Volunteers

Reference photos from my extensive files
After the challenge of "In The Spotlight," my second recent watercolor painting took me back into my comfort zone:  an old truck, a farm building, animals, and barbed wire. My goal was to incorporate and connect some diverse elements, hoping I could create a path for the eye to follow through my painting.

My inspiration for this painting began with the old fire truck, retired from service from the nearby mountain community of Coker Creek. I loved the hand-lettering on the door, the streaks on the windows, the age on the body, and the worn tires. The truck is currently parked on pavement, next to an empty commercial building, with a "for sale" sign on the bumper. I struggled with getting good reference photos, because the truck is parked on the north side of the building, so it only gets a bit of sunlight in early morning. Summer lighting might put it less in shadow, but I didn't want to wait, so I took photos when the sun lit the truck best. To help me see the truck details in the shadows, I took some additional photos on another day when it was overcast, putting the entire truck in consistent light.

My first step was to create a new setting for the truck. From my own photos I have a huge digital reference file, including farm buildings in our area. I found a shot of a small shed which I thought would work well. I liked the broken and rough boards, rusty hinges, old barrel, and run-down look. "Flopping" the original photo made the building's lighting coordinate with the truck, casting a shadow on the truck which would read logically. I also decided to put the scene into a hilly pastoral setting, since Coker Creek is all hills and mountains.

I've been wanting to incorporate two cows into a paintings for a long time. My inspiration comes from an odd source - a cartoon on a dinner plate which I brought back from a trip to Switzerland many years ago. Rick and I were served on these plates at a mountaintop fondue restaurant which our hosts brought us to. I loved the "wackiness" of the plate so much that my friends arranged for me to take one home. This new painting seemed like the right place for a similar pair of cows, and I found a reference I could use in my photo files of black and white cows.

Lettering in a painting often catches the viewer's eye first. I was thinking about the words on the truck and what the viewer might think about the cows. Suddenly "Volunteers" struck me as a good title for the painting, as if the cows are the new volunteers for the fire department.

Rubbing off the masking fluid
As with most landscapes, I began with the sky and most distant trees. I blocked in the building next, with its lightest gray values. Then I concentrated on the truck. To create the light-colored lettering on the red truck, I painted the letters with "masking fluid," a rubbery liquid that blocks the paper from absorbing pigment when it dries. I had to work very carefully, with a fine brush coated with soap so I could clean the masking fluid off. Masking allowed me to paint the orange-red color of the truck body over the entire door. The dried masking fluid rubs off like an elastic, using a special eraser. Once the clean white letters were revealed, I carefully painted them yellow with black shading. I had fun painting in all the truck details - the roughness of the front grill, the dark parts of the chassis, the wound up red hose, and the muddy old tires.

After completing all the details of the farm building, which I really enjoyed, I filled in the grassy background, adding tiny fenceposts in the distance to reinforce the idea of a far-off pasture. I also added faint distant mountains in the top right, to look a bit more like Coker Creek. I roughed-in the barnyard, which I wanted to look as if it were covered with hay, trodden down by the cows. I had also put dobs of masking fluid in places at the bottom of the paper, preserving white shapes so I could paint in flowering daisies under the fence line. For the cows and the single fencepost, I painted around the shape, preserving the white of the paper. Eventually I painted the fencepost dark and rusty, so I could have just painted the fencepost over the lighter colors.

I've painted dogs, cats, horses, birds, and African wildlife, but these were my first cows… the black and white patterns were really fun to paint! The white fur areas show the shadowing, which makes the animals look realistic. The fine lines of the barbed wire were drawn in with watercolor pigment loaded into my favorite fine nib dip-pen.

With grass and daisies painted in under the fenceline and other foreground details completed, I declared "Volunteers" done! I've now entered this painting and my recent watercolor "In The Spotlight" into the biennial Tennessee Watercolor Society exhibition (which will be in Knoxville in May-June 2016), so I'll let you know by early April whether I've been accepted. Keep your fingers crossed for me.

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