improvising from nature

I love to follow my curiosity so every painting is an adventure. I never know where they are going to lead so I rarely try to plan ahead. A painting just tells the story of a forest on a given day, in a particular season.

Several years ago I documented the process involved in a woodland painting. Although I more often plan out my paintings these days, this is still my favorite way of working:

The woods are always full of painting ideas. After late summer rains the mushrooms and other strange fungi erupt in an amazing profusion of colors and shapes. I walked out to collect what bits of the forest attracted my attention on a dim early evening.

The golden brown hues of bolete mushrooms shine against the darker leaves of the forest floor. I don’t hesitate to collect a clump of small ones, just emerging from the dark and decaying leaves on the forest floor. I am careful about wild mushrooms as I know the poisonous ones can be very dangerous even to handle. The boletes don’t have gills like most mushrooms, but have spongy looking tubes under their brown caps.

In reaching for the mushrooms I’m surprised by a sudden movement near my hand and very nearly capture a small toad by accident. I had not seen him sitting near the mushrooms but he certainly seemed at home there. I left him temporarily and went on to see what other treasures the woods had to offer.

A bright red partridge berry catches my eye and I add a bit of that plant to my collection. Some early leaves from oak and sweetgum trees are beginning to fall and a few of them go into my basket and a sprig of wintergreen teaberry with its trio of dark shiny leaves.

Some time later, armed with my camera, I go back to look for the toad and find him settled comfortably at the edge of a clump of deep green moss. He seems to be watching for something, no doubt waiting for an insect or grub to pass his way. I don’t want to irritate him by taking him to the studio so I take a few digital photographs to use instead.

I return to the studio with my basket of treasures and begin to build a painting. I decide to begin with the toad and draw him, about life-size, on a piece of 140 lb Fabriano watercolor paper. I usually find it more convenient to “draw” with a brush so I use the pencil for general size and shape first and then sketch in the toad’s shape and spots with a dilute neutral tint watercolor on dry paper. There he sits on the white paper and I have to decide on his setting. Rarely do I plan a painting ahead of time. It is more fun to build the painting, piece by piece, and relate each new element to the one before.

The mushrooms will help suggest the toad’s scale, and besides, that’s where I found him originally. I sketch in the trio of boletes behind the toad, noting their quirky angles and just suggesting their warm coloring. No wonder they’re sometimes called “toad stools”! Adding the bright partridge berry to balance the triad I start thinking of the toad as reigning over his mossy island.

I paint the moss with first pale green-golds, touched with darker greens while still damp. Each area is just dampened a bit as I work on it and since the painting is small to begin with, the whole dries in minutes. I decide to back the mushrooms and moss with a darker oak leaf for contrast. I pencil in where I would like to add the yellow leaf but change its pose several times. I want to show the curled over part of the leaf and the interesting curved stem so I move the leaf around until I’m satisfied with the way it adds to the composition.

I paint the yellow leaf in small sections so to leave some greens in the veins and show the curled over part. The painting is too small to merit using frisket, it is easier to go around the toad. I just dampen a small area and touch it with the various colors to indicate the texture and brown spots as it is drying.

Heading to the woods again, I search for a fallen twig or small branch to set behind the vignette. Many of the surfaces in this forest have the green-blue lichen and I want to incorporate some of its interesting texture. I find one appropriate stick and sketch it in, only to erase the whole thing and change the angle to be more horizontal.

Since I work on the painting over several days, I leave my wild materials on the studio porch, knowing it is going to rain. Dampness makes the lichen even more curly and curiously shaped and the moss retains its bright color.

Lichen is a symbiotic relationship between a fungus, which gives it shape, and algae, which gives it the blue-green color. Neither can survive without the other and there are many shapes and textures of lichen to decorate tree bark, branches and other surfaces in the woods.

Satisfied with the angle of the lichen-covered twig, I sketch it in watercolor and add the teaberry on the right side. Although I’m fairly satisfied with the overall composition, I feel the painting doesn’t yet tell the toad’s story so I head back into the woods to look around and I find the missing element. Not far from where the toad sits, there is an empty snail shell, whitening like bone. Such a small thing but it tells a story. I have found snails near mushrooms before and seen mushrooms that had a nibbled look, for snails are one of the reasons mushrooms don’t last long on the forest floor.

Did the toad eat the snail? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised. The mushrooms attract all sorts of grubs and insects so it is no wonder the toad sits nearby, guarding his luncheon spot. When I sketch the whitening snail shell, the composition seems complete and I have only the painting to finish. Poisonous mushrooms such as the (usually white) amanitas can cause permanent liver damage. Spores can be transmitted from your hands to foods so avoid handling them and teach children to never touch any wild mushrooms.

Once the story is set, I look at the painting as a picture and work to better contrast the various elements and build up the colors and textures, adding details to the lichen and darkening the toad and his surroundings. In the same way I nearly picked up the toad, not seeing him near the mushrooms, I would want the viewer to perhaps not notice him at first and then let them discover the snail shell only when they are interested enough to look closely.


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