My process strongly focuses on the way light shines through film as opposed to reflecting off of it and it took a while to figure out a proper painting method for working from photography (I used to particularly struggle with figure drawing from photograph). When you work from life, outside elements of your process, whether they be a model or weather itself, force you to make compromises and stay focused on the big picture. When I started working from photograph I would obsess over single details as opposed to laying in the overall structure and composition first. This would make my pieces uneven and unintentionally out of proportion (I say "unintentionally" because this "mistake" can also be used to intentionally make a piece uneasy, hence early Lucien Freud paintings...supposedly). I found that using the Photoshop* cutout feature helps simplify the structure and palette of the photograph. This also helps out with the whole Red\Green colorblind thing as well.
How to use Photoshop cutout:
- Load your photo into Photoshop
- Select Filter > Artistic > Cutout
- Adjust the number of layers, edge simplicity, and edge fidelity until you have an accurate and workably simplified version of your photograph.
For the first step I am laying in straight black. I usually have trouble determining if I want to use Mars black or Ivory black. Mars has a heavier body and is more opaque, but its warmth makes it more surface and detracts from the potential depth of the painting. On the other hand I am a little suspect of Ivory's archival qualities. If you look at expressionist paintings from 50-60 years ago you will probably notice how in several areas where Ivory black has been painted over another color it cracks more relatively frequently. I think black paints just tend to dry faster in general though; I have the same problem with acrylic gessos. For laying in the black base of the land I use the Mega Fiblert to brush in a smooth coat and a one inch square edge for drawing the horizon.
I don't feel 100% about laying in a black undercoat for the horizon line. I like keeping my process consistent so I won't end up with an awkward division of layers between the foreground and background. Since my landscapes shy away from over-lapping hillsides, trees, and rivers it is crucial that may layering stays consistent from foreground to background, to accentuate the depth of one plane. In theory this is just dandy, but I am constantly** confronted with the issue of the horizon having too much paint and looking too "surface". Right now I am going forward with a black sub layer on this horizon because I will be working with a relatively near mountain range.
This is one of my first oil landscapes from this series. The way I painted the distant mountain range was incidental. That layer was supposed to be the sky over the horizon. After repeatedly brushing the blend from the top corners of the wood panel the horizon eventually became too dark. Instead of waiting for the paint to dry and starting all over, I painted a positive layer of white above the horizon, leaving the space of sky in between the horizon and white paint. This made the illusion of a distant mountain range. It is a technique that is easy to replicate on a small scale but can be troublesome on larger pieces due to the gradient of sky looking patchy from having to unnaturally blend around the shapes of the mountains, instead of one consistent direction.
When I am filling in the black, I lay the paint on just a little bit at a time. This helps prevent areas of the paint from being too thick too soon. It also helps the primary layer dry evenly. A standard technique for oil painting is "fat over thin." Obviously, you can go about things however you like but "fat over thin" is a good rule for conservation.
I prefer my last layer of brushstrokes to be vertical, that way when the painting is hanging the overhead lighting won't reflect off of the surface. This is something I only take into consideration on this primary layer of the painting, it is particularly important, though difficult to execute on the sky. I use the Mega Filbert mostly for this process but stick to the one inch square for areas around sensitive contours.
You should now have a relatively soothing silhouette of land under your sky. Soak that up for a few days while you wait for the paint to dry completely. It shouldn't take to long since the paint was applied so thinly. Soon enough, things will get a whole lot more tedious.
Slowly but surely I begin to apply each layer from darkest to lightest. The first layer is a brown that is pretty much next to black. I mixed it with Burnt Umber and Ivory Black, with hints of Raw Umber, Yellow Ochre. I also threw in a little Alizarin Crimson to neutralize the green from the brown mixing with black. To be honest, I am not entirely sure if the green tint is actually there. I am just assuming it is an effect of the color mixing and not my slight red/green color blindness. With this dark of a value I am willing to take the risk and neutralize the color with a little red.
I start with a square edge brush to begin laying in the overall shape of the first layer. Do much of the filling in with this brush as well to keep my accuracy and then smooth the paint out a large Filbert. Some of the large areas I will fill in with the Filbert as well.
I tried to take a photo with some glare so you can see how the structure is outlined. It is important to take the time to lay out the shape of the layer carefully. When I first started making these paintings I would refer to the layers in the photoshopped photo to get an accurate sense of the structure. If things get too haphazard your landscape will start looking like poorly painted drapery.
Sometimes, when I paint in these first few layers, I will paint some fresh black into the corner so I can paint a smooth blend for the silhouetting. Lately, when I mix each layer of color, I am sure to mix an excess amount of paint and preserve it in little plastic containers I buy at the pharmacy. I would imagine somewhere like The Container Store would have a good selection as well. Any paint on my palette I cover with sheets of Saran Wrap to preserve while I am away from the studio.
It is important to be careful while applying the layers near the edge of the sky. I accidentally went over and instead of grabbing a clean brush, dipping it in mineral spirits, brushing off the mistake, and dabbing it lightly with a cloth, I instinctively tried to just rub it off with my finger. Unknowingly, my finger had paint on it so I made it worse. I then tried to haphazardly rub that off with a paper towel, which just rubbed off some of the paint on the sky. Now I will have to figure out how to fix that spot later. It is a complete nightmare to try to fix a spot on such a smooth gradation. I am considering trying to match the general color around the scuff and try to dab over each black spot individually. Every time I try to layer on a single large spot it only matches either to paint at the top or bottom of the spot, never both, because of the blend.
That layer is now filled in and ready to dry. It can be tough to distinguish it from the black if you do not look closely. This will only become more difficult after the paint dries and becomes even darker.
At this point I grabbed a smaller square edge brush, maybe a quarter inch or so, and started blocking in the structure from the next lighter value. (Sorry about the angle of the photographs, I am doing this because from straight on my studio lighting produces a photographically distracting glare.)
For filling in this layer I am only using a small brush, usually a quarter inch square edge or similarly small round. I fill in the space by loading the brush with only a small amount of paint and scribbling it onto the surface with short abrasive strokes. From here on out, applying each layer will take several hours. It is important to scribble according to the topography of the land and to take each little rock formation and pack of trees into account. There is no quick shortcuts for these steps. The smaller the brush you use on these scribbles, the sharper your painting will look.
In this photo I am using a small square edge brush but in hindsight I should have been using an even smaller one. If the brush marks are too large, especially on the parts of the mountain that are furthest away, everything will start looking too blurry to work the structure of the land into the painting. Sometimes a round point brush is useful but it can have a tendency to make the land look flat and choppy and can be counter-productive to the structure of the land. I try to avoid using them in this early of a stage.
As you can start to see, with each layer more detail is revealed and the land begins to take recognizable shape. Again, these steps take several hours each.
And with each layer the paint gets lighter by adding Titanium White, Cadmium Yellow, and Yellow Ochre in small amounts to the previous color. To be honest, I am probably neutralizing the color down with blues and reds as well but I can't recall the exact mixture. After the next couple of layers I will probably need to split off into two separate but simultaneously applied blends because the center of the mountain range is more rocky, with less green vegetation. I will probably mix elements of that grey in little spots throughout the painting to keep it consistent though. In those tough times I usually mix the grey from the brown and start basing my layering and color work on the material make-up of the land itself. To simplify, here is my complete process:
- I start with dark objects with little light reflecting on them.
- With each step I am simply adding a more powerful light source to the image.
- When a differentiation needs to happen between different make ups of the land I switch my focus from adding stronger light to relating the paint to different compositions of land matter.
- I add the greys that make up rock.
- I add the browns and low saturated greens for the land.
- I start adding the brighter greens and browns for vegetation that reach more sunlight and covers the dark surface below.
- I then switch back to painting light instead of the objects, highlighting the light reflecting of the top layer of vegetation.
This layer starts to approach the borderline between painting light and beginning the first steps of paint as land matter. And as I mentioned before, each layer is done with more and more care for detail. The smaller the area you are painting, the more you should be focusing on detail.***
The details and highlights are beginning to really show. Do not let this layer fool you though. This painting is nowhere near finished. This layer will most certainly darken when its dry and the photo above is not entirely accurate to the actually color on the painting. I am taking these shots with a relatively cheap point and shoot digital camera since I do not have the time and resources at my studio to take professional level photos.
Here is a receded view so you can get a better idea of the affects of the scribbling scumbling.****
As you can see, after that layer dries it looks more like a preliminary layer of the land. Starting on the next step I will be switching my focus from thinking of the paint as light to thinking of it as pieces of the land itself. With all time of purchasing materials and canvas assembly accounted for, I am about 50-60 hours deep into this painting.
*I will write a blog post later about affordable alternatives to expensive computer hurdles.
***Again these are just rules to make these paintings. If this process does not interest your intentions then you should by no means be following these "rules."
****That will be the only time you ever see those two words together.