Let’s take a look at how to paint overlapping objects.
As you might already know, I’ve been working on a tree series lately. The main challenge with this series has been dealing with the complex arrangement of overlapping objects. All the leaves, branches, sky, grass, dappled light, and shadows are so tightly woven together it can be difficult to make sense of it all. Below are some of the strategies I’ve used throughout the tree series and some of my other recent paintings.
- Dark Wash Then Apply Highlights
- Broken Color (All at the Same Time)
- Part by Part
- Start With the Focal Point
- Work Back to Front
- Thin Wash Then Apply Dark Accents and Highlights
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Dark Wash Then Apply Highlights
Start with a wash of dark color, roughly matching the shadow colors. Then carve out the highlights. Most of the rendering is done on the highlights; the shadows are best left vague.
This works particularly well with dark, high-contrast scenes. Below is a recent example, Tree in Shadow. I started with a dark wash of blues and purples. Notice how you can roughly make out the subject.
I then worked on the highlights in the back.
To finish, I refined the shadows, being careful not to overwork it. It’s important that the shadows are distinct from the lights, especially for high-contrast scenes like this.
I also used this strategy for the following paintings:
Broken Color (All at the Same Time)
Build up a patchwork of distinct strokes until the subject emerges. This is the classic Impressionist approach. It’s particularly effective for subjects that do not have clearly defined edges between objects.
I used this strategy for my Tree Series, Overcast painting. Below are some progress shots showing the build up of broken color (plus a sneaky photo of Elora and Chontele).
Elora was only three months old in the above photo. She is now almost six months and looks completely different! We have asked her politely to stop growing up so fast.
Part by Part
Work on a certain object until near completion, then move to the next object. This strategy works better when objects are clearly defined.
I used this strategy for Wellington Point, Shimmering Light. I started with all the light blues of the sky and sea. This ensured the colors stayed crisp.
Then I worked on the mangroves stemming from the shallow water. The challenge here is ensuring the light blues did not compromise the darker colors.
I finished with the foreground and the shimmering light.
Start With the Focal Point
Start with the focal point and bring it to near completion. Then work your way around the rest of the painting. I use this strategy when there is a dominant focal point that requires a bit more care. Painting it first means I can give it my full attention. By the end of a painting, I tend to be tired and more prone to mistakes.
The challenge of this strategy is that you spend the rest of the painting having to tip-toe around the work you did on the focal point.
I used this strategy in Minnippi. The dark trees are the focal point. They command attention in a sea of muted greens and grays. I painted them first for two reasons:
- They are delicate and required more care; and
- All the other colors are anchored around this dark accent. Painting the dark trees first allowed me to better judge the surrounding colors.
Work Back to Front
Start with the distinct objects, then work your way forward. This is one of my default strategies for simple compositions. It feels like a logical approach.
I used this strategy for Gold Coast, Sand Dune and Wellington Point, High Contrast:
Thin Wash Then Apply Dark Accents and Highlights
The Russian Impressionists often use this strategy to great effect. Start with a thin wash of muted color, then apply the dark or colorful accents and highlights.
I’ve been testing this strategy with some interior scenes lately. Below are a few paintings featuring my grandparents’ dining room. Interior scenes like this tend to be complex, so it’s important to simplify. Starting with a wash of muted color allows you to simplify most of the “noise”. You can then use highlights and dark accents for the important details.
Want to Learn More?
You might be interested in my Painting Academy course. I’ll walk you through the time-tested fundamentals of painting. It’s perfect for absolute beginner to intermediate painters.
Thanks for Reading!
I appreciate you taking the time to read this post and I hope you found it helpful. Feel free to share it with friends.
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