I can’t remember the last time I picked up a paint brush to create something I found inspiring. It’s been too many years, that’s for sure. After a few years of creating technical illustrations of my observations, I’ve really gotten the urge to do something a bit more creative here and there. I used to paint with watercolor, but the thought of doing night-sky paintings with that medium sounded too much like hard work to me. I’ve never taken the time to practice and learn oil or acrylic painting until now. So I started doing some research and last month I picked up some tubes of acrylic paint, a couple brushes I could dedicate to it, some priming gesso, and some parchment paper & tupperware containers to make stay-wet palettes. Then last week, I picked up a few 12″ x 16″ pre-primed canvas boards (not framed canvas–yet).
Saturday night, I went to work on a painting of Orion, the Hyades, and the Winter Milky Way rising at Cinder Hills Overlook. It’s based on a photo I shot from that spot about three years ago. I had re-worked that photo earlier last week too, and was feeling a groove getting started. Wow it felt great to whisk paint across that canvas. I was curious to see how well I could balance keeping the field ‘loose’ while still portraying a reasonably faithful star field.
So, for my first canvas acrylic astro painting, I learned a few things right away. Here is what I did, and what I figured out along the way.
- I’m going to have to learn to put away feelings of stinginess with the paint when applying the background for the sky. When I laid down my first layer, I thought I could progressively dilute a modest amount of paint with water as I went down the canvas, in an attempt to create a skyglow gradient. That went horribly 🙂 So I let that splotchy mess dry, and came back in with another layer. This time I gooshed out a nice pile of Ivory Black and Phthalo Blue, mixed it up for maximum creaminess, and then gradually added white as I went down. This time the paint went on wonderfully…I think ‘delicious’ is a word I could use to describe the feeling of brushing it on and watching the gradient and brush strokes take shape.
- Then, using the same level of lightness as the skyglow at the bottom of the painting, I loosely brushed in the clumpy haze of the Milky Way. I really had the urge to incorporate the patches of dark nebulosity in all the right places. However, I quickly realized that if I tried to do that, the Milky Way would look stiff and overly-artificial. So I kept it loose and impressionistic.
- While that base layer dried, I used a small round brush, and a mix of paint slightly lighter than the Milky way to dab in the framework stars. I referred to the photo as it was displayed on my computer screen to position the stars. I used basically the same process I do when sketching: comparing angles, distances and magnitudes. I didn’t get crazy with making this absolutely precise. I wanted it to be faithful to this swath of sky, without becoming a technical reproduction.
- Then came the scary part. Sprinkling in the explosion of faint field stars that help make dark sky views so captivating. I found an old-style toothbrush (not one of the new-fangled ones with the big rod of bristles at the tip). Then I loaded it with white paint and practiced using a palette knife to sprinkle it on some newspaper. I messed with the consistency a bit and then I went for it on the actual painting. This was just a little bit stressful. Toothbrush sprinkling is not meant for the control freak. But I know it can be guided. I think I did fairly well increasing the density of the spray across the Milky Way portion, but I unintentionally put a heavier density across the center and upper right portion. Oh well. I did notice that pure white was not the best choice for these field stars. It’s too overwhelming. Next time, I’ll use a medium gray or blue.
- Next I went in and brightened up the key stars I had hinted in earlier. Adding the orange stars really did it for me and I felt it conveyed the scene the way I had hoped. I ‘haloed’ the brightest stars with medium blue and medium orange, and then plotted varying sizes of white in the center to hopefully convey both brilliance and color at the same time. I do need to pay attention to where I’m going to add my foreground so that I can subdue the brightness of the stars closer to the horizon. The stars in the painting are too crisp and bright that far down.
- Last to be added was the foreground. And here is where I fell down: Trees. I thought the two trees I wanted to add would be simple. But I couldn’t get the paint consistency and brush behavior to do what I wanted. The branches kept coming out too thick and fake looking. So I ended up adding much more foliage to them than I wanted, just so I could hide the stupid branches. I definitely need to practice with trunk, branch & foliage painting so I can get a feel for it. I also think that using a palette knife or a rubber color-pusher on the branches might give me more delicate, angular lines. I also just need to study Ponderosa, Piñon, and Juniper pines like I would one of my deep sky observations so I can learn their peculiarities.
- Oh man. Then there’s the border taping fiasco. I always liked the look of a white margin around my watercolor paintings after lifting the tape from their edges. So I had applied watercolor tape to the edges of the canvas board to get the same effect. HUGE mistake. The moistened glue interacted with the pre-primed surface and cemented the tape in place. I had to put a lot of effort into wedging a wetted paintbrush beneath the edges of the tape and gradually peeling it away and then using an Xacto knife and water to lift away the stubborn bits. Never again.
- Oh yeah. I’m not used to signing my name with acrylic and a paint brush. So, kind of a little grade school touch there.
So that’s it for my first astro painting. I hope to apply my observing experiences do more of them as I get the chance. Below is the photo on which I based the painting: