When our good friend Michael came for dinner recently, he brought a special present: a bound custom "Mac Book" of photos of his recent trip to New Zealand with my husband. It is filled with special memories of this time together, and we'll treasure it. However, Michael also asked me to paint him a pastel of one of the photos, as a commission piece. I usually don't paint from anyone else's photos--we all know that photos, however good, can't capture the subtleties and experience of actually being on site, and though I work from my own photos all the time, that interpretation is influenced by my memories of being at the actual place. In this case, however, I have visited the site where Michael took the photo, and was able to conjure up a vivid memory of the majesty and exhilarating feeling of breadth he captured in his photo on the Canterbury Plains of the South Island of New Zealand. So, I agreed to give it a try, and thought it might be fun to capture the stages of the development of the painting here.
First, I drew what is called a "thumbnail" or "notan" sketch of the scene, based on Michael's photo. This step helps me to analyze the value structure of the painting, to ensure a pleasing balance of light, dark, and middle values. It's sometimes said that the most memorable paintings are either a lot of dark and a little light, or vice versa. In this case, the scene was pretty much split between very light and quite dark values--I'll probably have to adjust the darks and the highlights to get some movement through the painting. As well, I am going to have to adjust the band of blue Echium flowers in the foreground--beautiful as they are (and Michael's a horticulturist, so I know they're important to him), they form a somewhat impenetrable band across the whole of the scene, stopping the viewer's eye from travelling smoothly back to the magnificent mountains. I'd have to think of some way to integrate the two, and prevent the effect of discrete bands across the width of the painting. As you can see in the sketch, I'm considering inserting a pathway through the foreground flowers.
Once I was satisfied that I understood the structure of the painting and knew what I was going to have to adjust, I drew the big shapes of the scene onto a large sheet of Art Spectrum ColourFix paper, a sanded pastel paper I use frequently. Next, I used semi-soft Girault pastels to scribble in some colour into these big shapes, selecting the colours by temperature (warm or cool) and basic local colour (the "ground" or most common colour in that shape). In the sky, although it would end up being a very cool blue/grey, I chose a warm peach, to provide a glow from underneath the eventual sky colour.
Next, I used rubbing alcohol and a big brush to brush down the shapes, working from lightest to darkest and cleaning the brush in between colours. I was very loose, allowing the alcohol to drip and run to a certain extent--serendipitous texture often works to your advantage in a large pastel, and I could always cover up anything I didn't end up liking. Here's this step, looking pretty abstract and bold--those blues really jump out, don't they? They're going to need some subduing, for sure!
Starting with the sky, I began adding more pastel, this time seeking colours closer to what I wanted for each final piece. Each shape (other than the sky) was broken down into smaller shapes to begin to build the darker and lighter sections, which, of course, is how we build three-dimensional form on a two-dimensional surface. The mountains and foothills began to emerge!
I kept working, adding detail and more colours to each area, and developing detail in the foreground. The planned pathway has narrowed to a mere gap in the foreground band of flowers--it divided the picture into quarters when I tried it, and was just distracting.
I wasn't feeling good about the balance of the picture--there was just too much foreground. Here I tried blocking some of that foreground with a piece of paper to try out various ideas...yes, I think that's better, so I cut off a strip about 2" wide from the bottom of the paper.
Finally I decided I wanted to emphasize the contrast of the light and dark areas suggested in the mountains, so I carried the idea down into the middle ground field, and adjusted the colours in the sky a bit too, grading the left side with a bit of peach, and the right with some grey-blue, to suggest a cloud outside the picture plane casting a shadow on the scene. I also spent more time detailing the foreground to add a sense that this band of flowers is right in front of your feet. I am now satisfied that I've captured the feeling of the place and created a painting that has a sense of atmosphere and movement. Band of Blue is complete! I'll leave it to Michael to decide how to frame it.