Mckenzie Pass sketching adventure: knowing when to keep going, and when to stop

Last weekend I had the opportunity to bicycle over Mckenzie Pass, while it was only open for bicycles. I also took the opportunity to watercolor.

It was a beautiful day on the summit, 5,325 feet, warm, cool breeze blowing. At one point the weather almost seemed to turn, the temperature dropped noticeably and the breeze picked up a little. The clouds started growing, slamming into the Three Sisters, getting caught on their summits.

I feel like I was able to capture some of this raw, exposed feel of the summit of the pass, in the watercolor below.  I am pleased with the spontaneity, the fluidity of the painting. It was the third painting I did that afternoon, so perhaps it helped that I was already warmed up. Sometimes it is easy to sit down, do a painting, realize it is not very good, and loose inspiration. Perhaps it is only after the second or third that we are really ready to go.

daemionlee_summit

This vantage point isn’t actually quite at Mckenzie Pass summit, but I followed the Pacific Crest Trail for 100 feet or so to a nice spot, just out of sight of the road.

I feel like I was able to capture some of the energy of the place, with the lines of the mountains contrasting with the lines of the foreground and the lines of the clouds in the sky. The lines are at odds with each other, so it seems to give some tension.

I tried to repeat the shape of the mountain/s in the clouds above, and it seems that this is one of the more successful aspects of the painting. That clouds in the upper right really becomes the focus of the painting, setting up a nice “triangle” of interest, from the cloud to the mountain to the foreground.

Below is a ink study I did of the mountain, as well as a photo taken from that spot, (though the photo capture not that partly cloudy day when I painted, but the next afternoon, which had an absolutely clear sky)

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Some drawbacks with the painting:

The brushwork in the foreground wasn’t as light and spontaneous as I would I have liked, I should have switched to the rigger brush right away.

There is a little “puddle” of slightly darker value in the sky next to the highest cloud. That helps add to the value contrast but also I think it could have been more even with the rest of the sky.

I had trouble with the middle ground, in front of the mountain but behind the trees. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with that space.

In the foreground, the hardest part was all those lava rocks. I darkened that space up when I got home and added some more texture but I still wasn’t quite happy with it. Needless to say, simplifying lava flows is pretty challenging.

The composition is good, for the most part, I like the low horizon and the dominance of the sky. I think that there might be a little extra strip of blue at the very top that is unnecessary. At the same time though, part of the effectiveness of this painting seems to be the way the eye goes to the cloud first, and then comes down to the tops of the mountain, a disorienting moment.

Just for the record, here is one of the throw-aways from that day. I was feeling inspired with a nice cadmium yellow-burnt sienna wash to underlie the whole thing, but somehow I ended up with values way too light and my composition is pretty uninspired too.

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After sketching on the Pacific Crest Trail, I crossed over the summit and headed downhill to Sisters. Right outside of town is one of my favorite sketching spots, looking up at the three sisters, the sky always huge and blue during the summer. It is just absolutely beautiful.

I did two sessions there, once in the evening, and once in the morning.  For the evening session, the first one I came up with was extremely disappointing. I mean it is not necessarily bad. But my composition wasn’t focused enough and things sort of “spread out” to be equal on the page and nothing has any dominance. I made a nice value sketch to prepare for this one but somehow it didn’t quite stick and my composition was kinda out of control once I got it on the page.

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I still had some energy so I started another painting immediately.

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This one I was much more pleased with. The mountains loom over the houses below — I probably exaggerated their size at least a little bit from real life, but it achieves the feeling I was looking for. The space between the houses and the mountains is pretty narrow, but there are some lines sandwiched in there helping to give the sense of distance. I even got a little backwash going in the sky.

Here’s the reference photo.

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The clouds were changing pretty quickly so I decided just to keep it simple.

My biggest accomplishment with this painting was that I stopped before I thought I was finished. That is my problem sometimes: an urge to finish the painting, or at least to keep going, while I am on site. But I had been painting for a while (an old couple in a Subaru even stopped and asked if I was okay, I guess they had left home, done an errand, and then went back home and I was in the same spot). So somehow I found the presence of mind to stop and pack up and finish it later (in this case with my headlamp in my tent).

I was glad I did. That bank of trees right behind the houses was off to a rather bad start, but somehow I was able to save it, only after taking a look at it later though.

The next morning I did it again, from a slightly different vantage point. I smooshed the Three Sisters together a little bit to make room for Broken Top over on the left.

No clouds on this day! And this was my biggest acccomplishment, the shimmering sky in this painting. I put down a very faint wash, uniform, from the top of the paper to the tops of the mountains. I let it dry completely, then wet that area again, let it dry slighly, and then put on the second layer starting at the top. I had to move the paint around quite a bit with the brush, rather than the water itself — but too much water in this situation ruins that (more or less) even gradient.

The sky really shimmers in this one, a way that a photo doesn’t quite capture to be honest. I’m not quite sure what made that effect possible. It is either the layer of fine wash under a thicker but still transparent layer; or the way I applied paint to a partially wet surface; or the way that the value difference between sky and mountain is very slight, and the value of the exposed “rock” areas is much darker in comparison.

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Here’s a reference photo of this scene:

sisters2

The biggest problem I had is that I tried to “finish up.” And I blotted on a real thick value for those green trees in the center of the painting. I should have left it more unfinished! With less value, that would have been fine. Or even no trees at all. I was able to rescue it a little bit, when I worked on it later.

The thing is, I wasn’t really pleased with this painting at all until I looked at it later. That is the thing about watercolor, you need to withhold judgement while the thing is coming together and don’t get too hung up outcomes. Sometimes I find myself just burning with an emotion when I am working on these things (sometimes positive usually negative) but I need to work more on just letting things unfold.

There was a composition flaw in this one that I didn’t notice until later, when I garbled up the bottom with too much grass and felt like I just needed to cut it off.

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It is not a big difference, but I feel like There is a little too much open space on the very bottom of the page and cutting a bit off gives more emphasis to the sky. Should have thought about dominance more when I was composing the scene. I probably could have compressed the land even more to give more dominance to the sky.

And to finish it off, below is a painting I did in 2015 based on this same scene (lying as it does, right next to a great bicycling route).

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I feel encouraged by my progress, when I compare my latest work to this. I didn’t feel confident enough with watercolor at that point to even take them along with me, I only brought pen and a watercolor pad, to fill in with colors later. And my sense of composition, color, and value were clearly just beginning. So it is exciting to look back!

 

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