How to Paint a Landscape in Oil

This is a landscape painted with oil on paper. It was painted from a photograph and the subject is a pond in Central Park. The visual theme is "distance" and all of my choices were made in order to communicate and stress the illusion of space. 
The painting was made in four layers, with a few days between each one to allow the paint to dry. I am going to describe the process of each layer.


The first step is to block in the large shapes. This is a means of mapping out the composition, choosing which objects will be included and which omitted. The exact tones used at this stage are not absolutely critical but are an approximation of the target colors. Since they will serve as a substrate for subsequent layers, I mixed them lighter and duller than my target colors. That way they won't dominate subsequent layers by showing through and altering the color of those layers—at least no more than I want them to.


The next layer of paint is primarily concerned with shadow tones. I chose the tones of green that would serve as shadows for each area of the composition and roughed them in with a stippling brushstroke. Stippling is when you pat the brush rapidly against the canvas at a 90ยบ angle. I then lightly swept the surface with a fan brush to further scatter the color and to level out any heavy blobs of paint. Since the shadow colors are customized for each separate patch of foliage, this layer progresses the differentiation of one object from another and allows for more refined compositional decisions to be made. 
          Speaking personally, this is the most painful layer. Having just finished a beautiful underpainting, I now have to obscure those carefully chosen colors with a rash of messy brush strokes. As painful as it might be, an artist has to steel himself against being pristine at this stage. This isn't where you find gold; you're just loosening the soil to begin digging.


The next layer is all about light. I carefully chose the greens for each group of leaves. The basis for the choices was mimesis of the actual landscape, but I augmented them to accentuate the differentiation of each tree from the next and to exaggerate the atmospheric perspective. I activated the middle-ground behind the trees with bright patches of light and I obscured the background trees with a scumbled layer of white. (Scumbling is the semi-transparent application of a light color over a darker color. The effect is a bluish-gray haze.) 
             The most important and time consuming element of this stage was the leaf grouping. I had to apply the paint rather slowly, and to carefully control how each patch of light green is connected to or distinguished from its neighbors. These choices heavily influenced the final stage where I could cash in on them with the most complex stylistic effects of the painting.


The last layer is about refinement. The main choices have been made, and they now need to be edited and polished. 
          I added shadow details with dark glazes and edited the profile of the trees against the sky with light scumbles. The patch of sand in the hollow behind the trees is now a patch of sunlit grass, establishing a sense of distance from the brighter patch of sunlight closer to the foreground. I painted in some abbreviated shapes in the water to finish the illusion of reflection and added the flourish of ripples in the water to transition the ground separation of foreground to background refections. 
          The bulk of the work was in bringing up the highlights in the leaves. Working over the shapes established in the previous layer I found shapes and patterns that could be accentuated with a series of small dabbed highlights. By selecting which areas will receive this layer of refinement I could choose which would be the areas of primary focus. By selectively refining some leaves and leaving others rough, I direct the viewer's gaze to the mid-ground trees as the primary point of focus, with the willow branches in the foreground and haze of trees in the background as the secondary focuses.
           The differentiation between these three grounds is what carries the visual theme of distance. They are like the "plot" of the painting, with the more limited ground separation in the hollow behind the trees serving as the sub-plot. Looking back at the underpainting, you can already see this"plot" in its essentialized form. This is the value of following a rigorously methodical approach. By establishing the basic compositional design early on, I was free to focus on narrower aspects of the painting and could rely on the foundations I had laid to implicitly keep me directed to the theme, without having to consciously focus on it.
*The method I have described can be used in any type of painting, not just landscapes, and with many different paint media. The procedure will be essentially the same if you are using acrylic or digital media. If you are using watercolors, keep your underpainting very light, and fine details and corrections can be made with opaque colors, such as gouache or acrylic. And remember, this is a "how to," not a "must do." Think of this method as a template on which to build your own approach. Technique is the material implementation of style, so as your unique style develops, your technique should become more personalized.

Follow me on Instagram


  1. I read your blog frequently and I just thought I’d say keep up the amazing work!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Carolus Duran, John Singer Sargent and the "Indispensable" in Art

Kate Jarvik Birch