The reference photo for this painting was a quick, drive-by snapshot of a great blue heron at Hanna Park Lake here in Jacksonville, Florida. As I studied that photo and others taken that day of the heron, the lake, and the surrounding trees, I knew that I could base a painting on them. But, just how should I compose the painting? Unlike some scenes, the focal point in this one chose itself. In spite of the appeal of dark, shimmering water, tall palm trunks, and jungle-like vegetation, the heron clearly draws the eye of the viewer. I felt certain, in fact, that the heron itself knew that he (or possibly she) had no competition for the starring role in this little tableau.
In preliminary sketches, the main issues I worked on concerned how to arrange the elements--how much yellowed grass in the foreground? where to place the major horizontal elements? how much vegetation area in comparison to the water? And of course, just where to place the heron? In the photo, it is too near the center and is looking out of the scene--clearly unsatisfactory. Some of the other elements could stay more or less as they were in the photo.
The major change from the photo to the painting may not be immediately obvious. I decided to move the sun. The relatively short time we spent at the lake that day gave me no choice about the lighting, and I took photos with a bright overhead sun. However, I wanted more dramatic shadows in the painting and moved the sun, first to a point low in the sky behind the background trees and palmettos. Then, halfway through the painting, I moved it again--higher in the sky to the viewer's right. What fun! There is such power in creative projects--I can move the sun itself. However, the fact that I changed the light source as I worked caused a fair amount of readjustment in the painting along the way, as you artist readers can well imagine. Luckily, working in acrylics allows me to paint over nearly anything, which saves me and my paintings every time.
You will notice other differences from the reference photo. The background vegetation gradually took on a life of its own and became a sort of jungle fantasy instead of a literal rendering of what I had seen. Also, I realized late in the process that the varied greens in the background, despite touches of blue, yellow, and rusty browns, needed to be broken up by some other color. Given that there were winter-bare branches and dead trees nearby, I felt free to add a few fallen branches and to import a pair of dead trees from another scene. They help the overall composition in more than one way, I think, as they also echo the grey tones of the heron and add one other distinct vertical.
Question of the day: When you pursue a creative endeavor, do you normally begin with a clear vision of the final outcome and then create that? Or do your creations change along the way? Are you comfortable and flexible if your original vision changes as you work?