UART Tip #39: “Step by Step: Creating a Rock Painting” with Lee McVey

I chose a photo taken many years ago during a workshop taught by Richard McKinley in Bend, Oregon. He took us to Spark’s Lake for one of our painting days. Spark’s Lake in the Cascade Mountains is a beautiful lake. I took many photographs and they inspire me to paint from them all these many years later.

The trees take up a lot of the photo, but it was the rocks that intrigued me. I noticed the rocks cut through the horizontal middle line. I wanted the painting to be about the rocks and the sunlit pile of rocks at the water’s edge.

Above: The original photograph.

Since I enjoy painting in the square format and I thought a square would suit highlighting the rocks, I cropped the photograph as seen below. The center of each edge and the center of the square were marked. Look at the trunk of the little yellow tree growing out of the rocks to see my center marks.

With the photograph cropped, now the emphasis is on the rock cliff, rock pile, and little yellow tree. These were what I wanted to focus on and my reason for choosing this reference photo. There is a subtle X composition in the placement of the sunlit rocks at the water’s edge, the little tree, and the green pine boughs. The other line of the X is seen in the diagonal direction of the rock cliff cracks.

I prepared a 400 grit UART board for the square format. This is the board UART has mounted onto a hard-mat board, not the one on Sintra. This board is 12 x 18”, so to make a 12 x 12” format, I cut the board to 12 ½ and taped ½ inch of the cut edge with white artist’s tape.

I used white artist’s tape on all sides to tape the UART board to my drawing board on my easel. Next, I sketched my design on the sanded paper with Derwent pastel pencil. I also marked the center of each side and the center of the square.

I also marked all sides where the frame would overlap. Usually, this is ¼ inches. I do this so my composition’s proportions are not affected by the frame overlap. Several years ago, when I began seeing clouds or mountain tops create a tangent with the frame or the position of juniper trees become even intervals at the edges of the painting, I decided to start marking the overlap of the frame. I do paint over these marks later, but it is very helpful to me when I am sketching the design of the painting.

I moved the position of the little yellow tree to the right so it would not be in the center. The feeling of the trees and rocks are what I am after instead of following the photo exactly, even though my painting style it very representational. You can see my sketch and the edge marks in the next photo.

Underpainting is the next step. Lately, I have been using Art Graf Blocks, water, bristle brush, and Derwent pastel pencil. The Art Graf Blocks create a rich color very easily when spread with a brush and water, so I apply the Blocks very lightly.

Blocking in color comes next. I used mostly Terry Ludwig pastels and a few Mt. Vision pastels.

As I continued painting, I noticed the tree trunks were leaning to the right. The top line of the rock cliffs is fairly even all across. The rocks are not as interesting being even across. This is something I did not intend. I was eager to be painting and did not step back often to assess my progress like I usually do.

I added a sky hole on the left side of the trees even though that is not seen in my cropped reference photo. As I am painting, I hold my pastels on their side, especially for the rock cliff.

Stepping back regularly now, I notice the highlights on the rocks are all the same value and they are evenly spaced on the right side. This needed fixing. The fix will be more noticeable in the next 2 photos.

The above image is the 1st “look at stage.” At this point, I am doing more looking at the painting than making marks. I step back a lot, sometimes after each few strokes of pastel. I gaze at the painting without focus to see if anything pops out to me. I may take a little break at this stage of a painting in order to have fresh eyes when I come back to the painting. I noticed the highlights on the right side are still problematic since they are placed at even intervals. These are adjusted in the photo below.


After those adjustments, the painting is at the 2nd look at stage in the photo below. You can see I have refined the rocks, their highlights, and the trees. I also worked more on the reflections in the water. I simplified the trees a little by scumbling the side of a pastel across them to show less mark making. The far-right side highlighted “L” shape was raised. Raising it felt like a better proportion to the rest of the rock. A few more subtle sky holes were added.

While I was looking to see if anything jumped out at me, I noticed a face in the rocks. Do you see it? The face created on the left side by the dark in the rock and tree trunk growing from the rock as the nose bothered me. Once I see things like this, I can’t un-see them, even if other people do not notice them.

The photo below is my finished painting. At least finished for now. I’ll see if anything more needs adjusting when it is tacked on my studio wall while I work on other paintings.


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