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A Work in Progress ~ Texas Landscape (Updated w/final)

July 8, 2010

I’ve decided to make this a demonstration of a work in progress.  This is different from posting progress photos after the painting is finished.  This is ‘stick your neck out’ stuff.  Always a bit dangerous because the painting could very easily take a bad turn and end up pretty bad… something I’d never post publicly.  But, what the heck, even if it goes south and bombs, maybe even that will make this a worthwhile post.  We could call it ‘the anatomy of a bad painting’.

Those of you who have been following me for a while know that many, many of my paintings result from reference photos taken out the car window while travelling at 70mph (as a passenger, of course).  That means many shots are useless.  Shot too soon, too late, blurred, and of course ‘what on earth did I see out there?’.  A very few end up usable.  Because they are shot at speed doesn’t mean there can be no attachment to the scene.  I look for composition, color, possibly a structure that has some nostalgic, sentimental appeal.  The point is, while yes, I do occasionally paint something just to keep the paint wet and the brushes warm, I most often have to be able to attach some feeling to the scene… a memory, a suggestion of a memory for the viewer, a desire to be in that place for awhile.

But I do often get the chance to stop and take in a scene, and take my time shooting the reference photos.  That was the case here.  A few years ago, my nephew took me out driving near San Angelo, in west Texas… out in the boondocks.  Most of that area is pretty flat, but there is some gently rolling countryside as well, covered with trees and wild grasses.  In this particular case, I composed the shot with a painting in mind:

I’ve recently started playing with some slight variations in my color palette, trying to find the best way to portray this part of Texas.  With some unexpected available painting time, I finally decided to see what I could do with this scene.  My intent was to be fairly faithful to the scene, making only a few compositional adjustments where necessary.  In painting the countryside, one should always be willing to take some artistic license… leaving something out, putting something in… moving roads, paths, even trees if it helps the composition.  The possibility of anyone seeing this painting, and standing in the exact same spot – and making a comparison – is probably zero.  It was just a place along side a country highway where we stopped and walked around.  The intent is to portray a sense of place, not the exact location.  As it turned out, in this case, I did compose the photograph to include that great shadowy foreground tree/bush on the left, the path, and the distance out to the treeline in the background.

I started late yesterday morning by doing a quick little 8×10 study:

I’ve added a touch of black to my color palette, finding that it does some interesting things to greens.  Here I used primarily black, titanium white, yellow ochre and burnt sienna.  Maybe a touch of ultramarine blue.  I took this little study only this far, and decided that I’d done enough to tell me this might make a good painting.  It was time to cut a 16×20 piece of cold press Crescent board and get into the larger painting.

Translating up in size from 8×10 to 16×20 creates some interesting challenges.  There is suddenly a lot more area to cover, and this is where those “artistic license” changes come into play.  This is where I got to in about three hours on the 16×20 version:

I’ve established the light and shadows, and placed the trail where I think I want it.  But there are a lot of things I’m not happy with at this point.  The dark foreground tree/bush on the left isn’t quite as big as I’d like, because it’s an important part of this composition.  The trees going back on the left are too evenly spaced.  The tall tree on the left has been given far too much weight, and will have to become much less prominent, if not eliminated entirely.  And the spacing of the trees on the right seems just a bit too even.  And of course, all the trees look like big lumps at the moment, but all I wanted at this point was to establish masses of color.

And speaking of color, those of you looking at this who are not painters, please keep in mind that the early stages of a painting are its ugliest.  Colors will change… brighter, more subdued, warmer, cooler… pretty much at the whim of the artist (we like to refer to it as intuition).  I can see that I’ve still got to get the color palette under control, especially since I’m incorporating black into the mixture, something I have only done rarely.  A painter also has to constantly keep in mind that photographs don’t tell the truth.  Values (lights and darks) are too strong, although that’s one thing I do like: strong lights and darks.  Colors are not true, and besides, in this case the color is part of my own interpretation, the way I want to portray this scene.  I use the photograph primarily for compositional purposes.

Now all I have to do is remember to stop and shoot a progress photo occasionally, so I can add updates to this post as the painting progresses.

Stay tuned.


At this stage, I’ve reworked the trees in the distance to clean up the composition a bit.  I’ve also dropped the upper part of the tree in the left midground, and started playing with the tree/bush and it’s branches.  That side of the painting is still pretty much a mess at this point.  It’s not terribly obvious here, but I’ve also started playing with the colors through the middle of the painting and indicating some of the grasses.  I apologize for the photo quality.

Painting larger… one thing that I’ve experienced is that the need to use larger strokes in a larger painting is a bit of a challenge with gouache.  The paint dries fast… really fast.  I tend not to put a lot of paint out at one time, because I’m constantly moving from one color to another, especially in large grassy areas like this scene.  A small mixture of paint doesn’t go very far with a 1″ brush.  And even if I load the brush up, because I work pretty opaquely, the paint starts to dry on the brush and doesn’t allow a good long stroke.  Because of that, most of the strokes in my paintings are relatively short, even on a large area.

I don’t mix up a large quantity of a color, simply because it’s starting to dry on the palette by the time I’ve got it mixed.  I suppose this is why most gouache painters work small.  I could, of course, work wetter and more transparent, but that’s not the way I like to paint.  It’s one thing to do small 2 1/2 x 3 pieces, or even 5×7 up to 8×10.  You can work from small mixes pretty quickly.  Since I love doing the larger paintings (I’m talking 16×20 here), I’ve had to adjust my working methods on those to allow for those small quantities of mixed color.  In general, it’s not a huge problem.  While I do lay down solid strokes of a single color, I more often blend and mix colors on the painting.  But those large strokes with a big brush… well, with paint that’s mixed almost from the tube, it gets a little challenging at times.


This one came out pretty soft, but that’s probably because I tended to work a little wetter and more transparently through the center portion of the painting.  Or maybe it’s because all those colors are so close to the same value.

I finished up the sky, using overlapping strokes of ultramarine/burnt umber/white and yellow ochre/white.  The strokes up there are pretty opaque.  Working with these color combinations wet-in-wet can sometimes produce a green cast because of the yellow ochre.  I worked on the trail a bit more, trying to keep some variation between the trail surface and the grasses while still working within the same color palette.  The trail is variations of raw umber, yellow ochre, burnt umber, and white.  And then there were just some strokes and flicks throughout the midground grasses to add some texture and variation.

As usual, I have no idea if any of this is of any value to anyone, but I thought I’d at least post it for what it’s worth.  Here are some details:

6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 16, 2010 2:05 pm

    Whoowee, Ralph! This is flat gorgeous. I’ve enjoyed reading about your process. I’m going to drop a link over on the Gouache Corner WIP threads so folks will see this. Thanks so much for all the information you gave!

  2. July 18, 2010 3:25 pm

    Ralph. WOW you’re a master with goauche I’m glad that Deborah gave us your blog link. Your technique remids me of the California Impressionist style which is my favorite. Your step by step Texas landscape is superb!

    • July 18, 2010 4:33 pm

      Thanks Jose! I’ve probably been influenced a little by some of my California painter friends.

  3. Lynn permalink
    July 18, 2010 4:46 pm

    This is really nice, Ralph! I’ve been a fan for a long time, glad to see the process, thanks for taking the plunge and doing it this way. I am particularly impressed by how you have been able to show the perspective with the land falling away like that.

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