How my paintings begin…

Although early March seems soon to be saying this, the snow is rapidly melting. Now that doesn’t mean we won’t get another dump of snow before Spring proper arrives (I’d be surprised if we didn’t) but, just in case, I spent some time last week taking lots of reference photos for my ‘candles in the forest’ paintings. That wonderful blue in the background comes from the snow at the perfect time, so once the snow is gone there’s no more photo references until next winter!

I thought you might be interested to read about how I go about getting these references, as the paintings are, to a degree, created at this stage.

We live on a 2.3 acre property that is mostly young pine woodland. We’ve cleared an area in the middle, and done a lot of tidying, so that it’s fairly easy to walk around.

My photography method consists of 3 stages:

First – stage the scene. Before the sun starts to set, I’ll load up a box with however many candle jars/lanterns/lamps I want to photograph, and choose one area of the woods to work in. I’ll spend a while wandering around, looking for trees that have good branches for hanging lanterns on, and which also have good backgrounds (not too empty, not too cluttered). I then hang up all the lanterns and spend a bit of time memorising where they are and how many there are! I then go back inside and wait for the sun to start setting….

Second – light the lanterns! When it starts to get dusky I go back out and light all the lanterns and candles. Sometimes they are all quite close together (as in the photo above) and sometimes they’re a bit more spread out. This part is fun, although if it’s really cold it’s less fun because you just can’t strike matches and stick them into narrow glass jars with gloves on…

Third – photograph! This is the tricky part. There’s a point when it’s too light (like the photo above), even after the sun has set. But, all of a sudden, the light is perfect. I believe it’s called the blue hour, but the problem is it definitely doesn’t last an hour when you’re taking photographs! As far as the camera is concerned I would say there is about 15mins of perfect light, with maybe 5-10mins either side where you can get away with a bit too much light, and a bit too little. So generally what this means is I rush about, from light to light, taking photos from different positions and angles. I just try to take as many as I can while the light is right. And then, just as quickly, it’s too dark. There’s no twilight blue any more, only black. So I put out all the candles, pack up, and head back to the house; usually keeping the oil lamp lit to make sure I can see where I’m going!

While a bit frantic, this is usually quite fun, and I don’t even mind being in the woods as it gets dark. Well, until the other day. I’d been out choosing the spot to take pictures when I came across some tracks – coyote. It was only one set of tracks, but it looked fairly fresh. Now I’m from Scotland, where the largest predator you might encounter is a fox, and I can’t get my head around the fact there are coyotes, bears, even bobcats (maybe even bigger cats?) in Nova Scotia, never mind the potential for them being in our ‘garden’.

I went out that night, and happily took photos, but as it got dark I started to hear dogs barking in the distance. Probably our neighbours, right? I keep taking photos – there’s still blue! Then the dog noises turn more to yips, which is more of a coyote noise. They’re not close at all, but I start to get a bit twitchy, and manage about 5 more minutes before it really starts to get quite dark and I start to get quite uncomfortable!

I packed up very quickly and walked very briskly back to the house. It’s likely there was nothing to worry about, but it was a little unnerving! At least I have a huge amount of reference photos to work from now 🙂

2 thoughts on “How my paintings begin…”

  1. Mission accomplished, Isobel! What a tale. Better you than me, my friend. I am a dog lover through and through, but the rangey-ness, unpredictability, and desperation of coyotes rather scares me! The franticness of staging the reference photos, coupled with the threat of coyotes nearby, balance out the stillness and tranquility of the “candles in the forest” paintings.

    1. I think this is where my naivety shows… back in Scotland I would only get freaked out when out at night by imagining things that weren’t there! I’m not remotely used to the possibility there are predatory animals outside. I’m a cat person rather than a dog person so even the idea of coyotes is scary, but I suppose despite the prints I couldn’t quite believe there was the chance I’d encounter one. Plus I really wanted to get the photos! 🙂

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