Friday, January 21, 2011

Our House - Finished

The saga of painting my father's childhood home ended this Christmas when I finally presented the finished piece to him.

I started this project back in the early part of 2009, but it had roots in an even earlier date when my father first asked me for this painting.

The simple structure on my grandparent's farm burned in the 1970s. Very few images from the family photo albums included the house, and when it did appear, it was always as a background image, mostly cropped out of the frame.

Here's an example of one of the photo references I was working from, and this is one of the more complete views of the structure.

I detailed the obstacles in the project in earlier posts from 2009. You can find the posts by clicking on the "Our House" label to the left. The lack of reference photos pushed me into constructing a model of the house in foamcore, and then setting up lights to create the illusion of sunlight and shadows.

The large tree next to the house posed its own problems. I eventually hit upon photographing a pine from my yard, which ended up being a close match to the kind of rough, irregularly shaped tree dad remembered.

I completed a drawing of the scene in a horizontal landscape format, started a color study of the composition -- and discovered it was all wrong. There were too many unknowns with the pasture field and steep hill surrounding the house that I didn't know how to solve.

I went back to the drawing board -- literally.

Early in 2010, I finally managed a drawing of the house in a new vertical composition that eliminated most the background hillside. The emphasis in this view would be the house, not the setting. It was probably too simple of a composition, with little to help lead the eye around the frame, but I had come to the conclusion that in this case, that was okay. The house was what interested my father, and if I could render that in a realistic manner, he would be satisfied.

I then started developing a series of tiny color studies to work out a palette. I wanted to limit my palette severely, to concentrate on value and shape rather than on a rainbow of colors that might distract.

My first plan was to limit myself to French Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna -- my favorite set of complements.

But when I tried that, it didn't work. I had difficulty distinguishing the brightly lit front planes of the house from the background hill, for example. The Sienna also was adding too reddish a tint to the tar-paper siding that covered the house. You can see my difficulties in the first color study to the left.

I could have tried another brand of Burnt Sienna (W&N's BS leans toward red; other brands can lean toward yellow), but I already felt too constricted by the severely limited palette.

I then experimented with a touch of burnt umber, quin gold, added cobalt violet and then moved back toward ultramarine violet.

You can see the progression of color modifications in these studies. These two are a sampling of my endeavors. I completed six in all, and never was satisfied with any of them.

I also considered modifying my composition to a square. My Christmas card for 2010 was one of my experiments along this line. Ultimately, I decided against it. The house was so dominant in the scene that I felt the large grassy foreground was needed to offset its weight, almost in the sense of a cantilever.

I finally worked out a simple palette of FUB, Burnt Umber, a touch of Hookers Green, and Ultramarine Violet. I did a larger color study with this set of pigments, and finally found what I was looking for.

In some ways, I like this little 5x7 study better than the full-size painting, which is 16x22. I like the softer edges of the house, I think. It seems as though the light is softly bouncing off it, and it has more of a late evening quality because of the light.

The full size painting, with its crisper edges, feels harsher. But in that size, I didn't quite know how to soften it. So I left it alone.

In the end, I understood that I was painting this for my father, not for me. For him, the crisper edges helped to solidify memories that had grown dim over the decades. He was pleased. And that was all I needed from this project.

Pinnacle recap

Back in the fall, I mentioned my class at the women's retreat at Hardy County's Camp Pinnacle.

This was one of the painting projects my students completed.

I paint example paintings and have the students work from them, rather than from photographs. I think it is harder for a person learning to paint watercolor to juggle the medium and the translation of a photographic image into a panting. So the students have my interpretation of reality to work from, so they can concentrate on the medium itself.

The crock painting was a hit with several of the retreat's organizers, many of whom are involved with 4-H. Camp Pinnacle's primary function is as the county 4-H camp, and plans were already underway for a silent auction a few weeks after the retreat to benefit 4-H programs.

So my painting became a donation for the silent auction. I'm an old 4-Her myself, so I truly appreciate what the program means to children in West Virginia.