Landscape study of an overcast day in Durham

landscape study based on Painting the Poetic Landscape Composition lesson - completed
Landscape study of an overcast North Carolina day (9×12, oil on canvas)

Study topics

Composition with 5 shapes; painting trees and sky holes; overcast day light; color interpretation

Process notes

Using the first lesson on Composition from Barbara Jaenicke’s oil course, Painting the Poetic Landscape, I made a thumbnail study from a photo I took recently in Durham. Then I sketched it in with a brush onto a toned 9×12 canvas, followed by a tonal underpainting.

thumbnail sketch for Composition study
Thumbnail sketch with 5 shapes and values mapped out

landscape reference from Cheek Rd MST trail March 16 2019-67-2 with value scale
My reference photo that I took on an afternoon hike in Durham

landscape study based on Painting the Poetic Landscape Composition lesson - block-in 4
Initial block-in, with values from original value plan

Blocked in the sky, water, near dark trees, mid value trees (red-orange) and rocks, and distant trees (green). Refined areas, moving around the canvas. At this point it looked really strange to me, so I took a break to think about what to do to improve it.

landscape study based on Painting the Poetic Landscape Composition lesson - first phase
At this point I had basically finished my original idea, but it looked really strange so I kept going

After coming up with some solutions, I worked on it for another couple of hours until I was mostly happy with the changes.

landscape study based on Painting the Poetic Landscape Composition lesson - completed BW
A black and white version of my completed study — there are still 5 shapes, they’re just slightly different than what I started with

What I learned

Biggest lesson: don’t give up! I really almost chucked this one after the first “finish” because it seemed hopeless. But then I had some lunch, which helped my spirits immensely. I decided it would be worth it to change my value plan around since I didn’t like it anyway, so what’s the harm?? My original idea was to make the more distant trees lighter and cooler, to pull the warmer bare trees forward. In this case, that strategy wasn’t working because in reality those distant trees were just so much darker than the bare trees.

I also thought about the cluster of small, dark trees in the foreground and why they looked so out of place. Since it was an overcast day, the diffused light didn’t make such a severe value change between those trees and other elements.

Realizing these things got me excited to get back to the easel and give it another go. I darkened the back tree area and lightened the bare trees to bring them into the same value, lightened and refined the small dark trees, and softened some edges. This was also a good opportunity to put in brush strokes that make the bare trees look more stick-like and less full.

The color is more vibrant than I intended, but I like the way joining the background trees and near trees into one value quieted the whole composition down. It’s much more aligned with what I feel about this scene. And the extra practice painting sky holes is a good thing.