Painting A Lava Boat

It’s been over two months that the indomitable Kilauea Volcano is still quaking and spewing ash and lava, spreading its fiery fingers over the east rift zone of the Puna District on Hawaii Island.  A raging river of molten lava races 9 miles to the Pacific Ocean,  burning its way through property and nearly 700 homes.  It is an eruption of historic proportions that will be long remembered for the displacement of thousands of people.

In some places as the volcanic river spreads over the new land it has created, it  is a mile or more in width; its thundering roars and speed will overwhelm the fastest Olympic runner.

Below is a small 8×10 acrylic painting on canvas of a ‘lava boat’, a loose chunk of lava land that was photographed floating in the lava rapids.  Shortly after, it broke into smaller pieces and continued its downward path to the once Kapoho Bay where lava is now filling the ocean floor and has extended  300+ acres to the Big Island of Hawaii.


(Note 7-24-18)  Regarding the second painting- One of my mentors suggested that I add more value in the background and straighten out the horizon, even though I thought I wanted it like in my first painting.)


Thumbnail Sketches.   A few thumb nail sketches were made as I thought of what kind of composition I wanted to do.   Some art teachers say to draw them 1.5×2.5” which I think is too small to be very useful in most cases, unless it’s just quick black and white notans or to position the horizon and focal point.  Even that doesn’t work for my old eyes.  Two inches by 3 inches (2×3) works out better for me as I play with the main design and think about who may be receiving the painting.  Notice that there is a sail on the ‘lava-berg’ which a photographer who first saw it named ‘lava boat’.  I thought it would be unique for a gift to give a teenage grandchild, but later when my in-house critic (husband) saw the rough painting he nicely said that I should leave it out.

Toned Ground.   I used a previously prepped canvas with a toned ground of gesso and yellow ochre. When I prep canvases I usually will tone a few of them at a time.  A tablespoon of Liquitex gesso and a small dab of acrylic yellow ochre will do one coat for 4-5 small canvases.  Burnt sienna would have worked out well or even better, leaving reddish lava undertones.  I brush the tinted gesso on as evenly as I am able and the application is opaque.

Another kind of toned ground can be transparent, often referred to as imprimatura.   If using acrylic paint on white canvas it would be brushing on paint that is thinned down with water, half water/half medium, or paint with medium and applied lightly so that it is transparent.   Oil paint can be painted over acrylic, but not the other way around.  To do a transparent oil paint imprimatura,  small amounts of oil paint can be rubbed with a cloth onto the canvas surface, but it is easier to spread it if it’s thinned with artist turpentine.   I once used a cloth that left lint on the canvas so the cloth must be lintless!

There are two reasons for using a colored ground.  One is that it removes the glaring white of the canvas and somehow the toned surface makes paints easier ‘to read’, and with acrylic paint, the paint color always dries darker, too.   A second reason is that a warm or cool imprimatura can complement the next layer of color and/or if not painted over entirely in subsequent layers, the underpainting will add tonal  harmony in the composition as a whole.

Recently I watched an artist start a new painting over a toned ground of thinned burnt umber that showed large brush strokes haphazardly applied over his canvas.   He drew a grid and then did his sketch.   I wondered how he could see what he was doing;  to me it seemed very distracting, but it didn’t seem to faze him!   Smooth and even toned ground whether opaque or transparent makes better sense in my opinion.  Many artists don’t do a toned ground because most canvases come pre-primed, but I still do one coat of gesso because I don’t want much of the canvas texture showing through.  So that is another reason to gesso a canvas.  I let the gesso dry for 15 minutes or so; I don’t sand it at all.

Underpainting.   Another use of the imprimatura technique is as a  transparent color painting of the composition, mapping out areas in color as laying the ground work of the painting.  Artists who paint in layers may use this as a preliminary step before starting to block in successive layers beginning with the dark and moving to lighter values, and highlights.  This is a transparent layer of paint as my first underpainting which I thought would give me a feel for what I wanted to paint.  The colors don’t need to be exact, but the general shapes need to be.


What I have learned.  In retrospect,  I may have shortened the painting process had I simply done a value or monochromatic sketch and further develop my rough sketch.   I could have eliminated the color sketch and started the block in right away.  Like most artists sometimes our challenges are often getting the right values in the right places. Good tonal values are key to a good painting, more than colors themselves.  In fact I need to remember to study the tonal values from a black and white photo conversion of the original reference photo first!   Then I can do value comparisons on my own work as I go along.  Below is my painting in color and black and white.  Overall, the gradation of values seemed to have worked out all right.  (See the changes made above.)

Creativity takes courage’.  -Henri Matisse