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Thursday, December 5, 2013

Step-by-step Watercolor Pencil Painting of Lava Butte

Dang!  Sidetracked again. I HAVE been working on the re-edit of Illustrating Nature, and in fact I have worked my way mostly through it (still have to rewrite the computer chapter) but I had to stop and work on illustrations for interpretive trailhead signs I had previously contracted for.  

That's not to say I'm not enjoying working on the trailhead sign art—just that it's not what I said I'd be doing right now.. The reworking of Illustrating Nature is going great, and I'm thinking it might go to press in February or so. At right is one of the many illustrations I've added—this one to show how a bird's bill opens. The hinge is actually behind the eye, not at the edge of the opening as you might think....

 In the meantime, I thought I'd give you a peek at the watercolor pencil painting process I've been working through on the trailhead signs. 

I was keeping track of the steps because I wasn't sure I was on the right track with it, and if I did something good I wanted to be able to repeat it. So every time I added a new color I took a snapshot of it with my little digital camera (I know, I know, everybody else uses their cellphone, but being a troglodyte, I don't have one). 

Anyway, as I was working along it dawned on me that I have been letting y'all down by not posting in so long.
So herewith, I post my work process on Lava Butte, a small volcanic cone just south of Bend, Oregon.  It's quite a fascinating place, with the cone jutting up out of the earth, and its lava flow that covers the ground like cake dough, the rough black cindery edges dropping off suddenly to powdery yellowish soil (originally just ash, if I remember correctly) sparsely covered with pine trees.  

For each step, I wrote down on a little slip of paper the name of the watercolor pencil I was using, and placed it next to the area I just worked on. So in photo #1, the slip of paper reads "caput mortuum," which is the name of that pencil.  
To digress slightly...the "ink drawing" is a highly contrasted pencil drawing I scanned into Photoshop then printed out on heavy paper that would take the pencil well, then let me add water to blend it without buckling or disintegrating. 

So in #2, I have penciled over the caput mortuum with gunmetal gray.  I have used the watercolor pencils fairly lightly because while you can always add more, you can't remove color very well.
Warning ~ if you have ever tried to photograph artwork (except in well-controlled lighting circumstances, you'll know that I had to do quite a bit of work to lighten these and get reasonably faithful colors. I was working under diffuse sunlight coming through the window and fluorescent lights, and while the images looked great on my camera view screen they were a LOT darker when I uploaded them into the computer.  You can see in that dark image after #4, what it looked like before I tweaked it.
In #3, you'll see the little slip of paper that said "painted."  

By that I mean that I blended the colors with my waterbrush to get the color you see there. In case you aren't familiar with the waterbrush, I blogged about it a little here

#4. I've begun to work on the orangey cinders found within the mouth of the cone.  I'm using terra cotta and a bit of caput mortuum in the shadow areas, and in #5 I waterbrushed again.

#6. When working with watercolor pencil paintings, you must wait to let things dry before adding more color to an area, or you will get uneven and blotchy color.  So while the inside of the cinder cone was drying, I added more pencil to the outside of the cone. While THAT was drying, I penciled in some turquoise blue sky.

#7. Turquoise blue can be a real problem.  When you scan that particular color into a graphics program, it often becomes granular or parts of it drop out entirely. This might just be my scanner or graphics program, but it's been a problem I've had  to work around.  
I left out #8, because my tweaking couldn't get it even close to the others.

In #9, I started on the far-away mountain and the trees.  When green trees, such as the ones in the forest and flanking the mountain, are this far away, the atmosphere comes between the viewer and the green of the trees, getting bluer the farther away they are.  By the time the trees get to the mountain here, I can duplicate the color with the cobalt blue-greenish watercolor pencil. 

#11 (there isn't a #10) I added juniper green to the nearer trees, with a bit of the cobalt blue-greenish in diminishing amounts the closer it gets.  I then painted the further-off trees, and when they were dry I went back over the blue with the juniper green and a little turquoise blue just to get the colors nicely blended and matched a little better with the sky.   The juniper green in #12 has just been penciled in here, and it's ready to be painted.
Up to this point, the picture has not been very encouraging to look at. I keep wondering if this is going to work.  But now, with the forest coming along, it's starting to appear the way it should.

You'd think by now I'd have a little more confidence, but I'm afraid it never seems to get any better.  Sheesh!
If you click on the close-up here you can really get into the details of the pencil and brushwork.

With #13, I have waterbrushed the far forest and the closer parts, adding deeper color when it dried, then wetting it again.  

Painting with watercolor pencils is an additive sort of thing, and while one part is drying another part can be added to and darkened.  The paper I use dries quickly, so if I work on a different area for a just a few minutes, when I come back the original area is dry.

In #13, I've penciled on some color, but now I have to start using a different technique since there are some tiny trees on the flanks of the cinder slope that I want to make green.  With the brush tip I pull color off the end of the juniper green pencil and apply it to the little green trees.  This gives me much more precise aim than trying to get into the spot once with the pencil point to lay down color then again with the brush to wet it in. Additionally, I can get a nice intense color on the brush by dabbing repeatedly at the pencil, so it only takes one application of color.
In #14, the last one I've got ready for today (the painting is finished now and sent off to the client, but I only had time to tweak the first half of the photos), I've painted in the juniper green trees on the sides of Lava Butte, and deepened the cinder color within the cone.  

My next step will be to tackle the lava flow that comes up to the foot of the cone, and the foreground of trees and ashy soil they're growing in.  

The last image here is the rough I sent to the client along with the color palette I expected to use on various parts of the picture.  I have worked with this client before and she trusts me to do things right, so this minimalist rough worked for us.  Usually, at least part of the work would need to be colored in for the client.  

Although the client had approved the rough, I was very aware that the forest in the foreground was NOT well represented—I couldn't see how I could make it translate to how this area actually looks, and I had already put the painting off longer than I should because I was trying to work out the solution in my mind.  
The dead black of the lava troubled me, as well, because it's not considered the sign of a good artist to use a lot of black in a painting, but, well, lava is dead black....

So I took a day off to ponder further at this point, then got back to work.  More in the next post.
I hope you'll come back to see the rest of the story! 


Lois said...

Thanks for sharing your challenges with the watercolor pencil techniques. I find it very difficult to paint with watercolor pencils....maybe it's the brand I'm using, Derwent. Anyhow, I'm looking forward to the publication of your new book. Please announce when it is ready for purchasing

Renie said...

Hi Lois,
You're very welcome. Yes, the Derwents seem to have a little tougher consistency than some of the other brands, although I have many of them in my collection and don't have a problem with them. You might buy a couple of the Van Gogh brand pencils ~ they're a little more "buttery," and you might like those better. As for announcing the new edition -- I'm really bad about publicity, but I'm trying to remember to put stuff on Facebook, so if I don't remember to announce it here, you might see it there.

Iris said...

How I wish I could do what you're doing, drawing nature and birds and trees, although you can keep the insects. (I don't tolerate large insects well) I too want to thank you for sharing the things that don't go well as well as the creative detours you sometimes need to do. I have a blog and I have couple folders of unfinished projects because the thought of messing up is paralyzing.

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