How Color Sketches Can Help Finish a Painting -- a Year in the Making....

Several years ago I adopted the practice of doing notan (black and white, or three tones at most) sketches to work out composition and ideas for color paintings. But many artists use color sketches as their next step before working on a finished design or larger studio piece. Here's the story of my first attempt at a field to finish (F2F) work using a color sketch and the discoveries I made in the process over the next year.

24x30 finished pastel on homemade ground, "The Fog Rolling into the Woods."


Like a movie I must take you back to the beginning for this painting. In April 2018 I attended the Indiana Plein Air Painters Association, IPAPA first brush of spring in New Harmony Indiana. They have had what is called a field to finish, F2F, competition. It requires an artist to attend the event at least two consecutive years because the first year, you do a sketch and the second year you ship a finished studio piece to the Hoosier Salon in New Harmony with the framed sketch used as the reference for the competition. (FYI: I'm trying to figure out how to activate the comments function of my blog, so bear with me please....)

I decided to do several sketches at the event last year. I could have done it in pencil, or any medium, but I chose to do it in pastel since that was all I brought to the 2018 First Brush of Spring event. Last year, all the artists had their sketches stamped on the back so that this year the judges could be assured that the finished work was started a year ago at the last event with a plein air sketch-- I did three sketches and had each stamped.

Now You are Caught Up.... Here's Where the Camera Switches to Present Day if we Were Doing a Movie........

Of course I let the sketches set around most of the year, procrastination is an artist's best friend as it turns out..... But in November 2018 I took the three sketches out that I did and looked at which might become a possibility to paint in the studio as a finished work. One of the sketches was so ordinary and boring that I can't even remember as I write this what it was. Another was of a bird that made a nest on the underside of a chair hanging on an outside wall of a storefront, but on the railing of the porch, there were rows and rows of bird houses for sale -- still the bird opted for the bottom of a chair hanging on the wall. What an ironic story, but the subject, while very compelling, was unsuitable for a painting because the bird would have been so small that it would have been way to difficult for me to show it as the center of interest with so many other elements in the image. Not that it couldn't be done, but it was beyond my capabilities at this day and time in my artistic development.

The above 7x5 inch pastel on paper is the original sketch with the 2018 IPAPA field to finish F2F stamp, from last year's event. This was the third image I had stamped and the one chosen to complete in the studio for this year's competition. Understand that 200 or more artist attend this event. A bunch of us stayed in Indiana DNR cabins in Harmony State Park, 4-8 to a cabin. This was the cabin up the hill from my group of artist's cabin. It was early morning. The artists of the cabin up the hill were not up yet, so no light was on to show through the peak of the cabin window.

Changing the Composition Design

After looking at the sketch, and after six more months of experience as a pastelist and student of composition, I realized I had to change the design and concept of the original sketch. I opted to make the misty morning into a more intense foggy one and create a center or interest being the light from the previously dark window. The sketch below, also a 7x5 pastel, used gray pastels to reinvent the concept and refine the idea of the window light becoming a focal point. Because this 7x5 was not stamped at the event, I can't submit it to the composition, but it is a critical step in the process that you, my readers, will see but the public will not

The grays in this are "pure stick" form grays out of the box. I had watched in late 2018 some Art Prof video critiques from the professors of the Rhode Island School of Design and learned that grays usually have some other base color, commonly purples and blues -- no matter what medium is used. In other words, they are not just GRAY. The sketch below was off the shelf grays. From this new bit of education, I began the finished larger studio piece with violets and started laying blues, reds, oranges and then yellows over it all until I built up a muted gray fog that had depth, interest and complexity in the finished work you see at the top. Like a fine wine, or gourmet meal, this painting is built layer upon layer of subtleties.

What I Learned

  • Time heals all stupidity. In other words: it's possible to revisit past creations and use new knowledge to improve on their original concepts. If I became immobile today, I could use my sketchbooks and new knowledge to paint completely new paintings. As I grow older, this is very comforting to know.

  • Procrastination can become an artist's best friend: if I am learning, or striving to learn new things and NOT thinking "I've arrived".... a sketch can develop into something bigger than what I might have originally considered

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