In this post, you will learn fundamental tips for painting grass. The idea of this post is not to show you a strict, step-by-step process. Instead, I want to take the fundamental ideas and theories and show you how they can be applied to painting grass. This is much the same format as my earlier post on leaves.
Identify the Basic Shapes
Grass can be a challenge to paint because of all the information it provides (the strands of grass, colors, lines, shadows, highlights, etc.). Therefore, the first step for painting grass is to simplify it down to the most basic and abstract shapes. This will allow you to "see" more structure and form.
In the painting below, Konstantin Korovin painted the basic shapes of light and dark and left it at that; he did not paint any of the finer details.
I did a similar thing in my painting below. Grass, whilst an important part of the composition, was not a key feature and therefore did not need to be finely rendered. Instead, I spent more attention on the leaves at the top of the painting.
In Willard Metcalf's Hillside Pastures, the shapes are much more complex due to all the different colors, rocks, and shadows. When the shapes are complex, it is important that you spend more attention on them at the early stage of the painting before adding more of the finer detail. Otherwise, it will be like decorating a cake before stacking the layers.
Once you have established the basic shapes, then you have the option to move on to other rendering techniques which are discussed below. But, you could leave the grass as basic shapes, like in the earlier paintings by Korovin and myself.
Use Directional Brushwork to Capture Movement and Form
A simple but effective technique is to use directional brushwork which matches the form and movement of the grass. For example, if the grass is pointing upwards, then use upwards brushwork. If there is a strong wind blowing the grass to the left, then work your brush to the left in the same way.
Vincent van Gogh took this to the extreme in his painting below, with strong, vertical brushwork to depict the grass on a seemingly calm day. This also creates a strong stylistic effect, typical of van Gogh's work.
In Reflections of Spring, Peter Monsted took a more subtle approach with directional brushwork. If you look at the bottom of the painting, notice the vertical brushwork used. Then it flattens out in the distance, giving a sense of perspective in the painting.
Identify Important Areas and Simplify the Rest
When painting grass, you don't need to render every strand of grass. It is far more effective to identify and focus on just a few important areas and simplify the rest.
For example, in Ivan Shishkin's painting below, he used remarkable detail for the foreground area, but relatively simple detail for the grass in the background.
Below is a watercolor by Shishkin. Most of the realism in the grass can be attributed to those few highlights and dark accents; the rest is just thin washes of color.
Tip: When deciding what to paint with detail and what to simplify, consider the few areas which convey the majority of information. Areas like key shadows or highlights, hard edges, vivid colors, or dark accents.
Take Advantage of the Stained Canvas or Underpainting
I often start a painting by staining the canvas with a dull, earth tone (raw umber, burnt sienna or yellow ochre). One of the benefits of doing this is it gives me the option to leave parts of the stained canvas exposed in the finished painting. This is particularly useful for painting grass, as the exposed earth tone mimics dirt, rocks, plants, etc. Richard Schmid is a remarkable artist who does this in many of his landscape paintings.
Use Broken Color to Paint the Illusion of Numbers
Broken color allows you to easily paint the illusion of numbers without having to delicately render every strand of grass. Claude Monet was a master of this technique. In paintings like the one below, he used small strokes of distinct color which look like grass, rocks, plants, etc. from afar.
Below is another example by Monet. Notice all the different greens, yellows and reds which make up the grass.
Tip: Broken color does not mean you need to use many different hues. You could use just a limited hue range but vary the saturation and value. In Monet's painting below, most of the broken color is made up different green tones (light, dark, and dull greens).
Take Advantage of the Physical Texture of Your Paint
You can use the physical texture of your paint to mimic the texture of the grass you are painting. In Frederick McCubbin's The Edge of The Forest, he built up thick, textured paint to depict the rough foreground. The end result is rather stunning.
Using the physical texture of your paint is particularly effective when combined with contrasting techniques, like:
- Thick paint in the foreground and thin paint in the background;
- Thick paint for highlights and thin paint for shadows; or
- Thick paint for warm colors and thin paint for cool colors.
Also, when using thick paint, the small marks created by each bristle of your brush can represent individual strands of grass. But, this is more effective with firm bristled brushes (like hog hair brushes) rather than thin and weak bristled brushes (like many synthetic brushes).
Use Small Points of Interest to Create Interest in Bland Areas
Another effective technique is to use flat planes of color, then add small points of interest over the top. Arthur Streeton did this in many of his landscapes. Below is a photo of his Cremorne Pastoral which I took from the Art Gallery of New South Wales, along with a close-up of his brushwork. Notice all the small plants, flowers, rocks, etc. which give context to the landscape and direct your attention around the painting. They are also great for sprucing up an otherwise bland area of land.
You might also be interested in my Painting Academy course. It goes into much more detail on the fundamentals of art.