Clouds over the French Broad River
Oil on canvas, 30"x40"
For the past few weeks, I've been working on paintings for the upcoming exhibit, "Of Time and the River". It's a fundraiser for RiverLink, which is a non-profit in Asheville that has been working for years to clean up the French Broad River. They've done a great job: the river is much much cleaner than it has been since this was Cherokee territory. Now there are river rafters, kayakers, and parks and greenways all through the Asheville area. All this takes money. Artists are happy to help, since the river is a great source of inspiration for artworks. Another thing in RiverLink's favor is that they treat artists as professionals. Rather than asking us to give them stuff that they can auction off at ridiculously low prices, they partner with us very much like galleries do. And as a result, they get much better artworks that are worth higher prices. Win-win-win. I'm going to have seven works in this event. Six are paintings and one is an etching. Several of the paintings were done specifically for this show, including the one above, which I just finished and signed today.
This painting was really tough. I wanted to get the rich glow of light in the clouds right at sunset. So in July and early August, when the clouds really pile up in late afternoon, I made several trips to local spots where I could get a good view of both the clouds and the land and river below, right at sunset. I took my sketchbook and my camera, making lots of notes about color variations, cloud shapes, reflections, the way the land looked, and so on. And I took a couple hundred photos. Sunset is such an amazing thing: it creeps up on you slowly over 45 minutes or so, and then wham, the light and shadows change so fast over about 10 minutes, and then it's over.
The next step was to do a lot of color studies to try out different ideas and compositions. As the saying goes, the best way to get a good idea is to get lots of ideas. Most of them wound up in the trash, and the initial study using the idea of clouds reflected in the water looked nothing like this. But trial and lots of error finally came up with the basic composition you see above.
Finally, a couple of weeks ago, I started in on this canvas and immediately ran into issues that hadn't been clear on the small studies. One was that the cloud kept growing until it was this huge monster. Oddly, the bigger the cloud, the less remarkable it was. The technical reason was that the yellow and orange cloud dominated so much of the canvas that it was no longer a focal point. By shrinking it, it became a warm center of interest in a large cool-colored canvas. A second problem was color. When dealing with clouds, you're dealing with almost pure color. It's not muddied like paint is. So to get that pure color, I was using my purest paints. That lead to over-saturation. The blues were BLUE, the purples were PURPLE, the greens GREEN, and so on. It was hideous. I had to mute the cool colors somehow without muddying them up, while leaving the warm colors in the clouds strong. I tried layering colors, and that worked in the clouds but not in the sky and purple clouds. So then I tried using the purest complementary colors to tone things down. For you non-painters, that means mixing a bit of orange into the blue for the sky. Blue and orange are on opposite sides of the color wheel, so as you add orange to blue, it becomes less BLUE and more muted. At some point, though, it becomes gray and then a muted orange, so you have to walk that fine line of mixing. So, bottom line, I spent a lot of time working on the blues and purples, toning them down enough so that the yellows, oranges, and reds in the clouds really popped. I'm not convinced that I hit it right. It still looks over-saturated (especially in this photo), but it's as good as I can make it now.
The process, though, was both very challenging and a lot of fun. You might not have thought "fun" if you heard me cussing at it, but once things started happening, it really was fun. I want to do more paintings of clouds, and the river, and reflections on the water. Each one of those subjects has a lot of subtleties that I had to deal with in this painting, and they're going to need many more paintings before I can begin to understand them.