High Chroma

I am frequently a painter of subtlety: of small things that might be overlooked, of browns and blues and layers of green. Not today. Drawn in by the vivid, bold color of these poppies at the Berkshire Botanical Garden, I pulled out a whole new palette from a set of six high chroma colors from QoR to paint them. I have never used any of these colors before and it felt a little like driving a car for the first time– a little nerve wracking and reckless, but also liberating and fun.

Like the poppies, the set of six colors are pure, intense, and saturated. What’s nice is that the colors in the set were chosen to work well together and to produce a full range of colors. I found the only thing missing for this painting was a way to get a good deep green. I added some sap green, but ended up with stems and leaves that are inconsistent and murky. In retrospect, phthalo green might have been a better choice. Here’s the color test I did after the poppies (I know, testing before would make more sense.)

Tips and Techniques– The quality of a color is described by words like hue, value and chroma. Hue is the color itself, as represented on the spectrum of all colors. Value is the relative lightness or darkness of the color, and chroma refers to the quality of the color’s purity, intensity, or saturation. They all make a difference, but what’s really important is to get to know the colors you have in your palette. If you haven’t already, do some color tests of different combinations of primary and secondary colors to see what combinations mix best. If your paintings tend to look flat, it’s likely you need to expand your value range by leaving more lights and pushing the darks.

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Among Dogwoods

Standing among sunlit dogwood blossoms is a treat: white petals bright against a backdrop of dappled greens, blue sky, and bird song. The moment would be perfect but for the gnats that bite the back of my neck while sketching. They force me to draw fast and loose and then retreat to the house. Still, when I look at this painting months or years from now, it will not be the insects I remember, but the long-awaited spring day and the blank sheet of paper bright with promise.
Among Dogwoods, 5×7″, watercolor on Fabriano 300lb cold press watercolor paper.

Tips and Techniques– I took advantage of negative painting techniques for this, starting with a wet in wet wash of phthalo blue, Hansa yellow medium, and quin rose over my pencil drawing. I left a lot of white for the flowers, but you can see that I wasn’t exact with every edge. Once dry, I proceeded to do a long series of varied washes to define to foliage and create a sense of depth. I find that this type of painting takes a while to develop, and doesn’t fully take shape until I add the darkest layers and final details (e.g., the moth, shadows, and red highlights on the flowers). I worked on it over the course of a week. Stepping away is not only important for letting the paint dry between layers, but helps me come back and see it fresh.

Here’s a second painting that I started that will give you a sense of what this looks like in the early stages. You can see where I’m just beginning to pick out the shapes from the pencil drawing. Patience is key!

 

Goldenrod Galls

What began as a simple search for interesting props for my upcoming Sketching Nature workshop, led to a great illustration of how much there is to discover if we only look more closely. Among the things I collected were the dried stems of goldenrod, many of which had classic round goldenrod galls. But I soon discovered other deformities that I hadn’t noticed before: stunted stems with tufts of leaves at the tops, and elliptical-shaped growths on stems.

It turns out that more than 50 species of insects—mostly flies, midges, and wasps– lay their eggs on goldenrod stems. When the larvae hatch, they borrow into the stem, causing the plant to form a protective chamber around the growing grub. When the larvae transforms into an adult, it emerges from its hideaway and flies off. Sometimes woodpeckers drill into the gall for a meal, in which case, you’ll find a small hole in the gall. For the most part, the insects don’t harm the plant; though in the case of the bunch gall, they do stunt the growth of the stem, causing leaves to sprout at the top and curtailing the growth of flowers.

So, there you have it…a bit of natural history for your day and an invitation to go out and see what you can discover.

Tips & Techniques– Keep it simple! I wanted this page to illustrate how much you can do with a few simple things on a page and a limited amount of time. I drew everything directly in pen and shaded only the darkest areas. I added watercolor in three loose layers, using combinations of yellow ochre, burnt sienna, and ultramarine blue. A bit of spatter near the dried flowers and the “goldenrod galls” text were my finishing touches.

Garlic Scapes

I planted garlic for the first time last fall and it took me a while this spring to figure out where I had interspersed it among other bulbs and perennials. Then this! ….this fabulous showing of curling greenery in the garden! And although I am moving next week and will never see the harvest, at least I have this journal page – and the promise of next year in another garden.

Fast and Loose

Short on time but long on patience, I often need to quickly put pen to paper in my journal, get a first wash of color down, and then come back to finish later. The result is a journal full of sketches that took five minutes to start but five days to finish. I don’t really mind—working fast and loose has its merits. For one, my sketchbook would be empty if I waited until I had a big block of time for art. It has improved my hand-eye coordination. And it has kept in check my prior tendency to be slow, controlled, and precise.

Tips & Techniques– Practice a few 30 second, 1 minute, and 3 minute contour and semi-blind contour drawings with a fairly simple subject. Fruits and vegetables are perfect. Work in pencil or pen, but don’t erase. See if you can get most of your subject down in just a few minutes. Next add a loose and light wash of watercolor. Let it dry. Then repeat; add two or three more layers of paint to deepen the colors and add depth.

One trick to this method is to suspend judgment in the early stages. My sketches often look downright sloppy at the start, but I know that the watercolor will transform them. You can always tighten up as you progress, but it’s hard to make controlled sketches seem loose after the fact.
I introduced this technique with participants at a recent workshop on illustrated watercolor journaling that I offered at the Vermont Watercolor Society. Look how great this 1-minute sketch by one of the participants turned out with a just a couple of washes of watercolor.