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Old Stone Bridge ~ step by step

May 10, 2010

On a recent trip to Tennessee, we stopped at a traffic light in the town of Goodlettsville, north of Nashville.  Sitting on the passenger side, I glanced to my right, and down, almost hidden by trees, I spotted this old stone bridge crossing a creek.  I raised my ever-present camera, got off one quick shot, and then the light changed to green and we drove on.

A week later, we were back in the same area.  My niece Cathy was kind enough to drive me back the few miles to Goodlettsville under a gray, threatening sky.  It began to rain just as we got to the bridge.  With Cathy backing me up with her own camera, we stood in the drizzling rain and took a number of shots from different spots along the bank.  Locals driving by must have surely mumbled something about “tourists”, seeing us taking pictures in the rain of something they hardly even notice anymore.  Cathy was a trooper, crouching in increasingly heavy rain to get a couple more shots from different angles.  I really appreciated it, because I really wanted the photos.  Who knows how soon we’ll get back that way again.

Only as we were driving away did I notice a historical marker by the street.  According to, the “Old Stone Bridge” crosses Mansker’s Creek in Goodlettsville.  Part of the stagecoach road that connected Nashville to Louisville, it was built somewhere between 1837 and 1849.  The stagecoach line became obsolete when the railroad was completed in 1859.  The bridge is listed in “Historic Bridges of the United States”.  According to the Historic Bridges website, it’s status is listed as “open to traffic”, but that’s apparently no longer true.  There was a No Trespassing sign on this side of the bridge.  Cathy gamely drove across it for me, but we both got cold feet, so she turned around just on the other side and we crossed back over.

It’s been a while since I posted a step-by step explanation of a painting.  Because of the expressions of interest I’ve received on the blog, and notes of appreciation for posting such information, I thought it was time to do another one.  This one, however, is slightly different.  Instead of simply remembering later what I did, I decided to keep notes, not only on the mechanical steps, but also my thoughts as I proceeded.

It is an imperfect painting.  So I’ll talk about my mistakes, lessons learned, and what I would try to do differently the next time.  Thus, it is part explanation of the process and part personal journal.  Feel free to skip over the personal parts when they become boring.  This post probably won’t bode well for my future with galleries.  It may show a lack of decisiveness and direction.  Then again, it may show a sensitivity to the subject, a thoughtful painting process, and a willingness to experiment.  Naturally, I prefer the latter.

 While I had a sense of how I wanted this painting to look, I wasn’t sure exactly how I would approach it, so I chose a small size (11×14).  I didn’t want to get bogged down in a larger painting if it didn’t go well.  As it turns out, that was a wise choice, because this was the third attempt.  The previous two were just poorly selected compositions.  I have found myself flirting with impressionism lately, so that was my initial thought.  But the first one underwent so many changes the colors finally turned into a muddy mess, and in the second one, the bridge was too small and insignificant.  I wanted to express the strength and solidity of the structure in an inviting, serene setting.


I started this on Thursday afternoon.  After finally selecting this view, I decided a grid would be a good idea.  For those unfamiliar with using a grid, I printed the scene to the same proportions as the intended painting, then laid out a grid on both the painting surface and the print, using the same proportional divisions.  Then I sketched in the most basic lines and shapes onto the painting surface.  Once I erased the grid lines, I was ready to paint.  I sometimes paint over a light pencil sketch, but one pass with even the most transparent strokes will keep those lines there forever.  Since I work in a combination of transparent and very opaque passages, I wanted as few graphite marks as possible.

This was painted on Crescent cold press illustration board #300.6, a medium weight, all purpose board.  It should last a very, very long time as long as it’s kept dry, which any work on paper should be.

I paint exclusively with DaVinci Gouache.  The tube is labeled “permanent artist’s gouache” and “opaque watercolor”.  I use DaVinci because I can buy larger tubes online from Cheap Joe’s than other brands.  I use a lot of paint.

My palette for this painting was my normal palette:  ultramarine blue, burnt umber, yellow ochre, yellow medium, burnt sienna and titanium white.  I’m often asked what colors I use for the wide range of greens I use in my landscapes.  This is it.  It’s amazing the range of colors one can get from a limited palette.

Regarding brushes, I use flats, filberts, brights, rounds, liners… the whole bag, from medium priced brand names to the cheapest stiff bristle craft brushes.  They wear down fast, they get splayed and out of shape, and they all serve a purpose.  The largest brush used in this painting was a #4 filbert, and I used it for much of the painting.

Non-painters will always be surprised at how odd, ugly and garish a painting is when it’s first begun.  In the first stage, I merely blocked in the masses with basic colors that represented those to be used.  The bridge stonework had a decidedly blue hue, the water was transparent with a sandy or limestone colored bottom with hints of green algae.  At this point, there is no attempt at painting pretty.  Just get the basics down.  (Note: I cut my board to its intended size, and clip it to a piece of heavy foamcore board.  By clipping it and keeping it flat as I work, the warping is kept to a minimum.  I could leave a border for the clips or for tape, but I like to slip the painting into a frame occasionally as it progresses, so I cut it to size.

I work these days on a sheet of glass backed by a piece of white board, which is placed inside an aluminum baking pan.  There’s more about that on the “painting with gouache” page.  Here is simply a shot of the blue, gray, black mixtures used for the darkest areas under the arches and for the bridge itself.  (The glare under the paint is from the lamp that sits over the palette.  The wrinkles are from a plastic bag that’s wrapped around the white board to keep out the water that tends to seep under the glass.)

 Once the basic shapes are in, the fun begins.  The challenges in this painting, for me, will be the water and the stonework.  Beginning with the water, to try to achieve the illusion of seeing through the water to the sandy bottom, using a #3 filbert and yellow ochre as the predominant color, I used various mixes of ultramarine, burnt umber, yellow medium and white.  After a while, the water was killing me, so I shifted my attention to the bridge.

Using #3 bristles and filberts, I used varying mixes of ultramarine, burnt umber, burnt sienna and white to darken the far bank and began suggesting the stonework on the bridge.

I would be dishonest if I didn’t insert a word here in deference to those who adamantly oppose painting from photographs.  Photos do lie occasionally, about a several things, but especially where perspective is concerned.  I use them extensively, primarily as a starting point, or for inspiration, or for compositional purposes.  I am, without apology, a studio painter.  In this case, even though I used a grid, the photo lied about the perspective on the arches.  As a former architectural illustrator, I should have caught it during the grid/sketch phase.  I should have done an extensive, very accurate drawing to get it exactly right, but instead gave in to one of my major shortcomings: the desire to get on with the painting.  So at this stage, I started making some adjustments to the arches.

After a bit of work on the bridge, Nell arrived home with dinner.  Choosing to spend time with her, I took the evening off.  These days, my concession to “retirement” means painting during the day and on non-traveling weekends, and taking most evenings off to relax a bit.

Friday morning.  I still find myself trying to determine how I want the finished painting to look.  I’ve pulled The Hudson River School off the bookshelf.  Four of my favorite paintings from this group are Asher B. Durand’s “Interior of a Wood” (1850), George Hetzel’s “Rocky Gorge” (1869), Arthur Parton’s “A Mountain Brook” (1875), and Frederic Church’s “Heart of the Andes” (1859).  There is no way I’m going to paint with that kind of detail, but the look still fascinates me.

Maybe I’m still trying to decide what kind of painter I want to be when I grow up.  I’ve been chasing Impressionism to a degree, but most often I’m drawn to a bit more realism.  We’ll see where this painting leads me.


Before going further with the bridge, it’s time to think about the trees, foliage, and foreground grasses.  The colors and brushwork may influence the rest, and besides, I normally tend to work the entire painting as I go.  I think that approach helps harmonize the whole thing.

After a bit of time spent painting and thinking, it’s time for a mid-morning break.  While having a couple of mini bagels and cream cheese (I’ve become partial to the strawberry flavor), I watch a bit of “Four Feathers”, a Keith Ledger movie I’ve never seen.  It appears to be set in Africa.  I am a big fan of period movies set in grand spaces.  “Dances With Wolves” still comes to mind as an example, not for the acting certainly, but for the cinematography, the spectacular scenery, the color.  So many scenes in that movie could have been straight out of Howard Terpning paintings.

I paint maybe 30 to 40 hours a week when not on the road, with another 10 to 15 hours devoted to two blogs, two Facebook pages, and, primarily the Lancscape Forum, where I post work and comments as “Old Tex”.    Lately, I haven’t been giving enough time to any of them.  But I can’t sit still for long.  A painting is either in progress or one needs to be started.  So, after about a half hour of Keith Ledger, it’s back up to the studio and this painting. 

Using primarily #3 and #4 flats and filberts, I mix ultramarine, yellow, white and umber to soften the foliage and add some of that overcast atmosphere.  I also use some pretty opaque mixtures of ultramarine, burnt umber and yellow ochre on the far bank, the tree trunks, and the bridge.  I’ve learned that the yellow medium gouache dries faster on my palette than any other color.

Those bright, garish colors I started with in the initial block-in have started to disappear (except maybe for the blue on the bridge… I’ll have to deal with that eventually).  I like starting that way because it allows me to add color on top of color, with the confidence that those awful early colors will slowly evolve into something else, sometimes with just little spots of the original showing through .

I don’t want to stop.  But it’s lunchtime, and I have to eat.  Maybe this is a good time to evaluate where I am with this, and where I go from here.  One thing is certain: the treatment of the water will become a major issue for me as the painting progresses.

The foreground rocks at the edge of the creek were only partly submerged, but I found the parts above the water to be distracting and unnecessary, so I submerged the whole formation.  From this point on, it becomes a matter of details, as in how much to do.  There is still much to do throughout the entire painting, , and I’ll continue to work everywhere at once.  Unlike most of my work, there is no direct sunlight, and therefore no strong, dramatic shadows.  Trying to portray an overcast day without letting the painting go too dark is always a challenge for me.  One question is how much detail to put into the bridge stonework.

Nell’s home from work.  Time to stop and spend the evening with her.


It’s Saturday morning.  Part of my daily ritual is walking Hemingway the miniature Schnauzer in the morning and again after dinner in the evening.  I spend a good part of the day letting the painting sit while browsing through art books, making notes for this “dissertation”, and finally spend some time painting.

One of the things about painting is that I reach a certain point, then let the painting – the brushes and colors – lead me.  Thus begins the final stage of this adventure, which experience tells me can sometimes take as long as everything else has up to this point.  Not much painting time on Saturday, but I pick it up again on Sunday and stroll to the finish line, wrapping up around mid-day.  Nell is going out of town on business next week, and I want to spend some quality time with her… like watching TV, and falling asleep in the evening with the newspaper in my hand.  I can’t help it… I’m a hopeless romantic.

In the final couple of hours:

The leaves will go from this…

 …to this.

The water will go from this…

…to this.

The trees got more brushwork and color:

And the stonework got a bit more detail:

And while doing all this, I reminded myself that I’m using gouache, one of the most versatile of painting mediums.  I can use thin, wet paint, thick opaque paint, and dry brush… with fat, wide brushes, tiny liners and stiff, worn brushes.  I can wash, stroke, dab, touch, flick and scribble.  But most of all… I can have fun while painting.  Yes, it’s work.  But whoever said work can’t be fun?  I should have been doing this thirty years ago.

And, again, here’s the finished painting.  There are certainly some things I could still change to make it better, but for now I’m calling it done.  With the time spent on this one, even if I take out the time spent writing notes and shooting photos, I’ll never get my time out of it if I sold it today.  Maybe I’ll just keep it for future reference for another, larger version of it someday.  What’s important is that I learned an awful lot with this one… about composition… drawing… and the painting process.  I’ve also learned a few things about myself.

What could be better than that?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 10, 2010 10:07 pm

    Hi Ralph,

    I like your painting! I’m glad you fixed the arches. One of your photos didn’t show up. It’s titled: “To this” and it is the one about the folage.

    I’m going to have to quit reading your posts. You’re making me want to try gouach.LOL


    • May 13, 2010 9:42 am

      Thanks Don! Don’t know why that image didn’t show up. It shows on mine. Try it… you might enjoy the change.

  2. May 12, 2010 6:45 pm

    Wow Ralph, what a lovely painting and you are so generous to take the time to post such a detailed explanation of your technique. Thanks so much. Sue

    • May 13, 2010 9:47 am

      Hi Sue, and thanks! There are only a handful of us who paint seriously with gouache on a regular basis, and each paints in a very different way. I find that people appreciate the information. A lot of people helped me in the beginning, so I’m just passing the favor along. I’m looking forward to things that are coming.

  3. rose cao permalink
    April 2, 2013 1:00 am

    you should make it become a video, so we all learner can see how you actually put the color on the painting. Thank you so much for showing us your beautiful work.

  4. João C. Miquilini permalink
    May 19, 2014 12:48 am

    Hi Ralph! Excellent work! i like the way you put the colors on that foreground tree, very impressive. The water and the stonework on the bridge… superb! Can’t wait to see more of this kind of medium, i am a watercolor artist from Brazil, sorry bad grammar hahahahha

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