Above was my award-winning painting from the San Clemente show two months ago. This 11x14 plein air scene, “Crystal Rocks,” was painted down at Crystal Cove beach in Laguna in the late afternoon. I love the great atmosphere that can pick up at this time of day. And if you hit a low tide too, the rocks can give you wonderful compositional choices.
The challenge for me is trying to capture the shear depth of the beach and bluffs. I love the golden haze, but it’s usually not that hazy in actuality. Value stepping and edge work becomes critical here. Making sure I get the right amount of hard to soft balances and utilizing a full value scale can make or break the illusion of distance. I started with a pencil map of where I wanted my rocks placed. In reality, they were pretty much as shown, but actual size, shape, distances between and whether they overlap were all adjusted slightly. I did this to eliminate repetitive shapes but also to create visual contrasts. For instance, the closest large rock on the left was enlarged so I could create the top white highlight and have it contrast with the dark rock behind it. Also, the second rock was raised a bit so the small wave behind it was visually “broken” and I could further contrast the whitewash with the right side of the rock. This gave me some nice focal points, plus created a sweeping arc that leads your eye up to the main splash on the rocks behind.
In the painting process, once I established my values in the foreground rocks, I made sure to make the mid-ground rocks lighter, and the far bluff even lighter than that. These conditions existed, but I pushed the values to create greater depth in the painting. Ditto for the sand and water. With the far bluff, I began on the right side, established a value I felt appropriate, and then gradually lightened it as I proceeded to the left and most distant part of the scene. The structures were painted as shadow and highlighted sides to suggest buildings but not drawing your eye there directly. I added the slightly darker cloud shapes in the upper left to force your eye back in the painting and lastly a handful of figures to complete the story.
Even in plein air, I find you need to adjust everything a bit to make a painting sing. Enjoy!