Well, it’s been a while and I’m almost ashamed to say that I really haven’t done any charcoal work so far this year. Between several leather projects, studying for professional certifications, and the day to day grind, I just haven’t had the opportunity to sit down and really focus. That said though, I have been working in my head making plans.
Although I’m pretty detail oriented and live for it in my work, I’m often quite jealous of people who are able to just let go and not worry about obsessing over details. I have a couple of friends in the artist community who really excel at that style of work, one of which (fellow Nitram user Vitya Malirsh) is quite adept at atmosphere and beautiful landscape work without using detail.
Looking at some of these works I was reminded about how interesting I find the shape and value transitions in cloud formations during and after a storm. Even though I wasn’t working on anything in particular, I just knew that I had to try my hand at creating a piece that’s free of detail and really let the beauty of the clouds show through. That’s when I started pulling out my camera every time I saw an interesting cloud formation, just hoping that sometime I’d get the chance to sit down and “let loose”.
After going through a pretty stressful year, I began really feeling the need to work on something just for fun. No commissions, no gallery work, just the kind of thing that would be for me and me alone that wouldn’t matter if I failed (like many artists, I have a problem with “failed” pieces). As luck would have it, I ended up being in a situation where I would be spending most of the day waiting in a car with nothing to do. I could have spent that time reading or scrolling through social media, but instead I decided it would be the perfect time to try my hand at some cloudscapes. People paint outdoors all the time. Why can’t I leave the comfort zone of my studio setup to work on one piece that “doesn’t matter?”
After scrolling through my gathered images, I decided this would be a really good one to start with. It really pulls together a lot of what I wanted to play with but also offered me enough challenge with those trees (another thing I’ve never really worked on before) that I would be sure to feel like I let out some pent up creative energy. This image was taken sometime over the summer outside Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, ID. It’s a tree line I look at nearly everyday as I take an afternoon walk and there are frequently interesting formations like this on the horizon.
Knowing that I’d be doing the vast majority of the work in my car, I decided to take a few moments to rough out some basic shapes and get some undertone placed with charcoal powder. The most important thing here was to save the pure white center so that I could gradually soften it later without having to add white to the mix.
Once I got started “on location” I honestly had a little bit of trouble figuring out exactly how to approach it. Normally when I’m working on something representational of anatomical I’ll have clear objects to block in and measure. Since I wasn’t actually measuring anything here it was a little difficult to decide where to start. But, since I had the central focus oriented first and some of the basic features of the scene lined out, I decided the first thing to do would be to get some horribly ugly marks on the paper. I knew I would do “something” with the tree line, but hadn’t decided what yet. So I grabbed my cheap willow charcoal that can easily be dusted off and scratched out a value reference for the trees. Nothing spectacular, just something to keep the darker values in site as I built up the cloud formations.
From there I was able to start building up some of the cloud formations. Initially I had actually planned on using mostly brushes and cotton balls. However, once I got started, I found the majority of the work was going best with a blending stump and eraser. It was still a little awkward getting used to “scribbling” tone on in order to blend it around, but it quickly began to feel a lot more relaxed.
By the end of the day working in the car, I was able to get the vast majority of it complete, leaving only some touch up cloud work to do and then figure out how I was going to handle the tree line.
After studying the photo above quite a bit, I decided that the lower half of the left formation didn’t quite flow right. Something didn’t feel right and I really wanted to emphasize the drama quite a bit. Granted, based on my viewing angle of the reference while working on it, I had actually missed the true shape according to what was really there. But, I wanted to create and interpret, not just copy a photo, so I really didn’t mind. It did need address though, so I came back and rounded out some of those lines back in the studio while also mixing up some of the other values to build more interest.
When it came time to tackle the tree line, I had quite the decision to make. I really didn’t want to do a detailed drawing, but I also wanted it to look like there were trees there and on the horizon. Once again, the need to start was somewhat paralyzing and I couldn’t quite figure out what to do. That’s when the marathon of Bob Ross I had watched a few weeks earlier popped into my head!!! Why don’t I just make a line for a trunk and call it a happy tree that needs friends? One thing Bob was a master at was not getting caught up in the little stuff that doesn’t matter. So, that’s what I did. one trunk followed by several more in the general location of what was in the photo, but not quite the same. I also decided to make a few of them curve and point toward the center light to guide the eye back to the clouds. In the end I’m quite happy with how they came out looking like trees, but not being detailed trees.
In the end the entire process accomplished exactly what I had wanted. I came away feeling quite successful in learning the basics of a technique I’d admired for a while and managed to do it without obsessing at all. It’s pretty refreshing to put out something that I would consider a finished piece while just allowing the piece to come together. I’ll definitely be doing more work like this in the future, and may even incorporate some of it into my other work.
I haven’t quite had a chance to seal it up and take print quality photos yet, but once I do they will be available for purchase on my Saatchi Art page at saatchiart.com/allenmewes