Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Sketches Along the American River

Thanks so much for all the thoughtful comments on my last post! I'm glad to know that it resonated with many of you.  I can never tell if anyone's reading my blog posts so your feedback really does keep me motivated. So thanks again!

I live near the American River, just outside of Sacramento. The river is a short walk from my house and my studio, and thanks to the conservation efforts of various organizations, there are stretches along the river which are left undeveloped.  Much of these areas are accessible through parks and miles of trails, and great painting spots are found all along the river.  

Last year I taught a weekly landscape class and for most of the sessions I took the class out to the river and we painted en plein air. These are some of the paintings from those sessions, plus some sketches which were just solo expeditions.

All of these began as plein air sketches. Some were painted on the spot in its entirety. Others were worked on in the studio afterwards, may be one or two hours. I think a few of them are done in the studio as variations of plein air sketches. 

I've shown this one before. And some of the others too, you may remember from before I messed up my blog and lost all the images. (So here they are again!)  

Typically, I don't start with the sky as some artists do. When I do a demo, someone always asks why I don't paint the sky first. It seems logical to paint from back to front rather than painting around complex small shapes, doesn't it?  My answer is that it doesn't matter which you paint first, the sky or the tree. Unless you have such control over shapes and edges that you can put down the tree on top of the skye perfectly on the first pass. I've yet to meet anyone who can do this consistently. Oh sure, anyone can put a tree on top of a sky in one pass, but I'm talking about a tree with GOOD, DESIGNED shapes.

Here's the thing. whether you start with the sky or the tree, chances are, you'll have to go back and forth between the two to refine edges and the shapes. Sometimes it comes together quickly, but other times, I spend hours shaping one tree.  

If you're going back and forth to get that tree just so, why does it matter with which you start? It's just  a matter of preference and comfort zones. I like to start with the tree because throughout the process, I like to maintain the value relationships of the various elements in my picture. My tree is almost always darker than the sky, so at every stage I want the tree to be darker than the sky. If I started blocking in the sky first, on white canvas, the sky would be darker at that point. A transparent block-in (grisaille) would solve this problem,  to be sure, but I don't do a very dark grisaille if I know the painting is going to be high keyed.

Also, in terms of color, I prefer to key the sky color to those of the trees because typically, the trees (or another visual element on the ground) would be the focal point(s) of the painting, and the sky plays the supporting role to the tree(s).  I think it makes sense to dress the star of my picture first, then decide on what the supporting cast would wear so that together, they bring out the best in my star.

When I do paint the sky first–and on occasion I do– my intention is to set a tight harmony by keying everything to the color of the ambient light.  In these cases, the color of the light / atmosphere is the main star, not the trees (or the barn, or the cars).

Here's a case where the tree is lighter than its background. The background is not the sky, obviously, but would it make sense to get the background going first, in this case? Yes, because at the block in stage, the background would be already darker than the lighter green foliage on the tree. 

Again, it's just a preference. I really don't think it matters all that much which you paint first. One thing that I do tell my students is don't paint around teeny shapes like that tree branch in this picture. Get the big shapes down, get the big relationships established, then paint the small things on top of it, then manipulate the edges so that the small things look integrated into the big things, not pasted on top.

This is a very tonal painting. A near-monochromatic painting like this has a simple structure, and I like to keep it that way for very atmospheric paintings like this. This was the focus of my workshop back in January.  I think this is easier than using a full spectrum,  but apparently some find it easier to use more color than less. That boggles my mind, but hey, it's a good thing that we have different ways of seeing and understanding color. Makes for a fascinating diversity in our expressions.

This one was done in the studio, but I did two earlier versions on location, both of which I used as references to paint this one. The important thing I noted about this particular painting is not the trickiness of painting submerged rocks (which is kinda nifty, I agree, but it's not as difficult as you might think) The important thing was to decide which was going to be the dominant color; the green of the water, or the red of the rocks.

My earlier versions had much redder rocks because they actually were pretty red. But as a painting, I needed one or the other to be dominant. Not both, competing with each other. When I figured that out the painting came together much more satisfactorily. But it took hours of work (two sketches on location, and a few hours staring at them) to figure what was wrong with my earlier efforts.

The stroke direction on these ball-shaped bushes follow the growth pattern. I look at how the branches (leaves, sprigs) radiate out from the epicenter, and mimic their growth. This shows the characteristics of these plants. 

I don't always follow growth patterns when I'm painting, even if I were painting these bushes, I might emphasize form instead, as if they were beach balls. Or I might put down my strokes in a parallel manner, in the direction of the falling sun light. It all depends on what you want to emphasize in your painting, which means you have to know what you want to say with your painting before you start. 

Submerged rocks again. What makes them look submerged? They're the color of the water. What makes them look like rocks? Darker, shadow areas that reveal the rock shapes. The rest is context. See? there's no trick to painting these. Just use your eyes without presumptions. 

Painting with my back to the river. This painting's color structure is more imposed than observed. I took cues from what I saw, but tightened the harmony to the point it was almost monochromatic. That's key to painting tonal atmosphere. You can't have both a tonal structure AND a lot of impressionist color, even though many try. That's like mishmashing two different languages. You may know what you're trying to say, but you'll confuse everyone else.

Our stretch of the American River isn't like the Sacramento Delta further down south. This view actually had a lot of trees along the far bank which I didn't paint. I wanted to paint the delta, but I couldn't make the trip down at the time, so I just used my local view as a jumping off point and reimagined the environment. Creative license. To be sure, I've painted the delta on location many times so I have a pretty good visual vocabulary in my noggin. 

Even if you never paint from imagination, building your visual vocabulary is very important for a landscape painter. It helps to make your painting better than nature because you are able to tweak this and refine that. In my experience, Mother Nature rarely gives us perfect compositions. Designing a painting is always a matter of imposing our vision onto a view. If we're only copying nature, that'll never happen.

The blue of the water is what attracted me to this view. I used it in the foreground grass, and also in the cast shadows on the trunks of the white birch (?) tree. I needed to sprinkle the blue around like this to make sure that the water didn't look isolated. Because it's just a big shape with no identifiable feature (shape itself doesn't tell us what it is) it needed to be in context for it to make sense. The tree and the grass provide that context, but still it was lacking something. Since I couldn't change the shape of it, I expanded the role of the color. It makes for a better color harmony and thus unity, too.

This one and the next one is a few years old, but I included them in this post just because I painted them along the river. In both cases, the cloud shapes mimic the trees. Not exactly, of course - that would look too obvious and silly. But the idea is to repeat the rhythmic shapes of the main element. 

When painting sky with clouds, I determine whether the clouds or the blue (in the above painting, green) part of the sky is dominant. If it's mostly clouds and only a small part of the blue is showing, which is the case in the two pieces above, I block in the whole thing with cloud color, and poke holes with the blue.  I then come back and work back and forth to refine edges and shapes, so by the time I'm done, it doesn't necessarily look like I painted the blue on top of the clouds. 

If the blue sky is bigger and the clouds play a smaller role, like in the painting below, 

I may paint the whole thing with blue (with variations) and float clouds on top of it.  But again, I typically go back and forth till I'm satisfied with the shapes and edges. 

The tree on the bluffs is iconic around these parts. The view from up there is spectacular. I have painted from there before, but have never taken a class there because I'm afraid someone would fall off. And people do fall off from time to time. I cringe every time I go up there and see young people sitting on the edge, dangling their feet and drinking beer or smoking pot (or whatever).

More color in this painting. Juxtaposing very loose, expressive and abstract strokes against tighter, representational form (trunk, branches) was what I was after in this one.  I don't actually remember what made me paint it so high key. May be it was a high key demo?

And then there's this gray painting. A gray day means there's no strong directional light. I can't use the light and shadow pattern to drive the design, so the value structure has to come from light and dark local values.  Light & shadow vs. light & dark. There's a big difference there, and it's important not to confuse the two. The darks in this case doesn't come from sunlight casting shadows, but they are dark because the objects themselves are dark. 

Also, what's missing in gray day conditions is the presence of distinct cast shadows.  To rephrase it, if you want a painting to look sunny, include cast shadows with sharp edges.  It's not light values or bright colors that makes a painting look sunny, it's the presence of distinct cast shadows. 

Thanks for putting up with this long post! I just started rambling on about each of the paintings and it just kind of got out of hand. 

Anyway, if you enjoyed these views and found comments informative, you may be interested to know that I'll be conducting a workshop next month at some of these locations. It'll be a plein air painting workshop and we'll be talking about these and many other issues about landscape painting and painting en plein air. The American River offers some great views (as you can see) along the Sacramento area, and we'll have a great time slinging painting on its shores.  If you'd like to join us, please contact Debbie at the School of Light and Color. As of this posting we still have spaces in this workshop!

The American River en Plein Air 
March 8 - 9, 2014

Please see my workshop page for more info on the workshop.

The School of Light and Color
phone: (916) 966-7517
email: sarback@lightandcolor.com

Paint on!


  1. Many helpful comments - thank you for taking the time to share!

  2. Nice post Terry! Looking forward to this workshop.

  3. Thank you Cindy! Glad you liked them:-D

  4. Thanks Sheila~ I'm looking forward to meeting you~

  5. Always reading and always soaking up just a little influence. But not always commenting :)

    Thanks Terry.

  6. Hi Andy~ And thanks! You know you can always just comment on what you ate last night :-D