It's Red Bug Time!

I remember my first ride in a Volkswagen Beetle. I was a young teen and my friend Cindy's sister Martha was driving me home in her "bug." To an impressionable teen, she seemed to be one with her car. I remember the left turn from Main Street onto the street where I lived; with no on-coming traffic she didn't slow down much as she cut the corner. I watched her pull the steering wheel with her two hands right next to each other. and it felt like we were turning on only two wheels - wee-ee-ee-e! Lots of people I know have fond memories of their "bug", as it fulfilled its original objective as a cheap, simple car for the masses. I never owned one, but perhaps Herbie The Love Bug makes me attracted to the humble Volkswagen Beetle more as a character than as an automobile.

The effects of aging on vehicles and buildings are a favorite theme in my artwork. The more beat-up, rusting, and falling apart, the more interesting the textures. Last fall when I saw an old Volkswagen parked in a pasture just outside a local junkyard, I knew I had to paint it. The worn paint, streaked windows, rusted wheels - fabulous! I took lots of photos for reference, getting as close as I could, as the pasture was fenced with barbed wire. I was actually on my way to the farm market in our local Mennonite Community at the time. The old car was still on my brain when I finished buying my veggies, as I imagined what setting I might create for the vehicle. I wandered behind the farm stand building, which is on a hill overlooking some of 400+ acres of the community. The distant hills, green fields and winding road were so picturesque on this sunny day, and I pictured how the Volkswagen could be set in such a scene. I took a bunch of reference photos.

All my paintings come together in my mind long before I do any sketching or painting. I loved the chance to paint the red vehicle in a very green setting, letting these two complementary colors work to emphasize my focal point. To create some distance in the landscape, I wanted to add a barn, and I really wanted one with old red paint. Once I was ready to take the painting from my brain to reality, I sifted through my large digital reference photo collection of local barns. I needed one with the right lighting too - the car was lit from the right with a long morning shadow, and the trees in the farm photo threw shadows in the same direction. I found the perfect old red barn in my files, one I had photographed a few years ago. I could position it in my layout so the winding road would lead back to it. I also have lots of photos of old cedar fenceposts and many, many photos of wildflowers, so these became helpful in planning the painting. I use my own photos in my paintings, and this is often one of the rules in painting competitions I enter.

When I thought of "Red Bug" to name my painting (before I even started it), I knew that would fit. I like to create double meanings with my painting titles too. Queen Anne's Lace is a pretty summer wildflower  which we picked for floral bouquets in New England when I was young. Here in the south, the same flower harbors a nasty bug. The minuscule red spider mite gathers under the plant's umbrella-like flower cluster. These spiders are the mothers of "chiggers," a microscopic creature which causes itchy, pussy, swollen bites in the most disturbing places on your body. Queen Anne's Lace is sometimes referred to a "chigger-weed," and chiggers are sometimes called "red bugs". Long story short, I decided to paint Queen Anne's Lace flowers in the foreground of my painting, so the title Red Bug hints at more than just the Volkswagen!

I've worked professionally with Photoshop software for decades, starting with version 1.0 (yes, I'm a graphic arts dinosaur), so I sometimes use this software when I arrange my reference photos. Of course, I wanted the Volkswagen to be my focal point, using the other elements to lead the viewer's eye through the painting. As a rule of thumb, you shouldn't put the focal point smack in the center of your painting - it's too boring. You can see how I arranged and sized the different elements, putting the vehicle left and below the center. You can almost zig-zag from the top left, as the mountain slopes lead down to the barn, the tree shadows bring you back to the left, and your eyes land on the car. Using Photoshop, I can easily change the sizes of the various components and move them around until there's a good balance and a pleasing composition. The composite image I create can be rough, since the photo is not my finished product. If the black background of the Queen Anne's Lace still shows around the flowers, or the grass around the car doesn't match the grass of the farm setting, no problem. You can see how I combined the various reference photos into my final composite in the collage of photos above.

I did this painting in acrylics on a 20" x 16" canvas. My photos show how it progressed, with my initial pencil sketch guiding me along in the early stages. My greens are a bit brighter than in the Volkswagen reference photo, since I took those in October and I wanted this scene to depict June. Also, when I first painted the Queen Anne's Lace flowers in the foreground, they were too white against the green grasses. I didn't want to let them take emphasis away from the Volkswagen, so I glazed over the blossoms with transparent green and yellow tones to dull down the flowers, remembering the brightest brights belong on the focal point. I probably put more detail into the barn than I should have, since it's off in the background, but I was having too much fun to stop!

Voila - the debut of "Red Bug," right at the same time the Queen Anne's Lace is blooming all around me... and the red bugs are biting!

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