“Elephant Seals, Piedras Blancas” Step-by-Step

“Elephant Seals, Piedras Blancas” oil 8×10″

“Elephant Seals, Piedras Blancas” is currently in “Magnificent Migrations: A Journey Through Central California” a joint exhibition of the California Art Club and the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History.

I haven’t shared a step-by-step for awhile, so I documented the stages of this one more than I usually do. Below is the scene…hundreds of elephant seals hauled out on the beach, some just conked out in the warm sun, others getting into tiffs of one kind or another. We saw them on a trip back from Southern California in May, 2007. Piedras Blancas is located just north of San Simeon, home of Hearst Castle.

When I started looking through my reference I wanted strong shapes that would lend themselves to an abstract design, interesting heads and expressions and color variety. I finally settled on this one:

The next step was to do a drawing to set the composition and value pattern.

I scanned the drawing and then projected it onto a 8×10″ RayMar canvasboard panel which I’d precoated with a raw sienna tone. It doesn’t show up in the photo because the drawing was on white paper.

I restated the drawing with a round brush, paying particular attention to the features.

I used a “dirty” purple tone to lay in the shadow shapes that would be a relative warm that the cooler shadow color would go over.

Here’s the palette I used for the painting, a very limited one, but it worked well. There’s titanium white, ultramarine blue, raw sienna, Payne’s gray, …., raw umber, all Winsor Newton and Rembrandt Cold Gray and Transparent Oxide Red. So I have my warm and cool colors and primaries (the blue, raw sienna and oxide red), just going more toward earth tones than crayon colors.

The second pass covers the entire canvas. Loose and ugly at this stage. It is not at all unusual for a painting to seemingly fall apart and look really bad, but experience teaches one that if the artist has a clear vision of where they want to end up, then the painting will come out the other side just fine.

Then it’s a matter of refining the shapes, their colors and getting the value relationships right. One change I made between the one above and the one below was to add the tail flippers from a seal in another location to the lower left corner. It felt like something was missing and that the viewer’s eye might easily exit the painting there. And it added a third (uneven number) point of interest besides the heads.

All the cool tones are in and the darkest dark areas mostly established. And, once again, below is the finished painting, warmer than the reference photo with the emphasis where I wanted it, on those two faces with the interesting markings. I also liked the grey and greenish tones of the seal body on the far left. Notice also that between the step above and the finished piece below I removed the two front flippers at the top. Not interesting and visually distracting.

“Elephant Seals, Piedras Blancas” is available for purchase. Price on request. Please message me and I’ll put you in touch with the museum.

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