I love painting mountains and one of the great things about living in New Zealand is there is plenty of them to paint! One of my favourite mountains to paint in New Zealand is Mt Talbot and Mt Crosscut which is located in the Fiordland region of the south island.
In this step by step painting demonstration I will show you how to paint this mountain landscape.
Planning the Composition
To begin with I gather my photo reference and decide on which photos I will use to plan my composition. It's quite difficult to get a perfect composition from a photo and so it is necessary to start making changes to the composition to create a pleasing art work that will engage the viewer.
This is one of my photos of Mt Talbot in the distance and Mt Crosscut on the right. The great thing about this location is it already naturally forms a pretty good composition so when I came to sketching it and creating a composition I didn't need to move or alter too many things.
What I like about this photo is there are lots of shadows which is perfect for depicting a tonal dynamic in the painting and there are definite tiers of depth for creating atmospheric perspective. There is plenty of atmosphere and drama in this photo so this is great for creating a painting.
Pencil Sketch and Colour Study
After gathering my photo reference I sit down with my sketch book and draw a few quick thumbnail sketches to get an idea for a composition. This will culminate in a final pencil drawing which I then refer to when I start on the colour study.
Sketching is an important part of the painting process as it helps if you have an idea of where you are going and what the final product will look like. Sketching is not only good fun and good practice but it could also save you many hours of frustration in the studio as a result of a painting not working because your composition did not go to plan. Believe me, this happened to me a lot in the early days when I just went straight into painting with no prior planning, it was very frustrating and I have a mountain of failed art works as a result!
In my final sketch I have Mt Talbot as my focal point with the small stream leading the eye towards it. I use my pencil sketches to get an idea of the tonality of the scene and I achieve this by using a range of pencils including 4H, 2H, HB, 2B and 4B.
After completing my pencil sketches I work on a colour study which is really just a small painting, a miniature version of the final art work. Painting colour studies is really good fun, you can make your mistakes on these and easily correct them. They also make great little paintings which you can sell.
The most important thing about colour studies is that you can use it to determine the colour palette you will use and establish the over tonality and atmosphere of the painting. A colour study will help you to know the road ahead and they are great to refer to as you are painting you final canvas piece as you can match the colours.
My Colour Pallete
I am using Langridge Handmade Oil Paints, which include:
Cadmium yellow deep
Cadmium red light
Beginning the Painting - Blocking In
I start my art work with an underpainting of burnt umber, this gives vibrancy and warmth to the painting as it comes through the paint layers. It also helps with establishing tone and colour as they are not distorted by the white canvas. An underpainting of burnt sienna or burnt umber also gives the painting a traditional look.
Once the underpainting is dry I sketch out the scene with burnt umber.
When blocking in the painting I start by painting the sky as this helps me to gage the overall tonality of the painting. I'm not worried about detail when blocking in the painting, for me it serves as a map that marks out the zones that I will work in once the painting is dry.
I mix the blue of the sky with cobalt blue, cobalt teal and titanium white. I mix the clouds with ultramarine blue, burnt umber which reduces the saturation of the blue and I add quinacridone magenta to give the clouds a violet tint. I increse the tone of the cloud by adding titanium white.
Next I start painting Mt Talbot, I am using large flat bristle brushes and I am using the same colour combination that I used in the clouds but with less titanium white. Using these same colours helps to create colour harmony in the painting.
I drop the tone of the shadows of Mt Crosscut which will bring it forward in the painting that will help to create tiers of depth.
I start adding in the highlights of the mountain face of Mt Crosscut and again I am using the same colour combination I used in the clouds but with more burnt umber and titanium white.
I am not at this stage using pure titanium white for the sunlit areas of the snow on the mountains as this is my lightest tone. Whilst it appears white in the photo, most of the areas are not white and are actually darker. I was to preserve my lightest tones until the end of the painting so I mix the sunlit areas of the snow with the same colours I used in the clouds and plenty of titanium white to make an off white.
The snow that is in shadow was mixed using ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, a little burnt umber and titanium white.
When mixing colour for the distant grass and foliage I need to bear in mind that green does not travel well over a long distance and so I will need to mix some desaturated hues. This is achieved by mixing yellow oxide, ultramarine blue, titanium white and a little burnt sienna to earth the colour.
It is important to make sure that the green is not too saturated otherwise it will come too far forward in the painting and the illusion of depth will be lost.
I paint the shadow of the mountainside of the land mass on the left side. As it is closer to the viewer I use darker tone as my tonal scale of lights and darks increases as you come towards the foreground. Again I use the same colour combination as I used in the clouds.
As I work on the lower half of the painting I paint the reflections in the water using the same colours and tones I used in the mountains which the water is reflecting.
I block in the grass, foliage and trees in the foreground this time using more saturated green. I mix these greens using a combination of cadmium yellow deep, ultramarine blue and I increase the saturation by adding a little pthalo green which really kicks up the mix. I earth these greens by adding either quinacridone magenta or burnt sienna.
I use similar colours for mixing the shadows in the foliage as the red in the quinacridone magenta and burnt sienna being the opposite to green on the colour wheel neutralises the mixture to create a very dark tone and even a near black.
With the blocking in stage complete I wait for the painting to dry before beginning the modelling phase that builds up the detail of the painting.
So now that I have allowed the painting to dry I start working on the detail. I start back with the sky and begin defining the clouds. I use ultramarine blue, burnt umber to reduce the saturation, quinacridone magenta to give the clouds a violet tint and titanium white to increase the tone. I use a flat bristle brush and a dagger brush to define the shapes of the clouds.
The highlights of the clouds are white, but not a pure brilliant white, instead I have dropped the tone by mixing the white with a small quantity of ultramarine blue, burnt umber and quinacridone magenta.
Next I begin working on the highlighted mountain face of Mt Crosscut and Mt Talbot in the distance. I don't go overboard with detail with these distant landforms as too much detail would be confusing on the eye and could potentially disrupt the composition. Often the suggestion of detail is much better as the human brain fills in the rest of the gaps.
I paint the reflected light in Mt Talbot using ultramarine blue, burnt umber, quinacridone magenta and titanium white making the tone a little lighter than the rest of the mountain shadow. Here at this distance my darks are not dark which in a painting will give the illusion of distance.
I paint the highlights on Mt Crosscut again using the same colours ultramarine blue, burnt umber, quinacridone magenta and titanium white but using more burnt umber in the mix.
As I build up the detail of the snow on top of Mt Crosscut I am again mindful not to have it too bright at this stage, so I can add further highlights later on in the painting. I paint the shadows of the snow using a combination of ultramarine blue, cobalt blue and titanium white. I add a little quinacridone magenta in areas to give the appearance of reflected light. If the colour is too saturated I knock it back with a little burnt umber.
At this stage I start build up the detail of the foreground including the grass and foliage, as well as the water. I also work on the mountain face on the right of the painting which is in full sunlight. Here I increase the saturation of my colour but not too much that it comes too far forward in the painting. The green of the foliage is mixed using yellow oxide, ultramarine blue and titanium white where I then add cadmium yellow deep and a little pthalo green in increase the saturation of the green.
At this stage of the painting it is well underway, I refine areas of detail such as the shadows in the distance trees and the rock structure on the side of the mountain. I use a variety of smaller brushes but still using mainly flat brushes and dagger brushes.
I focus more of my attention on the foreground and begin painting the ripples on the water, bearing in mind they are reflecting the sky, so I am using plenty of cobalt blue, ultramarine blue and cobalt teal.
I add more highlights and detail to the grass and foliage in the foreground using ultramarine blue, cadmium yellow deep, pthalo green and titanium white. I add either burnt sienna to the mixture or quinacridone magenta to earth it the green and make it look more organic. Adding quinacridone magenta will also reduce the saturation of the green as being the opposite on the colour wheel to the red in the quinacridone magenta, cancels each other out.
To really bring out the shape of some of these bushes and grasses in the foreground I paint in some dark shadows using a combination of pthalo green and quinacridone magenta which creates a near black. This colour combination also dissipates nicely into the highlighted green hues.
When painting masses in the foreground you can use your most saturated colour and on a tonal scale the shadows will be at their darkest and lights at their lightest. Having strong dark shadows in the foreground can give your painting a real sense of depth and atmosphere especially when it's juxtaposed with the light and mid tones of the masses in the background.
At this stage of the painting I am now starting to introduce my highlights and lightest tones to the foreground which includes the water, the grass and foliage and the mountains. Saving my lightest tones until the end of the painting will make it really come alive.
Here I am adding in fine detail, the reflections in the water, the illuminated foliage of the bushes behind the water and the strong reflected sunlight in the individual leaves on the grasses.
I mix the colour of these bright highlights using mainly cadmium yellow and titanium white.
Here I am getting into the final stages of the painting, adding in fine details such as the rock in the water and the twigs in the bushes behind the stream.
I make some refinements to the reflections in the water keeping in mind that it reflects the sky so I want to use similar colours.
The last part of the painting is where I add the last of my highlights and my lightest tones. I paint some areas of almost pure white in the snow on the top of Mt Crosscut as well as on the highlighted side of the mountains face and I add more highlights to the grasses in the foreground.
I add sparkles in the water with pure titanium white to make it look like it is glistening in the sun. I apply this with a small synthetic round brush.
When considering tonality of your painting, always save your lightest tones until the end of the painting as this is what will make it come to life.
PAINTING LEGEND REVIEW
One of my favourite artists who painted dramatic landscapes is Albert Bierstadt.
Albert Bierstadt was born in Germany in 1830 but emigrated to America with his parents at the age of one. He started drawing at an early age and began painting with oils in 1851. Bierstadt attended art school in 1853 in Düsseldorf, Germany before returning to America in 1857.
Epic - is the term used for Albert Bierstadt's paintings, in which he skilfully crafted his art works to depicted a poetic narrative. He painted on enormous canvases of captivating landscapes as part of his career-long voyage of discovery across the American continent.
Use of dramatic lighting effects were a common theme of Bierstadt's grandiose western subjects of which he painted many especially the Rocky Mountains. His enormous paintings of the newly accessible American west found their way into many private collections for what was at the time staggeringly high prices.
Albert Bierstadt is one of my go to artists for reference as his use of tone to create atmospheric perspective is clearly visible.
I hope you enjoyed this blog post.