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Making a Summer Day

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Lest anyone think that the only thing I've done during the past two years is rip out invasive vegetation, I'm happy to say that 2020 has been a super-painty year for me. I took an 18-painting commission and knocked it out from August-December. I should have been working on it all year, but I couldn't focus in the first five months of the pandemic. My kids were home and I felt this frantic need to hold them close and do stuff with them and serve Sunday best meals every dang night. I'm so glad we did that--took the hikes and the bike rides and shared the incredible meals. We picked flowers and vegetables from the garden. We raked mountains of lawn clippings. We raised a song sparrow named Dustin and took long walks and played with Curtis. 

And then August came and they had to go back to their lives, and with the house quiet and nobody "needing fed," as we say in Appalachian Ohio, I could finally get going on those paintings. 
Wish I could show them to you, but like all my works for publication, I can't, at least until they're produced. Oh, I had such fun! and I can't wait to show you the paintings. I was working so hard and fast I didn't take progress photos, but it'll be fun to show them to you when I am finally allowed.

Still feeling fairly well-oiled from that experience, I was delighted to start a 9.5 x 12" watercolor. I'm happy to be able to share the process of creating a paeon to the monarch butterfly, and to my favorite stand of milkweed on the planet, property of my good neighbors on the ridge. For those who don't know the story, this is a field, thick with common milkweed, that, when I discovered the problem, was being mowed down at the absolute height of caterpillar abundance. All I had to do was work with the landowner to adjust the mowing schedule to mow right after the flowers faded, and then not at all until after frost, and BOOM we had a going proposition, absolutely cranking out monarchs. Soo satisfying, and the rewards flutter over by the dozen in August and September. I've been loving and studying this field since about 2009. It's the biggest contiguous stand of common milkweed I've ever seen.

So I've cobbled together a composition with a milkweed plant as the star. I've drawn it all out, transferred it to the watercolor paper, and taped the paper down sopping wet. As it dries it stretches taut, so it doesn't buckle when I lay a big wash on it.  I tackle the big milkweed plant first. 

It's important to notice the big difference in local color of the leaf tops and their undersides. Thoe pale undersides, and the little veins on them, give a sense of movement, transition, and sinuousness to the plant. They are the grace notes that lead the eye around the form.  I paint some shadows in on the leaves, and then start on the field proper. Painting masses of plants is always a little tricky, but I'm trying not to get too wrapped up in it. I figure I'll do a few milkweed plants that you can identify as such, and then get less specific with the understory.

The understory is all red clover, so I decide to put some drops of masking fluid down to reserve the paper for their pink blossoms. Once that's dry, I can keep painting all the jumbled greens right over it.

I keep plugging, painting in milkweed leaves. It ain't easy, making sure every leaf goes to a plant, but I'm still having fun. 

Now that I've got all the milkweed in, here comes the understory of clover foliage. It's a darker green than the milkweed. 

This is fun! I'm creating an army of vegetation! 

When I'm satisfied with the meadow, I rub away the drops of dried masking fluid with my fingers and expose the white paper beneath. Then I get to paint lots of red clover. It's important to vary the shade of the blossoms, to give the impression of changing light, distance and depth. 
I decide to go ahead and paint the sky right afterward.  It's very fast and dashy.  Even so, I have a little trouble controlling the wash--the paper is drying too fast, dang it! Ack! I have to finish it all before it dries! I'm slapping paint and water around but in the winter, with low humidity in the house, you don't have much time to tarry. Oh well--that's watercolor skies for you! You can see that I've run the wash down into the tops of the trees behind the barn. That's important to avoid hard edges where the washes meet. 

Here come the trees behind the milkweed. Their darks will help anchor the composition. 

I knew that once I got some darks in there, the painting would come to life. With the sky of blue and the anchoring darks, you can finally feel the sunshine pouring down! I got wound up painting the flowers and buds and forgot to take progress shots. 

There's a hard line between the trees and sky that I don't like, so I soften that by scrubbing the paint off and sucking it up with a damp brush. Then I run a wash of Chinese white over it to dull it out further, and push it well into the background.  Compare the treeline in the photo above to the one below.

Now it's time for the barn! When the black shadow goes in under the roof, that's when the sun really comes out. I'm telling you it's shining by the intensity of that shadow. That's how you suggest strong light--by deep shadow.

You may recognize it as the Shadowbarn! And you may recognize the wee companion, too. 

Sept. 7, 2014

OK. It's butterfly time! 

I haven't painted an ornate butterfly in awhile. Every time, I gain new respect for painters of insects. Whew. So many tiny details, and they all have to be in the right places, or it doesn't look accurate.

Same for the caterpillar, hiding on the lower left. I had to figure out the color sequence before I could paint it. It goes black yellow black white black white black yellow black...Mix that up, and your caterpillar isn't going to look right. 

This post compresses three days of actual painting. Each morning, I'd get up thinking I'd finish it that day, but it turns out I only have so much painting in me in a given day. I'd go out, cut brush for three or four hours, then paint, and before I'd know it, it would be dinnertime. What a good way to spend a few days!

I always feel best when I'm getting lots of exercise and painting, too.  When I'm painting a scene, I get to live inside it as I work. When I paint ivory-billed woodpeckers, I'm seeing them, alive, and I'm living in their habitat. When I paint a monarch fluttering at a milkweed, I'm there in that meadow, kneeling, sweat and all. There's nothing quite like creating a hot summer morning out of nothing, especially when it's dreary outside. It's the closest thing to a time machine that I have.  And that's what I love about painting, after the obvious continuous challenges of striving to attain some kind of mastery over the medium. Nah. Wrong word. Mastery being denied, I'll settle for control!

If you've enjoyed this step by step, just look up in the far left top corner of this blog homepage. Click "Search Julie's Blog" and type "watercolor" in the search box. Free tutorials for years. Been doing them since 2005!



Lovely summer day painting for a chilly February. And great tutorial. Thank you!

One of these days you may actually inspire me to break out the watercolor supplies I still have from college!

I love your observation that you inhabit a painting while you're painting it. The same thing happens when writing fiction. What a great way to travel!

Beautiful Julie, I love the step-by-step process! Thanks so much for sharing the experience!

This was big fun. Thanks :-).

Will you be turning this painting into a print? My 92 year old dad started a milkweed garden on the green strip by a very busy road about 5 years ago. He has enjoyed watching hundreds of monarchs hatch and fly away. Last summer, the blight officer came to the door and told my mom someone had complained because the strip was not mowed. When she explained that my dad has dementia and loves watching the monarchs. He replied "that's fine, leave it." My parents met at an ecology camp in the 1956! Unfortunately, my mother passed away this fall and my dad's dementia is much worse so he is in a LTC facility. I would love to give him this print. Betsy

@Betsy, unfortunately I have no plans to turn this painting into a print as it is a private commission. I'm sorry about that. My very best to your father, and to you.

I absolutely love your painting!
I remember that milkweed field! It is the inspiration for my goal to have a milkweed field (on a smaller scale) I’m hoping the Butterfly Weeds seeds I planted make it and some transplanted common milkweed takes off ! THANKS as always for sharing your talent!!

Your painting steps are always an inspiration to me. Thank you.

thank you.... was just thinking that I needed an "art class" to perk up the winter

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