One of my favorite things to photograph is rust. Rusty locks, rusty tractors, gates, trucks, chains, railroad lanterns…if I can find it, I’m probably going to take a picture of it. And when I take those photos, I’m always composing them with a future painting in mind.

That was the case with this gate and lock. Besides the rust, wear and general patina, I was captivated by the bright colors. Not wanting to create drab, brown, dirty rust paintings, this felt like a great candidate for a vibrant image.

Normally I would wet the entire paper, staple it to a board and tape the edges. This helps keep the paper from buckling while you work. Having just attended Carol Carter’s demo, where she said she likes to leave the paper loose to expand & contract naturally with the water, I decided to give that approach a try.

first washes in

At this stage, each surface of the gate had been wet with clear water, and the color dropped in to merge and mingle. As washes began to dry, more concentrated pigment was placed to create some of the “dirt.” I knew I wanted the lock to be brighter and look shinier, so I wanted to establish the background elements first.

starting lock

With the gate pretty well finished, it was time to start on the lock. This gives a really good idea of the section-by-section approach. The vertical portion of the lock was first, and then the blue base. By the time the base was finished, the vertical section had dried enough to start the flat top.

just needs details

The very bottom of the painting was a bit of a challenge. The reference photo had a board that featured peeling paint and lots of distressing. Beautiful, but too busy and distracted from the lock. Wanting some depth and color, I put in a wash of cadmium orange, french ultramarine and shadow violet. Now to let it all dry so details could be added…

curve detail

The focal point of the painting, and the title, is the stamped-in “HARDENED.” I love how the rust had started creeping into the letters, partially obscuring the shape of each, and nearly making the word unreadable.


Finished – 15″ x 22″. The board at the bottom of the gate has been simplified to look like unfinished wood that has weathered. The goal throughout the process was to create a vibrant, interesting portrait of something most would find mundane, if it was noticed at all…

Igniting the spark

The artistic fire is a strange beast. In some, it burns hot, demanding that the artist creates every day. In  others, it flares once, brilliantly, then burns itself out.

My fire is an inconsistent creature. The embers are always smoldering, so I’ll find myself considering the color palettes of scenes flashing by the car window, or rolling painting ideas around in my head. I’ve spent the last two months at smolder, with no flame creating the urge to paint.

Sketches from the fair

In the last two weeks, that all changed. So what sparked the flame? Color. I’ve been sketching in pencil all summer, and was ready to move past that. So on a hot day at the state fair, I pulled out the watercolor pencils and brought a couple of 20 minute sketches to life.

Horse portrait in sketchbook

That lead to a studio session where I could explore the pencils some more – I’ll probably do an entire blog post on that! It was interesting to see how the layered drawing of the horse, left, came to life with the addition of water, right.

Renee and Carol

Then I went to Carol Carter’s demo at the Daniel Smith store. I’ve long been a fan of her non-traditional use of color and the way she uses “blooms” to her advantage. Watching the way she handled water and pigment, the urge to head for the studio began to grow.


The next day, out & about with my husband, I started noticing the way manmade objects interacted with the sky, and my mind started racing with ideas and approaches. Within 15 miles, I had an entire series of paintings mapped out. Spark lit.

Study in blue

Of course time and daily life dictates studio access, so my brain ping-ponged around creative ideas and settled back on color (for now). This little study is just 2.5″ x 3.5″ and was done entirely with blue and purple paints (and a touch of white pen).

Detail of horse portrait in progress

By Friday night, the creative fire was burning brightly, and I couldn’t wait to get into the studio and play with color and technique! While painting two very different subjects – a cranky horse and a rusty lock – the focus is on color, and allowing pigments to mix and mingle with limited interference…

Four feet

Mingling colors