For various reasons, it’s been a while since I’ve experienced joy in creating art. I felt helpless in the face of that emptiness, and, in a silent voice of true misery, said to myself one morning “why does it have to be this way?” Then, quite calmly but with a little trepidation, I answered myself. “It doesn’t have to be.” And I began working on changing my mindset through a practice of gratitude.
Over the past weekend, I started painting a piece that I had sketched on a gesso’d wood panel. I didn’t have any enthusiasm for the project but made myself go into the studio and work on it. After a little while, I was surprised to find I was quite enjoying myself! Perhaps just the realization that I might have some power to change my frame of mind helped a change begin.
Anyway, here’s how the piece began and started to develop.
My intention was to portray a raccoon happily collecting winter greens to distribute to the other inhabitants of the forest. By the way, the other day I noticed that one of the trees on my property has what looks like a double door to a hollow inside the trunk. I don’t think that’s what it is, but it captures the imagination.
Here’s the drawing I started with. The raccoon is sketched with some detail, but the landscape sketch is just the slightest suggestion.
I began with the background. To prepare, I did a little searching on the internet to look at a variety of winter scenes to help me decide on my color palette. It turned out that most were cool, but a few were based on a warm palette, and those were the ones which most appealed to me.
For the background, my intent was simply to block it in. Whatever I’m working on at the moment, takes on a great importance. But I had to keep reminding myself that in the end the background would receive very little attention. It’s role was to provide a context for the star of the show, the raccoon.
I began with the sky, trying to suggest weather in transition: mostly gray with a bit of warmth in ivory and pale peach, as well as a bit of blue sky showing through.
Then I added the background trees, working them with a small, round bristle brush and a dabbing motion. I was careful to let some of the sky show through here and there. Next, working forwards: the far bank, the pond, and the near ground. I worked with a flat brush—choppy strokes on the land and smoother strokes for the pond. On the land, I used a variety of colors suggesting fallen leaves as well as the grass beneath them.
Even though I was working the background loosely, I wanted to mostly finish it because it would be hard to go back and add more to it once the foreground trees and raccoon were in place.
Next, the foreground trees in which only the trunks show. I intended them to be oaks and used the tree bark on the oaks outside my studio window as a reference.
This photo shows the foreground trees in the three stages in which I painted. The trunk on the right shows the first phase. It’s simply a choppy coat of lighter brown with an ivory highlight on the edge. Then I used a fan brush, vertical strokes, and a darker brown to add random streaks of color. Wherever the paint was thicker, I immediately smudged it with my finger, swiping in the same direction as the strokes. This gave it a softer look.
The middle trunk shows the next stage: outlining the bits of bark with a liner brush and an even darker brown. You can see here why the uneven color on the first coat is so important in giving texture to the tree trunks.
The final stage shows in the left trunk. I’ve just lightly washed over it with a warmer, mid-tone brown. Then I added highlights along the edges with a liner brush and ivory, paying attention to highlight some of the shaggy bark bits along the edges.
This photo may not seem much different from the previous one. But I did add the second and third layers to the remaining tree trunks.
Here, I’ve added several things. First, I washed shadows over the tree trunks with Indigo, concentrating more of the color away from the edges, as these trunks are backlight by the sun setting behind the raccoon. I also added shadows on the ground in front of the bases of the trunks and on the door in the left trunk, not only to show that the door in set into the trunk, but also adding shadows under where the sprigs of winter greens would go above the door.
I also painted the glow peeking through a slight gap between the two doors at the bottom of the left tree trunk. Finally, I painted the winter greens swag, pine boughs and a few small pinecones.
Next time, the raccoon!
I mentioned that I finally once again felt joy in painting as I worked on this piece. I attribute that, at least in part, the my beginning a practice of gratitude. But also, I think not planning this piece out in great detail contributed to a change in my mindset. I just started with a sketch and an idea of what I wanted the background to be, then let the painting guide me. Also, I chose a medium—acrylics, both opaque and transparent—that takes pretty well to corrections.
For me, painting is a simple iterative process: do something, evaluate it, correct it if you need to, then repeat the cycle until the painting is done. But some media are more correctible (pencil, acrylics, collage) than others (working transparent, like with watercolor or washes of other media). I like to work with transparent media, but when I add-or even emphasize-opaque media, there's less stress. So that's a factor too in the joy of working on this piece. I just hope I can keep it up even when I'm working transparently.