Above – on location at South Mountain Reservation, Essex County, NJ

I started this painting on location in November 2011, setting up on a favorite foot bridge at South Mountain Reservation. This was shortly after Hurricane Irene and another tropical storm and the reservation had seen its share of fallen trees, including the stump featured here (I painted this scene once before from a different vintage point. See “Summer Cool” in a 2016 blog post).

The foot bridge is quite wide and setting up by the stone wall did not interfere with foot traffic however that specific morning rangers were frequenting the trails on wheels and crossed the foot bridge several times, barely clearing the side stone walls. I moved my setup off the bridge twice to allow them to pass and still managed to sketch the scene, lay in an underpainting of local color, mark few details and take reference photographs. A pair of mallards stayed around for a while and I took photographs to add them later. At one point the reflection under the trees on left turned shimmering yellow and I incorporated that, reminded of a rare moment I witnessed once when the whole scene turned to gold (See my website’s NJ gallery). After several other interruptions I cut my painting session short and left the rest for a future studio “project”.

Fall Morning on the Rahway  - en plein air study
Starting point: Plein air state

 I finally picked up the painting last year, starting by selecting and processing few reference photographs from that morning.

reference photograph

With light bouncing all around in a late sunny autumn morning the foliage in my reference photographs was too “flat” and lacked information on form, texture and detail. I turned to additional reference photographs from other seasons taken on overcast days, mainly to be able to tell what I am looking at. 

Additional reference photograph

Step 1:

Now, how do I begin?

I started by adding color all over. I grayed down the far background, adding some detail notes and establishing lighter tones far center; I reinforced the left bank and added color to the ground on left; I noticed some yellow greens peeking through the front foliage on left and scribbled those in; I layered in green foliage to the front tree on right and darkened the negative shape around it (the leaves on this tree always turn color last); I added color to tree stumps and tested few sticks for foliage and reflections. I sketched in the male mallard under the fallen stump and marked the placement of the female.

Fall Morning on the Rahway River, WIP
Stage I: Initial layers. Adding color all over

Step 2:

I added more texture to tree trunks; Added darks on land and in water, shaping some of the reflections; Added several missing tree trunk reflections and adjusted the shape of the fallen stump.

At this point I took another long break and tended to other projects.


b2_450_FallMorning_Rahway_2017-09-27N 035_cL
Stage II: adding darks

Step 3:

I resumed the work earlier this year, after setting up a new pastel studio. I added cooler green foliage undertone to the tree on right; Added some yellow background foliage on left, some of which would later be covered by foreground foliage. I widened the base of the third trunk from left and added some foliage to the top of the leaning tree on right (in the reference photo it was higher up); I layered color and light in the water, building up reflections. Added light to rocks, tree trunks, branches and stump; I detailed both mallards, added water ripples around them and a small branch framing the female on right;

(Note: I started using my cellphone more often to record and monitor the painting progress in between sessions, taking fewer “proper” progression shots with my better camera, hence the color and detail variations showing here.)


Stage III: Light and detail (cellphone image)

Step 4:

I added more foliage to the far background and along the top frame and reflected these hues in the water further back. I added texture to tree trunks and light on the fallen stump; I added brighter foliage to foreground trees on both sides and reflected those as well.

I worked on the foreground branches on left, adding color, then subtracting and blurring it a little by using a fan brush and following the contour of the foliage, then adding more color on top. I left some of those brush marks intact, showing the “painter’s hand” (zoom in on my website).

I worked some more on the water, at times allowing myself few daring color choices, for example at bottom right and below lower branches on left.

I stopped to review and while I liked the foliage along the center top frame I felt it lacked depth and blocked the eye from traveling further back.

At this point the painting started looking closer to the finished product I was aiming for.

Stage IV: more foreground detail

Step 5:

I reestablished and adjusted smaller branches; Removed some layers in the center top “triangle”, where diagonal trunks meet, replaced it with lighter and less saturated hues and reflected those in the water. I also added few smaller branches and new foliage, aiming to leave open passages and struggling with it a bit. I marked some trees in the far bank, now that the eye could travel there.

I worked some more on the green tree foliage, the negative space around it and its trunk, separating the tree from its surroundings and suggesting a midground bank. I added a small rock in the water in front of it to offset the multiple rocks on left and added rock reflections to the latter.

I adjusted and shaped the sky reflection along the bottom, softening some reflections and graying down others. I pulled down some reflections under the fallen trunk to separate and vary the circular ripples. I toned down the head plumage on the male mallard. On the left I allowed few grayed sky reflection and ripples to move deeper into the picture plane, softening and covering some trunk reflections for a less symmetric and busy look.

I built up more layers into tree trunks, creating form and passages of light and shadows and simplified the small branch framing the female mallard.

I felt ready to move on to the next and final phase and signed the painting. I knew it was not really “Done”. It was more of a mental note, signifying the beginning of the final review and tweaking phase, which by itself can be quite intensive at times.


Stage V: Final layers and adjustments (cellphone)

Step 6:

I put the painting aside for about a week and reviewed it again. Looking at it with fresh eyes I realized immediately that I “missed the mark” on that top triangle, blocking it once more. I shortened and removed some foliage, deliberately blurred other and added lighter lights far back.

As I stepped back to review the changes a strong orange diagonal in the water demanded my attention and I took a closer look, wondering where it came from. A smear? An unintentional stroke? No, it was more of an imaginary line. Inspection of earlier stages revealed it was there from the very beginning, I just didn’t notice it until now and the strong light on top made it more apparent. I took careful measures to mitigate the situation.

Stage VI: reworking problem areas (cellphone)

Step 7:

I worked on the front trunks some more. I paid closer attention to the bottom frame and softened the area where two diagonal tree reflections met, making one less dominant. I retouched the mallards some more.

During the following weeks I alternated between reviewing, scrutinizing and carefully tweaking almost daily. I often set across from my easel, reviewing the painting from a distance and in different orientations. I used a red cellophane and a mirror, inspected edges closely with a magnifying glass (who does that?), cleaning up and enjoying some surprisingly beautiful closeups (the “macro” photographer in me?). I zoomed into digital snapshots and inspected their black and white versions. I occasionally referred to the original photographs, printed large, comparing the general structure (I never really copied it during the painting process). I sneaked up on my painting time and again, revealing some pleasing passages as well as others that needed to be made “easier on the eye”. At times I took immediate and careful action. Other times I waited a day or two on purpose to verify a change was truly needed, vowing each time it would be the “last retouch”. “Let it be, step away”, I heard my inner voice. Finally, after several rounds, I was done. I waited few more days and let it go, photographing and framing the piece.


Fall Morning on the Rahway
Stage VII: final review and tweaking – the finished painting

Fall Morning on the Rahway   pastel on Wallis Belgian Mist, 11.5×16
(See larger image on my website, www.MichalBarkai.com)

Final notes:

I used a variety of pastels during the painting process, starting with harder brands like Girault and Art Spectrum, and continuing with softer ones such as Unison, Sennelier, Great American, Terry Ludvig and Schminke.

In all this turned out to be quite a labor-intensive painting, much more so than the earlier “Summer Cool”, for example. Not sure why. Perhaps it was the shorter time spent on location and lack of detail in the reference photographs, which forced me to follow my creative instincts more and make my own decisions. Or perhaps it was the larger body of water and more complex and detailed reflections. At the end, each painting is unique and presents its own set of challenges. You learn from each one and apply it forward.