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I first create a thumbnail of the scene. This lets me establish the composition and work out any issues before I touch pigment to surface. If I’m in the field, I’m working directly from nature (after having taken a few photos for reference). If in the studio, I’m working from memory, my imagination, and/or one or more photographs. As I do this, I aim to create a compelling eye path, striking big shapes of different volumes, no distracting tangents, and having the shapes’ values portray the correct atmospheric perspective. I will even turn the thumbnail and the photo(s) upside down because that disrupts my brain's expectations and forces me to look at the pure shapes I've drawn instead of what I expect to see for the shape of a tree (or mountain, etc.). It makes it easier to find and resolve big issues ahead of time.
Thumbnail for "Mountain Glory" (c) 2020, Mary Planding
Once I’m satisfied, I transfer the scene with a pastel pencil to a one-toned very gritty surface that I've created using a tinted gel gesso with pumice or do a custom underpainting. That's the background which establishes the right values, temperature, and general big shapes for the final painting.
In a pastel underpainting, I use watercolors or harder pastels. I may blend them using my hand, other pastels, or an alcohol wash. I am careful not to fill the “tooth” of the sanded surface to to add more layers as needed.
With an oil painting, I use transparent pigments. As I work "alla prima" ("all-in-one-sitting," which means working wet into wet with oil paints), it’s important to get dark colors in the first layer.
Then, whether pastel or oil, I double-check shapes, values, volumes, and eye path to see they match my thumbnail and correct as needed. I will often take a neutral hard pastel, or a rubber wipe-out tool if working in oil, to lightly indicate specific details in the painting and carve them out of those bigger shapes.
Then, and only then, do I begin to add layers of pastel (or oil paint) on top, letting the underpainting peek through where I wish to add some additional dimensional qualities. This provides the luminosity and sparkle you find my work. Throughout the painting process I am constantly stepping back 4-6 feet to check how my painting "reads" at a distance (I squint a lot — which explains most artists' crow's feet). This helps keep the composition intact with values and colors in harmony. And draw you into the scene through the use of contrasting or similar values, colors (warm and cool, analogous or complementary), beautiful shapes, and soft vs. sharp edges, so you enter into it.
Thumbnail, underpainting, value scale, and final painting for "Cliffs at Etretat," (c) 2020 Mary Planding
With watercolor, I paint more free-flow and stream-of-consciousness. Some even say slap-dash. I sketch the scene using a permanent fine point marker. The same principles of composition apply — I look to create those eye paths. Then with watercolors I bring your attention to that eye path so you wander into the scene and enjoy it.
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