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“It Painted Itself…”

March 11, 2010

This is another view of the barn in my last post.  It’s 11×14, gouache on gessoed Crescent board.

I think when artists say “It painted itself”, we create an image in the reader’s mind that the painting process was easy, that we didn’t even have to think, that everything flowed smoothly from inception all the way to the last brush stroke.  That would be wrong.  I personally have never experienced a mystical, magical painting séance where some outside force controlled my hand and laid every brushstroke while I sat in a state of semi-conscious trance.

It’s hard work, just as creating music, programming a computer, and designing a house are hard work.  If you think that’s a pretty bold statement, just ask a painter.  When done well, they all require experience, thought processes, dexterity, curiosity, and creativity.  Unfortunately, painting doesn’t pay as well.

Sometimes we make statements like “I let the paint speak to me” or “The brushes just took over.”  And even though I’ve often mentioned listening to the little voice in my head, I assure you I don’t actually hear a real voice, I’ve never heard a puddle of paint actually utter any words, nor have I ever had a brush dance on its own across the surface a la a Disney cartoon.

And yet… a single brush stroke can open the door to a direction… touching a particular color to the surface can suggest a mood… an experimental swipe with a rag can open one’s eyes to new possibilities.

When I first chose this particular subject, I was drawn to the play of shadows, the weathered wood, cluster of bare trees, and a sense of mystery that said “come and explore”.  Someday I’ll explain in another post how I choose my subjects.  Suffice it to say that in this case, the subject drew me in and I knew I wanted to paint it.  But how?

There is something inside many landscape painters that insists on taking the impressionistic route.  It’s probably because there are so many successful painters out there today who paint in some variation of impressionism, and their work is so wonderful that we can’t help but want to paint that way.  But this subject at this time simply refused to be painted with bold strokes of color laid next each other.

First, I love trying to capture the texture of old wood.  Second, I enjoy trying to portray the look of weeds and grasses without actually painting every weed and stick.  And third, I want to portray such scenes of quiet and solitude without creating a foreboding atmosphere.

I knew the color palette I wanted for this… I love the combination of ochres and umbers with blues and grays.  In its early stage, this consisted of a block of burnt umber on the bottom, a band of blue/gray through the middle and a gray/white roof topped with a light white/ochre sky.  The umber foreground was too dark, so I wiped a spot off and overlaid it with yellow ochre, using a worn, somewhat splayed bristle brush, in some places with opaque paint and in others very transparently.  I liked it, and pursued that little technique further.  Yes, I quite often use pure color, but usually as part of a layering process.

I really didn’t want to get overly realistic with the barn, but once I combined a few strokes with a liner with some almost drybrush using a worn bristle flat, the direction of the painting began to “speak”.  Once the foreground and side of the barn started to “reveal” themselves to me, I then could envision how this painting was going to look.

For those who think all artists have an image in our minds of exactly how the finished work will look, I hate to disappoint you.  Some may.  I rarely do.  Sometimes, quite often in fact, one has to begin with a very simple vision, (in this case it was an almost black and white mental image of the composition with no thought of style or technique) and then move forward a step at a time.  I believe we often simply place trust in the knowledge we’ve gained through years of learning and practicing, the brush handling we’ve gained through experience, faith in our own intuition, and the willingness to experiment with the materials.

And then we let the painting paint itself.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 11, 2010 5:51 pm

    I am relieved to hear puddles of paint do not speak to you. And I am equally glad you don’t have dancing Disney paint brushes! This is beautiful and so wonderfully written!

  2. John Healey permalink
    March 11, 2010 9:12 pm

    Hi Ralph. Your paintings are amazing! I love your sense of color and balance.

  3. March 12, 2010 11:47 pm

    Howdy, Ralph; this is Dan and Judith from South Dakota ( and wetcanvas.) We’ve been absent from wetcanvas posting for some time but we are still frequesnt lurkers. You have long provided us with inspiration both from your paintings and your writing. Further, we have been ecouraged to enter into the exploration of gouache having followed your progress for quite some time now. The supplies now on hand include a good selection of your favorite DaVincis! We hope it won’t be long before we’re satisfied to the point of posting some of these early beginnings.
    Take care and we hope the upcoming show circuit proves worthwhile. Dan and Judith

    • March 13, 2010 3:18 am

      Dan! Judith! Hi guys! Hope you’ve stayed by the fire and kept warm thru the winter. As always, your words are always encouraging, and much appreciated. Have fun with the gouache. Just don’t use your best brushes, because the gouache will wear them down. I’ll look forward to seeing and hearing how you do. Always good to hear from you two.

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