"Some paintings just flow off the brush with minimal effort. Others like this one take blood, sweat and tears. I enjoy every aspect of painting, each one is unique unto itself and holds a little place in my heart." Gail Niebrugge
Making of "East Fork Wolf" Painting
Stage 1: November 20, 2009
I’ve studied the research material from my Artist-in-Residence in Denali National Park last summer and two ideas surface repeatedly, one is the view from the Adolph Murie cabin of the East Fork River and the other is a view of Denali from the McKinley Bar Trail. I’ve chosen to begin with a painting of the East Fork River and will include the shadowy figure of one of the wolves that frequented the area. What attracted me to this scene was the evening light illuminating the distant mountains with alpenglow while the foreground and sections of the middle ground were in the shadows. It is an interesting play on light, and a factor that drives my work. At this stage of the painting the composition is roughed in using pencil and a very thin layer of acrylic wash is applied to begin establishing values.
Stage 2: November 24, 2009
After studying the rough wash underpainting I made the decision to reduce the size of the wolf image, it seemed too big and dominated the landscape. I want it to blend in and be hard to discern in the finished work. At this stage I’ve begun to layer the darkest value dots along the lower third of the painting and have not painted the wolf image. The composition needs work, the diagonal lines draw the eye off the lower right hand of the picture plane. This is easily adjusted with values and a slight adjustment to the diagonal lines.
Stage 3: November 25, 2009
At this stage I’m continuing to add dark colored dots to the lower half of the painting, the bushes near the bottom have not been painted and will be completed during final details just before the finish. The same is true for the wolf figure. I’m establishing the patterns of the darkest shapes in the painting at this point.
Stage 4: November 27, 2009
I’ve changed the direction of the diagonal lines in the lower third of the painting and began to add mid value dots. I’m still focusing only on the lower part of the painting, only a single value of dots has been applied to the green ridges in the top third. Everything is subject to major changes and modifications at this stage of the work.
Stage 5: December 1, 2009
As the painting progresses the dots become more and more dense, and multi-colored. The foreground gravel has more dots of lavender, purple, and blue violet, as I work my way toward the top of the canvas I’m adding many more hues and shades of similar values to the water and gravel bars. The object is not to make the dots contrast with each other, but to make the composition flow. At this point the composition seems to be slanting toward the lower right, It feels like the horizon line is not level. I’ve checked it and measured and it is level, but the composition still gives the impression of a slant. I’ll wait until the distant mountains are painted and see if this condition still exists, if so it will need correction.
Stage 6: December 3, 2009
I’ve begun work on the middle ground, defining color and shape of the hills and establishing highlights and dark values in the gravel bars. The distant river gravel is in the shade, this is a painting about fleeting light and shadow. Some areas are highlighted as the sun shines through openings in the clouds, others are in shadow. This dappled light creates an interesting composition. The foreground rocks are picking up many hues and shades of color giving the illusion of detail. It is time to focus on the distant mountains in my next painting session.
Stage 7: December 4, 2009
At this stage I’m adding color to the middle ground hills, at first it seemed enough, but I’m going to enhance the color even more to show the glow of the evening setting sun. I’ve begun to add detail to the foreground rocks and foliage, and I’m roughing in the base color and shape of the distant mountains. Nothing has been done to the wolf figure since “Stage 4,” I will save work on the animal until the end. What was once a bland looking painting is now picking up with the addition of many colorful dots.
Stage 8: December 8, 2009
More dots of warm yellow orange and acra violet are applied to the distant peaks and the sun drenched ridge along the river, and warm colored dots highlight some of the gravel bars in the middle ground. I’ve worked on the composition a bit striving to eliminate the strong diagonal pull from lower right to the upper left, it is still a challenge and won’t be resolved until the sky is complete. Darker dots are applied to the foreground giving definition to some of the rocks, foliage and water. A few more sessions might bring me closer to the final evaluation, it is hard to tell yet.
Painting Finished: December 9, 2009
A little more work refining the background mountains, adding more light and shadow, touching up the highlights on the water, toning down the middle ridge on the left and punching up the foreground with some dark hues, when I stepped back to take a look from a distance I couldn’t see much else left to do. I’m resisting the urge to add a gazillion details to the foreground, let the colors and values tell the story, keep it loose I tell myself. I’ll let it sit for a few days and view it upside down awhile, but I’m thinking it is done! The composition seems to flow now, the diagonal line of the river from bottom right to the ridge is broken by light and dark values, and your eye is carried back into the painting with the highlights on the distant mountains and the light and dark values in the clouds, then back to the light values in the water. Visual manipulation, trickery!
Redo Stage 1: January 19, 2010
I’ve been looking at this “finished” painting for a few weeks, now that the hectic holidays are over and the stress level is lowered, and I realize that I’m not satisfied. I’ve decided to take out the little wolf and paint a larger one. The wolf is too small for the landscape, and I really don’t like how it looks, the lines are stiff and he just looks out of place. So, I’ve painted a white spot where the new wolf will live. More tomorrow.
Redo Stage 2: January 20, 2010
After searching through my “Wolf” files I selected another photo to use. I’ve been photographing the wolves of Denali National Park for more than a decade and have lots of good reference material from which to choose. Next, I sketched the outline of the new wolf on the white painted spot and began to add pointillism to the background around the new wolf, slowly obliterating the old one. More tomorrow.
Redo Stage 3: January 21, 2010
After painting a lot of dots in the background, I concentrated on painting the new wolf image. At this point I am fairly satisfied, but decided that I needed to tone down and grey back the distant mountains and the sky. So I spent most of the day refining the entire painting so that it worked better with the new wolf image.
Redo Stage 4: January 22, 2010
Here is the re-worked painting with the new wolf image. The mountains and sky have been grayed back, the water behind the wolf lightened to silhouette the animal. I’m going to wait a few days and digest these changes before I declare the painting finished. I’ll turn it upside down and evaluate how the composition is working, and possibly lighten the darkest values on the animals fur. I’m going to take my time with this one. Some paintings just flow off the brush with minimal effort. Others like this one take blood, sweat and tears. I enjoy every aspect of painting, each one is unique unto itself and holds a little place in my heart.
Painting Completed: January 23, 2010
The wolf is too visible in the Redo stage 4, my last post. I want him to blend into the landscape like a shadow, camouflaged the way they actually appear in nature. So I repainted the water behind the wolf figure, darkening it with lots of small dots until the animal blended into the landscape, the light colored legs cause the viewer to refocus to discern the shape of a wolf. I think this works better and I’m inclined to say it is finally finished. Some paintings are a challenge, this one has been from the beginning. It has been a fun challenge though, and I’m happy with the results.
- This article was originally written for Gail Niebrugge's website in 2009, then posted to "Milepost 43," a blog for Denali's Artist-in-Residence program edited by Timothy Rains.
- Explore Gail Niebrugge's entry in Denali's Artist-in-Residence Catalog.