UART Tip #48: “Painting for the Season, Spring Painting from Photos and Memories” with Jeannie Rosier Smith

Many of us are painting from photos right now but the more we can draw on our memory and experience, the better we can use those raw materials.

Several years ago, I was part of an artist-in-residence group at Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, MA. As a former home of the Alcott family, it appears in the recent Little Women movie. We went for a drive on a windy day last week, and though Fruitlands was closed to the public, this beautiful pear grove was showing off from the hilltop. I could hardly wait to get home and begin this painting.

I had painted these trees from a different angle before, so the subject was familiar, but I found the mountain backdrop and curved road exciting. The composition intrinsically worked, with the elegant swooping lines of the road, atmospheric perspective, and large tree shapes. I loved the simple big shapes and delicate colors in the scene. Keeping this simple, clean, and energetic without getting lost in the detail would be my challenge.

I began with a thumbnail sketch to simplify values, shapes and lines, and then sketched out the basic shapes on my 18×24 sheet of UART 320 mounted on MountCor board.

Seeing the foliage of the trees as one big mass makes the composition far more powerful.

Having just returned home from the scene, my mind was filled with the fresh warmth of the day. The overarching color feel was full of the new pinks and fresh greens of spring, so I chose an underpainting palette of pink and green. The light pink of the sky reflects onto the very light gravel path, as well as in the tree blossoms.

The underpainting palette.

With the underpainting complete, I make subtle corrections to the curve of land and road and articulate a few branches with vine charcoal.

Layering begins. My goal in this step was to distinguish the tree mass in the middle ground from the mountains in the distance with as little detail as possible.

For each area, I found my values and chose colors of equal value to layer, to create vibration and complexity without detail.

The development stage takes the longest and involves the most back and forth, adding and brushing off. Branches disappear and reappear; I squint to see what matters and lose detail where I can. I’m careful to reestablish some bare branches. During this stage, I try not to look at my reference photo closely, as it really does not have much useful information. If I must look, I squint very hard at it so as just to see where the light and shadow patterns lie. My thumbnail sketch is much more useful as it reminds me of the inspiration for my own vision and design.

Spring Grove, 23.5×31.5

Did I keep it simple, clean and energetic without getting lost in the detail? In some ways I prefer this before I added any of the lights—about six steps ago. But isn’t that the joy of painting? I’m happy with this piece, and it also leaves me wanting to try again, give it another go. I love the softness and suggestiveness here and I always want to try to leave more unsaid. I think that will always be a struggle for me and it’s part of what keeps me painting. The same trees bloom every year, but each time I paint them I see them a little differently.

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