Lisa Grossman: River Demonstration in Oil

“Prairies lack the obvious grandeur of mountain ranges, red-rock canyons or the ocean,”  says Lisa Grossman, who was featured in the July/August 2011 issue of The Artist’s Magazine. “It’s a more subtle beauty that comes to some slowly, but it’s undeniably powerful.” Grossman was inspired by the tallgrass prairie of the Flint Hills. The contrast between the dense, rugged topography of the Connoquenessing Watershed she had left behind and the prairie’s low horizon and wide-open spaces inspired in her an exhilarating sensation of freedom. Grossman was moved by the quiet drama of the windswept prairie. Read on for a demonstration of her oil painting, Sinuous (below).

A River Runs Through the Studio

by Lisa Grossman

Sinuous (oil, 36X72)

On a flight over the Kaw (the Kansas River), I might take hundreds of digital shots. Then, when I’m ready to paint, I usually go straight for the images that reveal a magnificent series of bends and the high contrast of the bright river in a darkened land. The particular area of the river, near De Soto, Kansas, that I selected for Sinuous is one I return to again and again for its gorgeous, serpentine curves that naturally create a sense of distance and a compelling composition.


Reference photograph

1. Learn the Lay of the Land

When I choose a photo to work with, I study my river maps, as well, in order to understand the lay of the land and consider why the bends might have evolved as they have. I also love painting sections of the river that I’ve paddled so that I’ve experienced the river from several angles and know that the resulting painting will contain a deeper expression of place.


2.Work Out the Composition

For large river works like these, I may project one of my aerial shots of the river onto a toned canvas (usually an orangish or reddish wash), to work out the composition. Using loose acrylic washes, I then quickly rough in the major shapes and sweep of the river. Because I often work on several paintings at once, I move them around a lot, which is why Sinuous is on the floor in this picture.


3. Create a Solid Structure

After the acrylic underpainting dries, I move to oils and work out the painting, starting with areas of highest contrast and color. Though I’m in the studio, I try to maintain the freshness and energy of my plein air painting style with spontaneous brushwork. I pay careful attention to creating a solid structure—a believable river embedded in and carving its way through a relatively flat terrain. I also pay attention to creating a sense of distance with atmospheric perspective, which I achieve in part with blues and softened brushwork.


4. Take Artistic Liberties

I wanted Sinuous to express the searing light reflecting off multiple bends of the river. I saw just a glimpse of this effect while passing over the river in the plane, but the sight was an unforgettable one. This finished painting is fairly faithful to the way the river appears in my reference photo, but I did take artistic liberties in shifting the color, adjusting the contrast and simplifying the overall appearance of the scene.

To read more about Lisa Grossman and her artistic approach, see the July/August 2011 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.

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