Last week I began an ambitious painting on a 12″ x 16″ canvas. I wanted to commit myself to a multi-day piece. My time spent in Portsmouth and Kittery made me want to paint major scenes from several seacoast towns. Since Dover is right down the road, I went there first. Dunno why I didn’t just stay here in Newmarket.
Due to morning errands, I had to start in the afternoon. I puttered into Dover around one and walked around for half an hour looking for a spot. Originally I had wanted to paint the mills and the Cocheco River, but I couldn’t settle on a view I enjoyed. Lugging my easel a couple blocks north I found something that would work. Standing beneath the awning of the Thirsty Moose I had a direct view of town hall.
It was overcast the first day and very cloudy. The painting was a concentrated labor. I tried to stay positive knowing that the clouds would eventually move and the sun would give me some fun shadows and lights to play with.
When the clouds did move I found my spot was incredibly hot. I put up the umbrella, but that didn’t mitigate the heat that rose up from the pavement. Additionally, I was standing at the middle of what was essentially a wind tunnel crossing. The streets behind me and to my right were lined with multi-storied buildings that funneled the air violently straight down, causing my easel to shake and rattle and in one instance fly up into my chest. I weighed it down after that with my bag of paints and luckily the worst of the winds were only on that first day.
The canvas was still wet from some last minute toning when I began. This caused some of the colors to muddy as the color I mixed on my palette smeared together with the burnt umber background. Day one involved a lot of perspective work.
Once I had the trees, light posts, roads, and buildings in their general positions I hammered in the lights and shadows. Part of this process involved developing the background and rendering clouds. I needed the lights in the sky figured out so I could use them as reference and compare them to the lights in the foreground. At first the clouds were much bolder, blocky, and meaty. That style pulled them too far forward. I scraped them down and it gave them a necessary softness.
With the painting mostly finished I focused fully on color. I had pushed the shadows too red previously and needed to bring them back to the cool side. I’ve been watching a lot of James Gurney‘s videos on YouTube and taking notes on how he works en plein air. In his video on painting a taxidermic Galapagos tortoise he mentions how he paints the shadow under the tortoise blue in order to give it the appearance of being outdoors in natural sunlight. After watching that video I really began to see how blue shadows were outside. I tried to incorporate that into my painting.
The painting took 5 days to complete with me working three to four hours each day. I met a lot of people on the street and handed out a good number of business cards. If you’re reading this cause you took a card, well thanks for stopping by and talking! I do enjoy it.
I decided to call the painting finished after five days because it was beginning to feel that way, but also because I was beginning to tire of working in that spot. Honestly, I still think the perspective could use some work. I’m not sold on the depth in the painting. I’ve always struggled with that factor. Probably because I’ve mostly only painted in the studio. I remember being in Italy and painting and one of my professors explaining atmospheric perspective to me and just not having it click in my head. Of course he showed me one of the grad student’s paintings, as she was situated right behind me and had a similar view, and I could definitely see how her painting looked better. I could see how she’d made the mountains blue in the distance. I just wasn’t sure of how to go about doing that. It’s something I’m still working on. I just don’t often get a chance to practice painting from a point that has clear and defined atmospheric perspective. I’ve climbed a lot of mountains in the last couple years, and when I get to the top I sit and look at the layers of mountains receding into the distance and think about how simple it is to see the atmospheric perspective now, and how simple it would be to paint those mountains. But depth and atmospheric perspective works a little different at ground level. It’s still there, just much more subtle. And I know that exaggerating that effect could give my paintings some nice depth. I tried it a bit with this painting, blurring the buildings in the background and painting them mostly blue. I’m just not sure how successful it is.
I’m thinking of expanding my palette a bit. I’m using alizarin crimson, burnt sienna, raw sienna, gold ochre, cadmium orange, ultramarine blue, sap green, and a bit of cerulean blue. This limited palette has kept my paintings feeling unified, but I’ve noticed that painters on YouTube usually organize their palettes by having a warm and a cool version of each color. I might try this out and see what effect I get.
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