Thursday, October 22, 2015

Rock City Canyon and Riverscape Watercolor Painting

Painting A View of Rock City in Watercolors

The next watercolor painting in a series of five landscapes focuses on a view that's familiar to many locals.  There's an area known as Rock City, a short drive north of Valier, Montana.  It's not easy to find without specific directions.  It's definitely a place you'd call off the beaten path.  We've taken weekend drives to get out of the house and this is a free, unusual outing.  While going through my photo references, I came across a view along the river's edge.  When I took the photos several years ago, it was already in my mind as a possibility for a future painting.

The rock formations in this area are very unusual compared to the surrounding landscape.  The best I can describe it, you're driving through what looks like farmland and prairie going on forever and then boom, you're there.  The rocks rise up in these crazy and fun shapes and the kids can't wait to jump out and run from one to another.  There's grasses, low-lying shrubs and wildflowers...and it's smart to watch for snakes.  I am sharing all these photos to give a better perspective of the area where my painting's view originated.  A few of these photos have been altered with filters.  That's one of the ways I prepare a photo as an art reference.  I bump it up a bit to achieve more color contrast along with distinct shadows.  My artistic style leans toward bold, vibrant colors with a hint of impressionistic textures.  

Here, there's a glimpse of a child and dog running off to explore.  They have a fantastic time finding out what's around the next bend.  There's challenges to see who can climb to a higher vantage point first.  We play hard and then grab a snack and a water from the car.  It's a quiet ride home with sleeping children in the backseat.  These are afternoon drives they still talk about years later.

This is a view of the river below; I'm leading you to the view I chose to paint.  This view would be a lovely painting as well.  The way the river cuts through the frame helps make this a great composition.  The outcropping of rocks on the left adds another layer for greater interest.  It has had filters added and that is why there's such an exaggerated blue in the shadows.  This helps me mentally plan the contrast.  Maybe my photos help me skip the quick value studies?  I might be doing my value studies in the photography and the filters I add later.

A view from the same vantage point in portrait orientation with much less alteration.  Maybe it easier to see how the separate planes have a flattened effect without the filters.  This view is less dynamic because the values are not so distinctive and separate.  The exaggerated contrast makes this view feel more expansive.  That's how I feel about it anyway, but maybe it's just how my mind works.

By now, are you're thinking, "so when do we get to the painting?"  Forgive me, I'm getting there.  After hiking a narrow trail down to the bottom, we take in this view.  While the kids play at the river's edge, I am so taken with this view.  Camera is at the ready and I take many more shots than I'm sharing here.  I just never know what I'll need later...the information that describes the shapes and the shadows.  Without clear guidance, it's pointless to begin.  I'll be lost and without further direction.  I'm not one to make it up on the fly; I've got to be prepared.  I only feel comfortable with changing it up when I know what it is I'm altering.  The first photograph shows this view before much altering.  The second has added filters that give me inspiration and direction.  It's a closer version of what my mind has envisioned.  

The Painting Process:  Rock City Riverscape

Here is how I begin with the photos and tracing paper.  The tracing paper is so thin that I layer a piece of white card stock below it for a clearer view.  I have both printed photos and the tablet as my reference sources.

The printed photo held so much information in similar values.  I felt myself getting lost during the sketching process.  It didn't take long for me to pause and realize there was a need for a better method.  Taking out a sheet of clear Dura-Lar, a plastic film overlay, I attached it to the front of the photo and drew in bold lines with wet erase markers.  On, Grafix Wet Media .oo4 Dura-Lar Film is what I'm using.  That gives you the specifics if you are interested in trying this for your own art projects.  The lines marked out the major areas of the composition and darkest defined directional lines.  I had more clear direction at a glance as I continued to pencil in more details.  In the photo, I'm lifting the plastic film to show that I'm not drawing directly on the photo.  A binder sheet protector or a sandwich bag would work just as well.

The drawing has been transferred to the watercolor paper with graphite paper.  The sky has been painted but I was so disappointed in the initial results.  I used the magic eraser to lift and rework the clouds and sky.  In the earlier post, I described in a simplified way the way I used the magic eraser.  Click on the post title, Watercolor Landscape & Sky:  Scotch Tape and Magic Eraser to read more about the specifics.  This just felt like it fell short of my expectations.  The scotch tape is still protecting the land portion of the piece.  Every painting cannot flow smoothly throughout the entire process.  I know this.  It just felt like a major speed bump...added to the fact that this was one of two skies I did not like at all.  Wow, the wildflower paintings seemed easy in retrospect, compared with these skies which ought to be less work!

After reworking the grays with the magic eraser, I began to carefully add various blues back in among the clouds.  I find myself questioning how I'll design future landscapes and skies.  A dynamic sky may need to have more calm in the land portions to balance it in the best way.  These are the thoughts that run through my mind while I contemplate what I'm learning in the journey.

The palette knife is a fantastic tool for effects that are so fine and crisp.  It's taking me much practice to master the best transfer of watercolor pigment to paper.  This can feel much like sketching with paint but it's still unpredictable in results.  There's still a paper towel at the ready for blotting the undesired effects.  There are lines and shapes I cannot achieve the same with a brush.  When it seems a challenge to achieve a certain effect, I sit back and reflect on techniques available by other means.

This view shows the grassy slopes, and blues of river are being developed.  It's a process of layers.  I begin with base washes of transparent yellows and golds.  The mixes resulting in various greens are layered on top.  There can be quite a few layers with drying time between each one.  This builds the colors to a richness that's difficult to achieve otherwise.  I've got quite a few extra color mixes in plastic cups.  The pigments used are written on the lids.  I add a bit of water and paint the next area.

The rich golds and greens of the rocky canyon walls are built up layer upon layer.  Loose darker details are added onto the wet watercolor paper.  As the brush touches the paper, the pigment spreads unpredictably in its own direction.  The pigment mingles with other pigment and it's a symphony of individual details coming together.  I'm sure my eyes must light up as I watch what it will do on its own.  Watercolor pigment dries lighter so my application needs to be more intense to anticipate the results.  This is important when letting the color spread freely on the paper...I may not want to touch it again or the effect will be lost.

The base layers are now in place; the foundation is ready to be built on with more color.  Some defining shadow and rock detail has been added so it's time to layer for rich boldness.  I do this gradually, thinking ahead several steps as I work.  It's a dance of integrating layers of color so the whole composition comes alive.

More defining with darker mixes are added to the rocky section on the left.  A little scrubbing and lifting in several areas keeps the lightest areas set apart.   Remember to keep the lightest lights and darkest darks...that's what my high school art teacher taught me so many years ago.

The mixes of pigments gradually build to a bold definition of texture and form.  I'm studying the photo references to bring out sun kissed areas.  The light source is from the upper right but it still touches the green grassy slope on the right.  

At this point, I've been working with such focus and intensity, it's time to set it up on the easel for a break.  I need to see it from a distance so I can judge how all the separate elements are coming together.  It's a great time to switch to another painting.  That sounds crazy?  Well, I can look at other paintings with a fresher eye, making better decisions about their completion.  As I work at other paintings, this one is waiting off to the side.  Glancing at this painting as it sits further from me, I will get a different impression on its progress.  There will be elements that bother me, showing need for more attention.  There will be areas that I enjoy and want to save.

I wanted to seek out more instruction on defining the rock cliffs.  I wondered if there are techniques that I wasn't thinking about, which might give a better definition.  I pulled a couple of books from the shelf and began looking for ideas.  These are favorite books that show a variety of effects I love for the inspiration they give.  

After studying the whole piece from across the room and an evening critique session, I could more clearly plan my final steps in completing this landscape.  More contrast with blues and violets in the shadows made a nice impact.  A bit of scraping out with a razor blade showed the most directly sunlit rocky areas.  The palette knife defined more straight twigs emerging from the river's surface.

The completed landscape is photographed for listing online in the Etsy shop, ChristySheelerArtist.
It measures 8" x 10" on 300 lb. Arches cold press watercolor paper.   The sky challenged me but perseverance paid off.  I enjoyed painting the hues of the river's surface.  The wet into wet painting of the rocky areas was delightful as well.  The palette knife helped me define the fine twigs along with scraping out more textures in the grasses.

A view of this painting with an ivory double mat and espresso frame.

A view of this painting with ivory double mat.  When purchased, it will be packaged for sale with ivory double mat and clear acetate sleeve.  This is one of five landscapes that will be displayed locally.  At this time, I'm selling artwork either unmatted or with ivory double mat and acetate sleeve.  It's a more involved process to package a framed artwork for shipping.  I am not ready to tackle that yet, but at some point in the future it could be possible.

Copyright 2015 Christy Sheeler.  All Rights Reserved.

Thanks for stopping by today!  Have a great's nearly here.
I'm back to the brushes and the three remaining landscapes; they are really close to completion.
Next week, I hope to take you along on another painting progression, but we'll see what I can accomplish in the meantime.

I'm putting on some creativity inspiring music and heading over to the art table now!

because she must make art.


  1. orgeous paintings. Do you sell them? Always show a buy button. Just love both your work and commentary. Decorators and those in the B2B trade visit our blog.

    1. Oh, thanks so much! In June, I made the decision to pursue art more purposely. I've completed a total of 14 paintings since and am truly enjoying myself. There's an Etsy shop, opened in early September. I'm new to all of this and there's a great deal to learn. I appreciate your advice. I will begin looking into this! I'm thrilled you are back again.

    2. On Etsy, my shop is ChristySheelerArtist,

  2. You want the finish on your woodwork to stand out from the walls especially if you have crown moulding or waynes coating. Don't be fooled by water based products that claim to give the look and finish of oil.

  3. That is really nice to hear. thank you for the update and good luck. things to do in rockaway beach