By Thom Wright Sep 2020
Have you ever gone too far with a painting, to the point where there are no easy fixes? This is especially the case in plein-aire paintings, when there is no going back to the original landscape and its weather to see how to let nature show the way. And for me, for many years of learning to make watercolors, at my selected location and early in the morning, I would do my best effort to draw the initial design, paint the big areas lightly and boldly, and then work in the middle value shapes. After returning home and letting the watercolor dry, all the values become 20% lighter, the richness of color and contrast reduced. Too many times, later I would paint in a richer color, and the unity of the work would collapse.
After learning that the later phase of painting should proceed after time and thought went in to my analysis. Of course, even then some paintings would not give me solutions, so I would set them aside for later, and for much later. After years of being out-of-sight, out-of-mind, and after years more of more art classes, I reconsidered them and looked again for solutions.
In my watercolor shown above, I had already reworked it two more times after its initial plein-aire beginning. I had colored and darkened the upper sky with hatch strokes. Also, the foliage of the two foreground trees were enriched and darkened to add color and darken the undersides. At that time I was taking a watercolor painting class at Cal State U Long Beach, and learning to go beyond the conditions of the scene. When I began it on site, the morning light at the coast dominated and washed out the colors and the darks. Still, I set this aside again and decided to go farther with it.
The second image shown above is the same painting again after one more stage of adding more color and darks. By comparing the first image with the second, one can see the foreground additions are pushing the middle ground and sky back. There are red-oranges, burnt sienna, and mid and dark value blue-greys added there. Remember that a 2D landscape generally requires atmospheric distance achieved with a relationship of stronger and darker at the bottom (foreground) and lighter and thinner color receding in the middle ground, and lightest values and palest color in the distance. Also notice that the color bands at the ground and in the tree foliage add vertical and horizontal movements, so that the whole composition integrates together.
Three years later I returned to the same location and did a smaller painting of the two big trees on the mesa, overlooking the Bolsa Chica Wetlands and the Pacific Ocean seen here in the distance. I was sitting farther away from the two trees and towards the bluff on the left side. Besides using oil paint versus the watercolor before, this scene had changed a little. The two trees are bigger and with more open foliage, and the season changed the morning sky with more haze and less brightness, and with a bluer high sky. On site I was working for about two hours, and initially using more color and value range overall. I differentiated the two trees as female and male, one more colorful on the left and one darker in foliage, the tree trunk and major branches. Notice too that with oil paints, I can work back into dark patches with lighter and more colorful mixes. Overall, the brushwork is more broken and made with distinctive brush marks that also describe the orientation of the pieces.
My finishing of this painting required much less effort, because of the more directed beginning. But it is always necessary to review one’s paintings a day or two later. Some areas always itch and need a little more scratching. With time and experience one learns to make changes only as needed and always with the whole painting in mind.