Denise with Chickadee


Denise with Chickadee

This painting is from a shot I took and posted in an earlier blog entry on an afternoon hike along the credit river.

I don’t often do portraits, and even less often attempt to paint “catch-the-moment” scenes. I find such motifs more suited to photography than they are to the medium of oil paint. In this case however, Denise’s face, caught in profile, the strong design of her dark coat and the branches behind, and the improbable balancing of Denise on the left against the chickadee perched on her outstretched hand (yes, there is a chickadee there), seemed to hold some promise.

The underpainting was dominated by a muted green, intended to balance nicely against flesh tones. The skin colours are much cooler than you might think. They just look warm against that cool green background.

The bush in the background offered lots of design opportunities (I re-arranged the larger branches to optimize the overall composition) but on first attempt the overall effect produced an excessively distracting filigree. I dry-brushed over certain  portions to calm down things down.

Note – only the lowermost branch is actually painted. All the rest are back-painted- using the snow to delineate the forms. This helped keep things from looking too ponderous and overworked. In fact, before starting with oils, I gave the whole background a very light sanding with fine (P320) sandpaper. This was sufficient to cut back to the gesso ground, but not so much as to abrade the canvas itself

Forest Avenue, Winter


Forest Ave Winter

We’re into March and folks round here have had just about enough of snow to last a lifetime – this year especially. But not to paint it seems like avoidance somehow. Like landscape painters who expunge all traces  of modernity (like road signs for instance) from their scenes to try to create some sort of timeless pastoral illusion.

The camera often struggles to balance exposure when shooting snow in a flat light –  reducing everything to black-and-white as a result. I encourage students to see the colours in snow and to play with hues like viridian and alizarin in the underpainting to bring out warm and cool passages. In recent attempts of my own however, I’ve felt the colour was somewhat forced- as if I was over-responding to the camera’s limitations. As I browsed other people’s work on the net, it seemed to me that this was a common affliction. Painters who have been told all their lives that “snow isn’t white”  were just trying too hard  to infuse colour into their winter scenes and ending up with garish results.

On the other hand, I really liked a some pieces by a couple of impressionists  – Gustave Caillebotte (Roofs Under Snow, and Snow Covered Rooftops) and Maurice Utrillo (Winter Scene, Montmartre). The colours were more muted, but rich nonetheless, and the overall tone was, paradoxically warm. Perhaps we have a tendency too, to think that because the of the subject matter, we are confined to working  minty blues and greens and candy-floss pinks.

Even with these thoughts in mind, I struggled with this scene. My ‘white-avoidance’ instincts caused me to initially paint the snow too dark and too blue. It did not belong under the warmer tones in the sky. It took a couple of goes to get it up to the values you see above. In the end, the attempt was moderately successful although as often is the case, not quite what I had in my mind’s eye.