How to Paint a Landscape in Oils Step by Step

About Mike

Mike CallahanNationally recognized, award winning artist Mike Callahan is a fourth generation Nevada native who counts himself privileged to grow up in what he believes to be one of the most beautiful places on earth, the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains near Reno, Nevada where he still lives today. While he has been painting since childhood, he has only been painting in earnest for about the last 5 or 6 years.

Says Mike, “The topography of this area is simply phenomenal; one can go from the high desert to mountainous alpine settings in less than an hour. It is this beautiful and varied landscape that ends up being the subject for a vast majority of my paintings.”

However, if you look through the paintings on Mike’s website, you will quickly see that the Sierra landscape isn’t the only subject Mike typically paints. He also enjoys painting Western themes as well as figurative and portraits.

As you look at Mike’s work, you will notice a great color harmony throughout. While the colors in his paintings run the full spectrum of color seen in nature, harmony is maintained by Mike limiting himself to only three colors plus white on his palette. Instead of referring to this as a limited palette, Mike thinks of it as an unlimited palette as he has not found any color he desires to use that he can’t create from those primary colors.

Mike’s work has been featured in numerous solo, group, and juried shows including the 54th Juried Exhibition at the Haggin Museum in Stockton, California, the second 100 in PaintAmerica’s 2008 Paint the Parks competition, and in May of 2008, Mike received national honors at the Oil Painters of America’s National Juried Show of Traditional Oils winning a coveted Award of Excellence for his painting “Wild Mustangs.”

Please click here to visit Mike’s website to learn more about him and to view more of his work.

“Painting in the 21st Century”

How to Paint a Landscape in Oils

Originally published on  Re-published here with permission from Mike Callahan.

(Click Images for Larger View)

To create a painting, the artist uses many tools and technological innovations to not only accomplish the task, but also to make the painting look its absolute best. Throughout history, the technological advances of the day defined the tool. When brush making was perfected and certain hair was discovered to hold paint better than others, the tool was employed. When synthetic fibers were created, the tool evolved (for better or for worse depending on your preference in brushes).

When cotton was able to be woven into fabric, canvas became the technological advance of the day. As various grounds were discovered and applied to that canvas prior to painting, the artwork became that much better. The advent of the camera allowed the artist the ability to paint things such as landscapes in his studio rather than on location without concern for the weather, the time of day, or even the time of year. One could go on and on.

We must realize, however, that knowledge is cumulative and advances in technology build upon existing technologies but do not necessarily replace and eliminate them. Because we now have the technology to paint with pixels instead of actual paint, it doesn’t mean that traditional methods will be replaced. Rather, in this day of the pixel, the artist’s tool box has merely become bigger.

Many artists work completely on the computer, never opening a tube of paint or stretching a piece of canvas at all. Many, such as myself, still prefer to employ some of the older technologies by actually brushing paint on a nice, tightly-stretched, white piece of canvas. While digital is a perfectly acceptable media in my estimation, this article deals with the creation of a painting using real oil paint on real canvas, but in the twenty-first century.

I don’t shy away from modern tools. I believe, like other innovations in history these tools can be employed along with prior ones to make one’s work all that much better. Furthermore, I believe they can make the artist’s task less arduous, allowing for more enjoyment in the doing of the painting.

In this article, I will outline my procedure using the camera and the computer as layout tools showing why I believe the end result is better for it. The following is a chronicle of a current work that I recently produced.

Very early one Saturday morning last August, with the promise of Starbucks and breakfast, I got my wife, Roben, to accompany me on a forty-five minute drive to photograph a barn that had caught my interest on an earlier trip. I hadn’t stopped and photographed it on that earlier occasion because I wanted to shoot it in the dramatic light of morning.

Above are the 35mm snapshots I took at about 7:30 that morning with my old Pentax K-1000. After looking at the photographs, I thought these references offered a lot of potential for a good painting. I could have started my painting with just these; however, I wanted more drama and more color and didn’t want to have to do the working out of possibilities on my canvas. I wanted to do it beforehand so that by the time I was laying paint on the canvas I would be fairly sure of what I wanted as a final product.

First I scanned the snapshots on a flatbed scanner and created a composite of them using Adobe Photoshop 7. While I was in Photoshop, I removed the distracting highway, telephone pole, road signs and real estate sign using mostly the clone tool, healing brush, and patch tool. I also enhanced the colors a little. Once I had done that, I began to realize that the sky was too boring as you can tell by the next image.

I searched through other photos I had take in the past for reference and came across these shots of a sunset I had taken pictures of a couple of years ago. Now, remember, I’m an artist, and as such I have an artistic license. The light source was close enough in each of these that I figured I could pull it off, so once again I scanned the snapshots.

In Photoshop, I created a composite of the clouds and then combined them with my barn landscape, tweaking the lighting and color to make it believable. I was now ready to begin work on my painting because I had a great reference source. Working out the visual problems in Photoshop gave me the freedom to explore options instead of wrestling with my references trying to get something that was only in my head.

I then printed out an 11″ x 17″ print on my color printer (the maximum size my printer will output) for reference while painting. This was much better than the 4″ x 5″ photographic prints I had started with for obvious reasons: it was a lot bigger, the colors were closer to what I wanted to end up with, the sky was awesome, and it was in one piece.

I didn’t stop there in providing references for myself, however; I then printed out two more 11″ x 17″ pieces at double size so that I had half of my scene on one and half on the other. Now I had some really decent sized reference material. I then stretched my Frederix canvas over a birch wood frame I built myself which measures 20″ x 60″.

I then enlarged my Photoshop file to full size and printed out black and white pages of the entire document. I then “tiled” all these pages taping them together. Next, I layed a couple of large pieces of carbon paper (the kind that comes on a roll) over my canvas and roughly traced my image from my black and white “tiled” print transfering it onto my canvas. I then went back by hand and enhanced any area that hadn’t retained enough detail in the trace.

Once I was satisfied with my drawing, I spray fixed it (in my garage) using Kamar Workable Fixative allowing plenty of time for the fixative to dry and the smell to dissipate. With the canvas back in my studio, I was ready to begin. Clouds and skies should be loose, so I didn’t give myself any pencil guidelines in the sky area, I merely sketched it in with paint.

Once I blocked in the sky, I began painting the clouds.

After the clouds are roughed in, I’m ready to begin working on the bottom section. I have a tendency to paint from left to right, top to bottom, to avoid making too big a mess because I lean my hand against the canvas a lot while painting.

Looking at my reference, I was able to discern that a bluish hue in my shadow areas was going to be desirable so I rapidly applied an under painting of that color.

I’ve included the above picture to show how much drawing detail I leave showing through the underpainting.

Once I’ve applied the last of the paint to my underpainting, I use a standard cotton swab to lift some of the paint back up in the lighter areas as an additional guide when I return to overpaint.

At this point, once my underpainting has become fairly dry (usually the next day), I begin painting in my color on the bottom portion of the painting. I work fairly quickly trying not to get too caught up in the details. This is the the stage where I’m concerning myself with rough shapes and only a moderate amount of detail. Once I go across the entire bottom section, I’ll come back and add details where necessary.

Since I’m not a photorealistic painter, there’s a lot of detail that I won’t sweat over. The work shown above, from the completion of the sky to this point, was done in about two or three hours of which probably one quarter the time was spent standing back assessing and contemplating the execution of the next small area.

This next section, essentially everything between and including the two trees, represents about another two hours work.

This shot shows the level of “looseness” I try to work at when I’m blocking in a section such as this grassy area.

I then block-in the yellow with a comparable level of “looseness” at this point.

I often don’t concentrate on an area like the grass until it’s fully completed; if I tire of working on it, I’ll move on to another section of the painting like the barn here.

Things really start to come together when I begin to add the details to the shaded side of the barn. The mountains in the background, the grassy area, and this point of completion on the barn represent another couple of hours of painting.

At this point, I probably only have a few more hours of painting to do. I’m far enough along that I can now begin to look at the painting as a whole and scrutinize values and hues that I’ve laid down. I’m suspicious that I’ve painted the grassy area too light, and I’d like to see some of the background be a little hazier to give the impression of distance. With these thoughts in mind, I’ll accomplish some of my adjustments with a glaze of oil paint and Windsor-Newton Liquin once I’ve completed the rest of the foreground.

Next, I’ve finished off the barn and blocked in major areas of color and form  in the grassy/brushy area in the bottom right of the painting. This part is  pretty loose but instead of coming back and tediously rendering blades of grass and stalks of brush, I’ve created the illusion with just a few areas of small shapes and details.

Here’s the whole thing – “The Sierra Valley” 20″ x 60″

Below is a shot of it as it sits in my studio waiting to be framed.

All in all, I spent about 18.5 hours on this painting, broken down as follows:
  • Travel to and from the site and photographing the site – 2.5hrs.
  • Photoshop work – 3hrs.
  • Building the frame and stretching the canvas – 1hr.
  • Painting – 12hrs

In conclusion:

As you can hopefully see, there’s nothing particularly out of the ordinary or innovative about the actual painting process once I start laying down paint. What I find helpful is the ability to establish a reference that’s close to what I want as I final product. Often, in times past, I had to work from several different photographs.

Photographic exposures weren’t always exactly how I’d like and many times they were just outright bad. Poor lighting affected color, and so on and so on. I found myself “wrestling” with my reference and spent more time in frustration rather than in the enjoyment of painting. Using digital tools such as Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, I am able to provide myself a reference in which exposure, color and layout problems have already been worked out, and I can concentrate on painting on my canvas rather than on problem solving on it.

I encourage you to give this a try. If you don’t have the expensive graphics software mentioned above, there are a lot of other less expensive programs that will easily do the same job for you. Adobe Photoshop Elements or ACD FotoCanvas to name just a couple. Search websites that sell software for “image editing software” to find a product that will meet your needs and budget. You may have to face somewhat of a learning curve to start, but once you learn how to use this software to manipulate your raw reference photos, I think you’ll find it has been time well spent and your enjoyment of painting will decidedly go up a notch or two!

Join me in the twenty-first century!

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