I’m in the mood for a juicy landscape painting in acrylics and this image looks like a challenge and fun too! Painted during the fourth month of ‘Covid sheltering in place’ here in the USA, I’m really homesick for nature and while the parks are closed and the gloom of lockdown continues, I get refreshment and peace by painting the solitude and frankly, the lack of humanity, in landscapes.
To make do, I use photos as a reference.
I’m going to use a variety of techniques to create this landscape and I hope you follow along and create one too.
Here is the finished painting:
I am inspired by this beautiful photo of Yosemite National Park, California by Becky Poirier (permission to use granted). It brings me back to camping trips as a child and the smells and sounds of the forest and mountains. Those memories fed my soul then and that is what I’m yearning to see and feel right now.
Let me share with you my philosophy of using photographs as painting references.
Painting from life is the best, most original way to paint. The reality is that for many people that isn’t possible or desirable for lots of reasons. When I am out in nature, I am gawking and drinking in what I am seeing like a castaway dropped into a super-sized grocery store. I would honestly rather snap a zillion photos, stand there and look around at everything and try to see it all rather than stand still for six or seven hours, stare at one spot and paint plein air. I much, much prefer painting from photos and being a tourist. I never, never use other’s photos without their permission. Their photo is an intellectual creation, just like a painting. Using someone else’s photo without their permission is a form of stealing, especially if you intend to sell your work!
I spent a few years learning from master illustrators. They use photos (sometimes taking several hundred photos of their models to get the right ones) in their work and scoff at the notion that they are crippled doing so. Believe me, they know their ‘stuff’ so well that I’ve watched them create fantastic, perfect, awesome works right before my eyes with zero photos in front of them. They use their photos for inspiration, accuracy in anatomy, lighting and shadows, to zoom in and see tiny details and to speed up their production for deadlines – because the faster they produce work, the better they can pay their bills. I can only hope and pray I could ever create as well as they do. In other words, if it’s good enough for my art creator heroes, it’s good enough for me. The trick is to NOT just laboriously reproduce a photo but to interpret and create using the photo(s) as a guide.
One of the reasons art competitions prohibit works of art created from photos is pure snobbery. Another, more valid reason is that they do not want multiple submissions created from the same photo. Also, they don’t want to be sued by the original photographer who may or may not have given the artist permission to use their work. Some artists get around this by only painting images from photos that they themselves have taken. It works great, if you can travel around and take photos! Not so great if you are in a plague lock-down!
Looking at photos for paintings: seeing with an artist’s eyes
My objective is to put my interpretation on it, not to create a hyper-realistic copy of a photo.
Most photographs really don’t make great looking paintings because the composition often needs major adjusting and changing from mother nature. This photo needed cropping for a composition that I was pleased with. For example, the sky is too dominant and the colors have paled out in some places. Also, the mountain face is reflected in the water in the lower left and that just won’t work for my composition. I’ll have to edit that out. (See the notan sketches below).
If you are unsure what you want to say in your painting, use a small viewfinder and move all around the painting to examine different focal points. For example, cropping out most of the stream places emphasis on the majestic trees and the giant rock face in the rear. Or cropping into the stream as it turns the distant bend put that as the star of the show.
My choice here is to crop down until I see that the streambed in the foreground becomes the star of the show. Maybe it’s my geology background, but I am entranced by the rocks under the water. There is a ton of algae though, so I’m going to invent some rock plates and not paint that at all. Can you see how much I’m going to have to edit this photo to make this scene ‘mine’?
Also, cameras darken the values of the darkest areas and bleed out most of the colors in the shadow areas to near black. Some photographers instinctively know this is wrong and try to compensate for that by adjusting the color saturation higher in a photo manipulation program. What you can end up with is something that looks out of this world beautiful, but unrelated to real life.
I love the potential of impactful colors that I can punch up and the strong diagonal elements in this scene. I can envision an orange golden shallow stream bed and vibrant yellow greens in the mid-plane trees. I’m going to use my artistic memory of the colors in nature as well as knowledge about light temperature and color theory to push this subject into a high level of impact.
The all important plan
One of the secrets to creating a great painting is to have a firm plan before you start. Artist’s call it “What are you trying to say?”
I find it more helpful to ask myself these questions before I start:
- What about this scene strikes me right off the bat?
- What features of the scene do I want to make the star?
- What techniques do I plan to use to facilitate my plan?
- What surface and size will I be painting?
- Will this be framed or freestanding on a wall?
- How much detail do I want to include, if any? and WHY?
- What will be my color palette for unity and emotion?
Here’s my personal plan
- I love the reflections and shadow streaks on the stream. This will be my ‘star’ where I will use maximum detail and exciting colors. I’m going to use lots of glazes on the stream bed to give it a three-dimensional glass-like look. It will be easy to go overboard with the details in water reflections and in minute details in every stone, pebble and tree needle. I’ve gotta be smart in deciding what to emphasize and what to eliminate or blur out.
- I’ll have to be careful about the pebbly isthmus of rocks in the riverbed that it is lit by the sun, but not let it upstage the ‘star’. I’ll have to really watch it there with color hue, details and values that I don’t try and paint every tiny little pebble.
- As a secondary supporting actor, I like the brightly lit shrubs and deciduous trees peeking through the dense trees on the right and far left. I want to capitalize on the way that can draw the eyes of the viewer into a 3D travel experience, but I don’t want it to take over and nudge my star off the stage.
- I won’t do much detail of the evergreen tree branches. I’ll make these more painterly and suggestive.
- While there are lots of deep shadows, I’ll have to refrain from using black or black-brown as much as possible or it will look dead and amateurish. It’s easy to spot a beginner painter because they often use dark brown and black straight out of the tube to paint shadows and dark objects. While the reference photo DOES look dark black and brown in the darkest areas, I won’t be using brown or black straight out of the tube! The darkest shadows are tools that I will use to move the viewer’s eyes throughout the painting like a roadmap.
- I want to experiment with an abstract depiction of the mountainside outcropping. Can I make it fun eye-candy that reads ‘rock face’ without resorting to detail?
- I need to create atmospheric value planes as the stream winds its way into the distance, so the left bank trees need to be smaller, paler and bluer than the ones on the right.
- Any area that will be bright sunlight will need to be surrounded by dark enough values so that it will really pop. While colors will get the credit, the real artistry here is going to be successful value control.
Getting ready to paint
I always start with several value thumbnails just to explore several different options in composition or focal point emphasis. I like to use three or less different markers in shades of grey plus black. I leave the white of the paper as the highest value. After some playing around, I decide on the lower left sketch as my overall value plan.
I used charcoal to lightly place the composition. In hindsight, it would have been much better to just use super thinned pale blue and a paintbrush because once you start laying in the underpainting, the charcoal just smears into the paint. DOH> I knew better!! I thought I would need to brush the charcoal off to redraw the composition a few times, but it turns out I sketched it out ok the first time, and I could have just used a pale wash to draw with. It is remarkably easy to not have confidence in yourself as an artist! Gotta quiet that inner doubting Thomas and just get to work.
I’m using a gesso prepared canvas in the 11 x 14 size roughly sketched in with vine charcoal. You can faintly see the four square grid that I used to help me accurately place the features from the cropped photo (which I had also drawn over in a four grid with pencil).
Time for paint:
I find it super helpful to select my palette of colors before I start painting. I lay out tubes of paint that I intend to use and put the rest of my stash away. That way I know the painting will have color unity and not have every option under the sun included in.
I’ve learned the long hard way that paints are not all created equal. I always use professional quality paints.
But the a big impact on my painting success is from understanding and knowing which paints tubes and colors are opaque, which are staining, which are transparent and which are greyed or high chroma. Unfortunately it does vary from manufacturer to manufacturer!
If I’m planning on creating vibrant jewel tones, like I plan on doing here, I MUST use semi-transparent or transparent paints in certain areas and opaque tubes areas where I don’t want or need vibrancy. Here, mountains and trees and rocks will be opaque paints, sunlit shrubbery and streambed will be transparent. Wind ripple traces on the water surface will be opaque.
Beginners, and some seasoned painters, struggle with this and their paintings show it. I’ve seen paintings where they tried their best, but clearly didn’t master their materials first.
My best advice is to make charts of your paints and test them out so you can separate them out opaque vs. transparent. High chroma vs. grey tones. Then you can knowingly select your brands and colors and not let them control your look. After a few paintings, you’ll get to know your tubes and brands of paint and this won’t be needed.
For this painting, I will use a few premixed colors that will help speed things up a bit. If I were working in oil, I could premix all of these into luscious piles that would stay wet for days- but acrylics dry within a half-hour of placing on the palette, so I end up quickly squeeze out a tad of each color when it starts to run out or I need a fresh starter to do a custom mix. It is much faster to start with preblended colors and tweak from there.
- Golden Azurite Hue ( a transparent grey blue)
- Golden Quinacridone Nickel Azo Gold ( a transparent orange-gold)
- Titanium White
- Winsor and Newton Raw Sienna ( a transparent golden brown)
- Liquitex Burnt Sienna (this one is richer and less opaque than other brands)
- Ultramarine Blue
- Liquitex Sap Green
- Cadmium yellow
- Liquitex Pyrrole Orange (an opaque hot orange)
- Golden Naples Yellow Hue ( an opaque warm tan)
- Liquitex Raw Umber ( an opaque neutral brown)
- Liquitex Alizarin Crimson Permanent ( a semi-opaque ruby red)
Sometimes it is really beneficial to create a strong underpainting of color before you begin painting. For a better idea of what I mean, check out my tutorial here in the acrylic and pastel version areas.
For this scene, all I need is to cover the white of the canvas entirely, so that I can more easily judge relative color values and to anchor my composition firmly. It will really be helpful if I don’t cover up the areas of brightest lights right away. I’ll have to do it eventually, but not at this stage. This will help me keep in mind what my masterplan is. It’s surprisingly easy to get hijacked by your self in a painting! In this case, I don’t want to get hijacked, but to stick to my plan.
The abstract mountain outcropping
I’ll tackle this area in a couple of stages. First I lay in some Grey-Blue tones and Greenish-Grey hues in an abstract diagonal pattern. While these strokes are still wet, I spray them with clear water in a spray bottle and tilt the canvas at the angle that I want the rock crevices to slant.
Here’s a short video showing how fun it is to use a watercolor technique with acrylics: Gotta embrace the serendipity/flow/ randomness feel!
The paint will get very runny and I keep a crumpled paper towel in one hand and blot the dribbles away as they run into the tree areas. This is the fun part where gravity is the painter and I just play. I continue adding strokes with slightly different color mixes and spraying and blotting away. This stage is a lot like watercolor painting. While the paint is wet, if I think it’s bleeding out too pale, I will add a few strokes of color in the mix. I will also blot teardrop puddles away that won’t ‘read’ like a rock face.
This will do for now, so I lay it flat to dry for a few mintues to stop the movement of the paint. I’ll know better after I get a little bit of the trees massed in if I need to darken this area overall.
Now is the time where I need to place a few strokes of color values around the canvas so that I can judge correct colors and values against each other as I begin to tighten up on details and concentrate on small areas of the painting. Never be afraid to audition paint color on your canvas as you paint. Just keep a damp rag handy to wipe it off if it isn’t working.
One of the frustrations of painting is that colors look vastly different on your palette than they do laid on the canvas. That is because our perception of colors change as they are near or on top of other colors. What looks like a neutral grey on your palette may look orange-hued when placed against certain colors. It’s a topic that deserves its own article, but for now, please know that you’ll need to adjust your colors as you paint on the canvas.
This stage is a great help because it gives me a general blueprint to follow. That way I am not reacting by the seat of my pants. (Sometimes it is great fun to wing-it, but here I want to stay with my plan).
As I place color spots, I’m asking myself “Is this too light, too dark? Is this too bright in hue or do I need to grey it down or blue it down for atmospheric perspective? Do I have the right color temperature or am I too yellow? Too blue and if so, too red-blue or too green-blue? etc.
There is a lot of analysis going on.
OK, so I know I want to paint the left bank of trees so that they stand out from the mountain face, and they will have to be paler and greyer and bluer yet than the trees on the right, so I will need to darken the cliff face to make that happen. Using Liquin Glazing Medium, a bit of water and Golden Azurite Hue (a beautiful transparent grey-blue) with a tiny dot of Alizarin Crimson Permanent I glaze over the mountainside until I’m happy with how dark it is getting near the base. I add a bit more of Alizarin Crimson to the mix and glaze the upper part of the cliff face.
Also, the lighter areas of the trees on the right are not helping me judge my values much so I need to cover most of that area up with darker values of greens. That way I can also be more strategic with the placement of all the bright sparkle areas.
Now I can see how the far trees will stand out well, but not overly so, against the cliff face. I still have room for brighter high lights on the trees if needed and I like the greyer green color family.
Notice how I’ve created tree groupings: there are at least three depths of tree groupings. I’ve got the trees in the farthest distance too dark and too ‘green’. I’ve got to lighten them up and pale them down with bluegreen- grey.
Now is the time to stand back from the easel and evaluate how well things are working together, or not! Distance will help me get the ‘big picture’.
Now I’m going to tighten up some details on these trees. I want a few to sparkle in the bright morning sun, without creating dominance for the eye to stay stuck on. I will need to remember to control the use of white and yellow and bright green because I want to create the illusion of depth on this two-dimensional surface. Things get lighter and bluer as they recede into the distance so I want to capitalize on that here. For example, in this cool photo by Lulu 09, the orange-yellow outcropping of rock in the foreground is a brighter and yellower hue than the far distant sunlit hills which are receding into a purple-tinged lighter hue of gold.
And here is an example of how greens become bluer with atmospheric distance. The final hills nearly blend into the sky:
I can capitalize on all this in my landscape. Granted, it will have to be subtler, as I don’t have dozens of miles of depth to paint, just a few hundred yards, but I can sure use it enough to make a difference!
I will also try to create variety and interest with bare tree trunks against a medium-dark undergrowth area. I’m going to refrain from using 000 size brushes and keep things a little lose and painterly while suggesting detail.
- I’ll create a stay-wet palette so my mixes of colors don’t dry out by laying several soaking wet paper towels in a tray or plate and covering them with a sheet of Freezer Paper.
- Mix about six piles of paint of the distant trees and undergrowth. These will be my base tree colors and speed up my mixing times when I want to tweak a color.
- Stick to a small flat and round brush to do the foliage so that I don’t get to tight with details.
- Use a small thin liner and light warm grey color for a few distant tree trunks.
- Use a few directional strokes for the grass and shoreline for interest and variety.
- Design the location of trunks so that they don’t look uniform like picket fences and they’ll make interesting reflections
I use Liquitex Sap Green Hue as a starting mix and adjust several piles into lighter and greyer, lighter and yellow, darker and blue-greyer. I use Raw Umber, White, Cadmium Yellow, Ultramarine Blue (which is one of the redder blues out there) and a tad of black to make my piles.
Foreground trees initial lay in
I design the placement of the tree trunks so that there aren’t any evenly spaced picket fence looking patterns going on. I lean one for interest and place a few into the deeper woods with a pale wash of raw umber mixed with blue. I still want to preserve the whiter areas in the back for ‘sky hole’ type interest. I could paint over the entire area with medium value Bluegreen then add the sky holes later, but, I enjoy seeing the potential sky holes right now, so I won’t mess with it until I’m ready to focus on those trees in depth. Right now I’m still value and color mapping. I’ll leave the details of this bank of trees for last, after I zone in one individual rocks/boulders in the streambed. That way I’ll better know how much detail I truly will need in those trees later.
Time to prep the streambed for glazing. I’ll use raw umber thinned down a bit and draw in tight horizontal lines in the distance and widen the lines and the distance between them as they get closer to the foreground. I also darken them with Ultramarine Blue and a tad of Black in the nearest foreground.
I’m trying to design the rock plate shadows as I come forward closer to the viewer. I want them not lined up like a picket fence, but I have to fight the very human tendency to make them equidistant from each other. They’ll need to be parallel to each other and I ‘ll need to design them as I go for rhythm and asymmetry.
The first layer of glaze is using Liquitex Glazing Medium and Winsor and Newton Raw Sienna (it’s quite transparent compared to other brands), Golden Quinacridone Nickel Azo Gold, Alizarin Crimson. I want the stream in the back to be more yellow-orange brown so I add a bit of Burnt Sienna. The stream in the foreground will have more of an Alizarin Crimson hue in places. I use a one inch soft wide flat brush and enough of the glazing medium to make a thin glaze. My first layer of glazing is a sort of an audition, where I’m attempting to see if my ‘plan’ is going to work. It’s easy to wipe off the glaze at this stage with a damp paper towel.
I like the way this is progressing. Now I need to tighten up some details in the stream because the rock plate shadows aren’t enough to tell the viewer that these are really rocks. I really like the eye pathways that are coming together and the color values of the overall painting so far. Now is a good time to render the rock plates in the stream bed then reglaze over the top. Tight details are my least favorite things to paint and this is going to be the fiddly, time-consuming part. Time to dig in with smaller brushes!
It is helpful to think of the plates in the streambed as box tops of a short, wide box. The top edge of the plates will be lighter in value and yellower in color from the sunlight striking them. The side of the ‘lid’ will be the darkest in the opposite direction as the sun. The right side of the lid will be mid-value in color. I use a size 4 soft flat and draw in the harder edges of the plate ‘lids’.
Here’s a trick that I learned from my illustrator teachers: When shadow and light edges touch each other, make a small area connecting the two with a bit of warm color like orange or violet red. It creates an ‘aura’ of sunlight that is alive and delightful to the eyes. I don’t overdo it here though, because the plates are underwater, but you can barely see it on the biggest plate.
This is where the magic happens. I use very transparent hues and brands here mixed with the glazing medium: Winsor and Newton Raw Sienna, Golden Quinacridone Nickel Azo Gold, Alizarin Crimson Permanent and a tiny bit of Black. This is where I have to deviate from the photo quite a bit. I want the stream bed to be a major focal point, so the most interesting colors and details need to be here. I experiment with punching the color saturation up and down until I get a combination that I’m happy with.
The cast shadows are Golden Azurite Hue, Ultramarine Blue and Black.
In order to make the individual pebbles stand out in the banks, I need to have a medium value base paint under the pebbles. The bank on the right will be in the distance and for the most part, in shade, so I’ll use Grey-Lavender as the base. Newbies will listen to their logic brain and lay in grey made from White and Black because it makes perfect sense. However, as an observant artist, I know that I need to lean these white colored pebbles into a Lavender purple hue to give it life. I also know that blue light from the sky will be a factor in the shaded areas, so this bank of pebbles is going to be decidedly cool tones.
The pebbles on the left, in contrast, will be in full sun – which will be warmer in hue, with a path of cool cast shadows from the right trees. I mix Raw Umber, Ultramarine Blue, Alizarin Crimson, Naples Yellow Hue and Black into six or so different piles. The idea is to have color variation, but the same value in each pile. Again, newbie painters might paint this area a very pale grey mixed with black and white because after all, the pebbles are white. Again, it makes sense, but visually, it would be very dead if I did that. Color variation is eye-candy to us humans and gives the painting more life.
Once I have these laid in, I add a few larger pebble cast shadows using Raw Umber, thinning it down as I go further into the distance and using smaller and smaller sized shadows. On a few closest to the foreground, I add a bit of black and ultramarine blue- just enough to darken the Raw Umber, but not enough to read straight-up Black.
Once the stone’s cast shadows are in place, I can add a few highlights with white plus yellow and Alizarin Crimson and a few with white plus Alizarin to make a pale pinky-orange.
In the cast shadow area, I add a few Lavender and Violet highlights to create a few pebbles in shadow.
I also beef up the dark areas of the stream water where it touches the left pebbles and put a few sparkles of small pebbles in the stream itself right next to the bank of pebbles. I have to be strategic about where and how many I place though, because the eye will automatically dwell on them because the contrast will be super high between pebble and water. The idea is to have eye-candy along the path that the eyes will travel along inside the piece.
I put one in, look to see if it’s too light or not the correct hue, then wipe off if needed and start over.
Lots of Lavender and Violet color in the right bank of pebbles and a few highlights to suggest pebbles in the sun using a medium Pinky-Orange. I have to be careful here that I don’t punch the highlights TOO much and draw the eye here. I want to tempt the eyes into the trees, not demand they go there right away.
Can you see how strategic I’m being in making my composition and color choices in order to take the viewer on a journey throughout the painting? I want to jolt them into a pleasurable experience right off the bat with the streambed, then I want to take them on a guided tour of rocks, then midplane trees, then distant trees then down the reflections to the left stream bank then arriving at home base with the streambed only to traverse the cast shadow back into the tour all over again. Any stops along the way have to be fun, entertaining, yet not dominant enough to stop the train and everyone gets off and leaves to go look at the painting on the wall next to it.
Foreground trees details
I saved these for last because they are the least priority for me detail and color-wise and I wanted to make sure the rest of the features of the painting were ‘working’ according to plan well enough that I could merely ‘suggest’ detail here. I think it’s successful so far, so I refine the sky holes hues and values, design the tree trunks so that they are interesting and non-symmetrical.
Again, the deeper forest is going to be cooler blues and Lavenders on the foliage and blue-brown-grey on the trunks. A few warm pink toned highlights on the bigger trunks and a warmer shadow in dark Burnt Sienna and Raw Umber set the 3D illusion. I used Raw Umber and white mixed with greens for the evergreen tree needles, keeping some in the back yellower and paler.
I also change the color hue and value of the sky holes so that it reads brighter sun near the tree tops and darker mountain base on the lower part of the tree branches.
Final adjustments and details
I spend a little time shaping the grass and shrubbery area into interesting shapes and make sure to overlap them onto and behind the tree trunks in front and in the back to show depth. I did a fair bit of auditioning sunlight yellows and wiping off too bright highlights or too many individual clumps of leaves. Each time something started to become the focal point by drawing the eye too much, it had to go!
Notice that there are no hard edges here. That’s because I want to create distance. That is the trouble with photographs: they put everything in sharp focus. Artists know that they have to give the illusion of depth by reducing hard edges as the subject recedes into the distance.
Wind ripples on the stream surface
Now that I’m almost done, I can put a more opaque ‘glaze’ of green on the reflections in the stream, darken cast shadows here and there, add a few opaque blue wind ripples on the stream to give interest and depth. Now is the time to stop. It’s time to move onto another painting. The temptation to tweak will never go away. I HAVE to know when to stop: Does it say what I wanted it to say? If yes, then stop. Overworking can be death to a work of art.
After signing with a waterproof fine point ink pen, I put a protective isolation coat on using Golden Soft Gel mixed 2 parts with one part water and painted on using a once inch soft flat brush. This clear polymer coat will allow me to put a final varnish on top that can be easily removed in the future. After letting the isolation coat dry for one day, I varnish with Golden Polymer Varnish With UVLS. This varnish will protect the painting from UV ray damage and be removable in the future without disturbing the painting under the isolation coat. This conservation method is important because varnishes age with air pollution, bugs and other contaminants. It gives the final painting a nice gloss that mimicks oil painting.
The final step is a frame!