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. These paintings at the left illustrate generally what we are working towards but feel free to express yourself and customize your layout. I am selecting the colors and themes for you so you can be free to do so.
You will often hear that most painters work from the back of the background to the front and this is normal practice because it is technically efficient and time saving. But there are artists who like to work from front to back as it forces them to paint around other features such as trees and is an interesting style in itself. Once you are more acquainted with the basics you can try this second method. Remember if anyone tells you to “follow the rules” don’t listen to them as we are not doing paint-by-number. There are no rules for a unique creation – only technical guidelines to help you actualize it and bring it into the world.
- 6X8 inch stretched canvas
- paint tray
- water in a jar or glass with a touch of detergent
- soft chalk or soft pastel preferably white
- large flat brush (about 1.5 to 2 inches wide)
- smaller flat brush (about 1 inch wide)
- round brush (size 6 which is about a quarter inch thick)
- a bright red cadmium 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
- 6X8 inch stretched canvas
If you do not have fluid acrylics you can make them yourself for now using distilled water. Or buy them through discount department stores and craft stores as they 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 from impastos and distilled water.) Add the water to the impasto paint bit by bit while creaming water and paint together until it becomes a smooth 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.
Step 1: Photo left. Put a coat of maroon red on the canvas using long smooth strokes all going in the same direction – either up or down – long smooth strokes from side to side, 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. A hairdryer will make the paint dry faster.
Step 2: Photo right. 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 put it down.
Step 3: Photo left. Now take your round 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 is essential to your painting.
After you have loaded it with red paint lay the number 6 round brush sideways on the canvas and roll it in your fingers as while pulling it along in a sort of zig zag irregular line. This way your strokes are not controlled but more natural as you lay down a ridge 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.
As per the photo to the right 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. Note the use of the flatbrush and how it drags the paint gently. The brush needs to be dry because if the paint becomes too watery this will not work. The paint needs to be creamy and the brush dry. Keep pulling the paint upwards and changing directions to avoid getting distinct lines 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.
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 and jagged. That is the line of light along the edge of the cloud that is reflecting the moonlight.
We will do this here and there across our maroon sky to create clouds and build depth to our sky. 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. And you and I have all the time in the world if we can’t sleep anyway which is why we are doing this …
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. So enjoy this step and step 4 as it will form the basis for all your future 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 but at this stage of this painting you just need to ignore the little voice. A painting rarely looks like much of anything until 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: Photos above. This step is exactly the same as Step 3 except now we are using the bright orangey yellow fluid acrylic. We will layer the lighter yellow clouds over the cadmium red ones to build depth and perspective (a topic we will deal with Part 3).
Step 5: Photo left. The Moon is next – a beautiful full white moon with some yellow and some bluish or white mottling – and some shading for realism and depth. First 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 with the rest of the painting.
Water the paint on your brush a bit more than usual – more like watercolor as that will allow the paint to be more controllable and you can make it more opague in one spot and more transparent in another. Like watercolor painting.
The moon in this painting becomes a focal point that draws the eye to it. It should flow from the other focal points in the piece. Allow for clouds so if your moon is partly behind one you won’t sketch and paint in a full moon.
Keep in mind we will be also by ‘staffing’ the painting in Part 3 with some large snow-filled spruce trees. So this is a good time to lightly chalk in some vertical lines the height and position you will want your trees to be in the back, middle and foreground. We will use those different distanced trees to illustrate linear and aerial perspective in Part 3. And we can use these chalk lines to see how our moon placement works with our future trees. This step is party about balance of composition.
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 and its highlighted parts and its shaded parts. Often there are more gradations to shadow than one 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? Try it a few times just to be sure it is the same thing. That is the first focal point. A good dynamic and flowing image will attract you with the first focal point and then lead you on to the next focal point and the next after that forming a trail for your eyes to travel and pulling you into the piece. Our moon and trees are focal points so their placement is essential to the flow of the painting and its ability to draw in the onlooker.
So we have finished the background. Next installment we will paint the main characters of the piece – the snowy spruce trees and these will provide the main focal points of your painting.
In the many workshops I have taught over a 20 year period every single participant produced a painting that was unique and special to them. No two pieces ever turned out alike. And all pieces were so good participants were shocked and speechless at their own talent and creativity because, as I said before, throughout the process they were sure it was not working. It was only when it was finished all the work came together into something beautiful. So ignore the critic and jump into the deep end!