Chicken Mill Pond, 24x24, acrylic, copyright 2013, Jan Blencowe
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These are the usual stages I go through when making a landscape painting in the studio. The process is somewhat abbreviated when painting en plein air (outdoors), and as soon as the weather warms up and there's something worth painting outdoors I'll have a post on the progression of a plein air painting.
There are a few things that are not in the graphic above and I'll note those as I go through the process with you.
Choose Your Reference Material Wisely
When I paint a landscape in the studio I always use my own photos and sketches done on location. I can't express strongly enough the need for artists to only paint from their own materials. Unless you've experienced a place for yourself you can't really paint it with authenticity. It's often not enough to just hop out of the car and snap a few quick photos. I think it's best if you've experienced the place for several days, or on multiple trips to the same area. Each place on earth has its own unique qualities, marshes, seashore, woods, etc. (which also change from season to season, and year to year) and you must take time to observe and experience a place before attempting to paint it. An artist must experience and engage with the world she paints. So an artist is also an explorer, an adventurer, a traveler, an observer and a naturalist.
Beyond that, look for references that have something to offer you in the way of impact. Powerful images, great shapes, unusual point of view, dramatic lighting, etc. Use something that sets your creative imagination on fire with possibilities.
Visualize How You'll Paint your Landscape
Spend time thinking, and visualizing in your mind how you want the finished piece to look. Identify what qualities you're after and what you hope to achieve in the painting. It may seem like you're just sitting around wasting time when you'd rather be actively painting but seeing your work in your mind's eye, and figuring out how you'll achieve certain aspects of your painting, what colors, tools, methods you'll employ is critical. The night before I begin a new painting I often rehearse in my mind how I'm going to paint the painting. I literally run a little movie in my head visualizing exactly how I'm going to going to go about creating this painting of a Maine marsh. Lots of athletes and performers visualize and you should too.
Create Concept Sketches
These are usually small, (though sometimes I do large sprawling sketches), they're done quickly, they're messy and inaccurate in many ways. These concept sketches help you explore in an uninhibited way the possibilities of your landscape painting. They also help you work out the concept (why am I painting this, what do I want to say, what's the most important thing about this painting), the value structure, the break up of space, and any drawing issues. That last one is very important. Now is the time to do more sketches of any elements in your painting that pose drawing accuracy challenges. Buildings, rock formations, getting roads, rivers etc to lay flat and recede into space are all things that are better worked out in preliminary sketches than during the painting process. It's amazing how much more confidence you'll have when you begin to paint when you gained familiarity, and mastery over your subject beforehand through some messy, quick concept sketches.
This isn't shown above but I generally tone my canvas using a colored gesso like Daniel Smith's Stone Gray or Buff Titanium or by washing thinned down paint over the entire canvas and letting it dry before beginning a painting. Sometimes while the paint is still wet I'll pull out the light areas using a paper towel.
This isn't on the graphic above either because I forgot to take a picture of that step! First, I size my reference photo to the proportions of my canvas. Then I grid the reference or sketch (or both if I'm using both) I do this in Photoshop or Microsoft Paint. I grid my canvas the same way and then do the drawing directly on the canvas. I use a watercolor pencil in a neutral earth color like umber or ochre. Once the drawing is finished I use a wet paper towel to wash away the grid lines, especially in the sky and areas of the painting that will be light so they won't show through. Using the water color pencil makes making corrections easy because you can use a wet paper towel to remove incorrect lines and areas.
After the drawing is complete I spray it with an acrylic sealer to preserve the drawing and then I loosely develop the painting in a single color, paying special attention to the value relationships, and the value pattern. Overall the under painting is lighter in tone but the relationship between areas of differing value is important. A word to the wise. If your painting isn't working in this stage it's unlikely that it will work in the end. Now is the time to works things out.
Color Block In
I seal the under painting with an isolation coat made form Golden soft gel and water (the recipe is on the jar) and then loosely establish the color scheme for the painting, concentrating on the sky and darks first. This is where I try to establish the feel of a Maine marsh.
Now the really fun part! Develop your landscape painting based on everything you've done so far. Expand the value range, build up layers of color, concentrate on brushwork and edges. This is when I really describe what this Maine marsh is like, trees, plants, textures, etc.
When the painting is done, I sign it, add one thin isolation coat to even out the surface, have it professionally photographed, put on 2-3 more isolation coats, then 2-3 coats of varnish with UV protection. Finally, pick out a frame for it and add the image to my website.