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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Delaware Canal at Phillips Mill

Here's an attempt to show my painting process. Maybe I shouldn't show the first few steps because most paintings go through an "ugly stage" - I know what intermediate steps are needed to achieve the end result, but some of those stages can look so "off", it can really make me question whether I'm on the right track. Anyway, here it goes, ugly stages and all:

Step 1: Choose the target. I was planning to paint some old buildings at Phillps Mill, Pa. But when I got there, a plein air painting class was in progress and although I knew the instructor, I didn't want to setup in the middle of his class. So I found a quiet spot along the Delaware Canal behind the mill. This scene really grabbed my attention. And it was nice shady spot in which to work:
Step 2: The sketch. I almost always start with a toned canvas or panel. This is an 8x10 masonite panel, with several coats of gesso, and a light wash of acrylic yellow ocher. I prepare these panels ahead of time, so the ocher wash was already there when I setup. Then I very lightly sketch the main lines with charcoal. Charcoal is easy to brush off to correct mistakes, so it's perfect for the initial layout:

Step 3: Blocking in. I like to get the panel covered with paint quickly. It's partly psychological because a blank canvas can be intimidating. The pre-toned panel helps with that too, but its' still good to get some paint down quickly. You might be wondering why violet when there's so much green? There is a lot of violet in the pathway shadows. And this is early spring where many trees are still budding out. It's hard to see from these photographs, but behind the surface green, there's a network of almost bare branches which are a sort of purplish grey. So I start with that background color, intending to let some of it show through when I paint the greens later. I've painted the concrete parts of the bridge way too dark - I should get the main value relationships down at this point - what was I thinking? This is one of those "ugly stages":

Step 4: Introduce more color. The previous step was really just the underpainting. Getting a few more colors down starts bringing it out of that ugly stage. That bridge is still way too dark:

Step 5: Continue refining. The path was underpainted a dark violet because that was the predominant tone I saw. Here I start adding some patches of sunlight to break that up. The physical surface of a painting usually looks better with lights painted on top of darks. I have no idea why - it just does. If I had painted the pathway light, then added the shadows, it wouldn't seem right to me. But maybe that's just me. You have to figure these things out on your own by trying different approaches, and taking note of what works for you and what doesn't. Here, I also introduce some warmer greens along the pathway, to contrast with the cooler greens in the distant trees, and start building a sense of space. I finally lightened up that bridge, but wow - that's way too blue - what was I thinking?

Step 6: Step back and look. Actually, that's something you should be doing constantly. Stand back and compare your painting to the scene before you. Up close, it's hard to see the big mistakes. Stand back, and errors in the drawing, color, or value relationships are easier to see:

Step 7: More refining. Here I add the bright highlights of sunlight reflecting off of the bridge railing and deck. This detail is very important to the painting - that little sparkle brings the scene to life - but you have to resist the temptation to add them in too early. Getting the main color and values right makes a solid painting, and if you add too much detail too early, it holds you back from getting the main harmonies right. Also, I must have finally noticed how wrong the concrete bridge parts were and I warmed up those blues, matching it a little better to reality:

Step 8: More refining. Another step back and I see I had left out some of the main reflections in the water, so I added the reflection for the right side bridge support and the big trees. Working on location, there is a lot to take in, and a short time to do it in! Compare this painting to the first one, and you can see 2 big changes: 1) the tree shadows on the pathway have receded and pretty soon, the shadows will be behind me, not in front of me. 2) the sun has come around and is starting to light the front of the bridge, when before, it was all in shadow. Time to pack up and go home.

Step 9: Refinement back in the studio. Almost all of the painting is done on location. But back home, I let the painting alone for a few hours, and then I can sometimes spot problems that were not apparent when painting under the time constraints of working on location. I don't think I added much, but I did warm up the concrete bridge parts more. It's still more violet than it was in real life, but I'll call that artistic license, and the bridge harmonizes nicely with the foreground shadows and a few patches of violet in the trees.

The finished painting:
"Delaware Canal Bridge"
8x10 oil on panel


  1. It was a pleasure to see your process on this. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Anonymous11:42 PM

    Thank you for this little demo. I see what my problem is now: I give up in the ugly stage. Thanks for telling me that it is a normal part, and thanks also for showing me the mistakes you made and how you correct them. I think I am on the right track after all!

  3. Thanks, Nancy and Carolyn.

    Carolyn - one thing I keep in mind while painting is to make every stroke count. I used to be pretty careless in the early stages of blocking in, figuring that I can always fix it up later. Now I treat every stage of the painting with care, because as I build up layers of paint, I leave bits of the earlier stages peeking through. So those early stages are just as important as the final ones, but boy, they still go through some ugly stages! :-)


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