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Check out the professional secrets in the insider tip sections in this step by step demonstration!
See out how the exact same landscape subject differs in this step by step demonstration using three separate mediums and supports: Watercolor on paper, Acrylic on canvas and Pastel on sanded paper. Don’t forget to read the insider tips! They are golden.
It is really interesting to watch two different artists paint the same scene. Here is a variation on that! I’m going to paint the same scene three times using three different art mediums. I’ll approach each one with a different set of goals, style and method. Doing this is a valuable exercise, because if you paint the same thing multiple times, you really delve into the nitty-gritty of what you are painting and you end up becoming so familiar with your subject that you gain new insights and learn with each iteration. I’m curious if the final results are dramatically different from each other or fairly similar. Let’s go!
Step One: Value Studies
I begin my painting processes with a couple of value thumbnail sketches. I’ve already gone through the initial pencil thumbnails, which I won’t show here. Once I decided on the best overall composition I’m ready for composition interest by reducing my composition to black and white values. I learned this process from my illustration days. Don’t just jump into the painting process! These value sketches will help me decide my emotional theme: do I want to go for lots of atmospheric depth and quiet colors or do I want to pump up the intensity and use some drama?
I select my two favorite possibilities and start to tighten it up a bit. I’m not concerned with size here, I’m just focusing on emotional impact and my muse.
The top one is a lower key sketch with darker mid-tones and an emphasis on the darkest values. I used my favorite markers for this quick sketch. They are much faster and cleaner than charcoal or pencil.
The lower version is a higher key sketch with no very darks. The predominant value is a mid value with lots of secondary high value areas. It might make a great painting, but I’m shooting for drama near sunset, so the darker sketch is the winner here.
I will use this as my value map while I paint. It will act as a color value guide, helping to remind me to stay on target with my color choices.
Step Two: Deciding On The Final Sizes
Using the dimensions of my thumbnail, I translate the dimensions of the top value sketch which is 2.5 inches wide by 3.5 inches tall (6.5 cm x 9.5 cm) into larger sizes that are common art frame sizes. I’ve learned over the years not to get creative with my art dimensions if I want to save money on framing costs later! If I can keep my finished artwork within typical frame sizes, then I don’t have to resort to having my frames custom made, so I take the time to sort it all out.
It looks a mess, but I wanted to share my thinking process with you. Doing this stage not only saves me money later, but it solidifies my gameplan in my head and keeps me from going off the rails mid-process.
(Not that going off the rails is bad, I just know that when I DO deviate in the middle of painting, I all too often end up with different dimensions of the finished work, which translates into big bucks framing)
In the olden days, draftsmen and artists used a proportional wheel. It is a round disk with sliding paper disks and windows that calculate the proportions for you accurately. Nowadays, thankfully, we can just download an Aspect Ratio phone app. These do all the math work for you and are a breeze to use!
I inserted the tallest dimension into the Aspect Ratio calculator app and I wrote down the corresponding dimension. As you can see, I got a variety of sizes that are odd. The sizes in boxes are common frame sizes and common pastel paper sizes. EUREKA! 12 x 18 is the size of a U Art pastel paper that I had on hand and 36 x 24 is a canvas size that is common as well. I can easily tweak my artwork to fit into the 36 x 24 canvas, even if it means jettisoning the narrow dimension to fit. WORTH IT!
As a side note, the proportion that my Android cell phone normally takes photos conforms to the 12 x 18 format. I’m filing this tidbit away for future use! Now I’m more jazzed about using my phone to take reference photos! If I don’t crop my phone pictures, they will automatically be in a common frame size. Ha!
Step Three: Transfering The Sketch To Canvases
I used a simple grid method to transfer the sketch to the support. On the left is 12 x 18 UART 400 weight pastel sanded paper. On the right is a 24 x 36 inch canvas wrap gessoed painting canvas. I’ll do the watercolor paper version last.
Step Four: The Underpainting
I’m going to use the same underpainting with both mediums. I used liquid acrylics because they are ink like in consistency and won’t clog up the grit on the pastel paper. I used hot magenta for the darkest areas and a bright yellow for the lighter value areas. I’ll show you later why I wish I had underpainted with something other than the yellow!
Adding Color Values In the Correct Place
So far so good, except that I’m fighting with the hillside on the left in full sun. I started the underpainting ‘way to light in color and value. I made the mistake of aiming for the correct finished value. I should have used a darker value as the underpainting then layered mid-tones on top of that, then added the brightest brights of that hillside on top last.
I tape my value notan next to my canvas to remind me to constantly stay on track with my color choices.
I made it doubly hard on myself because I needed to darken the value of the hills first so that the brightest highlit hillside would stand out when I added it near the end. Now I have to use the valuable paper tooth for filling in a darker mid-tone so that I can put the brights on top. Doh!! I’m hoping that I have enough tooth left for kicking on some brights after all that. If I don’t, then the only solution is to scrape it off and start again.
I used wide painter’s blue tape and created a sticky trough under my pastel board so that crumbles of pastel would fall and adhere like flypaper. It works like a charm to keep my floor clean. I’m still covering the floor with a small tarp though, because pastels are so very highly pigmented that I don’t want a trace of it drifting onto my floor.
Checking the Color Values
Before I go on, I want to take a phone pic of the painting and convert the image to black and white greyscale to double check my color values against my master plan of the value sketch, taped to the right. I know my water is too light in value, but it’s satisfying to see my conclusion with the photo! Making good progress. I don’t expect the values to be right here, because with pastel you need to have the final layers be the correct value. Here I’m trying to lay in the foundation for later applications.
Yup, the values are off…
Adjusted Color Values
I adjusted the water and the shadow over the road darker. This is reading more like I intended now, so I’ll move on to refining stroke work and blending. Then the best part, the finishing details. Drawing lines is a breeze in pastel. That road bed will be fun!
I learned a ton doing this color painting in pastel.
The big advantage of pastel for me is the speed and ease of arriving at my finished vision. The colors are immediate and fun to use. The hassle comes after the painting. Framing. Sigh of frustration. The pastel either needs to be stored carefully with glassine paper and kept horizontal in some never-to-be-disturbed cabinet or framed for protection. I did end up framing this but it cost over $100 to frame because of the stupid glass! And I used cheap glass!! The frame, spacer bars and backing were a very reasonable $60 (including shipping) from www.webpictureframes.com. But I can’t use acrylic instead of glass with pastels because the inevitable static clingy characteristic of acrylic will pull the pastel pigment off of the paper.
When I move on to the acrylic paints, I’ll hopefully cut the learning curve down a few notches. What will I do differently in acrylic? Read on!
Acrylic 24 x 36 painting
O.K. So what is my plan after the pastel experience?
- Change the underpainting! I’m going to leave the magenta, but change the yellow to a warm neutral brown-grey in mid values. That way I can more easily judge the value colors of the hills on the left.
- I’m going to really play with abstract textures in the shadow areas of the rocks and the foreground rocky soil.
- I’ll get the shape of the highway guard rails as perfect as possible and nail the lines as that will be my focal point.
- I’ll be using expressive brush strokes in the middle ground hills with a palette knife and block my masses better.
- I’ll lighten the deep shadow a value in the big rock outcropping and bring in some reflective reds and oranges but keep it passive enough so that the star will be the road guard rails.
- I’ll experiment with a more atmospheric perspective for the far background distant hill.
- I will use a glaze on the left hills to adjust the color temperature. In pastels, I was hampered by not having the correct hue and value of orange sticks that I wanted, so I’m looking forward to mixing my pigments to get the exact color I want.
- It is super important to have the right brushes for the right painting medium. We put together a tutorial for your to help you understand the best brushes for acrylic painting!
This looks much better. If this were pastels, I would darken the values of the sky and hills. Now I’m ready to start laying in the final colors.
Keying the Painting
I’ll do the sky first, as that will be close to the lightest values. I’ve already put in the darkest values (or nearly so) in the shadow area of the roadbed. Everything else will fit into those boundaries on a color greyscale.
Final Details and Color: no varnish yet
I adjusted the colors and values of the background hills because I was losing the feeling of light on the hills and the entire painting was feeling too ominous. I also lightened the water. After stepping back and resting my eyes, with a fresh look I knew I wanted the water to retreat from being a focal point at all. I know, I know, I deviated from my value sketch, but I’m letting the painting speak to me as I go.
Each time you adjust something in a painting, (the color temperature, the values, etc.) it has an impact on everything surrounding it. It’s a constant intellectual analysis as you paint trying to keep all the variables going in the right direction. Sometimes, it takes you off the rails into new territory.
I love the quote by Edgar Degas “Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do”. I think that is brilliant. Ya just gotta do the best you can with each painting. I learn from each one I do.
I use a mirror periodically to look at my painting in reverse. I don’t have a room dedicated to being my art studio, so I paint in cramped quarters. Instead of walking across the room to check on the stages of the painting, I can turn my back to the painting and view it over my shoulder using the small mirror. It reverses the direction of the composition and errors in color, value and composition will be more glaringly obvious
It is important to first give your acrylic painting a coat of isolation varnish before you add the final varnish. Isolation coats are a permanent protection for the painting. Any varnish added on the last layer should be a removable varnish so that the painting can be cleaned over its lifetime.
I use Golden products because they are created by experts in the field of archival artist materials and they are intended to work together for maximum longevity and lightfastness. I made my own isolation varnish by thinning Golden Soft Gel Gloss 2:1 with water. It washes on cloudy by dries clear. I let it dry for 24 hours before the final varnishing.
Here is a close up of the shadow area of the rock outcropping as it sits on my easel. Be sure to grab the best easel for your next landscape art project! You can see how the colors are so much more vibrant with the varnish:
Varnishing makes all the difference. If I had used a Matte or Satin Varnish, the final would look like the above photo, which is o.k., but all the really great color is in the darks, so I want to capitalize on them!
Unfortunately, once the gloss varnish is on, it is very difficult to get a good photo to show you because the varnish will glare with reflected light easily.
Here is the painting installed in a home with the glare evident on the right side. Someday I really need to learn how to take professional photos.
I used 140 lb Arches Hot Press. I didn’t stretch the paper before I started painting because I had no intention of framing the finished watercolor. You can see faint buckling of the paper here because I took the photo before the paper was dry. I didn’t take any stages of progression on this one, (sorry, I got carried away by the quick immediateness of the watercolor process!) but here is the sketch, very quickly done.
I used artist’s gouache for the lines on the highway and for the dried grass in the foreground once the watercolor was dry enough to not blur the gouache. I learned from this quick sketch that I would prefer to use a different blue next time because the Ultramarine Blue I used was too granulated in the sky, water and hills. I love granulation, but it is too distracting here and gives the painting an amateurish look. For a big impact watercolor I now know I want a crisp, flat, no granulated look with no graduated washes except in the roadbeds. Good to know!
If I wanted to enter this in a watercolor show or online contest, I would need to use frisket for the lines in the road and the dried grass on the foreground because watercolor purists will not allow gouache in the painting. I think this would make a dynomite large watercolor, so this exercise was a valuable first step toward that. I’ll consider this watercolor to be my initial color study and make all the above changes and create a grand scale watercolor on a full size sheet of Arches.
Which one did I enjoy the most? The pastel was the most fun and very fast. It is so easy to get in-your-face color with pastels. I framed it and it already sold to a client who put in their workplace office.
The watercolor not so much. It was fast, but I didn’t use my typical watercolor methods and I struggled with using very, very old paints. If I were to do this again, I would use fresh out of the tube paints and use a full sheet of 140lb hot press Arches paper so that I could lift pigments easier, and use non-granulating blues. I would also test colors before I applied them to the paper.
I like the finished acrylic the most, but it took triple the time commitment to finish and was the most costly with initial materials and canvas. As I used a gallery wrap canvas, it does not need framing though, which will save me close to $300 in framing costs. Win. Win! Which was your favorite medium?
We have some additional information that is going to be helpful in your art journey. Check out this article about arches oil paper because this is a really special painting surface.