Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Painting from a Photograph

Caroline, at To Regions Solitary, had a photograph that one of her students had lent to her. We were discussing how to paint from it and she suggested seeing what I could do. I don't usually like to use a photograph that I haven't taken. So much of my painting is about my own response to the landscape. However I like a challenge sometimes. As this was a bit of a technical exercise, I thought it might be interesting to explain my working methods.

 This was the photograph I had to start with and, as it stands, it wouldn't have made a good painting. The composition is very cramped and unbalanced, and all the colours have an unnatural pinkish hue. I tried to imagine how I might have looked at the view if I had been standing in front of it. Then I made a sketch based on the photograph. This was now a much better basis for a painting.

Materials used


1/4 sheet of Saunders Waterford Extra White, 140lb (300gsm) Rough.


Colours (Winsor and Newton Artists' Watercolours):

Manganese Blue (hue)
French Ultramarine Blue
Permanent Rose
Raw Umber
Burnt Sienna

Stage 1

I began by drawing a few lines to indicate the main forms, but not putting in any detail. Too much detail in a drawing can lead to a tight painting which lacks any expression.

 Stage 2

I brushed clean water over the whole sky and down over the mountain on the right. Then, using the large wash brush, I painted in the clouds at the top with a mixture of Permanent Rose and French Ultramarine. I continued with a wash of Manganese Blue, brushing it into the clouds and down to the top edge of the mountain. This would leave a hard edge where the sun was reflecting off the snow. In places I carried the wash down over the mountain, where I wanted a softer edge. I also painted the water of the loch at this stage. I added a little Permanent Rose to the wash and painted it over most of the mountain, leaving unpainted paper for the snow, and added French Ultramarine for the darker area at the bottom.

The sky area was still damp and I went back and painted in some shadows on the clouds with a stronger, and drier, mix of French Ultramarine and Permanent Rose.

I covered the foreground with a wash of Raw Umber, leaving a slight gap at the top so that it wouldn't run into the blue of the loch. Burnt Sienna, added to the wet wash in places, gave a bit of variety. I was careful not to paint over the trunks of the trees, which I wanted to leave as white paper. This had all been done as one continuous operation and I now let all these washes dry completely.

Stage 3

Next, I changed to the size 12 brush and started to give a bit more form to the mountain. Where the warm light was catching the snow, I brushed in touches of pale Permanent Rose. Then I mixed French Ultramarine with a little Burnt Sienna and painted all the shadow areas. I added a little water and some Permanent Rose and carried this over the rest of the upper slopes, softening the edges with a damp brush. I made a dry mixture of the same colours and dry-brushed some texture onto the lowers slopes. Next, I used Burnt Sienna, with a little Permanent Rose and French Ultramarine, to paint the lower hill and the band of trees in the middle-distance. I added touches of stronger colour in places to indicate areas of shadow and distant woodland.

While these washes were drying, I painted some darker areas in the foreground, with various mixtures of Raw Umber, French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna.

Stage 4

I now started working on the trees. I didn't like the space to the left of the main group, so I added a smaller tree in the gap. This also helped to make them seem less isolated. Using the side of the size 12 brush, I painted the smaller branches and twigs just as areas of colour. This was Burnt Sienna with a touch of Permanent Rose. I added French Ultramarine for the shaded areas. The dark undergrowth around the base of the trees was Burnt Sienna and French Ultramarine. I also added some indication of foreground detail with touches of Raw Umber or Burnt Sienna.

Sgurr à Mhuilinn
26 x 36 cm

The painting was almost finished now apart from some final touches. Using the size 8 brush, I painted in a few branches and some detail on the trunks of the trees. This was with a dark mixture of French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna. I felt that a bit of stronger colour was needed, so I put in some Permanent Rose on the trees and in a few places in the foreground. Nothing more needed to be done. There was just enough to give an impression of sunlight on a winter landscape, without any fussiness or overworking.

Although the painting is based on a photograph, it is more about my collective experience of mountain landscapes in winter. Without that knowledge I don't think I could have produced more than a dull copy of the original image.