Oil Painting: Ruth L. Beeve: Responding to Chance and Planning Ahead With Water-Soluable Paint

0703beev5_450x300_1While on location at the Forbes Trinchera Ranch, in Colorado, Ruth L. Beeve used watercolor and water-soluble oil to capture a variety of subjects. Back in her California studio, she uses those studies as the basis for more ambitious graphite drawings and oil paintings.      

by M. Stephen Doherty

Flowers Among the Rocks
2006, oil, 24 x 18. All artwork this article collection the artist unless otherwise indicated.

Although Ruth L. Beeve has painted confidently in watercolor for more than 20 years, plein air painting still features plenty of chance and uncertainty for her. “When I’m working quickly to capture the fleeting patterns of light and shadow, I have to accept that some paintings will turn out really well and others won’t,” she explains. “But that’s OK, because there will be enough information in each plein air study to help me recall the moment, and I can use that recollection, along with my photographs, to create studio paintings and drawings.”

Beeve took that approach when capturing the landscape of the Forbes Trinchera Ranch. Working from early morning until the end of the day, she painted under the cottonwood trees, along the dirt roads, up in the canyons, and aloft on the deck of a mountain lodge. By the end of the week she had a large collection of drawings and paintings, as well as hundreds of photographs, that she took back to her studio in Concord, California.

Sorting through the records of her Colorado experience, Beeve made decisions about which images she wanted to develop into larger, more complicated studio pictures in either watercolor or water-soluble oil. “After many years of using just transparent watercolor, I started working with water-soluble oil about six years ago,” the artist explains. “My husband was ill at the time, and I didn’t want to use solvents that might bother him. I had painted with solvent-based oil many years before and enjoyed them, but, given the circumstances, using water-soluble oil seemed like the best way for me to get back into working with a thicker, more opaque paint.

Below Columbine at 10,000
2004, watercolor, 15 x 21.

“I love having the freedom to develop an idea with either watercolor or oil, and I have two separate work stations in my studio that both have an easel and painting supplies,” Beeve continues. “I can look at a scene and decide to develop the subject in one medium or the other. For example, I have a very successful technique for painting wildflowers with watercolor, but I haven’t yet figured out how to achieve the same textures with oil. I’ve been experimenting with a palette knife to create special effects with the oil, but I’m still trying to simulate what comes easily with watercolor.

“Obviously there is a difference in thought process when using the transparent or the opaque media,” Beeve says. “I prefer the traditional method of preserving the white of the watercolor paper and gradually building layers of darker and more opaque layers of watercolor paint, but with the water-soluble oil I follow a reverse procedure of building from dark to light values. I use several different brands of oil, but I usually use Winsor & Newton’s Artisan mediums to thin the paint or to increase the amount of gloss in the finished painting. In my experience, the water-soluble oil dries at about the same rate as traditional oil, depending on the thickness of the paint and the relative humidity in the working environment.

Cathedral Canyon
2006, oil, 24 x 18.

“I work with the oils wet-in-wet when I want to blend colors and soften edges—for instance, in a sky,” Beeve explains. “But when I want to paint sharp details, hard edges, or intensely dark values, I wait until the initial layers of oil are dry to apply additional layers with smaller brushes. I usually start with a thin, monochromatic drawing of the subject made with either a warm burnt sienna or a cool blue-gray. Then I build up layers of oil but allow some of the underlying drawing to show through. I start with a thin drawing so I can resolve the composition and not have to make major changes later in the painting process. It’s possible to scrape or wipe off paint to adjust the image, but I prefer to avoid that if possible because the colors can get muddy if they are overworked on the canvas.”

To create a studio oil painting based on her watercolor painting of a grove of Colorado aspen trees, Beeve made a drawing with graphite on paper before starting to work on canvas. “I intended to change the horizontal watercolor into a vertical oil painting, and I wanted to spend time differentiating one aspen from another,” Beeve describes. “Each tree species has its own appearance, and the local environment affects the way they grow, so I try to be sensitive to those differences. I might lean trees in one direction or another, and I will articulate the shapes and direction of the branches. I try to divine the character of the trees in the drawing before I begin working with color.”

Aspen No. 5
1997, watercolor,
28 x 20.

After completing the preliminary drawing, Beeve redrew the major lines with a thin mixture of burnt sienna and used thicker brushstrokes to apply water-soluble oil to the background and the strong dark shadow forms. “I punched in the darks in the trees along the top of the painting and brought the lights down from the purple color in the sky to establish the sense of mist in the atmosphere,” the artist explains. “The background in the watercolor sketch was predominantly brown, but I didn’t like that as much as the purple hue I noticed in photographs I took on the ranch. I shifted the oil colors toward that bluish purple.”

When Beeve began to develop a studio oil painting from her watercolor paintings of the rock canyon in the Trinchera Ranch, she relied more on photographs than watercolor sketches. “We traveled up a rocky road to get into the canyon and, just as I had my easel set up and my palette prepared, it started to rain,” Beeve remembers. “There was a momentary stream of light, so I took a lot of photographs, knowing I would never be able to complete a decent watercolor with the rain increasing.

Aspens in the Rain
2006, oil, 18 x 24.

“When I was back in my California studio, I relied on the photographs to sketch the scene directly on the canvas using a warm, reddish brown that defined the outlines of the basic shapes,” Beeve continues. “I then filled in the masses, put the photographs aside, and changed the scene based on what I thought would best convey my memory of the location. I titled the painting Cathedral Canyon. I really enjoyed articulating the rocks in this painting because rocks have always been among my favorite painting subjects. My mother was a bit of a rock hound, and I still have some of the ones she collected.”

Beeve used a slightly different technique to create a studio painting based on a small oil study of cottonwood trees. Because she wanted a broad, uninterrupted expanse of sky behind the trees, she painted the upper portion of the canvas first with water-soluble oils mixed with Winsor & Newton Artisan fast-drying medium, waited a day for that to dry, and then superimposed the trees over the clouds and sky. “I wanted to have a sense of movement in the sky, so I needed to paint it first with a wet-in-wet technique,” she explains. “Then I used a smaller brush and thicker mixtures of paint to place the cottonwood trees in the foreground.”

Small Meadow
2006, oil, 14 x 11.

The paintings Beeve created in response to her experiences in Colorado are typical of the landscapes she paints near her home in California—especially in the high country of the Sierra Nevada mountains—and during trips around the country. Inspired by the versatility she’s enjoyed in developing pictures either in watercolor or water-soluble oil, she plans to further expand the variety of painting media in which she works. “I’ve taken several workshops with Stephen Quiller and have watched him work with casein, and I’m planning to try my hand at using those water-soluble paints,” she says. “I like discovering and employing the unique characteristics of water-soluble paints for different types of subjects.”

About the Artist
Ruth L. Beeve studied art at the University of California, Berkeley; Ohlone College, in Fremont, California; Pacific Union College, in Angwin, California; and in numerous workshops with Dale Laitinen, Robert Reynolds, and Stephen Quiller. She is a signature member of the California Watercolor Association and exhibits her paintings in California with Valley Art Gallery, in Walnut Creek; Pacific Wildlife Galleries, in Lafayette; and Gallery Concord, in Concord. She maintains a studio in Concord, California.

M. Stephen Doherty is the editor-in-chief of American Artist.

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