Chris Blom's Corkboard

Chris's Corkboard

This is the painting I am struggling with.

It’s not quite finished.  It’s my first attempt to paint my desert home.  It’s my first attempt to do a serious painting in acrylics.  It’s my first attempt to do a “backwards” landscape with a bluish foreground and a yellowish background.  It’s driving me crazy!

The situation:

The sun has gone down behind the Whetstone Mts behind me, putting the foreground in deep shadow, but sunlight through an intermountain gap is still brightly illuminating the valley and the Dragoon Mts with peach-colored light.  Sunset is not far enough advanced to color the northeastern sky though.

It’s the monsoon season and the desert is green (I started this in early September, sigh).  The greenest desert greens are nothing like the vivid greens of wetter climes, though.  The valley bottom has irrigated farm fields which are much greener than the desert green.

This particular desert consists of a scrub-tree open forest (mostly mesquites and cat-claw acacias) with an understory of desert clump grasses, scattered cacti, and patches of bare ground.  The bare ground is a pale golden color.  There are 2 mesas dropping down to the valley floor.  You are standing on the edge of one mesa.  About 10 feet below the next lower mesa stretches away until it drops to the valley.  Once you get a little way away, you see mainly the tops of the scrub forest.  The bare ground, grasses, and cacti are lost to view.

My problems:

I am having a devil of a time capturing the desert colors.  They are all so extremely unsaturated!  I started by sketching the scene and making careful note of the colors.  Then the following morning I laid in the colors on the painting.  Waited for 5 PM to roll around again… ohmigod, the colors are ALL WRONG!  What I remembered was nothing like what they really are.  Over the next umpty ump days, working just from 5 to 5:30, I struggled to get the colors right without putting any detail at all into the painting yet.  Then once the light was gone, I would wait for the following daylight to assess what I had done.  Couldn’t really assess my work at 5:30 when I finished painting, because the ambient light was colored and it was also getting kinda darkish.   The mountains as originally painted reproduced the sunset glow nicely; BUT, they would not lay back into the distance.  So I altered the perceived color to make the peach softer and the shadows lighter and less crisp.  That’s not how it really looks but at least it made the painting work a little better.  How can I both reproduce the strong crisp contrasts of sidelit desert mountains, and have them look far away?  Any ideas?

The color of the far mesas, above the bluffs, is currently painted richer and more varied than in life but I just don’t seem to have the skill to mix the extremely subtle shade of kinda greenish that is actually there.  In life, you are seeing faraway tops of scrub forest on those mesas.  Not that it looks like that in my painting, the texture is missing.  At least the colors I used made the picture prettier  when I went too drab, it was really DRAB!  I’m beginning to think, it only looks green because you remember how very non-green it was during the rest of the year.  I want to get that “Wow, the desert is green!” feeling while still staying true to its almost-not-there greenness but I haven’t managed it.  Also, the far mesas should look farther away than the valley floor and I don’t think they do.  How do I fix??

The shadowed foreground has also been giving me fits.  Remember I said the local dirt is pale golden.  When you look only at the real-life foreground, the dirt still looks pretty golden.  But when you raise your eyes so you see the sunlit colors too, your peripheral vision reads the dirt color as off-gray, not yellow.  Since the subject of this painting is the sunlit mountains not the shadowy foreground, I tried to work in a grayish shade that still looked like golden dirt.  At one time, I went too gray and it started looking like a snow scene.  Sigh.

The shadowed green stuff in the foreground looks like a bluish green when seen against the peach background.  At first I painted the trees, small brush, and cacti bluish green.  The following day I could clearly see it was WAY too bluish green!  Way too saturated, and too light, too.  I had several go-rounds of repainting in different colors, none of which worked.  I am finally pretty happy with the acacia on the right and the solution was to heavily glaze over about 50% of the foliage with neutral gray and Payne’s gray.  The mesquite on the left needed to be paler than the acacia for compositional purposes, and I slopped a lot of neutral gray on it.  Color kinda works now but is a little blue -- and the lacy look to the foliage has gone.  How the heck do you take a tree with pale unsaturated yellowish-green leaves, put it into blue shadow, then show it the way it looks when seen against a peachy background?  I have consistently been having trouble with colors because what looks a lot lighter, brighter and more intense when you focus on them becomes darker and grayer when you focus on the valley.

The purple prickly pear in the right foreground wasn’t really there.  I added it because I thought a punch of purple would look good.  (Note that the camera made the prickly pear a lot bluer than it is in the painting; it’s really more of a purple/blue/maroon medley.)  BUT – the latest copy of Southwest Art came out and the cover featured a painting with a similar shadowed foreground and sunset-lit background.  Man that artist handled it better than I am doing!  I was so impressed, and studied his other works shown in the feature article.  Hmmmm!  He doesn’t put foregrounds in at all when the focus is actually the background!  Now I’m wondering if I shouldn’t have left that top mesa out completely and started the painting on the middle mesa, with nothing seen really up close.  What do you think?  Should I have left the prickly pear out completely?  Foreground is not finished but I had planned to put in a barrel cactus and a rock or two… because I HAVE to have a foreground, right?  Well now I’m thinking maybe not.  What do you guys think?

Incidentally, that artist handled the light conditions by punching up the sunlit trees to bright orange, and painting the shadowed trees as a big dark gray blob with only the slightest indication of tree branches, no detail at all and no worries about the bare trees actually being brownish.  It came off wonderfully well!  But his Midwestern woods are different than my desert and I don’t think I could have gotten away with having the whole foreground that dark.  Maybe I should have painted that closer, shadowed desert all in tints of Payne’s gray though instead of trying to color things the way my eyes saw them.  Sure worked for him.

Lastly, I’m not enamored of the composition.  What would you do to give it more movement, without occluding the valley and the far mountains?


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