|The Blue Umbrella, by Carol L. Douglas. Even without detail, you should be able to see that there are three different species of palm in this painting.|
There are 629 living species of conifer in the world. In contrast, there are 2600 known species of palm trees, with the greatest diversity being on islands. They range in shape from draping to spiky to fan-shaped to pom-pom.
Studying the differences between trees helps me get the structure right in my paintings. In Karl’s Garden, yesterday, there were three different species shading the table. It’s a challenge to paint them accurately without being pedantic.
I vary my compositional technique depending on the subject. When I’m unsure about positioning, I sketch on paper, crop my sketch, and transfer the result to my canvas. For boats and buildings, I use a watercolor pencil and a straight edge. I draw directly on the canvas, using water for erasure.
In my studio, I often start with an abstracted grisaille. This can be risky in the field, since those sloppy wet darks can migrate up into the painting, creating mud. Being rigorous about the fat-over-lean rule helps prevent this. So does marrying the underpainting color to the final shadow color. For this reason, I often end up using a violet-blue rather than the more conventional desaturated reddish-brown.
|The rare and elusive pom-pom palm, at Coral Beach in Freeport.|
We couldn’t get odorless mineral spirits in the Bahamas. Our choices for solvent were conventional white spirit or turpentine. We chose turpentine. It dries very fast, making the bottom layer less squishy than it would be at home. Going directly to paint meant I could develop paintings that relied on patterning, rather than modeling.
I like complicated images (even though I usually regret them halfway through the painting). I look for angles, light, and, most importantly, the negative space created by the objects. Then I determine where on the canvas the most important elements should fall. Quite literally, I paint quick circles in those spots and then stretch and bend the other objects to fit into the space.
|The branching structure varies widely, as do the evergreen, pinnate leaves.|
There’s a limit to what a grisaille can tell you about composition. In addition to value structure, paintings have chromatic structure. That was where I went wrong with the painting I wiped out this week. I didn’t take into consideration the coolness of the sea and sky when I was doing my underpainting. If I had, I could have swept them through the painting.
I had a painting teacher once who liked to intone “there is no negative space.” She was trying to say that there are no areas of the painting where nothing important is happening. This is true. However, it is useful to have a term to describe the interstices between objects. In painting a complicated image, those negative spaces are critical. For trees, the silhouette is important, but the traps—that negative space where sky shows through the canopy—is paramount.
|After we'd downed brushes for the last time, we took a short car ride. There a line of tankers waits to approach Grand Bahama. I didn't want to paint it, but it was a lovely image.|
My week of painting in the Bahamas is now over, and I head back to Boston this afternoon. “The real question,” I told Bobbi Heath this morning, “is, where am I heading next?”