On a bright, beautiful Sunday a few weeks ago, I accompanied my friends Lalo, Carlos, Manuel, and Guido (and attendant dogs) to the little beach town of Quimixto.

To get to Quimixto, you drive or take the bus south from Puerto Vallarta to Boca de Tomatlán. There you hop on a panga (a motorboat taxi) for the half-hour ride south to Quimixto. Quimixto is a very quiet and beautiful stretch of beach with a few buildings and thatched-roof huts and a single restaurant-bar. It’s a great place to spend a quiet beach day away from the hustle and bustle of PV.

What made the trip especially fun for me was that I decided to be a photographer for the day. That meant I shot a LOT of photographs and when you shoot a lot,  you tend to get better results. That’s just how it works.

Especially during the panga ride, I was experimenting with holding my camera high above my head, or down around my waist or feet, going for interesting angles and viewpoints. It worked. I got a lot of really interesting, unplanned shots. One of them in particular really grabbed me.

Part 1: Panga to Quimixto

The visual dynamics here, with the vertical triangle of the boat, and the interesting shapes of Manuel’s hat within it, set against the water and the activity at the dock, really excited me. I thought, this isn’t the kind of thing I usually paint, but it could be cool!

I began doing rough sketches. With an image this complex, there were lots of details to work out. Or more accurately, lots of details to lose. My preparatory drawings were all about simplifying the elements of the composition, while retaining their basic visual character and the ways they interrelate.

I did a LOT of preparatory sketches for this painting. I’m showing you just a couple (above) to give you an idea of the process. I spent a few days doing drawings and trying out different approaches before I decided I was ready to start the painting itself.

Turns out I wasn’t ready after all. After drawing the composition on a piece of canvas, then painting outlines in black (above), I stood back and surveyed what I’d done, and didn’t like it at all. It was too literal, too careful. Most of all, there was no life, no energy! So I gessoed over it and started over. I literally went back to the old drawing board and continued doing sketches, simplifying, simplifying, simplifying—and putting more energy into my lines. Then, after many more drawings, I tried again.

This time I had a clearer idea of what I was going for, and the drawing not only had more clarity, it had more energy. (One of the big changes I made that really worked was to completely remove any horizon line. That opened up the image and I liked the energy flow a lot more.) I felt ready to start throwing paint at the canvas.

And that’s exactly what I did! By now I knew that without lots of energy and willingness to take chances, this painting wasn’t going to be worth much. So when I began the actual painting, I made sure I was making big, broad, fearless movements and letting the paint splash and run and have its head. I’m not always able to do that—sometimes it takes a false start or two to get to that point, as it did in this case. But when I do get to that point, it’s a lot more likely magic will happen.

And magic did happen, in the sense that things started to come together in a really pleasing way. The colors were working, the brushwork was energetic and bold, and the overall energy of the painting was just what I had been hoping for. (I was especially happy with the water at upper left. I got a rough, raw energy that was just what I wanted, and had the good sense to leave it alone!)

Above is the finished painting, Panga to Quimixto. I was really pleased with how it turned out, and it inspired me to try something similar in my next painting.

Part 2: Welcome to Quimixto

Among the hundreds of photos I shot during our Sunday in Quimixto, there was at least one other that really called to me. It was one of the first shots I took once we arrived at the pier in Quimixto and got off the panga and began walking into the town.

Not only was this a great shot of Quimixto, Manuel and Guido’s chihuahua Lonny, who had temporarily escaped from his owners, made a perfect (and amusing) focal point. I decided to tackle this fairly complex and detailed image, and see if I could turn it into an interesting painting.

Again, as with the previous painting, I did a lot of preparatory drawings—probably even more than on Panga to Quimixto, since this image is a lot more complex. I’m showing you a couple of them (above), but I probably did 40 to 50 drawings working out the composition and simplifying individual elements. As you may be able to see, one of the main things I was changing was the perspective. I was doing something I’m fond of, which is to force the perspective and combine eye-level and bird’s-eye-view (and sometimes other) points of view in the same painting.

The preceding images show the beginning of the painting: the first image shows how I drew the entire image with pencil, erasing and making changes as I went, and the second stage, when I used a brush and black acrylic paint to outline the major shapes. The second image shows my progress several hours later: I first paint a thin acrylic wash consisting of a mix of dioxazine purple and burnt umber over the entire image. After that dries, I begin actually painting, beginning to apply the actual final colors (although if it turns out they don’t work as well as I’d hoped, they may not end up being the final colors).

The image above shows my progress after a couple of days of painting. This painting progressed slowly because there was so much detail…much more detail than I usually attempt in a painting. Part of me wishes I had spent more time drawing so I could simplify the image even more, while another part thinks it works pretty well, and wonders how much more I could have simplified such an image anyway. Although having just said that, I’m pretty sure if I’d pushed the drawings more, and done another 15 or 20 or 30 drawings, I could have gotten to a stronger, simpler image.

But that’s fine. I wasn’t ready for that. I needed to tackle this image as it was. It’s part of the process, another step toward getting stronger, clearer and braver about throwing away unnecessary detail. In the meantime, I feel pretty good about this painting (final version shown above), not because I think it’s a great painting, but because it’s a decent painting and I managed to finish it without throwing up my hands in despair! This is why I don’t often do paintings with this much detail. But as I said, it’s a necessary step on my path. There’s a lot I like about the painting, which I’ve entitled Welcome to Quimixto.

I’m pretty happy with what I accomplished, and what I learned, from both the Quimixto paintings. I’m able to tackle bigger, more complex projects these days, without getting overwhelmed, and with a clearer vision of where I want to go with each of them. Sometimes I get in a little over my head, but that just means I’m pushing myself, and that’s as it should be.

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