Painting Landscapes: Creating what I see

I picked up my paintbrush a few years ago and just went for it. With my acrylic paints in hand and a collection of gallery-wrapped canvases, I began to paint. The results were not what I was anticipating. I seemingly could not achieve the images I had in my head. But there were a couple of things I did know. I loved landscapes and the ability of a scene to transport me from my urban environment to the rural and remote settings of my childhood. I also enjoyed the process, selecting where my paintbrush would take me and imagining how the colours, shapes and shadows I saw could come together on canvas.

To realize the full vision between what I saw and what I could create on canvas, I needed technique. I visited the Gordon Harrison Gallery in Ottawa, Ontario and signed up for the next available group class. The process I outline here is what I’ve learned from Gordon Harrison, a Canadian landscape painter who has painted every corner of this country and has recently branched out to feature landscapes in Provence, France. I wrote about painting with Gordon in a 2016 Downhome magazine article. I’ve since painted with Gordon Harrison more than a half-dozen times and I try to paint with him two to three times a year to continue to learn from his process. I’ve also taken a group class with Rosemary Leach. Rosemary is an artist living in Almonte, Ontario who turns everyday objects into works of beauty. She paints with acrylic on wood. While I do not expand on the techniques I learned from Rosemary here, I learned a great deal from her about colour, sketching, precision and vision. Both Gordon and Rosemary work from real-life imagery or photographs, which was the first bit of technique I learned.

Working from a photo has been crucial to my process. The photo I used here was taken by Elizabeth Gray, a Vancouver, British Columbia photographer who specializes in a broad range of photography from landscape and wildlife to architecture and urban images. The photo features the Fog Alarm building at East Point Light Station on Saturna Island in the Southern Gulf Islands chain of British Columbia. See the original photo taken in 2015 on Elizabeth Gray’s website.

I usually put pencil to canvas immediately drawing freehand. In this case I wanted to make sure I was keeping the image to scale, especially given the simplicity of the photo, so I applied a grid to my paper copy. The grid helped me to visualize the image on my 36×36-inch canvas. The original photo is landscape, but the couple I painted this for wanted a square canvas. Before I got to the pencil-sketch stage, I cropped the photo in comparable parameters (square), then applied the grid. I also took measurements (and even did some math) to help with scaling the image from the size of my printed photography on paper to the size it would become on canvas.

Then comes the India ink, which is a staple in Gordon’s paintings. Behind his images and accentuating his colour selections are these dark black and dry-brushed grey inked lines and shapes. For me, the inking process allows for a clear roadmap of my landscape, indicating points of light as well as areas of dark or shadows. I’ve also tried this with a neutral shade of acrylic paint to create the base for an acrylic painting and it worked well. The more ink the better because you can always paint over the ink when you get to the painting process.

I had never used oil paints until I worked with Gordon. I love its consistency and the mixing process. I use a small collection of oil paints and never use the colours as they appear from the tube. Instead I mix everything colour by colour. I try to mix every colour I need in advance so I can see the full palette. If I like the colour combination on my palette, then chances are I’ll like how it appears together on canvas.

Wearing gloves for the mixing and painting process as well as an apron, I have a cotton cloth in one hand and my brush (typically of the short, bright variety) in the other. To keep the vibrancy of colours and to avoid muddying the canvas, I wipe my brush with the cloth before applying the next colour. I aim for adjacent bold colours with visible brush strokes. I often keep the dark inked lines throughout the canvas, but here I wanted something softer. Once the painting was nearly finished, I painted the dark lines, either eliminating them completely (see the sky) or fading and blending them more deliberately (see the grasses and the Fog Alarm building).

I take my time in the painting process (a few days) and I like to share the stages of developing a painting with those I’m painting it for. I doubt this is customary of seasoned painters but for me it helps in understanding what people like and what I am capable of doing. It’s one thing to paint to your own personal liking, but it’s quite another to paint to someone else’s tastes. I try to find a happy medium because I ultimately need to be proud  of what I put out into the universe.

The final steps are signing the painting (I kept my signature subtle here, but have often signed in bolder, brighter and bigger lettering – again I’ll learn my preferences with time), awaiting it to dry completely, painting the edges (for example, I paint it black if it’s to be framed in a dark frame) and varnishing (using a combo of gloss and matte finish).

Most important is to keep on painting. The more I do so, the more I learn. Also, I strongly recommend learning from others who’s work you admire, be it painters, photographers or other types of visual artists. I draw inspiration from others and I learn my own process and voice as an artist in doing so.

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