Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Alice’s Waterfall


8/25/22 Alice's Waterfall (8"x10"; Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelles and Neocolor IIs on Canson XL 140 lb. paper)

Alice, the friend and neighbor who spoils us with her garden’s produce every summer, asked me to do a commission. After a major home remodel, she wanted to fill her diningroom with art made by friends, and she asked if I’d like to sketch her backyard. Knowing how beautiful it is, of course, I accepted. Subject matter was up to me, but she had made a few suggestions that she thought might interest me, such as the waterfall surrounded by trees and foliage. Yes, there’s an actual waterfall flowing from the upper level of her yard to the lower.

On the warm morning when I visited to make the sketch, the deeply shaded waterfall was a cool oasis (a mood that I wanted to evoke). Walking around the whole yard taking photos, I had to agree that the waterfall and the yellow sumac in front of it were irresistible.  

A hasty thumbnail that doesn't
identify values.

While I worked for about an hour, that side of the yard remained mostly in shade. Although I liked the composition I had found, I was having trouble with the values (note that although I had made a thumbnail, I didn’t use it to identify the values – only the shapes!). Uncertain about using my primary triad colors for the dark rocks around the waterfall, I pulled out Payne’s Grey – and regretted it almost immediately. I also realized very late in the game that even though I had come prepared with a 9-by-12-inch pad, my sketch was only about 6-by-7 inches. I’m so used to working in a sketchbook no larger than A5 that I forgot to work larger!

My intention was to finish on site that morning, but the time I had allowed myself was running out. Just as I was feeling frustrated and unhappy that the drawing wasn’t going well, the sun came around the bend, and the sumac exploded with brilliant yellow. (I have heard experienced plein air painters say that they visit a site as many as three times before they make a painting so that they can see when the best light will hit their subject. Noted.) After taking several photos, I told Alice I would finish at home.

Frowning every time I looked at it, I hemmed and hawed over the sketch for a couple of days. I intended to fix the values (and maybe somehow color over that Payne’s Grey), but I was also dismayed with the waterfall – supposedly the subject of my sketch – which was barely visible. And what about those ridiculous dimensions? She’d have to get a custom frame for something like that. Pffft! There was no saving it; I decided to start over.

Sketch made on site that ended up being my color study.

Although I had plenty of photos I could use, I knew the sketch I’d already made was the best reference: Instead of a sketch that needed fixing, it had become a color study. Ideally, I should have done the studying with quick thumbnails, but I was pleased that the first sketch had provided enough information that I didn’t have to rely on photos (which do not show the waterfall or any other details in the darkness at all). Since I’d done most of the thinking in the initial sketch, the final drawing took less time than it had.

This time I actually measured and marked off an 8-by-10 space on the paper that could be easily framed (duh). I didn’t even have to enlarge the drawing much: My main changes in the composition were to show more of the illuminated sumac and to exaggerate the waterfall so that it would be visible.

The first sketch was done with my usual Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles. Now that I was working larger, though, I began with the Museum Aquarelles and eventually switched to Cd’A Neocolor IIs in the same three colors: Phthalocyanine Blue (162), Purplish Red (350) and Yellow (010) (this summer’s final CMYK primary triad). The Neocolor II crayons pack a heavy punch of pigment very quickly, and I love how their softness shows the paper’s texture.

Happy that I had started over instead of trying to “fix” problems, I learned many things about how a commission is different from a sketch in my own sketchbook:

  • I need to make thumbnails that identify the shapes and the values. (Duh – hello? Was I not paying attention during my whole 30-day composition challenge?)
  • When I’m making a piece that will be framed, I must think about and plan for the finished size – not something random that would be expensive to frame.
  • If a result is important (that is, something I’m going to present to someone instead of simply turning the page in my sketchbook), I need to be familiar with the light and be on location during optimal conditions.  
  • I am relieved that I don’t do commissions for a living.


  1. This came out really nice. I love the colors and light in it. Doing a commission isn't an easy thing to do. I think starting over was smart. I've done a few house commissions and I try to work in standard sizes that can be framed easily, and I'd prefer to work on location if possible, or at least see the subject myself and take a few photos. I have a house commission that I'm going to start working on soon. It is a surprise gift for someone so I can only visit the property when I don't see the car in the driveway. I will probably have to work from photos. I may do a thumbnail or a small sketch of it first.

    1. Wow, that's tough if you are trying to keep it a surprise! Good luck and have fun!

  2. I love the way your final turned out! There's a real sense of light and depth with the varied hues of the trees in both images. It's interesting to hear your thoughts on commissions, too. I often discard "failed" subjects--if there's an aspect of them I couldn't "solve", I try to approach it from another mental angle with a different subject--but you made something very nice by working through it here. Food for thought!

    1. Thank you for your comments, Lee! I've certainly done my share of abandoning sketches that weren't working out, but I was determined to make this work because I really wanted to make it for my friend. I'm glad I pushed through!


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