In May 2022, we introduced you to a new artist in our Annual Landscape Show, Joshua Cunningham. Joshua is an incredibly talented and accomplished plein air painter, a joy to work with, and quite the story teller! The Minneapolis-based artist's work has made a splash in Des Moines since last year and started selling right away. Earlier this year, we happily added Joshua to our roster of midwestern artists, and we are excited to show you more of his work.
Joshua generously shared the following content with us from his e-newsletter, "Behind the Scene". He goes into wonderful detail about the making of one of his paintings available here at the gallery. Enjoy!
In this first edition of Behind the Scene, I am sharing how "Summer Morn, Wells Creek" grew out of the unique challenges of the pandemic. In June 2020, Red Wings Art Director Emily Foos, and her team worked out a way to hold their annual Plein Air event. Their careful and creative effort was a gift to their community, the participating artists, and the memory of her father and the Red Wing Plein Air Event Founder, Dan Guida, who passed away in 2017.
In the Field
One of the ways Red Wing Arts adjusted their event was by giving us a 2- week window to paint, which allowed for a less hair-on-fire approach to the work. By the time I had found my spot, set up, and finished drawing the scene, the long shadows that caught my eye had all but retreated. My composition would be organized around how those shadows reveal the rhythms of the landscape carved out by Wells Creek.
Despite spending hours getting to know the cut banks and unraveling the knot of the creek, a fresh morning would bring better answers than my mid-day guessing. It was time to call it, the noon sun was high, the June greens were electric, and most of the shadows were on their lunch break.
This is from an hour or so into the second morning. I went back out, much earlier, curious to see how earlier shadows might challenge my assumptions and clarify my initial inspiration for choosing the scene. This approach allows me to paint from a place of appreciation for the challenge of expressing a fleeting light effect. It is less about correction, and more about refining toward clarity.
I returned with fresh eyes and renewed energy for a third and final session, to find and share the subtle plane changes dappled sun, the feel of the atmosphere, and the specificity that the painting asks for. The full orchestra is present, and all elements have to play their part.
Day Breaking across Wells Creek
16"x20", Oil on Linen
Second Place, Red Wing Plein Air 2020
In the Studio
Some paintings, some places, and some scenes feel like they have more to share with you. In 2021, I was teaching several workshops and felt this scene offered a lot of challenges that could be explored through the process and principles of the Prismatic Palette as it was taught to me by Joe Paquet. The studio can be a great place for digging into, sifting through, and learning from the experience of plein air painting. I wanted to make a 30"x40" of the original 16"x20", which I no longer owned because it sold in the Red Wing Plein Air Event. So the first step was to recompose the scene in a new 6"x8" study with the same aspect ratio as the intended 30"x40" piece.
Thinly Massing the shadows with Payne's grey, adjusting the neutrality, coolness, and values as they relate to the relative darkness of a shadow which is based on the verticality of a given plane in space. Typically, on a sunny day, the more vertical the plane the darker and more neutral the value, whereas shadows falling across a horizontal plane tend to reflect more of the sky and it will usually be cooler and lighter than an upright vertical surface. Payne's grey does not go in the light.
Painting in the main areas in the light - the creek, the sunlit creek bottom, the sky, and the grasses. Again, where there is a change in plane, there is a change in value because the light is hitting it at a different angle. As the greens recede into the distance they lose their steam because we are seeing those forms through more atmosphere.
Next, the color goes into the shadows, using the initial Payne's grey underpainting as a guide, which often will be adjusted for relative warmth and chroma, with the goal of clarifying the relative relationships of light & dark, warm & cool, chromatic & neutral, and thick & thin. These elements all work together to convey the feel of light and atmosphere in the scene. Using broad terms to describe something nuanced and complicated, often makes it sound formulaic, but after 20 years, I have come to see this visual scaffolding as a grammar for a visual language. Punctuation and spelling don't guarantee great writing, but they can hold it back. Every place and each day is a world in itself, and with practice, these principles allow one to understand and in time express the gift of the day.
Finished Studio Study
6"x8", Oil on Linen
Now we see the finished studio study, with added variety and interest in the lights and shadows - though there is less in the shadows. The added details are always subject to the light effect - meaning everything's primary role still is to express light or shadow - hill or flat plane, near or far.
Going from a 6"x8" study to a 30"x40" is a leap. That step is made much more manageable by creating a grid on the study and blank canvas, allowing for a 1/1 enlargement. This process is not copying each little square and triangle with the hopes of them all adding up to a poetic expression of the day... might as well put shoes on a barn and ask it to dance... that is not the rhythmic connection we are looking for. One still draws out the longest most intuitive expression we can, the grid just helps us to not get lost, and in the event we do... we can see where we veered off the road.
Making the Grid
After the study is DRY, tightly stretch plastic wrap over the front of your dry painting - securing it to the back of the panel with tape. There should be no wrinkles on the front. If it tears, start over with a fresh piece.
AFTER you have securely stretched the plastic wrap over the front of your painting, you will need a sharpie and a straight edge.
Draw two intersecting lines with the sharpie, along the straight edge, each one will go diagonally across the painting from corner to corner. This will make an 'X'. And at the intersection of the X, is the center of the canvas.
Set your T-Square flush to the LEFT or RIGHT side edge of your canvas and line it up with the center of the X, and draw a HORIZONTAL line with the sharpie.
Set your T-Square flush to the TOP or BOTTOM edge of your canvas and line it up with the center of the X, and draw a VERTICAL line with the sharpie.
Draw four opposing diagonal lines with the sharpie, along the straight edge, each one will go corner to corner in each of the 4 quadrants. The resulting X, marks the center of each quadrant.
Set your T-Square flush to the TOP or BOTTOM edge of your canvas and line it up with the center of the X's in the upper and lower quadrants, and a VERTICAL line with the sharpie - repeat in the next set.
Set your T-Square flush to the LEFT or RIGHT edge of your canvas and line it up with the center of the X's in the upper left and right quadrants, and draw a HORIZONTAL line with the sharpie - repeat in the next set.
In the end, you will have a grid composed of diagonals and horizontal lines drawn on the plastic wrap. Both of which will be helpful for assessing your initial laying for the larger painting. You can leave the plastic on for testing your color mixes, by dabbing the paint on the plastic to see how closely the new color matches the study.
Starting the Studio Enlargement
Repeating the process above except USE VINE CHARCOAL, no sharpie on your canvas! With a long enough straight edge, you can now make the same kind of grid on your canvas. It is best to do this with lightly drawn lines on your primed, toned, and dry canvas. Sometimes, a tape measure can be a nice way to double-check measurements.
Using the study on my pochade box, as a guide, I have again, drawn the scene out in oil made with a mixture of Payne's grey made from a combination of Cobalt Blue, Ivory Black, and a little Flake white. I am paying close attention to how the shapes change and open up as they flow across the larger canvas.
As the cast shadows were the spark that ignited my initial inspiration, I began with them.
The shadows of the light effect are expressed through the Payne's Grey statement. The sky is laid in with the same overall consideration - it has to express its role in the light and atmosphere of the day.
When laying in Wells Creek sun shines to the bottom, and where it falls in shadow, it reflects the sky and the grasses along the sides. Even in this most basic expression, our mind starts interpreting the scene. You can see the first marks of the sunlit greens being laid in.
Some days are too gorgeous to be in-studio days, so our Old English Sheep Dog, Louie, and I set up shop in the backyard. In the actual painting, you can see that the main areas have been addressed, and it has a finished feeling, despite a lack of a variety of grasses and flowers.
Taking a Closer Look...
In this detail of the finished painting, you can get a sense of how the variety of mark-making paired with the magic of your mind, we can feel the sun moving across the dewy grasses and flowers in shadows on the left into those that have warmed up in the sun on the right. The overlapping of shapes deepens our experience of depth, especially when combined with the subtle shifts in color saturation and diminished interest in the marks. The quiet suggestion of the cows way back. Each decision has to work in concert with all the other decisions so that the light and air in the piece feel unified. All of these choices are made with the hope that have shared enough of what touched me that morning so that when you look at it, you can feel like you're there, and remember your own morning walks filled with bird song, early summer smells, the warmth of the June sun. I rarely know where the day will take me when I head out to paint, but it always feels like an invitation.