Performing "tree-age"

As in "triage," a process of prioritizing patients based on the severity of their condition--but on a tree in a painting! Last night I started on a pastel painting (17.5" x 11.5") inspired by a beautiful moment I experienced early Monday morning, as I was making my weekly commute back to the city from our home in the country.  As I reached the end of our gravel road and cleared a band of trees, I gasped to see the gorgeous scene spread out beside me.  The morning sun was at that fleeting state where it has not yet cleared the horizon, but is sending up shafts of colour ahead of itself, painting the sky with tender pinks and peaches.  Lovely--but what made it special was the water in the deep ditch beside the road, a result of the weekend's torrential rainstorms, that was reflecting the glow in a ribbon of light against the dark grass verge. Happily, I had my camera in the car and was able to grab a handful of shots before the sun rose and changed the effect completely--besides, I really had to go on to work, much as I would have liked to stay and watch the whole show unfold. So, here is the roughed in first phase of the painting, and the results of the alcohol wash I usually do to "melt" the pastel into the paper's surface.  As you can see, this results in a pretty strong dark pattern for the foreground tree and grass panels.  I liked the abstract shapes, so went on to the next stages, adding layers of more subtle colour and value to shape the scene.


It was going along well, but increasingly the tree silhouette was bugging me--it seemed too strong a contrast, and kept drawing my eye away from the water reflection and the distant dawn where I wanted the focus to be.  What to do?  Pastel is a very opaque medium, and I always tell my students: "There's nothing you can do that can't be fixed." However, this time I found the limits of that statement!  After brushing off the dark pastel as best I could (carefully, using a small stiff brush and catching the dust on a paper towel below), I simply used a light yellow pastel to cover the spot, and wet it again with alcohol.  Uh-oh--the tree ghosted through pretty strongly!  I guess it was because I laid in the underpainting with a very deep, rich purple pigment with lots of staining power. So I had two choices--put the tree back in  or find a better way to cover it up.  After some thought, I decided I really liked the painting better without that tree, so onward...



I took a deep breath and washed the whole sky again with alcohol, brushing out the tree shape fairly vigorously. Looking better, especially after I dried it with my hairdryer--I was anxious to see if it had worked.


After that, things went more smoothly.  The sky was reworked, and I moved the painting to finish, and titled it Indrawn Breath to represent both the hush of the moment pictured, and the deep respirations involved in its execution!