Colorado Front Range in Autumn

Colorado Front Range in Autumn
Oil on bristol board, 5.5″ x 9.75″

In Colorado the Front Range is an area at the western edge of the mostly flat plains of eastern Colorado that then rapidly transitions into the Rocky Mountains. This relatively small area contains most of the population of the entire state, including the city of Denver, and is the area I used to live a long time ago.

This scene is looking northeast from the side of Eldorado Mountain, moments before the train slips into another of many tunnels in that part of the mountains. When traveling west it’s the last clear view of the land east of the Rocky Mountains, but when traveling east it’s the point where the broad expanse of the plains suddenly opens up as you emerge from the tunnel.

The strip of golden trees stretching into the distance are large cottonwood trees in their fall colors. They grow next to water, and these are following the course of the South Boulder Creek.

I started this on with acrylic on bristol board that had been primed with a coat of gesso. After roughly sketching everything in acrylic I put an extra two coats of clear acrylic gesso and acrylic medium on it to protect the paper from the oil paint. To give extra support to the paper I used PVA glue to glue it onto the back of an oil sketchpad. The photo with part of a white oil paint tube at the bottom is where I switched to oil. The clear gesso seems too absorbent though and is probably what caused some sinking in during the first oil painting session. That’s when an absorbent surface sucks some of the oil out of the paint on top of it and causes the paint to look dull and matte until more oil is added later. Maybe in the future I’ll get some acrylic matte medium instead.

Cloud Study 1

Passing Clouds
Acrylic on bristol board, 6″ x 8.75″

Like these clouds, time keeps passing by and the year is nearly at its end. In the time left, lets all put in dedicated effort to reach important goals. As Psalm 126:5 says, “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.” The work described there isn’t easy and doesn’t show immediate signs of success, but it’s only if we make the effort now that good may later come of it.

Of course this doesn’t just apply to farming or other business. In a spiritual sense, the Bible also compares the Word of God to seed that is sown in the ground, representing people. Not only do the laborers share in the joy of the harvest that comes from that, but Jesus is described as taking part in that harvest. He sowed in tears but will reap in joy. The psalm ends with the next verse, saying “He that goes forth weeping, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.”

The reference was a couple of photos I took in the nearby field, but with the few houses by the trees and the highway and airport beyond that left out.

Included in the photos are each paint and the two brushes I used at the time that I started using it. The final photo doesn’t really look as good as in person, but the sun sets early now and in poor lighting a good photo is hard to get. The labels are hard to read, but the paints in order are Australian blue gum (a blue grey mix), ivory black, titanium white, cobalt blue, gel medium, cadmium orange hue (warming the cloud highlights and used in mountains), naples yellow, and cadmium yellow light.

Aspen Against Evergreens

Colorado Aspens
Watercolor and ink on paper, 4.5″ x 6″

A little over a month ago I was passing through the front range of the Colorado Rocky Mountains and there were lots of aspen trees at the peak of their fall colors. They were interspersed among evergreens and I got a few nice photo compositions.

However, when I started this painting a week and a half ago, all I had with me for paints were watercolors. They turned out to ill suited for this scene because of all the little yellow leaves. With watercolor you typically work from light to dark, because most of the paint isn’t opaque enough for light colors to show up well on top of dark colors. That’s why watercolorists normally try to “save their whites” by avoiding painting anything that should be light with dark colors as it would be difficult to lighten it later. With so many tiny dots of yellow surrounded by dark colors it soon became obvious that to preserve the yellow leaves I’d have to first paint a general yellow shape and then define the leaves by tediously painting around each one with dark paint and a thin brush. Instead, I opted to just draw on top of the watercolor with a couple of pens to indicate all of the leaves. It was still tedious, just not as much as it would have been. Some leaves I was able to accent with dots of an opaque bismuth yellow though, so the dark to light approach isn’t a set in stone rule.

Aspen Against Evergreens - photo

The reference photo required a lot of editing because it was taken in poor lighting and started out very dark. After brightening it I actually darkened some parts of the background again to help the center tree stand out a little better and reduce background distractions.

Woodland Deer and the Use of References

Two Deer Among Trees
Graphite and white charcoal on grey paper, 8.5″ x 5.5″

I saw these two deer from a distance and got a few photos to use as reference material, but the photos really weren’t great for just copying as they were. Between being on a moving train, to the sky being overcast with poor lighting, and using an old manual focus lens at a distance, I’m just happy that I got anything useable. So here’s an example of using a reference photo or two just as a reference that I can adjust while drawing, rather than something to slavishly copy.

Woodland Deer 1 ref 1

To start with, the original crooked photo was cropped and edited a bit for contrast and sharpness. Then, I decided the tree on the right should be much closer in, because otherwise it wouldn’t have even been in the framing of the drawing. The viewing angle in the drawing was also lowered from the original photo so more vaguely vegetated background would be visible, because at the original angle none of the background would have appeared on the page. The far left foreground tree was added to give a little weight to that side of the drawing, hoping to help the composition, and a second deer was added so the scene would be a little less empty. The composition really wasn’t thought out as well as it should have been though.

Woodland Deer 1 ref 2

This is a crop of another photo taken a moment later after the two deer started moving away, which was when I realized that there was a second deer. I’m not sure which of these two deer was in the first photo, so I may have just drawn the same one twice. That’s a useful approach because a few photos of the same animal in different poses can be drawn later even as an entire herd.

Back when I was in school I remember feeling like drawing just from imagination was what I should always try to do, because people would always ask if I had made something “out of your head” and would always act more impressed if that was the case. The result of always doing that was things didn’t really look right, or even recognizable, because I didn’t have a good understanding of how they actually did look. That’s gained from practice and thorough study, not from just making things up based on how you think they should look.

Since then I’ve kind of gone the other direction and often feel like I can’t draw anything if I’m not looking at something. Then I often just copy what’s there. I think the real point and usefulness of reference photos is to have something that you can conveniently look at later for ideas or to see the details of how something naturally looks, but then to build a composition from that, not to just copy the references in a way that’s only transferring the image from one medium into another.

Reservoir and Trees

Reservoir with Fast Moving Trees
Black and white charcoal and graphite on grey paper, 8.5″ x 5.5″

A reservoir with a large dam, not seen, in the Rocky Mountains a little distance west of Denver. Although the reference photo I used was actually a clear view of the reservoir, in recognition of the trees that kept photobombing me as my train moved I added some in.

Mountain Town Study

Colorado Mountain Town Study
Oil on gessoed bristol board, 5″ x 3.5″

Just a quick study painting of a small town in the mountains of Colorado. I’m not sure which one this is, but it’s definitely somewhere between Granby and Winter Park, which are near each other.

This started as a gouache painting on top of regular gesso, but after painting the sky I really wanted to do something in oil paint again. I covered it first with a layer of acrylic slow-dry medium by mistake, and after it eventually dried with the clear gesso that I meant to use. I needed it to dry fast, so for paints I chose Prussian blue, charcoal black (Rublev’s version dries fast), natural burnt sienna, and cobalt yellow, all of which dry fast. The titanium white also used doesn’t, but being mixed with the rest helped it. The entire gouache underpainting was covered with oil paint.

Mountain Town 1 ref

The reference photo was from last winter, but I photographed this painting using a very old lens I got at my neighbor’s garage sale a couple of days ago and had never heard of before. It’s a Steinheil München 100mm f3.5, meant for Argus C44 cameras that I “adapted” onto my digital camera by means of just gently shoving it into a Minolta MD adapter and wedging it in there. I think it’s sitting too close to the sensor to not go past infinity focusing and isn’t very secure, but for taking photos of things closer it’s actually pretty sharp. Apparently no one makes adapters for C44 lenses though, so I’m trying to figure out a better solution.