Sunday, February 8, 2015

Morning in Capay Valley - A Color Study

Recently I took a short morning drive through the Capay Valley just Northwest of Sacramento.  The weather was beautiful and winter sun was still low in the sky.  I specifically wanted to take photos for future art projects while using – and learning – my new DSLR camera.  On the way, I stopped in Woodland long enough to take some pictures of the downtown area, and in the process I was reminded that there are a LOT of plein air painting opportunities in this neighboring small town.   I’ll have to go back there soon with my Easy-L at hand. 

One photo I captured was a very picturesque view of a distant barn and animal shed across a purple tinged field surrounded by green hills.  The early light cast long shadows across the bright green hills creating beautiful contrasts.  I knew I wanted to paint this scene with the intent of capturing that light and the sense of peace and timelessness in this little valley.

Capay Valley Farm Original photo format.  
I started out by cropping the photo in a couple of different ways.  This is a very effective way to visualize possible compositions, and it is made so easy with modern photo manipulation computer programs.   I use Adobe Elements, which is a junior version of the very pricey Photoshop, but very good free programs such as Gimp are readily available and do an excellent job.  For landscapes I really like an elongated composition and I often paint with 6 x 12 or 8 x 16 panels.  There’s something about the 2:1 width to height ratio that seems very natural for landscape painting.  In this case however, I was intrigued by an even more elongated 3:1 ratio.  I cropped the photo to that size.  The change in the feeling of the picture is dramatic, in my opinion!   
Capay Valley Farm photo cropped 3 to 1
At this point the idea of a diptych (2-panel) painting occurred to me.  I’ve never done one and this elongated concept lent itself to that idea.  So I settled on two 12 x 18 panels to maintain the correct overall ratio, got the required stretcher bars and stretched some oil primed linen canvas to end up with the final panels. 

First, however, I wanted to paint a preliminary color study in oil. Recently, I’ve had very good luck with doing studies before starting a larger painting and this project seemed like another very good candidate.  (In fact, I should have done it before stretching the canvases for the final painting.)  I found a piece of the same linen canvas I intended to use for the final painting and taped off a smaller version of the two panels, being careful to maintain the 3:1 ratio. 

Here is the first study.  The scrap linen is simply taped to a drawing board and then the tape is used to mark the correct ratio for each of the two pieces of the triptych.  I separated the two panels with a strip of tape to keep in mind that there will be two paintings, not one painting split in the middle.  Of course, they have to relate and flow together, but I felt that keeping the physical separation in mind was important.  

Capay Valley Color Study WIP   Oil on linen   approx size 5 x 16
Looking at the study, I was more and more conscious of something that I was aware of even when I was just cropping the photo, but which I had been ignoring.  The left panel, when viewed alone, has no center of interest.   My first thought was that I could put enough detail and variation in the trees in the middle ground and the hill in the background to overcome the issue.  That might still be the case, but now the study painting made me wonder.  If this were a painting on a single canvas, I felt it could work, but if it was to be a diptych, maybe not.  Of course the panels would always be together and hopefully would work as a cohesive whole, but the left panel would not work alone.  Did that matter? The more I thought about it, the more I was concerned that it would.

But this is a study, and the very purpose of a study is to expose problems or allow exploration of alternate approaches without a big commitment of time and expense.  With that in mind, I began to think about what I could add to the left panel that would add interest yet also be a harmonious piece of the whole.  I thought of cattle or horses grazing just forward of the tree line in the bright morning light.  I'm pretty sure that could work, but getting the right scale would be important.  Again it's a study, right?  And then I remembered a photo I had snapped on the same day at a gate going into a different farm.  I found and printed the gate picture and tried to visualize how it would fit into the painting.  

Capay Valley Oil Study -  with gate photo, sketch overlay to position gate

This photo shows the photo of the gate.  The perspective wasn't quite right - too straight on - so I used tracing paper to do a pencil sketch overlay to figure out how the perspective of the gate, how it might fit and what scale would make sense.  I also decided that I like the dead tree next to the gate in the photo, so I used it as a kind of boundary to the painting.

Capay Valley Oil Study - with gate added to left panel  WIP

Here's a closer look at the "finished" study.  The wonderful part of doing a color study is that you can’t really screw anything up so have at it!  I decided to paint in the gate as sketched and see how it would look.  I used a Q-tip dipped in OMS to “draw ‘ the gate structure by removing the existing wet paint.   Oil primed linen is allows you to lift off wet paint right down to the bare white canvas and start clean.  The gate works exactly as I had hoped. 

In a sense, I now have two studies...and both can be the basis of a larger painting.  At this moment, I think the 'gate' will be included in the diptych, but I may do another single panel landscape and follow the first study...and my first inclination.  For some reason it has more of the sense of space and time standing still that first drew me to the scene.  Unbalanced?  Maybe, but I still like it. 

In either case I see that I will need to emphasize the light and shadow on the hills more and to find some areas in the middle ground for intense light such as the face and roof of the barn and the shoulder of the rise just below the barn in order to bring attention to those focal points.   But I don’t feel the need to correct or add to the study at this point.  It will serve as a guide both for what I want to do and what I want to improve on.   Now on to the next stage!

My Art Site: Bruce Hancock Fine Art


  1. Love it. Thanks for posting this. I couldn't see the problem, but after you posted the solution, it became clear, and made for a more beautiful painting. Your work is terrific.

  2. Hi Sue. Thank you for the wonderful comments. As you were sending this, I was wrestling with the same issue I talked about when doing the study...and went back to the original! Decisions, decisions! Thanks for stopping by and saying hi.