I had an email from a student recently with a great question,
I’m wondering how to start painting this picture. There are so many colours, trees and bushes so I think it gets so messy. Do I start with the sky in the background and work my way forward and finally paint the trees? – Ulrikke
The photo that accompanied the email was a scene crowded with trees. Lots of layers all on top of each other, overlapping leaves and foliage coming towards the viewer with almost no visual sky.
Scenes like this, or the one above, are challenging subjects to paint.
Because there are no clear silhouettes or variety in sizes of the shapes, if you were to create a shadow map, it wouldn’t be instantly recognisable as a landscape. There is a motif of a tree on the right-hand side but in general, there isn’t a good arrangement of elements within the composition.
There will be occasions when you have a view that is less than ideal, but you still want to paint it. Maybe you’ve taken just one photo of a memorable trip, or a customer gives you a photo for a commission.
In our example, the woodland scene was taken from the garden of my childhood home. My Dad planted the trees when they were just saplings. It has memories of nostalgia and time passing.
So where would you start?
If you were to approach painting this classically, you’d creep up on the colours, apply thin layers and build up the colour palette slowly.
But because the detail is almost overwhelming, you’d have to rely heavily on your drawing skills to keep checking your shapes. After applying an Umber block-in, it would be difficult to differentiate between all the objects and on top of that, the values between the colours are all so very similar.
I want to show you a method where you can quickly make sense of a complicated or messy scene, using a poster study. We’ll create an impression, rather than drawing too much detail. Grouping and concentrating on blocks of colours together, using 2 values from each colour family.
In our image we have piles of leaves on the woodland floor, but with colour variations between every single leaf. All the branches are very thin, with lots of them, everything is tiny and detailed. There’s no clear path to where you begin and where you stop.
The first thing I do is colour group. Identify the main colours within the scene, keeping them to three or four. So now I’ve got categories of oranges, greens, yellows and blues.
Then I say if I had to only use two variations of green to paint all of the greens, what would I use?
Well, for this scene, I’d pick out the dark green of the undergrowth and that will do my shadow area as well, and I’d use a lighter yellow-green, for the leaves. But remember I’ve only got one light value to use, so I squint my eyes and choose a general leaf hue.
You do that with all the colours It forces you to make a decision. One’s got to be shadow one’s got to be light.
Approaching a quick study in this way will help to give clarity. Simple but recognisable, so your study will still ‘read’ across a room, with the lowest risk of getting muddled and the highest success rate.
A poster study is a small, simplified painting; the colour placement is applied flatly, almost like a screen print. The purpose is to map out the tone, illustrate harmony and establish the mood of a scene quickly.
If you’re a beginner, this is a great way to work with stronger colours quicker, practice colour mixing, and get to think about colours as values. It is efficient, and you are much less likely to get lost, and it develops a practice that you can use for any subject.
The great thing about a poster study is you can leave it as a painting in its own right. Use it as a preparatory study or sketch to make a larger piece from. Or work on top of it, use this poster study as a colour block-in for a more refined, detailed painting.
Downloading the reference photograph
The photo can be downloaded, so you can use it as a reference image, print it out, and follow the steps below. (The size of the image is 1:1 to the size I painted)
You can download the image here.
Materials you will need:
- 10 x 8 inch (25.4 x 20.32cm) canvas, board or acrylic paper
I’ve used a board with a couple of coats of acrylic gesso, but you could use canvas, or acrylic paper because this is a study rather than a finished painting.
Darks & Lights
- Mars Black (Winsor & Newton)
- Neutral Gray N4 (Golden Paints)
- Titanium White (Golden Paints)
- Burnt Umber (Golden Paints)
- Cadmium Orange (Golden Paints)
- Permanent Green Light (Golden Paints)
- Cadmium Yellow Light (Golden Paints)
- Yellow Ochre (Winsor & Newton)
- Raw Umber (Golden Paints)
- Cobalt Blue (Golden Paints)
- Jacksons Arts Procryl, size 6, Flat
- Liquitex Acrylic Marker, 2-4mm chisel nib: Neutral Grey 5
I start by working directly onto the white gessoed board without applying a tonal ground. The initial sketch is with a Neutral Grey acrylic marker and I can establish the motif of the tree and branches on the right-hand side.
Mixing the Greys
I then use Mars Black (Ivory Black or Carbon Black would also work fine) and a Neutral Grey N4. I paint both of these with the flat synthetic brush straight from the tube, just diluted slightly with water using the edge of the brush and lifting the pressure off as I get towards the end of the branches.
The black is placed at the bottom of the trunk and the base of the foliage near the woodland floor. The grey indicates a sense of light hitting the top of the trees as they get closer to the sky.
Mixing the Oranges
Working between Cadmium Orange and Burnt Umber with a palette knife, (size 45 from RGM) I create two distinct colour tones. A slightly muted down orange and a more saturated warm brown.
They get painted on in solid, flat blocks, trying not to blend them together. I tend to work on the darker hue of the pair first and then build up the lighter tone on top.
Mixing the greens
Using a little of the Mars Black, Cadmium Yellow Light, Titanium White and Permanent Green Light, I want a dark muted green for the undergrowth and a brighter lighter green for the leaves.
A tiny touch of black helps to darken and desaturate the green and a touch of white in the mixes helps to cool.
As I place in the darker green, I’m trying to combine a mass of leaves together in one colour. The main dense shapes behind the lighter leaves, keeping space for the sky holes and the warmer yellows to come.
The brighter greens help the painting to start to ‘read’ more as a landscape. I tend to paint the leaves at a 45-degree angle. It’s not a conscious decision, but I’ve found it can give a subtle indication of movement, blowing in the wind.
Mixing the warm Yellows
I add a Raw Umber to the palette for the two yellow mixes alongside Yellow Ochre and Cadmium Yellow Light. The Raw Umber helps to darken the yellow without it shifting too warm.
These are layered on top of the greens and I start to add a few dashes to the woodland floor.
Once I’ve applied the lighter yellow next to the crown of the tree, I feel like I’m losing the distinction between the trunk and the leaves so I’ll darken the trunk down some more.
Mixing the Blues
This is a mix of Titanium White and Cobalt Blue. They are quite close in tone as there isn’t much variation in the sky.
Here I’ve reinforced the dark of the tree trunk and painted in the sky holes. There are also a couple of dashes of white on the edge of the tree trunks, to indicate where the light was hitting them.
Then using the edge of the flat brush, I paint in a couple of extra thin branches over the leaves to help give a greater sense of depth.
The leaves and the sky holes have come together better than I thought! The woodland floor could have more variation of colour added, but for the purpose of this exercise, it’s created an impression of the scene without any details, that’s still recognisable as a landscape.
You don’t have to use the exact colours, it’s more of a process of getting used to grouping colour families together and then grouping tonal values.
Thanks to Ulrikke for the inspirational question, let me know how your poster studies turn out!