Oil Painting Exercise Three: Landscape

For our third and last oil painting exercise, you’ll once again work with Beginner’s School instructor, Cynda Valle, to create a landscape!

Here’s the reference photo you’ll need:

oil landscape ref

To download this photo, right click and save to your computer. Print it if you have a printer available to you. If you’d rather put it on a tablet for reference while you’re painting, that’s fine too!

List of paints used:

  • Titanium White
  • Ultramarine Blue
  • Transparent Red Earth
  • Manganese Blue Hue
  • Quinacridone Red
  • Permanent Green Light
  • Cadmium Yellow Medium
  • Pthalo Green

Here are the tutorial videos in order:

Part One: Basic Underpainting

Part Two: Pull Out Highlights And Finish Underpainting

Part Three: Paint The Tree

Part Four: Finish The Painting

We expect that this lesson will take about three hours to complete, though this may vary from student to student depending on your individual pace. Take your time, don’t rush, and if you need to stop you can. If you have more than an hour to spare, then work as long as you feel comfortable!

Part One: Basic Underpainting

 

To begin, Cynda reminds us that it doesn’t matter what we’re painting, we always paint it the same way. Whether it’s a house, a tree, or a person–it doesn’t even matter if it’s an actual thing–we could be painting air or negative space. Treat everything with the same amount of attention!

Cynda took a photo of this tree when she was leaving her studio in Los Angeles earlier in the day. The tree has great contrast and nice shadows in it, but there’s an irritating banner in the shot. That’s okay–we’re going to leave it out. Remember, this is your prerogative as the artist! You pick what stays and what goes. So for this tutorial, we’re going to leave out that banner.

The first step, as always, it to kill the white. Because there’s a nice sky in the background, we’re going to start by adding a liquid white. If you haven’t seen the tutorial on adding liquid white, you can find it in the Glazing With Oils video. Basically what you want to do is to mix some of your Titanium White (Cynda accidentally says “fast matte white” instead of “titanium white” here, but either will work) with a bit of Gamsol and your medium, Neo Megilp (or other alkyd medium). Make a slushy, white paint and then paint it onto the background of your canvas where the sky will be. Once you’ve done that, you can wipe it off slightly with a rag as Cynda does in the video.

Using a large brush, pick up some of your Manganese Blue Hue and start at the top and pushing your brush horizontally, work your way down to the horizon line. Working this way will make your sky seem to fade to light as you get closer to the horizon. If your sky isn’t quite dark enough or a deep enough blue, go ahead and do another layer just like the first one. Cynda mentions that you’ll have about an hour to an hour and a half before the paint dries to keep working on this layer. Remember that in order for the paint to stick to what’s underneath it, the top layer needs to be just ever so slightly thicker than what came before it (this means use just a little less medium and a little more paint this time around). As Cynda is painting in her second layer, she notices a hair in the paint. If you notice the same thing happen to you, pull the hair out right away! If it dries in the paint, it will be very hard to get out and if you do manage to pull it out, it will leave a ridge of paint and a very small unpainted spot beneath it. Hairs can be difficult to pull out with your fingers, so try using the edge of your paintbrush to sort of flick the meandering hair out of there. Then just go back and smooth out the paint where you had to pull out the hair.

Now that the sky blend is finished, Cynda is moving on to the next step which is blocking in where the lighter values will be by using a dry paper towel. Before doing that, however, Cynda decides to get rid of all the white canvas space and she mixes up a shadow color of Ultramarine Blue and Transparent Red Earth. She brushes in the shadow color very loosely, then softens it by rubbing the paint with her fingers (again, you can use a dry brush if that suits you better). In the next video, Cynda will be pulling out highlights with her paper towel–remember that this part must occur while the paint is still wet so don’t leave your painting just yet!

 

Part Two: Pull Out Highlights And Finish Underpainting

Now we are going to continue the painting by pulling out some of the major light areas with a dry paper towel. You’ll need to do this part while the paint is still wet. After pulling out a few of the major highlights, Cynda mixes up the same shadow color she used in the previous video, but thicker so that it’s darker. You can use this color to “draw” in some of the major objects in the painting if you like. Using a medium sized brush, she paints in some very dark shadows in the main tree. After adding in a few shadows, she’s decided her paint is too close to black and she wants it to be more blue, so she goes back to her palette and adds some Manganese Blue Hue to her shadow mix to really kick up the blue. Remember that your paint should be transparent in order to really get that nice luminous quality, so if any areas of paint look too heavy (or opaque), just lightly pull some of the pigment off with your finger or a clean, dry brush.

As she’s adding in the shadows, you’ll notice she’s adding darks even where there will be some lights later on in the painting process. The reason for this is because it will create great contrast–the darker the paint is underneath, the brighter the highlight on top of it will look.

Cynda reminds us that the best way to approach a landscape painting is to start with the objects furthest away (in this case, we started with the sky) and then work your way up to the foreground and to the bottom of the picture plane. Continue blocking in your shadows. Cynda mentions that a good habit to get into is not naming things–don’t think of the objects in your painting as “tree” or “road”–only think of shapes that are either light or dark. If you start thinking, “Well, this is a tree”, then you will start painting what you think a tree looks like in your head and not what you’re actually seeing. So try your very best to look at the reference photo in an objective and abstract way and only look for light, medium, and dark tones instead of objects!

As with the banner in the reference photo, you can choose not to paint any of the other pieces of information in the reference photo, such as telephone poles. If you want to paint them, go ahead! If not, leave them out. It’s completely your choice. Cynda is painting in one of the telephone poles at least for now (she may decide to take it out later) because it helps her to figure out where to place the other objects in her painting. Remember that even if you’re painting something precise (like this skinny telephone pole), you don’t want to hold your brush like a pencil and get too close to your painting. Back up! And if you need a support for your painting hand, you can use your other arm (as Cynda does) or you can use a maulstick (which you have seen in J. Schisler’s video in Glazing In Oil Paints). To make a nice thin line, you can purchase a liner brush from the art store OR you can use a flat brush with a good tip (make sure the bristles aren’t frayed) and use it on its side. Load up the brush with a good amount of paint then turn it on its side and pull straight down–you’ll get a beautiful, thin line without having to buy another brush!

Now, Cynda has moved on to blocking in the red tree on the right-hand side of the road in the reference photo. Instead of using blue, she’s using a red mix, made by using her dirty brush (with the blue shadow mixture) along with Quinacridone Red to make a sort of red-brown color.

Cynda begins pulling out more highlights with q-tips now to emphasize the contrast between light and dark in the painting. She also underpaints another tree in blue (instead of green) so that when she adds green on top of it, the blue will show through as shadow color. Then she works on the shadow in the roadway, pulling out some highlights in the road and as she’s doing this, she realizes the shape of her shadow isn’t quite right. She tries to fix it and uses her brush to add in more paint but because the paint wasn’t thick enough, it pulled up the paint that was already there. She uses this as an example of what happens when you have the wrong consistency of paint. Always remember that what goes on top must be thicker in order to stick! To fix her mistake, she loads up her brush with more paint and goes back and retouches the area where the paint came up.

She then works on the shadow in the roadway, pulling out some highlights in the road and as she’s doing this, she realizes the shape of her shadow isn’t quite right. She tries to fix it and uses her brush to add in more paint but because the paint wasn’t thick enough, it pulled up the paint that was already there. She uses this as an example of what happens when you have the wrong consistency of paint. Always remember that what goes on top must be thicker in order to stick! To fix her mistake, she loads up her brush with more paint and goes back and retouches the area where the paint came up.

Now she’s going to let this layer of paint dry and she will come back and add the next layer in the next video!

Part Three: Paint The Tree

For this video, Cynda has waited until the first layer has dried so that she can paint and not worry about pulling up paint or mixing in with the previous paints.

To start, close one eye and squint the other and get far enough away from your painting so that you can see both the painting and the reference photo to compare them. She’s decided to add more dark shadows in at this point and uses the same mix she used before–Ultramarine Blue and Transparent Red Earth. She mentions that while it may seem odd, contradictions in painting are what really make it work. Says Cynda, “You can pretty much guarantee that your average human, if he tastes something salty, he might then crave something sweet. If he’s hot, he would crave being cold. It’s the same thing here in our painting. When you present the viewer with a cool color, we automatically crave a warm color. When we present thin paint, we crave thicker paint. When we present shadow, we crave light. So it’s all of these contradictory things working in harmony together that really excites the eye and makes for a beautiful painting.”

Now Cynda is working on a nice, intense blue that she sees in the shadow of the main tree. We only have Manganese Blue Hue and Ultramarine Blue. At this point, Cynda suggests building your supply of paint colors when it’s feasible for you. By adding more colors to your supply, you’re better able to mix exactly the colors you need. On the flip side, it can also be intimidating to have too many colors at your disposal, so for now just keep it simple and work with what you have! Cynda makes a mix of Manganese Blue Hue and Ultramarine Blue to make a bright blue to use in the shadows on the street.

After that, Cynda decides to add in a bit more blue to the sky. She’s using straight Manganese Blue Hue with some of her Neo Megilp medium. Start adding the paint in at the top of your canvas and work your way down so you get a nice fade, just like you did before. Now it’s time to move on to another part of the painting. Cynda moves on to blocking in some spots of the red-brown trees in the distance and adds these in with a mix of Transparent Red Earth and Quinacridone Red.

We are now going to move on to some brighter areas in the painting. Use your flat (or bright, if you have it) brush for the upcoming steps. After squinting one eye and closing the other, Cynda has decided to start with the main tree in the painting. Now, you can’t (and don’t want to) paint every single leaf on the tree! So, squinting again at the reference photo, try to get an understanding of the basic shapes that the leaves take on–sort of rounded lumps with little pointy ends. Mix a lot of green for this with some Permanent Green Light and a bit of your medium. With a lot of paint on the brush, simply lay the brush down on top of the tree. There’s no need here to actually make a stroke with your brush–simply lay the brush down on its side and then lift up. Watch carefully how Cynda does this in the video. We want to be able to see the mark your brush leaves–no blending! This will make the paint look more like leaves than if you try blending each stroke. In the parts of the tree where the banner is covering it, just copy what you’re doing with the other leaves in the tree. Notice how Cynda is changing the size of her leaves as she’s painting them–this will create depth and contrast in your tree.

Once she has painted in many of the leaves on the tree, Cynda moves on to adding some more color into the shadow on the tree. She switches back to her filbert brush and mixes Ultramarine Blue with a touch of Transparent Red Earth. Using the same technique as you used in painting the leaves, simply lay the brush down onto the tree to make the same kind of shape as you did before in the leaves. After adding in the shadow, Cynda goes back and refines some of the leaves in the tree to make them look more delicate. Again, she’s using her flat brush turned on its side to make those delicate leaf ends she sees in the reference photo. To make the tree look more natural, try to avoid patterns and use a variety of brush strokes so not all the leaves look exactly the same. At one point, Cynda changes the shapes of the leaves near the bottom of the tree by “negatively painting” them. What she means is that she is using a clean, dry brush with no paint on it to push around the existing, wet paint and break up the blockiness of the shape she’s created.

 

Part Four: Finish The Painting

If you need to break this video into two parts in order to finish, a good place to stop is at 16:50. Don’t worry–we’ll remind you in the video.

We begin the fourth and last video with a few touchups on the leaves at the bottom edge of the tree. Even though Cynda is making some very tiny leaves, she is still using her large flat brush. You’ll be surprised at the small marks you can make even with a bigger brush! Don’t be tempted to pull out small brushes for this part. If you wear reading glasses or bifocals, you can simply look over the top of them to accomplish the same effect as “closing one eye and squinting the other”.

There’s a tree next to the main tree and in order to give them a little differentiation, Cynda mixes a different green for the second tree, opting for Permanent Green Light mixed with a little blue that’s already on her palette–a bit of Manganese Blue Hue and some of her shadow mix from earlier (Ultramarine Blue and Transparent Red Earth). This tree gets a very fast few brush strokes and it’s time to move on to the hedge in the background. The hedge is more of a yellow-green than what we’ve been using so far, so Cynda is adding a bit of Cadmium Yellow Medium and Transparent Red Earth to her existing green on her palette. Paint this color in where you see it in the reference photo.

She gets a little too much paint on her brush and it starts to go up to the ferrule, so she does a quick “spin and pull” motion with her brush to move the paint back down to the bristles and away from the ferrule. Watch carefully in the video to see how she does it! If this is difficult for you to maneuver, you can always wipe the excess paint off on your rag, clean it in your Gamsol, then go back and pick up more paint so it’s only on the bristles and not creeping up into the ferrule.

On the roadway now, there are some blue-grey spots. Mix up Manganese Blue Hue, Titanium White, and a touch of Transparent Red Earth to get a nice grey tone. Don’t forget to add your medium to your paint (just dip your brush lightly into your medium container to pick up a small amount). If it’s too light (like Cynda’s), you can add a touch of Manganese Blue to darken it a little. Paint this color into the roadway on the parts where you haven’t painted shadows. Notice that the line between the shadow and the light in the roadway is actually a sharp line, so resist the urge to blend these two areas of paint together. Off in the distance, the shadows on the street become a bunch more intense blue. Before adding this in, Cynda removes a little bit of the blue from the shadows in the street so the colors don’t mix too much. On her palette, she mixes some Titanium White and Ultramarine Blue to make a nice, vibrant blue for the shadows. After adding in the vibrant blue where she sees it in the shadows, she adds some darker blue along the curb line under the main tree.

For the brighter sunlight spots on the sidewalk and roadway, Cynda mixes up some Titanium White with a touch each of Transparent Red Earth and Cadmium Yellow Medium. Look for all the places where you can use this one color and paint them all in at the same time. At one point, Cynda makes a small mistake that she says she wishes she could fix, but it’s difficult when painting wet-into-wet like this because attempting to fix something will likely only result in it turning into mud. So she has to just move on and live with the small error!

Now Cynda is moving on to the red tree on the right side of the painting. She starts by adding a bit of shadow color loosely to the tree with a very dry brush–just enough paint to make the tree slightly darker than it is. After that, she creates the red highlight mix which consists of Transparent Red Earth and Cadmium Red Light with a touch of Titanium White. Notice how she paints in the highlight–she picks up a good amount of paint on her brush then just touches it to the canvas, much in the same way the painted the other tree. She keeps her paint strokes very loose and then gently blends the edges with her finger. She adds in some highlights in the background using pure Titanium White, then moves on to the sky.

Starting with Titanium White, Cynda adds just the smallest amount of Pthalo Green into it. Pthalo Green is one of those colors that can be pretty overwhelming, so a little bit goes a long way! At this point, the paint is all still very wet so be careful not to accidentally pick up any of the red from the tree you just painted. If you do, just wipe your brush off and get all the red paint off of it before going back to your sky color. Cynda goes back to her sky color and lays it in gently, picking out negative spaces/spots of sunlight filtering through the tree to paint. Around the outside edge of the tree, there are some small leaf shapes that can be defined by adding sky color around them. Cynda decides to paint over the telephone pole and does so with just a few strokes, using the sky color. This paint is opaque because of the amount of white in it, so it should cover the telephone pole easily.

Moving into the middle section of the sky, it becomes bluer. Cynda adds a bit of Ultramarine Blue to her Pthalo Green and Titanium White mix. She blends this in with the lighter sky color and works up towards the top of the painting remembering to pay attention to leaf shapes on the outside edge of the tree. Then, for the top part of the sky where it is bright blue, Cynda adds some Manganese Blue Hue to her existing sky color paint and blends it into the mid-tone sky color, working her way up again. Notice that she doesn’t paint all of the upper portions of the sky this color–she leaves out the very top part so that her vibrant blue underpainting still shows through.

After the sky, Cynda is finished with the majority of the painting. Now it’s time to step back and take a look at the painting as a whole and see if there’s anything you’ve missed or want to touch up. Cynda doesn’t “step back” per se, but leans back in her chair so that she can see the whole painting and not just the details she sees when she’s up close. You can either lean back in your chair (carefully–don’t tip over!) or you can stand up and walk behind your chair in order to see the painting as a whole. While Cynda does this, she realizes she wants to fix up her red tree in the background. In order to make the red really pop, she mixes the complementary color–green–to add to her tree.

Knowing When To Stop

The key to a successful painting is knowing when to stop! Fussing too much will only make your paint muddy and the overall painting appear overworked. It’s really difficult to know when to stop painting, so here are a few tips:

  • Move your painting to another area. Take it off your easel and prop it up in another room in the house. You won’t have the temptation of brushes and paint in another room so you can view the painting more objectively.
  • Give it time. Sometimes you need a day or two to look at the painting before you see something you want to change.
  • Ask opinions. Get the opinion of someone else. Do they think it looks finished? This can be hard to ask of someone else–as artists, we often feel very vulnerable doing this. Sometimes, though, it’s best to get the fresh eyes of someone who hasn’t been looking at the painting for a long time because they’ll notice something that you overlooked because you were focused on another piece of the work. Be brave, ask for opinions, and have confidence in your work!

All artists struggle with the idea of when a painting is finished. Here are a few notable quotes on the subject, just for fun:

“When something is finished, that means it’s dead, doesn’t it? I believe in everlastingness. I never finish a painting – I just stop working on it for a while” – Arshile Gorky

“To finish a work? To finish a picture? What nonsense! To finish it means to be through with it, to kill it, to rid it of its soul, to give it its final blow the coup de grace for the painter as well as for the picture” – Pablo Picasso

“How do you complete a painting, really? There are paintings by so many different artists that are interesting precisely because they haven’t really been completed” – Peter Doig

“Do not finish your work too much. An impression is not sufficiently durable for its first freshness to survive a belated search for infinite detail; in this way you let the lava grow cool…” – Paul Gauguin

“It is difficult to stop in time because one gets carried away. But I have that strength; it is the only strength I have” – Claude Monet

 

Cynda is finished with her painting. How did yours turn out? Send a photo to us using our Submission Form!

Now that you’ve completed all the oil painting exercises, you can read up on Painting En Plein Air With Oils or have a look around the SRC for more oil tips, techniques, and videos!

 

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