Work In Progress: Suwannee River, Update 7

Work In Progress: Suwanee River, Update 7


The painting is complete!


The important concept to remember with this painting is that I want to represent the scene in its basic, unembellished form – to represent the essence of the scene without detail. The less detail in the painting, the more the viewer is able to emotionally connect with it.

The right side of the painting involves a grouping of bald cypress trees. Beyond this grouping is more of the background – the far bank and the trees above the water. The bald cypress trees with their foliage, in the foreground, is part of the scene but they are unimportant to the main focus – the confluence of the tree line with the river on the left side. I struggled with painting those trees – getting them in yet keeping them secondary to the center of interest. Each time I painted them I was dissatisfied with how they looked. I put some detail in to satisfy my innate drive for detail, but then realized they must remain without focus or they would compete with the center of interest. After a few cycles of detail and no – detail, I decided that the only real contribution the right side of the painting made was enlarging the painting.

So, I eliminated it. I simplified the painting even further. I decided to cut off the painting just to the right side of the second tree. I think that improved the composition – and eliminated the question of how to depict the bald cypress trees.

One change I made to help focus attention in the center of interest was the addition of some birds taking flight just above the river.

IMG_2383a WIP Suwannee River Update 7

Just to see if I could further simplify the painting (without eliminating more detail) and still keep focus on the center of interest, I reduced the size of the painting further. I think the painting still works.

However, I think I’ll keep to the former size shown earlier.

IMG_2383b WIP Suwannee River Update 7

This exercise has been very instructive to me and I’ve learned a lot. I am very early in my re-evaluation and evolution in my painting style. I’m not sure where I will wind up. I still love detail but I am now convinced that it has to be judiciously applied. It will be interesting and exciting to see where this search will lead.

Work In Progress: Suwannee River, Update 6

Work In Progress: Suwanee River, Update 6

Working through this pastel painting has been a great learning experience for me. My thoughts will most certainly evolve further as I gain more experience in this wonderful medium. When I first started this painting I was not convinced, but I was strongly in favor of the premise that landscapes, at least loose style landscapes could be completed with pastel pencils. I no longer think I can do that. If I want to do a loose landscape, a painterly landscape, not a highly detailed landscape painting, I think soft pastels, rather than pastel pencils, are the perfect tools to accomplish that. On the other hand, if I want to create more close focus studies such as portraits and wildlife, I think that I will choose pastel pencils. That may even change in time as my experience increases but at this point in my journey with pastels, painterly landscapes will be completed with soft pastels and portraits will be completed with pastel pencils. I’m just having an easier time doing this landscape with soft pastels.

After the underpainting was completed I started back over the painting with soft pastels. I worked from dark to light and tried to keep to about the same values I established in the preliminary underpainting. I went from color to color, testing out a number of them as I progressed through the painting. Some seemed to work, others didn’t. Some looked good and others didn’t. Since it was easy to cover up colors that didn’t work, I could be more creative and spontaneous. That was a good feeling. If I completed a lot of work on an area and was not happy with it, I could scrub it off with a stiff brush and rework the area.

The center of interest was established at the conjunction of the tree lines from the right and left, with the river. It was there that I suggested the most detail. As I moved further away from that area, detail decreased. It wasn’t easy for me, however, to loosen up as I moved away from the center of interest. I am too used to putting in detail. When I am working on an area out on the right side of the painting, where the cypress trees are, for instance, I’m focusing on that, and I tend to add detail. I continually stepped back from the painting, where detail was not apparent, to get a feel for the scene and a feel for how to depict that part of the scene. There were many instances where I had to remove detail, even low level detail, to maintain the effect I wanted. I had to continually evaluate the importance of an area to the overall statement I am trying to make – to the story I’m trying to tell.

At this point I feel I’m nearing completion of this painting. I’ll continue to evaluate it, step back and squint to eliminate detail, look critically at all parts and see what should be included and what is unimportant. I’m looking for an impression, a feeling here, not merely a detailed inventory of what was there.

IMG_2343 WIP Suwannee River Update 6

Work In Progress: Suwannee River, Update 5

Work In Progress: Suwanee River, Update 5

            As with most pastel landscape paintings I decided to do an underpainting.

But, just what is underpainting and why do we do it? This is a question I kept asking myself as I watched many fine pastel artists demonstrate. They all pretty much used the technique of underpainting and I couldn’t grasp the purpose. Sometimes I would see a big difference in the final painting and other times I was at a loss to see a big change. So, in my usual modus operandi, I did some research. If I was going to do an underpainting, I wanted to understand why doing so would make my paintings better. Many of you already know the reasons for underpainting, but for those who are unfamiliar with the technique or are still trying to grasp the reasons for doing an underpainting, read on.

So, what is an underpainting, as it applies to pastel painting? Underpainting is applying a layer of color or gray-tone medium on a support or surface and then painting over it with pastel. The under painting can be almost any medium – pastel, watercolor, charcoal, acrylic, oil paint, gouache, ink, graphite. If it is a liquid or semi liquid medium, it is usually thinned. If it is solid, such as pastel, graphite or charcoal, it is usually applied lightly.

What is the purpose of the underpainting? Sometimes it is used to develop the composition – to work out the shapes, masses and value relationships – to be sure that the structure of the painting is sound. We can also do this by producing value and notan sketches but establishing the structure on the full size painting works out any uncertainties that may not have been apparent in the value sketches.

Other reasons for doing an underpainting are to develop the mood and feeling of the painting and to provide a foundation to try other creative techniques.

The mood for the painting can be established through choice of color for the underpainting.


One important point to keep in mind is that, for the underpainting to work, it must be allowed to poke through the overpainting here and there. It is this combination, sitting in juxtaposition to one another that makes the painting work.


There are two basic ways to do an underpainting. One involves just priming the support with one or more colors, and the other is to produce a very loose painting similar to the final. Priming generally covers the support with a uniform color, although combinations of colors can be used, limited only by the imagination of the artist.

A very loose preliminary painting can also be undertaken as the underpainting. As I mentioned earlier, this method helps to work out compositional issues prior to the finished painting.

Whether priming or loose painting, choice of colors for the underpainting has a marked effect on the finished product. Many artists like to use neutral beige or mid tone colors or earth tones for priming while others use complementary or analogous colors, or a combination of them. Complementary colors can add excitement to the painting, as they peer through the overpainting. Analogous colors build harmony as they add support to the overlying color. Intensity of the colors used also greatly affect the results. High intensity underpainting colors left to show through here and there add much excitement to the painting. Alternatively, low intensity underpainting colors can add balance and unity to vibrant paintings.

Regardless of whether the underpainting is complementary or analogous, it is a good idea, when preparing the underpainting, to keep to the values established in the preliminary value sketches. Likewise, the overpainting should be the same values.

The underpainting can also be a monotone value painting done loosely or in great detail. Grisaille (pronounced greez-eye), used with transparent watercolors, is a fully finished value drawing done in shades of gray or other monotone color, over which transparent colors are glazed. Richard McKinley has used this technique many times by preparing an initial line drawing in pastel, including values, applying a clear gesso layer over the top to protect the drawing, then adding transparent watercolor and finally pastel on top. The pastel layer was done lightly in places to enhance and intensify the watercolor. Other choices for protecting the initial drawing are Art Spectrum Clear Pastel Primer and Golden Acrylic Ground for Pastel.

Underpaintings can be composed of pastel, done dry or made wet, or can be composed of mixed media. Dry pastel can be rubbed into the paper by various means but doesn’t become permanent and can be altered by later applications of pastel over it. More permanent applications result from wetting the pastel with mineral sprits, turpenoid or water, either with a synthetic hair brush or spray bottle. The pastel dries into the support and pastel can be applied over it without affecting the underlying layer.

Mixed media can also be used to produce the underpainting. As I mentioned at the top of this discussion watercolor, gouache and acrylic, gesso, ink, graphite and charcoal, and even thinned oil paints can be used. Even combinations of all these media are possible.


If you want more information, Jan Blencoe has a great discussion on Underpainting on her blog. I found her discussion and examples very informative and clear. The discussion can be found here:

IMG_2329 WIP Suwannee River Update 5

            The first step was to roughly sketch the drawing onto the pastel paper. I did this with an ochre pastel pencil. The pastel paper is Pastelmat. The size of the painting is 14 X 19 inches. I taped off the picture area to keep a clean edge.

I chose to go a little conservative with the underpainting. I chose just a few colors to establish the darks and lights and help support the final overpainting. In order to add a bit of sparkle in the sunlit portions of the trees I used some orange yellows, both for the foliage and for the reflections. For the shadows I used dark blue. For the sky and the water reflections I used a light blue for the higher reaches of the sky and a lighter, creamy color for the horizon – where the sun, which is off to the left, was rising above the trees. The cypress trees, which are in shadow, are very dark, so I used a very dark brown and black.

All these colors were done lightly with the side of the soft pastel stick. You’ll notice that the painting was also done very loosely. I just wanted to get the basic structures in place, in the approximate value I wanted (based on the value sketch). The good thing about the pastel is that it is opaque and I can refine and adjust as I progress.

After applying the pastel, I went over it with a denatured alcohol and a synthetic bristle brush. Wetting it all down embeds the pastel into the paper and make the underpainting permanent. I could run my hand over the painting after it dried and no pastel would come off. Yet, there is still plenty of tooth on the paper to take the pastel.

IMG_2335 WIP Suwannee River Update 5

            After the underpainting dried I started applying soft pastel to the surface, covering the previous layer but allowing it to show through in places. The next photo shows the beginning stages of this work.

IMG_2337 WIP Suwannee River Update 5


I’ll now continue to add pastel over the underpainting to develop the true painting.

Work In Progress: Suwannee River, Update 4

Work In Progress: Suwanee River, Update 4


The Color Sketch

Pastels are very liberating!

I did a color sketch for the painting and, because I had a pretty good idea of what colors I wanted to use, (and I know that I can easily add to them and perhaps replace some with others as I progress) I produced only one color sketch.

Choice of colors, or more to the point, making new colors, doesn’t have to be planned out as carefully with pastels as with colored pencils. Pastels are nearly pure pigment, are opaque, and can be layered one on top of another, one color effectively replacing another color beneath it. That is difficult or impossible to do with colored pencil (unless special techniques are employed). Colored pencil color is translucent and layering one color on top of another results in an optical mixing of the two. There is an enormous selection of hues, tints and shades with pastels, so it is much easier to find the right color without having to mix it.

Although I want to use colors close to those in the actual scene, matching them identically is not critical. Getting the right value is most important, then getting a believable and pleasing color comes next. So, here is the color sketch for the painting.

IMG_2324Suwannee Update 4

I will be doing an underpainting to add variety and interest as well as help unify the painting. I’ll discuss that next time.

Work In Progress: Suwannee River, Update 3

Work In Progress: Suwanee River, Update 3


Last time I posed a number of questions to myself concerning this painting that I felt were important for me to answer. I’m hoping that, by answering them I can produce a better and more meaningful painting. So, here goes…



  1. What does this scene mean to me? What am I feeling that I want to convey to viewers?

This first question I posed to myself last time I answered then. I still feel the same, so I’ll go with that same answer again.


I’m standing in the shade, looking out into a warm, sunny morning on a peaceful, slow moving river. Overhead, the canopy of bald cypress and oaks, and a gentle breeze cools me. Beyond the shade, out in the open, the sun is still low in the sky, but it is warming the trees on the far bank of the river, resulting in a play of contrasting lights and darks.


  1. Should there be dramatic contrasts of lights and darks?

Dramatic lights and darks always make for an interesting painting. I’m standing in the shade of tree canopy, so the overhead limbs and the cypress trees on the right are dark and contrast with the sunlit trees out in the open.


  1. Should the trees be backlighted or should the sun be coming from the side?

The sun will be above the trees and to the left. That is the actual situation and I feel there is no reason for me to change it. Backlighting can be very effective and beautiful but I don’t want to change everything about this scene to make it something completely different.


  1. The color of the sky, as well as the reflection in the water is light near the

trees and darkens with height. The sky can be warmed with a very light peach in the lighter areas.

I’ve thought this one out and like the idea of the sun lower in the sky, causing the low sky to be lighter while the overhead sky will be darker blue. Adding a little peach to the sky will warm it a bit.


  1. A center of interest or focus? A lone bird or two in the distance? A kayaker?

I’m not sure yet what will be the center of interest. It will, however, be in the area near the water surface on the left side. The tree line on both sides of the river dips with distance and perspective, converging in the area of special interest. There is a very light horizontal line of sky reflection just below the river bank, so that will also help to direct interest to that area. I may enhance that reflection to strengthen the focal area. Whether I will add a specific focal point of interest, I haven’t decided yet.

  1. Time is late morning. The sun is still low in the sky and warming the tops of the trees on the far bank.

I discussed this some in #4. This will be morning, the sun is still low in the sky and the it is hitting the upper portions of the trees, giving them a warm glow.


  1. Clouds?

No clouds. I think they would just unnecessarily complicate the painting. They aren’t important to the messaqge.


  1. Keep the linear, horizontal line of white reflection from the sky. Maybe add a few minor streaks here and there below it. It makes a nice focus. It could also be used as an arrow leading the eye to a center of interest.

I’ve also discussed this earlier. The white reflection is a nice tool to use to direct attention.


  1. Where do I concentrate detail? What is important to convey the message and what only complicates and blurs the message? Thought needs to go into what is important to tell the story. What is necessary to support the message and what is not necessary? How much detail is necessary to convey my idea and when does it become distracting. I don’t want an abstraction but I also don’t want too much detail.

Detail will be concentrated around the center of interest. Detail will decrease away from the center of interest.


  1. The converging diagonals of the tree line, the white reflection and the upward pointing cypress knees help to present the center of interest.

Again, already discussed. They are strong tools to help direct attention.


  1. Use an underpainting of warm colors to emphasize the warmth of the light and to make the greens more interesting.

I will be doing an underpainting to introduce warm colors in sunlit areas and dark, cool colors in the shadows.  These colors will be fixed to the paper by using an alcohol wash. Over the top of the underpainting colors I’ll use the colors seen in the photo reference. Hopefully, the underpainting will help to add interest and support for the final colors.


  1. Do I add complementary colors to the underpainting?

I’m not going to do too much with complementary colors for an underpainting. Use cool blues in the shadows. Where the shadows become lighter as they approach the sunlit areas I will add warmer blues (purples) to the mix.


  1. Add mid tone purples to the sky as an undertone?

Will probably not add purples or violets to the sky. This painting is not all about the sky, so I’ll keep the sky simple.


With these thoughts and guidelines in mind, I’ll start on the painting. If I haven’t already mentioned it, I’m going to do this one in pastel. Size is 14 X 19 inches on Pastelmat. The underpainting will be done with soft pastels and the finish painting primarily with pastel pencil. I’m wondering how well suited the pastel pencils will be to doing the landscape painting. Will I eventually switch over to soft pastels? This will be one test.

IMG_2322 WIP Suwannee River Update 1              IMG_2321WIP Suwannee River Update 1