Back of beyond

I went to Cody to collect a new painting truck—and to scope out a new workshop.

My new painting truck, photo courtesy Jane Chapin.

“Why did you go all the way to Wyoming to buy a pickup truck,” a reader asked. Well, it was a good deal and a known quantity, but even more than that, why not?

Wyoming is one of my favorite states, but I’d never made it to Cody. It’s home to 9700 people, which makes it the 11th largest community in a fabulously-empty state. Park County is an area of outstanding natural beauty, close to Yellowstone. It’s no surprise that its major industry is tourism.

High Pasture, oil on canvasboard, 8×10, by Carol L. Douglas

I immediately put my new truck through its paces, driving it as far up into National Forest lands as I could get. I painted two small studies from its bed, and I think it will suit me just fine. I’ve climbed off-road through snow and it hasn’t hesitated. Nor was it troubled by the 80 MPH speed limits in Wyoming, or climbing to 9666 feet on the Powder River Pass.

One of my first off-road adventures was to the abandoned homestead of Bull Creek Ranch.

I was itching to paint and do nothing else, but Jane Chapin prevailed on me to visit the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. This unusual museum includes Plains Indian ethnography, Buffalo Bill hagiography, natural history, art and firearms under one roof. Each of the collections is superlative.

The art includes delicate, sensitive plein air works by Albert Bierstadtand Frederic Remington. There are fabulous animal paintings by Carl Rungius, but my favorite was by an archetypal easterner, N.C. Wyeth. At the tender age of 22, he went west to learn about the life of the cowboy. “The life is wonderful, strange—the fascination of it clutches me like some unseen animal—it seems to whisper, ‘Come back, you belong here, this is your real home,'” he wrote in a letter home.

Hunters with Bear, 1911, by N.C. Wyeth for Winchester.

This is grizzly country as much as its cowboy country. Bull Creek, which tumbles down through the ranch, has bears, along with quail, mule deer and a ferruginous hawk who sits on top of a pivot irrigator scanning for prey. There are herds of horses and cattle in the bottom lands.

North Fork of Shoshone River, oil on canvasboard, 11×14, by Carol L. Douglas

All of which are highly paintable. My second reason for visiting Cody was to assess the practicality of a workshop there. It’s got an airport and the accommodations and vistas all lend themselves to a great painting experience. I’ll be announcing dates soon.

Razorback ridge on Bull Creek Ranch, photo courtesy of Jane Chapin.

In every trip comes that sad moment when one has to turn around and head home. I stopped at Thermopolis. Soaking in a hot spring in a winter snowstorm has long been my ambition, but sadly, the weather didn’t cooperate—it was much too mild. Still, the hot springs were fine, it was an appealing little town, and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes traveling back roads.

Tomorrow’s plan is to paint in the Badlands, but I’m keeping an eye on a storm sweeping in from the west.

Monday Morning Art School: make that negative space work for you

The background of your painting is a key element of its composition.

Prom shoes, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

Last week I wrote about the lost-and-found edge, and techniques to make edges and lines sink. That allows the viewer to focus on other passages that are more important.

The painter has three tools to drive the viewer’s eyes: hue, chroma (saturation) and value. These are the three aspects of color. The human eye is designed to respond to value shifts first, so that’s where we usually start. However, hue and chroma are also important.

Amp up the contrast in any combination of these three elements and you emphasize a focal point. Soften the contrast and the viewer’s eyes can glide past.

Peppers, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas

Negative space is the area around and between the subjects in a painting—it’s what we generally call the background. It should not be an afterthought. Negative space should be carefully designed to be as interesting as the subjects themselves. One of the many ways in which still life is a great training tool is in teaching painters to control this supposedly ‘empty’ space.

Still Life with Partridge and Pear, 1748, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, courtesy Städelscher Museums-Verein e.V.

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin was a master of still life. His Still Life with Partridge and Pearshows just how dynamic supposedly-empty negative space can be in a painting. The brushwork is lively, and the light is concentrated on the shadow side of the pear to drive our eye to that edge. Contrast then drives us to look at the snare and then the bird’s tailfeathers and foot. The background seems quick and loose, but it’s very elegant in its design.

Self-portrait, 1771, pastel, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, courtesy Musée du Louvre, Paris, 

Twenty years later, Chardin carried that technique forward in his own self-portrait. The shifting light across the background throws the figure into stark relief. While the focal point is the light side of the face, he makes the shadows earn their keep by creating a vigorous edge down the shadow side of the figure. That line is at least as interesting as the line on the light side of the face, and it’s made visible by the light thrown onto the background.

Tin foil hat, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas

That, of course, was the 18th century, and we don’t tend to paint in such high contrast today. That doesn’t mean we aren’t using the same basic techniques. The modern painter can use any of the following in his work:

  • Heighten the contrast between positive and negative shapes with lighting;
  • Use lively brushwork in the background;
  • Carefully plan interesting negative shapes;
  • Bring background color into the foreground objects and vice-versa;
  • Imply background with brushwork, color and shadow;
  • Eliminate background detail, and just imply a shadow;
  • Break or minimize the edges of tables or drapes.