Growing an Oak

Bare Tree & Pond Image
The final, finished 12” x 16” pastel.

I recently completed the above pastel. Back when I was in high school, I used to create work with pastels all the time. I didn’t have a dedicated place to work back then, I worked on my bedroom floor: a bedroom I shared with 3 younger brothers. I couldn’t leave anything I was working on out. Projects had to be set up, worked on then put away until I had time to work on them again. Pastels allowed for quick set up and take down. An oil left out in the bedroom, for example, would likely get a hand, tongue or other body part (don’t ask) dragged across it. We were animals!

I also used pastels from time to time in my illustration and animation work (I directed and designed animated tv commercials for about 16 years), but I think this might have been the first time I used them in creating a landscape. I generally paint landscapes in oils, watercolors or acrylics.

In Progress Pastel 01 Image
My pastel at the end of the plein air session.

Anyway, since this was a fairly new journey for me, I thought I’d take you along for the ride. The piece was started during a Yosemite Western Artists (YWA) plein air outing I hosted at my place in the Sierra Foothills. We’ve had an unusual amount of rain this year (we needed it to end our 6 year drought), so the ground everywhere is pretty soggy and you can’t plan on not having rain on the day of the event, given you have to schedule ahead of time. We’ve got a large covered deck on the back of our home, with a great panoramic, unobstructed view. Good thing we chose this spot, it was freezing that day and we experienced both rain and hail throughout our session.

I was working on pretty smooth pastel paper. On a surface like this, I like to rub my first layer of chalk into the paper to lay down a ground. I find later applications lay down better, if I do. Hosting the session, I didn’t get as much done as I generally would. The group worked 3- 4 hrs. that day.

My pastel at the end of the second session.

With the next working session, I really started to dig in. Working from far to near, I detailed the background first, ignoring the tree, knowing myriad thin branches would be involved later in the execution and I didn’t want to have to work the background around them. I generally set aside 4 hrs. for each of my working-week daily sessions, but there was a lot going on, on the gallery show front, during the creation of this one and sessions could be 1 1/2 – 4 hrs. I felt I’d really nailed the pond reflections in this session.

I begin to work on the tree.

Now that the background was pretty much laid in, I moved on to the tree in my next session. I was beginning to dread the fact that I chose to paint this complicated oak, without leaves. Even if I greatly simplified and reduced, there was going to be a lot of branches to execute on this one. I really felt this was my only decent composition choice, though, the weather confining us to the covered porch.

In Progress Bare Tree & Pond 04 Image
Added a lot of lights, to distinguish branches from background.

Another session, where  I really started to hone in on which branches I HAD to execute and which I should eliminate, to give the tree interest and represent the silhouette that was in front of me. I really didn’t want to add any more than I had to. I may be detail-oriented but I’m not a masochist. This I find to be the hardest part of painting: the necessary simplification.

Bare Oak & Pond Final Image

Next to the last session, where I added detail to the grasses and did what was necessary to separate the parts of the tree that I wanted to stand out from the background.

That took me to the final session, where I added the nit-picking details, like lacy masses to represent micro branches/stems and the beginnings of buds: whatever was necessary to communicate it was finished.

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