So much for my great idea of doing some smaller painting studies - I have a stack of large canvases ready to go in the studio, and they've been calling my name recently. I just started a 30x40" landscape today, and it's going to take a while, so I figured I'd post it as a detailed demo as I go along. I apologize in advance for the bad quality photos - the light in my studio isn't optimal for photographing paintings, and I was too lazy to square them all up in photoshop.
Anyhow, the first step in doing a large painting? Finding inspiration, of course! The subject of this painting is Lake Isabelle, which is in the Indian Peaks Wilderness area near Boulder, Colorado. This is a popular Boulder area hike because it's short (2 miles one way) and beautiful, so the trail is always packed with hikers. Nate and I hiked up with Aspen back in August. Nate's back was hurting so I carried Aspen in her backpack the whole way - it was a good workout!
I'm working directly from a photo reference for this painting - I've spent a lot of time hiking in this area, so my memory serves me pretty well for the color and feel of the place.
The first step is getting the drawing down on canvas. I usually draw directly onto the canvas with thinned paint, blocking in the major shapes and refining from there; however, since this is a large painting and a popular scene, I wanted to get the drawing just right. I have a hard time eyeballing a drawing on a canvas this large, so I sketched in a grid and transferred the main shapes on to the canvas in charcoal. As I paint, I'll move things around a bit to improve the composition, but I want to make sure I have the mountains drawn correctly to begin with. I'm not normally this anal with my initial drawing, but when I work large I like to make sure things are correct right from the start - a stupid mistake in the beginning can result in trashing an expensive canvas, not to mention wasting days of precious painting time.
Once I've finished the drawing, I start in on the underpainting. When I paint larger paintings in the studio, I do a full underpainting in thinned paint prior to finishing the piece with thick oil paint. The initial underpainting allows me to put down the major shapes and colors quickly so that I can judge how the composition and color is working as I go along. It also serves to cover the white canvas - even when I paint plein air, I do a quick block in of the major shapes in thin paint, just to cover the canvas.
I normally do my underpainting in oil paint thinned with mineral spirits, but I'm using acrylics for this one because I'm in a hurry to get in done and I want the underpainting to dry by tomorrow. I also used acrylics to do my underpaintings when I was pregnant and didn't have solvents in the studio, but that's another story. Anyhow, I use super cheap acrylics, and an even cheaper palette. They get covered up in the end, so I'm not too concerned about the quality of the pigments. Here I'm using white, cad yellow hue, cad orange hue, ultramarine blue, burnt sienna, alizarin, and some sort of obnoxious green. These paints are really bright - I do a lot of mixing of compliments to grey things down.
I start by painting in the sky. I don't know why, but I ALWAYS paint the sky first in every painting I do. Honestly, if someone made me start by painting some other part of the painting, I'm sure I would have a nervous breakdown on the spot. I'm a little bit obsessive about using the sky to judge everything else in the painting (color temperatures, etc.).
Once the sky is in, I start to block in the shadow shapes on the mountains.
I try to keep things simple, and I don't bother with variations in color temperature at this point. I only mix up a new color/value when I move to a different plane in the picture (in the case below, the mountains that are closer to the viewer).
The shadows really define the form of the mountains. Once they're done, I go in with a mid-tone to fill in the lighter shapes in the part of the mountain that is in the shade.
Next up is filling in the lighter shapes on the main part of the mountain that is in the sunlight.
Last, I fill in the lighter shapes on the sunlit hillside to the right, keeping things fairly loose and making sure the paint is thin and leaves no texture. At this point, the basic form of the mountain is blocked in, and I can see where I'm going to need to adjust my color temperature and value. For instance, the shadowed part of the mountain is a bit dark, the sunlit planes aren't bright enough, and the right hand side of the mountain needs work to define the rock forms.
And that's where I stopped for today. This is only about an hour's worth of painting, but I had finished another painting prior to starting in on this one, and I was getting tired. I've learned that once I start to get tired, it's time to put the paint brush down and take a rest. When I'm tired, I make bad decisions, and bad decisions just result in rework.
Nate's mom is watching Aspen tomorrow, so I'm planning to finish this underpainting and start in on the fun part - thick, buttery oil paint!