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StudioSense - "One" Color Fits All

In late December 2016 I visited Hot Springs National Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, on the way to Arlington TX to see the Western Michigan Broncos play Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl (my son Matt plays clarinet in the Broncos Marching Band). We arrived at our hotel at 2 am and arose the next morning to a classic low visibility foggy day.

We entered the park and drove up to the visitor's center. Here are some photos taken of the surrounding woods that morning:

The color (or lack thereof) in the above photos has been enhanced to reveal some greens of the nearby shrubs and orange leaves on the ground.

I thought the foggy vista was quite captivating and, now over one year later, I desire to capture the mood of these photos in a pastel painting. The paintings will have little color. The trick will be to see and convey the breadth of values (lights and darks) in the landscape using a small sampling of colors to create a largely monochromatic painting.

Before I start, however, I take notes that will guide my design of the painting. What do I want to convey and emphasize in this painting, and what is the emotion I feel when I view this scene? I want to convey the ethereal mist and the varying intensities of backlighting struggling to shine through the fog. The twisted branches of the forest appear to be dancing in the faint sunlight, their tentacles wrapping around tree trunks, branches and shrubs. It is almost a creepy look, and if I strolled through those woods, I would fear being strangled by a writhing vine, or grabbed by two taut branches and lifted up to the canopy of trees. Seriously folks, this is the emotion I strive to convey.

I decided that a watercolor underpainting will begin to create that mist-ical (pun intended) impact. There are two distinct paintings in this project. One vertical, one horizontal. For the vertical painting, I sketched the basic composition using vine charcoal, then sprayed it with fixative.

For the horizontal painting, after sketching the basics, I applied a wash of blue and purple watercolor. The Uart sanded pastel paper bowed a bit after the wash, so I flattened the paper with a couple of heavy art books to remove the bow. The horizontal version of this scene will be the subject of this lesson.

The highest value area of the landscape is represented in the portion of the canvas where I refrained from applying color. I will let the pastels do the heavy lifting in that area! My next step is to complete the watercolor wash of the vertical image, then begin to apply pastel.

In the next step, I apply a light value blue to the lightest area. This is a Mount Vision #224 blue, one of my favorites for sky and snow. For the slightly darker areas, I applied Great American Artworks "Rondo," from Jim Markle's collection to do the job:

To blend the mystical blues, I applied a light wash of alcohol with a paintbrush. Since the pastel paper started to bow again (I haven't gotten into the habit of mounting my paper to a permanent surface for the painting process), I will place the painting face down on a plastic sheet, covered by two quite heavy art books.

I needed to spend some time denoting the values in the painting. Most of the landscape is high value (6-10 on the value scale) with the exception of the darkest trees. I then selected the following pastels, sticking with a largely blue-purple limited palette, except for the dark brown/greys for the foreground trees.

Next step entailed blocking in the darkest values (the foreground tree and a few scattered scraggly trees) and adding the blue values of the distant trees. Note I also added the foreground wall and leaves beneath. The orange leaves on the ground, however, would draw too much "color" attention so I muted those with a deep blue pastel pencil (using the complement of orange to grey it out somewhat). See the reference photo for the boldness of those orange leaves.

At this stage of the painting I am focusing more on blocks of value mass rather than detail. The varying density of branch clusters and trees create several subtle value shifts. Without focusing on the branches, I layered in several values, ranging from the darkest (not really too dark) and the luminous sky struggling to break through the fog.

Then, my trusty gray pastel pencil and my finger (wrapped in a rubber glove tip) helped blend the foggy mess.

Another tool I discovered that serves the purpose of a tortilon for blending, that can be readily cleaned, is the rubber tip of a stylus. It does a great job of blending, then it can be wiped clean with a damp cloth and used repeatedly:

Here's the next version. Working on the atmosphere, I lost portions of the trees to the murky ether. Next step will be to layer in the foreground shrubs and a hint of subtle, dark green. I will then continue with the blending, value variety and the multitude of tree branches.

Once the backdrop of fog was basically established, I began to add trees and limbs. While doing this, I chose additional colors (still trying to stick to the limited palette) for the sky and fog. Also, when portraying the trees, I needed to shift their prominence (some weaker in value and color than others). This helped to convey the distance between and among the trees, as well as the atmospheric impact of the fog.

I introduced a bolder blue (you can see especially in front of the large distant tree), and added an "Aerial Yellow" in the sky, from my Jim Markle Great American Artworks pastels. For the shrubs above the stone wall I used a dark green and very deep brown/grey. I then took a mid-value grey/blue and dabbed portions of the shrubs to continue to show the impact of the fog, and to reduce the impact of the green color.

I dug out my charcoal pencil to help with some of the tree branch details. The final version below refines a number of branches, especially the odd branch that crashed from the upper left to find itself sitting on a limb of the large, dark tree. Further atmospheric effects added include a glimmer of light rays from the bright upper center of the painting, as well as enhanced deep blues.

Here is the final version of "Limited Visibility."

I varied the intensity of the branches by using different colors (browns, blues, purples) and different tools (vine charcoal, charcoal pencil, edge of a sharp pastel). The darkest and sharpest branches are the closest to the viewer, enabled by a 4B charcoal pencil. This approach helped to create the depth of the landscape. Notice the faint distant trees, created with lighter values of blue; they were brushed over with a grey pastel pencil.

As you can tell, this is not purely monochromatic, but it does have a limited palette. I was careful not to emphasize the greenery in the foreground, hence I added some more blue to the vegetation and pushed some of the fog impact to that area too.

To draw the viewer's eye further into the painting, I established a deep blue "path" emanating from the left and from the right to guide your vision toward the strongest source of light, using value and bold color as elements of the composition.

I've enjoyed creating this challenging pastel painting. I'm pleased with the fact that I took a rather bland but interesting photo and created my interpretation of how I felt that morning as I gazed at the dense fog in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Visit my blending lesson here, posted on the Uart Pastel Paper website. Check back here often for more tutorials on the process of pastel painting.

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