Anatomy Of A Painting

Orchard Overlook, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 60x48

Orchard Overlook, oil on canvas, 60×48

“ORCHARD OVERLOOK” was a long time in the making, well over a year. It was my initial attempt at a canvas this large — four feet by five feet — and it represents the culmination of my first effort to paint not just individual trees, but an entire orchard.

As I began, I planned to include both realistic and abstract elements in the painting, as I often do, to approximate not just the orchard’s appearance, but its meaning, its emotional impact, and how it resonates over time.

Many of New England’s orchards are planted on slopes and hillsides, often opening to majestic views, but I began to paint without a particular orchard in mind.

Orchard Study I, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 20x16

Orchard Study I, oil on canvas, 20×16

I had been quite taken by the view at New Salem Preserves, though, a small, well-maintained orchard tucked away in the tiny Massachusetts town of the same name. Its graceful apple trees recede in symmetrical rows toward the distant Quabbin Reservoir, a corner of which can be seen when standing on the high ground above the orchard.

Orchard Study II, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 20x16

Orchard Study II, oil on canvas, 20×16

Elements of this view are clearly present in two smaller, 20×16 practice paintings I made in 2013. I also experimented with two larger, more abstract representations of trees and the orchard before beginning the large canvas.

After several months, I was finally satisfied with the large 60×48 painting, and posted it with the two smaller paintings just over a year ago, on January 27, 2014: The Orchard (Three Views).

Here is the original 60×48 painting, then titled, “Orchard, November Dawn”:

Orchard, November Dawn, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 60x48

Orchard, November Dawn, oil on canvas, 60×48

I never did post the 30×40 abstract studies, shown here:

Orchard Trial 1, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 30x40

Orchard Trial 1, oil on canvas, 30×40

Orchard Trial 2, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 30x40

Orchard Trial 2, oil on canvas, 30×40


“ORCHARD, NOVEMBER DAWN” sat in my living room, too big to display in its entirety, tucked in along a wall behind a table, but still largely visible whenever I walked by. To my disappointment, the more I saw it the less I liked it. It did not hold up well over time.

Discrete sections of the painting looked fine, with proper proportion and perspective, but the pieces did not come together, were slightly off kilter where scenes intersected, and not by design.

The painting also lacked an obvious focal point — there was no clear place to direct the viewer’s eye. I had failed to synthesize the elements and take full advantage of the large canvas. While the painting had a number of strengths, from its swirling, colorful skies to much of its detail, the sum was less than its parts.

Dissatisfied, late last fall I finally capitulated, and decided to paint over the canvas. If an idea inspired me along the way, I would change the nature of the painting. If not, I would simply cover the whole thing and start over.

I began using large brushes and big, bold, gestural movements, almost physically attacking the canvas in shades of blue and dark green, experimenting with a variety of brush strokes. This style of painting plays to my strengths, and it is uniquely suited for a large canvas. I had not taken full advantage of this in the original painting.

I had not gotten very far before I saw an evergreen forest emerging, a dramatic foreground covering the initial painting’s flaws with a new, more unified perspective. The orchard is now seen from the vantage point of a neighboring hillside.

I completed the branches and added a few details, and the painting was much improved, to the point that I thought it might be done:

Orchard Overlook (draft I), Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 60x48

Orchard Overlook (draft I), Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 60×48

But as I sat looking at it day after day — now in full view above my fireplace mantel — I had a vision for additional detail, specifically a thick vine on the right side, which would add depth and help frame the central orchard scene.

It worked. The sinuous, textured vine added depth to the foreground, and helped direct the viewer’s eye to the orchard in the painting’s center. The vine’s heft and boldness were just right for this large canvas. Inspired, I added another small vine and the bare branches of a deciduous tree on the left-hand side.

Not yet satisfied, a week later I painted in two smaller vines, a greenish-one draped around the new tree’s branches, and a thicker, yellowish one hanging from the first vine on the right. The painting finally held together, looked right to me. Now it was done, or so I thought:

Orchard Overlook (draft II), Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 60x48

Orchard Overlook (draft II), oil on canvas, 60×48

Upon closer inspection, though, I discovered that the paint on the distant skyline of the original, delineated by a horizontal row of evergreens in front of a series of hills, had contracted slightly over the previous year, revealing slight cracks and tiny, bare seams where the trees ended and the hills began. The paint on the hills was too thin in spots, ill defined in others.

So I revised again, repainting the trees and adding detail to the hills. The final result begins this post, above.

AS I WRITE THIS I consider “Orchard Overlook” finished, a fair aggregation of the many orchards I have visited over the past two decades, an interpretation of how such scenes appear to me, their meaning, and how they make me feel.

Usually I know when a painting is done, but this has been the exception. Given my experience with “Orchard Overlook” to date, I will live with it for some time yet before I am completely convinced.

There is a time to let go, and a risk of weakening a painting by overworking it. Still, for all I know I might be tinkering with this one yet again while it storms this weekend.

0 Replies to “Anatomy Of A Painting”

  1. Thank you for this explanation, Russell, I found it really helpful.I will try and approach my own painting this way–where I step back and live with the painting-that might help my “overworking” and covering up what’s good with something not so good!

  2. Like I’ve said before, Russell, your paintings really are getting more complex and I love how you’ve explained your process with this particular one. The foreground is especially interesting to me; it feels like the branches of the trees are whispering about the scene beyond them. The background is peaceful and still and the foreground is full of movement. I didn’t know the vines were vines, I thought they were ropes tied to the trees for whatever reason. They have an almost sinister aspect, to me, anyway; like something has intruded. Who put the vines there? A metaphysical question.

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