A friend recently suggested she would be interested in following me through the steps of a painting from start to finish. Maybe there are others out there as well, so I'm going to walk you through my recent painting "Sunnyside Up".
Gerald Island sits offshore about 1 km from my studio window, and I get to see it in all sorts of lighting conditions. I've taken many photos of it and have long wanted to do a painting of it, but it was difficult to see how I could do an interesting painting of such a long, relatively low subject. It would require a canvas about 12 inches high and 6 feet wide – challenging to make into a strong composition. Recently it occurred to me that if I squished the island shorter, and stretched it taller, I could still retain the general features and fit it onto a 12x24" canvas. Caricaturists exaggerate features all the time and the person being drawn remains recognizable. I could do a caricature of Gerald Island.
I started out by taking one of my digital reference photos (left) and distorting it using my Photoshop program (right). In this case, I not only distorted the width and height, but also exaggerated the colour saturation and contrast just a little to give me a better feel for the forms. I should mention this is quite a departure for me who usually takes his realism seriously and makes only slight alterations to what the real thing looks like, if artistically necessary. Then I drew the outlines of the basic shapes on the canvas with an F pencil. Unless you are drawing a well known landmark, there is not much right or wrong about landscape shapes, so accuracy is not critical. The one thing you have to get right is the horizon line which I drew in using a carpenter's level as my guide.
After covering the entire canvas with a thin layer of warm, neutral colour, making it easier to judge value ranges (level of light and dark) than on a pure white canvas, I start painting the furthest areas first. Usually that means the sky, then the next forward layer which in this case was the furthest layer of mountains, then the next layer in front of them, and so on. I do it this way because then I have full control of the edges of each layer. The mountains are actually in front of the sky, so I paint them over the finished sky colour instead of trying to paint the sky down to the edge of the mountain tops which seems like a backwards way of doing it to me. To get the effect of distance (atmospheric perspective), I may apply many layers of heavily diluted pale blue over the background until I'm satisfied with the level of haze. In this painting I probably applied up to 6 layers in certain areas. Each layer has to dry before you can see the effect.
When I get to the foreground such as the trees, the background behind is already finished, so I can leave gaps and spaces through which the background shows through the foliage and it looks natural. I paint the trees in rough, add more layers of paint to intensify the dark colour, and then highlight the sunny side with much lighter green. Finally, I throw on some colour and shading variations on areas such as rocks and grassy patches, and then spend quite a bit of time just staring at the piece to see little things that need adjustment or change. Looking at the painting a day or two later often allows me to see flaws that I never noticed earlier.
As you may notice, the finished painting does not look much like the reference photo I started with, but I hope you agree the painting is better than the photo. When I did this painting over my vacation, we had awesome weather, and with the island clearly visible outside my studio window, I had the advantage of being able to look at it while painting and recreate the lighting and details I particularly liked, so I was not limited by the photograph which basically just provided me with the shapes and masses for my composition.
And that's how easy it is. Not that complicated really, is it?