I was recently asked what my process is when creating a painting, and it has really made me think of the numerous steps creation takes from beginning to end.
Step 1- I use my own original photography whenever possible. For me, getting the right reference photos is usually the hardest part. My husband and I love to visit state and national parks, wildlife refuges and zoos to take photos. Sometimes everything comes easy. In late summer we went on a drive near Hazelton and Linton and got beautiful photos of sunflowers as the sun was setting behind them. This has already turned into one successful painting for me. Other times, our trips are a total bust. We have spent many days driving around Theodore Roosevelt National Park hoping to find some wildlife and the animals are elusive or the sky is overcast creating a dull and boring light. We just never know what we are going to get. The key is to just keep trying. It might take 1000 photographs to get one salvageable photo. I do sometimes use my husband’s photos as reference. One other great place to go for reference photos is www.wildlifereferecephotos.com, where you can purchase the legal right to use a great variety of reference photos for a nominal fee.
Step 2 – After I find the right photos, I use a combination of Lightroom and Photoshop on the computer to edit them. The painting I am currently working on of a group of Canadian Geese is a compilation of 4 different photos I took at Sweet Briar Lake. Modern technology has made it possible to play with my reference photos in a way I could never have done in my early days of painting.
Step 3 – It’s finally time to paint! I start with a solid under painting, which is that very first layer of paint. It helps me get a good overall feeling for the painting and is always a good time to make adjustments. The paintings usually have a “cartoon” like feeling at this point. The color is blocked in. There is not a lot of blending. The painting feels very flat. Unfortunately, this is where I see so many people stop, but to me this is just the beginning. You can see in my painting in progress that it is obviously a painting of Canadian Geese on the water, but it has no real life to it and no depth. If this is where you usually stop, I would like to encourage you to take the next few steps to really bring your creation to life.
Step 4 – This is where the required patience of an oil painter comes in. Let the painting completely dry, then paint it all over again. This time, add more details and do more blending. You are really getting to know your subject in this step.
Step 5 – Again, patience. Let the painting dry again. Go back in and add more details, brighten up the highlights, darken the shadows, add one more layer of detail just to the pieces you want the eye to focus on. Whatever the main focus of the painting is should have the lightest lights, the darkest darks and the sharpest detail. Sometimes, I am ready to move on to step 6 at this point. Other times, this step needs repeated multiple times in parts of the painting. By the time you are done with this step you will feel like you know your subject quite intimately. If at any point you feel like the colors are getting “muddy” and you are losing detail, stop working and wait for the painting to dry before you continue.
Step 6 – Let the painting dry completely (I cannot stress that part enough). This step, although simple and quick, is what adds the most vibrance to a painting. I use Liquin Fine Detail to thin out certain colors of paint and go over certain parts of a painting with a glaze. Not every color works well as a glaze. You need to use specific colors that are naturally transparent. Some of my favorite colors for this are Burnt Sienna for a rich red tone and Payne’s Gray, sometimes mixed with French Ultramarine for a beautiful bluish tone in the shadows.
Step 7 – Again let the painting dry, then varnish the painting. This helps bring out the colors and evens out the gloss. I use Krylon Kamar Varnish. Now your painting is complete and ready to frame.
Wrap up – Even a small oil painting takes weeks to create because of the need to let it dry in between steps. Be patient! Sometimes I spend 7 or 8 hours a day painting and sometimes I spend 1 hour painting because I take it as far as I can until I need to stop and let it dry. I often work on multiple paintings at a time so they can take turns drying, or I will work on editing my next painting on the computer to utilize my time. My biggest tip is, don’t stop at step 3!!!! Taking the time to add detail and depth is what brings realistic wildlife and nature art to life.