Eat Chicken

Searching through my big file of reference photos, I came upon shots I took a few years ago when we brought our Florida visitors Dee and Len to experience some of our friends' farms. These cows were some I photographed at Susan and Dave's, where they raise males, born on a dairy farm so of little use for the milking operation. Susan bottle feeds the newest arrivals, then raises them in a lovely open pasture, with her chickens ranging freely among the cows… technically these are "steers" or "bovines" but I'll use the more generic "cows" here. Eventually these guys end up at the butcher shop, cut into beef - thus my title "Eat Chicken." Animals are one of my favorite painting subjects, and I've never tried close-ups of farm critters, so this seemed a good choice as a new painting challenge.
In the reference photo I selected, I liked the way the farm gate framed the face of the left cow, and I thought the separations it created might make it easier for me to work on sections at a time. My painting time is usually very random, not always for long sittings, so the natural divisions would help me make a cohesive overall appearance. Once again I decided to paint in watercolors on my favorite heavy (300lb) textured (cold press) paper. This time, my palette of primary colors included Winsor & Newton paints: Antwerp Blue, Winsor Red, and Winsor Yellow. My goal was to make the painting very colorful, allowing the colors  to mix on the paper. Since the subject was basically black and white, the values I painted would define the images. I used just a little bit of masking fluid, applying strokes of grasses in the bottom right corner with a brand of masking fluid I find works well, Pebeo Drawing Gum. Masking fluid can ruin a paint brush, and I found it easy to guide the fluid in these long narrow strands by dipping the angled back end of a paint brush handle into the mask and dragging that onto the paper.

Even though my paper is heavy weight, when applying a wet first coat of paint I find it helpful to fasten the sheet to a stable board, in this case a 1/2" thick piece of gator foam. This helps to keep the paper from buckling unevenly and it keeps paint from seeping underneath the paper if it runs off the edges. I put masking tape on the edges, pressing down to keep the paint from seeping beneath. My first application of the paints was done by dribbling each of the 3 primaries on the paper, squirting on some clear water, and directing the paints with my fingers to mix them. If the paint puddles up or flows into pools on the edges, I carefully let a bit of paper towel sop it up; puddles which dry slowly tend to flow back into drier areas, potentially creating unwanted "blooms". The masking tape on the edges helps avoid these effects. After the underpainting dried, I removed the paper from the support board, which left a narrow unpainted white border around the image, as you can see in the photo.

This method of applying the initial paint is a technique I am enjoying. Years ago, I did a lot of watercolor "pouring" - a process which also uses just primary colors and createsunique effects from the random mingling of the pigments. In this techique I'm using of spattering blobs of each color and guiding the mixing with my fingers, I find gives me a bit more control; I can drop more yellow and red paints where I want bright, warm areas, and direct more red-blue mixtures places I want cooler, darker tones. The pouring method I previously used also required continuous steps of masking, pouring, drying, masking, pouring, drying. I prefer this alternate way of getting a colorful underpainting, followed with directly brush painting the rest of the painting.

I didn't want the primary colors to blend too much, since that might make them less vivid. Also, I referred to my photo and tried to keep the white cow fur either clear of color or painted only with light values… sometimes blotting off the paint a bit with a paper towel. As I directed the colors, I tried to keep in mind that the cow on the left was my focal point, so the brightest colors and the most contrast between darks and lights would help define him as such.
The photos of my progress show how I moved from one section to another. I really liked the way the cow on the right came out; his face was primarily in blue values and the eye blended in subtly. I also liked the randomness of the colors on the steel tubes of the farm gate, requiring minimal additional color to define shadows and texture. I didn't like the drips of colored paint I had created in the top right to look like trees, so I glazed over with layers of tall tree trunks over that area, in colors matching the initial drips. Once that was dry, I painted that whole area with clear water and encouraged blending and fading, to make it look blurry and draw less attention. I also removed the masking from the grassy strokes and painted some with lighter values of the colors they overlapped. In a few places I wanted to define the steel bars better, separating them from surrounding color. I found that by using my steel ruler, held flush against the painting, I could scrub away paint on the lighter edges and brush in paint in a straight line in the darker areas. I'm perhaps too precise sometimes, but that's what appeals to me. I tried hard to retain some areas of "soft edges," where the colors run from one section into another with little defined separation. A good painting is supposed to have hard edges and soft edges!

I tackled the main cow's face last, concentrating on making his dark eyes show up well in the dark fur, putting light values in the white fur area of his face, and painting the edges of color areas with strokes which resembled fur. Where the fur was thick on his forehead, I had created a bit of a burst of color by blowing the initial light values in every direction. This gave me a foundation for the tufts of hair, and I added brush strokes to emphasize them more. It was fun to paint the spots which defined his snout. As a final step on his face, I used a sharp X-acto knife blade to scratch through the paint and create white whiskers, also scratching strokes in those tufts of fur on the forehead. The focal point can (and should) be the most detailed part of a painting, helping to call attention there.

When is a painting done? That's sometimes a puzzling question. One "test" I employ is to hold my painting in front of a mirror and study it in reverse. This process seems to make visual judgments a bit more objective. It's a good way to see if your design is out of balance, or if something stands out too little or too much. In this painting, viewing in reverse (as I've shown in the photo here) made me decide on a few minor steps for fine-tuning:
  • Scrubbed away the little swatch of blue-grey in the white fur on the top of the minor cow's face, to better separate it from the dark fur;
  • Added more color to the grass strands in corner, since the light-on-light effect was getting lost;
  • Scrubbed out a bit of pigment where the top bar of the gate has come apart from the vertical bar - I liked that detail and I wanted it to read better as a void area, with just distant background showing through
With those final touches, I declared "Eat Chicken" done! 

P.S. Entry added 5/14/18: I'm walking on air... "Eat Chicken" was awarded BEST IN SHOW at the 36th Year Juried Biennial Exhibition of the Tennessee Watercolor Society this past Saturday. I am so proud simply to be one of the 60 paintings in the Exhibition, juried by Lian Quan Zhen, and bowled over by my award. Yahoo!!

Keep Out

I passed this bizarre decaying building on a little-travelled rural backroad and was happy to have my camera. It was a sunny morning and the front of the building was bathed in light. If only this place could tell me its story, sitting close to the road in the middle of nowhere, with bars over the windows. Had it served as a small community jail? I loved its quirks - the weathered siding, the red stains at the top of the door, the rusty metal, and the panes of glass slipped out of the window frame. I yearned to do a painting, but struggled with how to make it interesting.

I remembered an old "Keep Out" sign in my photo reference files, which appealed to me because the black letters had worn away but the sign was still readable. This sign could add a humorous irony to the building, I thought, so I decided to incorporate it into my design. I chose a front-on view, primarily featuring the old window, and placed the sign in the upper third, off center.

I used masking fluid to preserve the sign shape and a few highlights on the broken glass, which show up as grey areas in the photo below of the early painting steps. In keeping with my technique of painting watercolors with just 3 primary colors, I set out to create a colorful underpainting. I spattered the paints onto the 300lb Arches CP paper, directing warmer red-yellow mixtures on the door and blue-red at the top. Clean water was sprayed over the colors, and I blended the wet surface with my fingers to cover most of the paper. The rest of the painting was done with the same 3 primary colors, but mixed together in my palette for grey tones. The greys were applied as glazes, so the bright colors of the underpainting could still show through. The rich black in the empty window panes and shadow areas was also created by mixing all three colors, keeping them very saturated with minimal water to dilute them.

I'm doing a lot of painting lately, and this was one of my resolutions for New Year's - the other is to get rid of accumulated junk, but that's not as fun! I won't continue at this pace, however… my 'discretionary' time is more available currently, since I'm not gardening at this time of year, I've put my fiddle playing on hold, my husband Rick is busy in a training program to join the sheriff's auxiliary, and we are both working on firming up our bodies so I'm not cooking so much. Voila, time for painting!! My other motivation is a looming deadline for entries into the 2018 TN Watercolor Society Exhibition on February 10th, so I'm scrambling to create two show-quality watercolor paintings to enter. Wish me luck!

Good Thing She's Cute

All my paintings in the past year were done in acrylics, and now I'm trying to ease back into watercolors. Over the years I've done many watercolor paintings using a limited palette - basically just red, yellow and blue - such as Jerry Van Music Man and Grandpa's Fiddle Break. In those cases, I mixed the pigments on the palette to create new colors, then brushed the mixed colors on the paper. Now I'm trying another method: letting the 3 colors mix directly on the watercolor paper. It's a technique used by many watercolor artists but one I've never attempted. I was motivated to give it a try after viewing the paintings of eminent watercolor artist Lian Zhen, which blew me away. I was investigating his work online since he will be the juror for the 2018 Tennesse Watercolor Society Exhibition (which I intend to enter). He uses several different palettes of 3 watercolor primaries, but I selected three I've used before with good mixing results: Holbein Royal Blue, American Journey Coral Red, and American Journey Carr Yellow. The choice of colors is important; each needs to be a pure tone so when mixed they won't create shades of brown or grey. For example, a greenish-blue like Phthalo Blue Green Shade when mixed with Coral Red as I used would not create a clean, pure purple. There are many good choices for painting from a limited palette, from all the professional watercolor manufacturers.

As you can see, the colors end up very bright and not realistic in this method. The success of the painting depends strongly on values, which I wrote about in a blog post recently. The more the color is diluted, the lighter the value. Some places the colors blend with soft edges, other places have sharp divisions between colors... which creates more interest. Leaving random whites from unpainted paper adds a bit of sparkle. I also went back into the dried painting with my X-acto knife and scratched pigment off to reveal the white paper below, such as in the eye highlights and whiskers. This is possible because I've used a very thick watercolor paper, Arches 300lb. I love that particular paper since it doesn't buckle when wet and the cold-press version had a nice texture. In the end, I also painted some strokes of the same colors to indicate the fur and freckles and to intensify some of the darkest areas.

The subject of this painting is my four-year old dog Maggie Mae. She was truly the 'puppy from hell' but after age 2 became much more sweet, relaxed, loving, and under control. On her worst days we coined the phrase "'...good thing she's cute" - her expressions made it hard to be angry for long. We rescued her, so her heritage is unknown but best guess is coon hound mixed with beagle. Her big eyes are captivating and she is very photogenic.

I like this painting process, and it stretches me to try something different. I need more practice at it however; when working in the wet-on-wet foundation stages you have to keep moving and complete a lot in one session. I'm more accustomed to painting for an hour one day, two hours another day, etc. Also, this painting is small, about 10" x 8", and I want to use the painting method on much bigger paintings.

You'll probably be seeing more watercolors done similarly by me in the near future. Try this yourself!

This Bud's For Me

I don't often do a painting just for myself, other than my own dogs' portraits. This is a special one which I was determined to finish in 2017. It's part of a series, another atypical characteristic of my art. It's not a Monet-type of series, where he painted subjects such as haystacks, the Rouen Cathedral, and waterlilies over and over in different lighting and weather conditions. No, my series is very different - I have painted the same vase three times over the last 55 years!

This all began when I was a child. I was constantly drawing and even won an art contest in the first grade. For some reason, of all the artwork I generated when I was young, my mother saved just one. Perhaps it was because it was a drawing of a vase she owned… ? I rediscovered this little crayon drawing in the 1990s, when Mum was sorting through her memorabilia and doling out old treasures to each of her four children. She gave me a little piece of newsprint paper with a drawing in crayon of her vase with flowers, under a candelabra. On the back of the thin paper, in my mother's distinctive small handwriting, are the words "By Judy, age 7." That would date it to 1962.

I didn't remember actually creating the drawing, but I remembered the vase as soon as I saw it. I don't think Mum used the vase for floral arrangements, so I must have been inspired to add the flowers because of the tulips in relief on the piece itself. The hanging light was likely from my imagination too, since we didn't live in a house with any similar lighting. When I asked my mother if she still had the vase, she said my younger sister Jean had it (she sweetly relinquished it to me upon my request). As an adult I had become interested in antiques, and when I got the vase I noticed the marks on the bottom identified it as Hull pottery, made in one of many companies in Ohio in the early 1900s. My research revealed that Hull produced many pieces with the same pink-yellow-blue glaze pattern as well as a variety of shapes with a similar tulip design. Of course, my attachment to my mother's vase was purely sentimental.

In 1997, 35 years after I had created the first drawing, I decided it would be fun do a painting of the Hull vase, since I been a fine artist for many years. I bought some tulips and made an arrangement in the vase, adding an old photo of my mother as a child with her young sister Emma. I positioned the items on a crocheted lace doily and took reference photos for the still-life, just using lighting from a window in the entry hallway to my home in Florida. I created the new painting in watercolors, which was my media of choice at the time, and titled it "Now and Then." The original crayon drawing and the new watercolor were framed and have hung in my bedroom since then, with the Hull vase on my nightstand.

Fast forward to 2017. Usually a painting comes before the framing, but the opposite happened in this case. I had bought a lovely antique tiger oak frame which matched a lot of our furniture. I wanted to paint something to fit the frame and hang it in my house. With these thoughts circling around my brain, the idea for my new painting came together when I saw colorful tulips for sale last spring. It had been 20 years since I painted "Now and Then," and 55 years since the crayon drawing, so it would be interesting to do it again, in acrylics this time. So I bought a pot of yellow and a pot of pink tulips and gathered some props to set up a still-life. As the newest painting shows, I arranged the tulips and set the vase of flowers on top of an oak bookcase which has a decorative panel on the back. I laid one yellow tulip at the foot of the vase. A little oval frame in this grouping features a photo of me at age 7. I used an old brass table lamp to cast some sidelight and positioned everything on an antique cotton mantle cloth, one of many pieces of needlework with tatted lace in my collection - my grandmother taught me to tat long long ago. To make an interesting composition, I bunched up the fabric and let it fall unevenly over the end of the furniture, instead of laying it flat and straight.

I took over 50 digital photos of my arrangement, trying different lights and exposures with my little point-and-shoot camera. I've got decades of experience in Photoshop, so I did some combining and retouching on the shots I liked best, to create one reference photo.

Technically, I painted this on a masonite panel pre-coated with gesso, rather than on stretched canvas, since the frame has a very shallow depth. I had never used that type of board before. Bad choice - I struggled with the ultra-smooth non-absorbant surface, which was rather unforgiving. I usually don't like to make my brush strokes obvious, and it was difficult to control this effect. It actually took me many months to complete the painting, but, in the end, I am happy with the results. I will hang "Once Again" in my bedroom, making it the third in my little series.