The Art of Racing the Wind

The Yolo Art and Ag project for 2013 began this past month on a clear and windy Thursday morning in far western Yolo County. The lack of rain this year meant the roads were dry and the fields weren’t muddy, good for artists but also scary for the future. I love the opportunity to paint on private farmland where one would never otherwise be able to go.

This time we went to a working cattle ranch the foothills that rise from the Central Valley to the Coast Range, near Lake Berryessa. The oaks haven’t leafed out yet—it is only February, after all!—but the grasses were trying to green up.

Early Spring First Layer by Stephanie Benedict
This was the first layer, after about 30 minutes. I focused on the shadow colors within the trees and tried to get the distant hills. The shadows were the part that would change most quickly as the light changed.

And the day was WINDY. We can get some pretty strong north winds here.  This one was not quite a howler, but gusty enough to knock my hat off my head and to untie the plastic shopping bag I use for trash from my tripod and send it floating across the field.

So painting was a race against the wind. My intention that day was to simply capture some of the color and value relationships before the wind grew too fierce to stand up in. I didn’t expect to make a painting: this was a sketch, information gathering, to come back into the studio with and perhaps make a painting from it.
Those silver-gray oak tree boughs, with a bit of reddish new growth on the ends, are such a tough color to capture. All the dull colors of winter are challenging. Only the bright green new grass and the brilliant blue sky were bright and clear colors—all the others were subdued and very complex.

But I’m actually starting to like the challenge of making such dull colors seem like they’re in light or in shadow.

So I raced to cover my 9 x 12 board with something approaching the base colors I saw in front of me. After 30 minutes, I had it, and then I relaxed. I knew that, while I might not get any more detail that day, I had the basics on the canvas. Then I started over to refine and add some subtlety.

Early Spring: a sketch by Stephanie Benedict
Here’s the piece after 60 minutes. So, call this a quick study.

After an hour I stopped. The wind hadn’t let up, the sun was actually getting warm, and the light was changing. Better to stop than to overwork it.
The piece is not a painting, but I kind of like the feel of the thing. I took more notes on the details—like the way the distant hills started showing more green in their trees as the sun rose higher. Maybe I’ll work on it again—or not. It’s all part of putting those miles of canvas behind me, the ones that John Carlson writes about:

“behind every great painter are miles of canvas.”

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