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A Painter's Planet, Snowy Trees, Lesson 2, Module 1

Updated: Mar 26


Today we are on to the next step where we will paint a background with dramatic red sky - the type of sky you see at night just before a heavy northern snowfall. This painting is generally what we are working towards but feel free to express your own layout and design. I am selecting the colors and themes for you so you are free to express in your own way and your own style.


You will often hear that most painters work from the background to the foreground and this is normal practice because it is technically efficient and time saving. There are artists who like to work from front to back as it gives a different effect. This forces them to paint around other features such as trees or buildings and it is an interesting style in itself. Once you are more acquainted with the basics you can try this second method but there is a little more to it. So for now the rule of thumb is background to foreground.


· 6X8 inch stretched canvas

· flat background brush

· paint tray

· water in a jar or glass with a touch of detergent

· soft chalk or soft pastel preferably white

· large flat brush

· smaller flat brush (about 1 inch wide)

· round or bright brush (6)

· a bright red fluid acrylic

· a maroon red fluid acrylic (if you feel adventurous mix some of the bright red with some raw umber a (a dull greyish brown) to create maroon but not too much brown. We want the color to stay on the red side)

· a bright orangey yellow fluid acrylic

· a white fluid acrylic


If you do not have fluid acrylics you can make them yourself for now using distilled water though discount department stores and craft stores usually carry fluid acrylics at affordable prices (as I said in the beginning it is best to buy the fluid acrylics as they are more color saturated than anything you mix up). Add the water to the impasto paint bit by bit while creaming water and paint together until it becomes a creamy liquid. Store this liquid in a plastic pot with a tight fitting lid. Glass and regular tap water will only encourage the acrylic paint to mold sp use distilled water - easy to buy.




Step 1: Above Photos 1 and 2. Put a coat of maroon red on the canvas using long smooth strokes with the flat brush all going in the same direction - either up or down - long smooth strokes, not broken and choppy. Let it dry. If you try to apply a second coat BEFORE the first coat dries you will take off any of the wet paint from the first layer. So let the first coat dry.



Step 2: When the first coat is dry apply a second coat of maroon red with long smooth strokes BUT going the opposite way from the first coat so you have criss-crossed the whole surface. This will give us a smoother background. Let this second coat dry. DO NOT forget to wash your flat brush out completely as acrylic paint is almost impossible to remove once it dries and it dries quickly. Swish the brush around gently in the soapy water to clean it. It is best not to rest the brush in the jar on the bottom as it can deform the hairs. ALWAYS clean your brush as soon as you stop using it. You can use your rag (terrycloth is good) to wipe the brush of excess water and to make sure you got all the paint out.



Step 3: Now take your round or bright brush (size 6) and dip it into the bright red fluid acrylic. (This is tricky to explain so 'listen'up. We will be using the lines of paint from this stroke to make clouds so the placement of this and the strokes that follow are essential to your painting). After you have loaded your brush with bright red paint 'lay' the number 6 round brush sort of sideways on the canvas and roll it while pulling it along at the same time in a sort of zig zag irregular line (but a natural one and not a forced one). This way your strokes are not controlled but more natural as you lay down a generous line of paint. Just do one line like this for now. Make it about an inch to two inches long or the full width of the canvas. See how the bright red paint in the line above is thicker at the edges?


Turn the canvas upside down. Take a dry flat brush and with the brush pull or 'drag' the red paint upwards so that it radiates upward and also try some diagonal pulls. The brush needs to be dry because if the paint becomes too watery this will not work. The paint needs to be like coffee creamer and the brush dry. Keep pulling the paint upwards and changing directions gradually to avoid getting distinct lines and to avoid getting them all going in exactly the same direction until all the paint is dry and you can’t work it anymore. It will be unevenly spread but this is what we want. It will look more natural. You are feathering that line of red paint as this is a red cloud. And the reason we have turned the canvas upside down is ...?? The light is coming from below the clouds as the moon is going to be below them.


Notice as you work that line of paint upwards over and over until it is too dry to move that it starts to create an indistinct line which is uneven, jagged and soft. On some parts of the line the color is more saturated than on other parts. (That is the line of light along the edge of the cloud that is reflecting the moonlight from below when you turn the canvas right side up).


We will do this here and there across our maroon red sky in different places to create more red clouds and build depth to our sky. In some places where there is more red paint the color is more intense then other places - more 'saturated'.


If it doesn’t start to look like a 3-D cloudy red sky to you and you want to start over wait until it is dry and start at Step 1 again. This process is pretty forgiving so don’t give up. We have all the time in the world ... We can keep doing this over and over until you are happy with it. It is meant to be fun and relaxing yet challenging and creative - an expression of your and your feelings and your creativity. So enjoy this step and step 4 as it will form the basis for all your future cloudy skies.



A word about being overly self critical. We all criticize ourselves and usually too much and too often. It is one way to defeat yourself and give up on your painting. So you have to find ways to control that analytical side of yourself that is never satisfied with what you do. There are a lot of things you can do (play music or a movie which engages the critical/analytical side so it is too busy to watch you paint) but at this stage of this painting you just need to ignore the little voice. A painting rarely looks like much of anything until just before it is finished. So it is absolutely essential to ignore the critic and the criticism. In future blogs we can talk about ways to circumvent and trick the critic altogether so you can be free to create.


Step 4: This step is exactly the same as Step 3 EXCEPT we are using the bright orangey yellow fluid acrylic. Normally you might want to place the yellow clouds at a lower point in the painting as this is the bright yellowish area where the moon will go later. We will layer the lighter yellow clouds over some of the red clouds to build depth and perspective. Look at the painting below to see where we are heading with this step. When you have a bright section of yellowish clouds you like go on to Step 5. (Notice this moon is a bit high instead of being in the lighter colored area)


Step 5: The Moon is next - a beautiful full white moon with some bluish and or yellowish spotting and some shading for realism and depth. Take your chalk and lightly (if you press down hard you could remove some of the paint) sketch in a nice round ball somewhere in your sky beneath the clouds or in front of them - you determine the size and placement according to how it balances and harmonizes with the rest of the painting. The moon in this painting becomes a focal point that draws the eye to it. Allow for clouds so if your moon is partly behind one you won’t sketch and paint in a full moon but only the part of the moon that is outside of the clouds.


Keep in mind in Part 3 we will be also by 'staffing' the painting with some large snow-filled spruce trees.


So when you have finished with your cloudy sky and your moon it would be a good time to lightly chalk in some trees or just vertical lines the height and position you want your trees to be in the back, middle and foreground. We will use those differently distanced trees to illustrate linear and aerial perspective. And we can use these chalk lines to see how we want to place out trees with our moon.


Shading is important in any flat art for obvious reasons - it seduces the eye into believing the image is real by implying it is three dimensional. Because all three dimensional objects and living things in our universe attract light and shadow the rule of three applies: the image as it is in direct light and then its highlighted parts and then its shaded parts. Often there can be more gradations to light and shadow than three but the rule of three is easy to remember as a guideline.


Our moon has shading and highlighting if you look carefully at it. The mottled portions that tend to look bluish or greyish or mauvish or yellowish or orangey are craters where there is shadow not light as opposed to the surface which is reflecting the light from the sun. The edges of the moon are fuzzy and indistinct so again best to shade the edges with a bit of blue or gray - whichever color you have chosen. The moon is a round ball and not a flat circle.


Just a word about focal points. When you look at an image or painting what is the very first thing that catches your eye? That is the focal point. A good dynamic and flowing image will attract you into the image forming a trail for your eyes to travel and pulling you into the piece further and further. Our moon and trees to come are focal points so their placement is essential to the flow of the painting (that makes the painting dynamic or alive) and its ability to draw in the onlooker.


So we have finished the background. Next installment we will paint the secondary characters of the piece - the snowy spruce trees and these will provide more focal points of your painting. Get ready for a shock! In the very many workshops I have taught over a 20 year period every single piece produced was unique and special to the one person who painted it. No two pieces ever turned out alike even though I taught this very same method many times. And all pieces were so good participants were speechless at their own talent and creativity.



(c) Heidi Hehn 2021





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