have the luxury of waiting six months to put on a good coat of varnish. However, I like my paintings to have that “still wet” look so that all of the colors and values are as I intended, so I put a coat of retouch varnish on every painting before it goes anywhere. I like both Grumbacher and Winsor and Newton brand retouch varnish – they both brush on easily, dry quickly, and put a nice lasting finish on the painting without being over-the-top glossy.

I think that just about covers it – I can’t think of anything else I use when I paint – if I forgot anything, let me know! Anyhow, hope that was helpful to someone out there. I’d love to hear from others about their favorite things!

Why Do YOU Paint?

“Monarch Lake Morning”
Oil on Panel

Sorry for my downer of a post the other day y’all. I was obviously a little bit overwhelmed! We’re all still sniffling and coughing here in the Peterson household, but it’s snowing out today (I KNOW, it’s June!), so Aspen and I have been having a nice day snuggling on the couch. There’s just nothing better than a good excuse to be lazy sometimes…

Anyhow, I’ve been filling out a survey for the mentorship program I’m doing, and one of the questions that I keep passing over is:

“Why do you paint? (Think about the answer, do not take the first thing that comes to your mind. Keep asking “Why” to your answer, until you get to the root reason).”

When I read this question, a bunch of things come to mind immediately. It’s my job. It pays the bills. I want to communicate what I see in the landscape to others. I love the challenge. I find satisfaction in the feeling of a job well done. I like the process of creating. I love that art is an ever-evolving pursuit. I love the “idea” of being an artist. I love to simplify what I see into something that works as a painting. I love to paint.

If I keep going deeper and asking why to all of these answers, I get down to the bare bones fact that I just love the process of putting brush to canvas, or pencil to paper, and I always have. When I was tiny, I loved to color. In school, art class was my favorite hour of the day. Even when I got busy with college and a grown-up career, I always kept up with drawing and painting to an extent, because I just loved the process of creating a two dimensional image.

I’ve tried a lot of different hobbies – running, hiking, swimming, singing, piano, dancing, triathlons, acting, scrapbooking… Nothing gives me anywhere near the feeling of satisfaction that I get from the process of painting. Painting is fullfilling to me emotionally AND physically – I think this is why I enjoy it so much more than anything else I’ve tried. I know this sounds sort of touchy-feely-new-agey and all, but my soul just feels right when I’m painting. When I paint, I get into a flow where I’m not thinking about much of anything other than the painting in front of me. It allows me to stop thinking about life and about me for a period of time, and just focus on doing. And that seems to be something I need to be right with myself.

So, I don’t know that I have a one-sentence answer to the question “Why do you paint?”, but this is as close as I’ve gotten.

I’d love to hear the opinions of other artists on this subject. Why do YOU paint?