In this post, I walk you step-by-step through my New Zealand Reflections painting.
This was done in oils on a 20x24 inch canvas. For those of you who paint in acrylics or watercolors, many of the fundamental concepts still apply; the main difference between the mediums is the way you apply the paint.
If you have any comments or questions, feel free to add them to the comment section at the end. Enjoy!
A lot of the important work happens before I even pick up a brush. Things like:
- Getting in the right mindset;
- Analyzing the reference photo (or subject in life);
- Identifying potential problems and challenges; and
- Visualizing the process and the finished painting.
I will show you what I mean using the reference photo below as an example.
Here are my preliminary thoughts:
- There is a strong sense of contrast in terms of light and shadow.
- The mist sitting on the water is a key feature (I wrote about the mist here).
- The main rock in the foreground blends in with the surrounding shadows.
- The darkest darks are around the trees on the left and right-hand sides.
- The lightest lights are the clouds, their reflections, and the mist.
- On the mountain, there is a relatively hard and straight edge which is created by a cast shadow (see if you can spot it around the bottom of the mountain). In the painting, I exercise my artistic license and exclude this shadow, as it appears awkward and may confuse viewers.
- The snow can be challenging to paint, as it has a local color of white (typically a challenging color to depict), it is in the distance (atmospheric perspective comes into play), and it is in shadow. This area is prone to color illusions.
- There is a sense of clarity and crispness about the landscape. This is something I want to capture in the painting.
For larger paintings, I like to explore my preliminary thoughts using a small color study. This allows me to get a feel for the scene without committing to something more serious. It also helps me feel out any problem areas that I would need to pay more attention to in the main painting.
The idea of these studies is not to create a finely rendered painting—it is all about exploring the major colors, shapes, and design. With that being said, they can end up being quite charming and painterly (you may be pleasantly surprised at what happens when you let down your guard and stop worrying about the finished outcome).
You can read about the supplies I use here.
The photo below gives you an idea of my studio setup for this painting. From left to right, I have the main painting, the reference photo on my tablet, and the preliminary study. The palette is to the left of the painting (out of the photo).
Like most of my paintings, I start by staining the canvas with raw umber, followed by a quick but careful sketch. In this case, I also draw a three-by-three grid over the painting to help with the sketch (I wrote more about the grid drawing process here).
From here, my usual process is to loosely block-in the general color shapes, then refine everything. However, it is easy to lose control with this process.
I take a different and more careful approach with this painting—I start and almost finish one section, then move onto the next.
I start with the darkest and most imposing shape in the painting: the group of trees on the right-hand side. It is important that I make this area dark enough, as it will anchor the rest of the painting.
Around the bottom, I add a small hint of light blue to indicate the exposed shoreline. This area is in shadow, so I need to be careful with how light I make this color (you always want your shadows to look like shadows).
The next logical step in the painting is to start working on the darks of the distant mountains. These darks appear to blend in with the darks of the trees, forming a subtle link between the two areas.
I work carefully through the shadows, as it is an intricate area and the mountains are a key feature of the painting.
I proceed to map out the rest of the shadows, the snow, the light hitting the mountains on the left-hand side, and the other trees.
The snow is the most challenging part. If I get it wrong, it will stand out. I have more room for error with other areas.
I focus on capturing the relationship of the snow color compared to the surrounding colors which are already on the canvas. However, as you can see, only part of the painting is filled with color; the rest is still in the sketch stage. This makes it difficult to accurately judge the snow color, especially given the absence of the sky colors above.
For the group of trees on the left-hand side, there is a complex arrangement of shadows, highlights, rocks, trees, etc. I do my best to simplify this area down to basic shapes and forms, without losing the important details. That sharp contrast between light and dark is also important to capture.
I take a slightly different approach for the water. With thinned paint, I block-in the major shapes with mostly solid color. I want to capture the sense of stillness in the water, so thick paint and broken color may work against me in this area.
Also, notice how I have done some more work on the sketch on the left-hand side. I feel this is necessary given the complexity of the shapes.
I leave the sky and its reflection until last. These are important as they are, broadly speaking, the lightest areas in the painting. If I make them too light or too dark, the rest of the painting will look off.
The color I use is a mix of titanium white and cobalt blue. The reflection is a touch darker than the sky itself. I also use slightly different brushwork for the reflection, resulting in softer edges, less detail, and broader strokes.
Rock and Refining the Painting
Large rocks like the one in the bottom left-hand corner can be surprisingly challenging to paint, mainly due to the awkward shape and all the different light and dark planes.
This rock is mostly in shadow, but it is picking up some light on the top planes. I start by carefully mapping out the shadows with a dull, dark blue. I then add in the mid-tones which start to lean towards green. There are no highlights in this case.
With the rock painted, the whole canvas is filled with color. I spend some time refining what is on the canvas, but at this stage most of the hard work is complete.
After refining all the details and adding the mist, I sign the painting in the bottom left-hand corner with a dark blue.
For signing paintings, I look for areas of solid color and flat texture. As for the color, I tend to go with one of the main colors used throughout the painting. Then, I go either lighter or darker than the base color to create some contrast. I want my signature to be clear, but not obtrusive. I also take into consideration the overall balance of the painting when deciding which side of the painting to sign.
Here are some of the key takeaways from New Zealand Reflections:
- Preparation is key! Spend time planning and visualizing the finished painting. This will save you from some of the mistakes and frustrations throughout the actual painting process.
- Do not be afraid to change your approach from time to time. With this painting, I took a more controlled and careful approach than what I usually do.
- Be careful with color illusions and traps. In this painting, the snow presents all kinds of problems for my color perception. It has a local color of white (typically a challenging color to depict), it is in the distance (atmospheric perspective comes into play), and it is in shadow. This makes it very difficult to accurately judge the color of the snow.
- Make sure you match your technique to the subject you are painting. I used different techniques for the land, sky, water, and mist.
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Thanks for Reading!
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