First of all, a lot of cowboy paintings are a horizon with some mountains, hills, or maybe only sky with a cowboy in the middle. Cows optional. Mine and others. Sky maybe dark or light. Foreground dark or maybe light.
So we always look for ways to break that pattern. Dark rocks or dark cows. Or trees or white clouds or whatever.
In this case, I had a reference photo I shot from above. It sort of suggested a dark lower right hand corner and a high key (light) top and left side.
[Click images for enlarged view.]
So I started this painting with that as a plan: Upper left light colored area moving down through the subject to a dark right bottom.
We see the rider and horse from a rather high angle, so my first examination suggests some curves that should help the viewer’s eye move through and around the painting, circling the center of attention which will be the horses head.
The reference picture shows the horse’s head facing straight to the front. I will draw it turned to our right to keep the viewer’s eye moving around the circle.
A Rough Value Study
I like the curving panel fence and am thinking about our cowboy. Here he meditates on who knows what, but I think his looking to our left sort of pulls the eye left and off the page.
The viewer will ask “where is he looking and why?” The horse looking to our right works to keep you in the picture but maybe I need something for the cowboy to look at. Something that stops the viewers eye.
Or I could turn his head forward looking at the viewer’s left foot or at his horse’s head. But we will miss his face. We’ll see the top of his hat instead. That could be okay, depending how the light hits it, but today I choose to show his face. At least some of it.
A sketch to start working out the drawing a little.
My emphasis is on the human face and the horse head. They will probably be the most interesting parts of the finished painting.
I have added a little wash to work out values on horse’s face. Then, with the help of the ruff sketch, I make a tighter drawing on the Arches Watercolor paper that blocks out the main proportions and shapes.
As I fill in areas with paint, I will erase most of the drawing as I go.
Final drawing on Arches watercolor paper, cold press. First washes applied.
Beginning the Human Face
Watercolor is not a very forgiving medium, so I do the faces first. That way if I blow them, I’m not so invested that I can’t throw the thing away and start again.
I hate it when I have finished a painting and my wife fails to see the aspects of a painting that have challenged and excited me, focusing instead on the human face, saying “I see you painted pig face again.” Words that can ruin my day.
Drawing is roughed in and erased as I go.
Here I’m adding two guys over the fence. Although I will keep them high key/light and make them minor players, I do feel the need to give our cowboy something to relate to and those two guys are it.
They won’t be much more than hats but they should do the trick. That will keep your eye from falling out of the picture on the left hand side.
The most extreme contrast calls a lot of attention to an area and I try to save that for places important to the picture. Those legs which seem important now will soon hide in the shadows and the dirt.
I am imagining that when the dark lower right corner is finished, that the horse’s head will be the center of interest in the painting.
I am using the shadows to make a grid-like pattern to play off against the curves. They are very strong but just wait. Those shadows will sit down and behave when the dirt is added.
I am feeling confident that if I don’t spill my coffee on the picture, I will be able to soon call it done.
It needs some tone in the “sky” and I will look at in with a fresh eye a few times over the next few days. Something will bother me and I’ll fix it a few times. I will add a little more to the bodies of the two guys on the left. I will add more pigment over the dirt and get it a little darker.I will do some tweaking on the rider’s face and the horse’s face. But in my mind I am closing in on finishing it.
Checking with Croppers
These croppers help me imagine how I will crop it. They help me see the painting “fresh” while I am tweaking this or that. Note that a tone has been added at the top.
Reference Photo Comparison
Painting next to the reference photo.
The Final Painting
The finished painting, “White Panels”. Ready to frame.
Questions remain. Dark mat or light mat? Frame and fillet. Museum glass will eliminate most all reflections and offer archival protection.