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Woodland Wake-Up Call

Early morning autumn strolls in the preserves around Saline, Michigan, often reveal colorful, sublime vistas to capture with the pure color of pastel. Below is the reference photo I used for my pastel painting "Eastbound Trail."

Typical of photography where the backlighting (the eastern sky in this case) is strong, the object in the foreground, especially the trees, lose their color and appear almost black. The trees were actually a greyish blue with crevices and bark patterns catching the early light.

As with any photo, my immediate task was to determine what was noteworthy about this scene. I have taken many photos like this, so what could make this different and worthy of creating a piece of art? What appealed to me was the blue haze in the distance, and the warm sunlight glowing beyond the trail. The blue really caught my attention. The distant tree line in blue was quite impressive. With the orange carpet of leaves along the trail, I thought that continuing the blue throughout the painting would add a strong complementary color contrast to the foliage, creating a nice vibrancy to the autumn color scheme.

So (no surprise) I chose to do a blue acrylic underpainting:

I decided to use a watercolor wash on the sky, picking an orange glow to enhance the warm atmosphere of the scene:

As with all of my paintings, I start with a sketch, note the values, and often draw a traditional two-value notan. Planning a piece of art, rather than diving right into the painting, is a critical first step. Otherwise, the artist will complete the work, look at it, and wonder what is wrong with the final product. In the example below, I simplified the composition, removing many of the trees, expressed the curvilinear boundaries of the trail and distant tree line, and portrayed two lines with arrows to define the direction of sunlight rays I planned to compose:

My plan was to have one ray of light shine diagonally from right to left toward the trail and the entrance to the wooded area. The other would be dispersed diagonally from left to right in the field beyond the woodland.

I started applying light pastel to the distance to create the impact of the sunlight, blending the light pastel over the blue background.

Once the background was firmed up, I could block in the trees and then worked through the forest floor. Here is the final version of Eastbound Trail:

You'll notice that the reference photo has a bluish-grey tint to the trail. The blue underpainting helped to convey that tint as well as to make the complementary color orange "pop" in the shaded areas. The tree shadows on the ground were also enhanced by the blue underpainting. Note how the sunlight coming from the distant field wraps around the distant trees. In painting trees, light generally wraps around the edges as it gets diffused by the texture of the bark. The haze adds a misty veil along the trail, the base of the trees and other objects of the forest floor.

Eastbound Trail exhibits some unique atmospheric impacts that captured the essence of that early morning hike at the Pittsfield Preserve near Ann Arbor, MI. I chose to frame this pastel in a gold plein air frame, and the original pastel is available in my shop. Additional framing options are available.

If you get the chance to head out to Douglas, Michigan on the "Art Coast," visit Mr. Miller's Art Emporium where you can find eight such plein air-framed pastels for purchase.

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