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A Painting for Sara: Part 2

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

I would imagine that some of you were eager for Part 2 of my watercolor step-by-step. I was, too. But then, frost. If I don't respond to the biggest events in my world, if I don't write about them, then I'm not really living in the world. So instead you got a video of morning glories gone plasticky, and the exhalation of a humid, warm greenhouse. Death and rebirth, in five minutes.  And oh my. Looking outside, there's a gigantic full moon balloon sinking on the brightening western horizon. And I notice, even by moonlight, for the first time that one of the pines we planted in 1992 has leaned over, gone all yellow overnight, and died. Life. It creeps in, demands one's attention, minute by minute. 

When we last left the painting, it looked like hell. But the foreground branches were done! Now I could turn my attention to the forest behind. At this point in the painting, I usually make a couple of paper dolls that I tape in place, so I can see what I need to do with the background to make the birds sing. These paper dolls take a matter of minutes to paint, and I sometimes wonder what my work would be like if I painted my final paintings with such speed and abandon. There's power and joy in painting on copy paper, of not caring a whit how it looks. You're just getting the information down and moving on.  Some of us do our best work on cocktail napkins. It's a no-risk, no-investment proposition.

In this bit, you can see that I've gone in and painted sunlit branches where all those ugly white slashes were. I've been careful to lay in the darks around the masked areas, so when the masking comes off I can paint brightly lit foliage and it'll stand out nicely. 

Now the tree trunks that I masked out get painted, and that gives the forest depth, to have some light trunks in the foreground, and darker ones in back. I'm noodling away at all those sunlit branches. The paper dolls in place make me happy and help me remember that when I'm done with the main meal, I still have dessert waiting! I call painting the birds "dessert." I still have the foreground ferns to deal with, but that'll be fun. You can see here that I've masked out some ferns and some random shapes in the right foreground. I made those shapes by dipping crumpled Saran wrap in masking fluid, then dabbing it on the paper. This produces a pleasing organic effect that would be nearly impossible to create on purpose. Nature is full of such random organic shapes, so a painting that imitates her should be, too.

Outside, the bonsais are at their absolute peak. I love Halloween for so many reasons, and my beautiful trees are one of them. Life again, going on, the party raging just outside the door. I've done a lot of partying this fall. So beautiful, so protracted, so satisfying.

I find The Bacon waiting at the front door like a trick-or-treater, with a ghastly memento. He wants to bury his lucky bunneh foot in the couch. Um. Sorry to disappoint you, Bacon. He brought both hind legs from a well-picked carcass he scavenged somewhere out in the meadow, and asked to bring both of them into the house. A reasonable dog request, denied by a fussy human.

I start painting the sunlit row of ferns in back, taking  washes of of bright yellow-green into the masked area. The play of light and shadow brings the painting to life. I've made a bit of a problem for myself, though, and now have to integrate this very bright line into the rest of the mass. I do this by mixing up the darks and lights in the contact zone.

Now for the ferns in the lower right corner. All that masking, painting ghostly fern shapes with masking compound, is worth it. I paint pale fronds with ease, simply running a light yellowish wash over the fern shapes I've masked out. Painting some similar ones in darker green around them adds a pleasing dimensionality. I paint loose, wet russet forest floor trash into the random shapes created with Saran wrap dipped in masking fluid. Paper dolls are off, and I'm drawing in the details of the warblers with pencil. 

In this closeup of the spruce branch, you can see the paler needles that I  masked, which lay over the darker ones I painted first. Really, painting the birds is the very least of making this painting. I could get away with a vignette, just a bird on a branch, but that's not how I roll. Sara loves Hog Island. I am determined to make her a scene that will take her back there, let her smell the hay-scented ferns over the salty tang of the ocean, even in the depths of a Buffalo winter. OK. Deep breath. Time for dessert!

Every warbler has its own yellow. Magnolia yellow is very rich, with some orange in it. 
I want to see how the green back of the female is going to work with the background. Hmm.

Black stripes help define it. It's such fun to see the black go in. Such fun to put it in!!

I take the female nearly to completion before turning to the delicious velvet-black mask and breast stripes of the male. 

It's late on the afternoon of November 6, and a shaft of sun comes in the west studio window, slamming onto the painting! Yes! Just what I was trying to paint! It's like a benediction.  I can almost smell my hay-scented ferns start to emanate their sweetness in the warm sun.

Liam comes running in to see. He and I talk a lot about light as he draws and paints with markers in the living room and I paint with watercolors in the studio. I so love these times when he and I are home and I can give him pointers on his art, and he can reciprocate with observations on mine. It feels rare and incredibly precious, and it is. We will look back on it as some of our happiest times.

Birthday Prismacolor/Copic marker spree! What a joy, to be able to walk into an art supply store with my son and swoon together at the sights and smells before us. To give him a pair of experienced eyes for his work, to help him refine his own. To encourage him to branch out to drawing objects from life, in the round. A bit scary, but he's more than up to the challenge. To have children who share my interests, and then take them farther--it's a great blessing. Phoebe's doing a lot of snorkeling in Panama, studying coral reefs at the moment. !!

It's not all coconuts and warm caressing seas in Panama, but this photo by Avery Cheng suggests it.  Let it be so. 
Elaine Shen caught Phoebe doing what she does everywhere she goes--connecting and engaging people. Little people, all the better.  Sigh. This photo just takes me apart. Evan, Southern version.

Where was I? Oh! Painting. You see the problem.
In go the stripes on the male! I call Liam in again, to see what a difference a little black makes. Whoa!

I leave the painting for a day or so to season. I know I have more work to do on the birds to round out their forms, as they're looking a bit flat.  It's good to walk away from your work now and then. It's necessary.

When I return to it a couple days later, a problem in the lower foreground leaps out at me--that hard 45 degree angle of green cutting into the spruce needle path through the ferns. That's no good. I fix that, and do some more work in the ferns around the female bird, to help her pop a bit. It's finally ready to sign. 

For Sara: Patron, Friend and Great Teacher and Spirit.

Time for another deep breath. I take a bunch of photos of the painting, pack it in foamcore and cardboard, so nobody could bend it if they tried; scribble DO NOT BEND all over the package,  drive it to the post office, and slap a lot of insurance on it, sending it Priority with tracking.  It's always a scary thing to do. And three days later I get an email with this photo of a very happy Dr. Sara Morris with her new office-brightener. Bawww!! For you, who give your students everything you've got, the pair of birds instead of one; for you, the ferns and spruces, the sea and sky, the time and extra effort--for that radiant smile.


I love seeing how an artist works. The way life steps into a painting and all work together to make a wonderful work of art. Lucky lady who received this.

Wow, just wow. I know life isn't all this way, like looking through rose colored classes, (or magnolia colored glasses) but your writing and painting and blogging sure brings out the rosey parts. Love this.

Kathy in Delray Beach.

Posted by Anonymous November 15, 2016 at 5:14 AM

I have to admit your skill and painting beauty were a bit overshadowed by Chet and his gnarly rabbit leg find. I love his face here and your mention of the couch. "Just let me hide it quick, then I promise I'll come breathe my rabbit leg breath over you while you pack up your painting, Mom." I love that photo of him and the thought of him rummaging in the meadow, and your skill and beauty to make that gorgeous painting come to life. Thanks for this bit of wonder and light!

Painting is a bit like magic to those of us with no artistic talent. Thanks for sharing. Chet Baker's present reminds me of my childhoood corgi bringing me a presentthrough the dog door- a mummified squirrel corpse! We think it died in a tree and fell out during a wind storm and he found the best present for his girl and why was I shrieking? Haha.

Just amazing! And I love to see your everyday life photos in there too.

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