This is a physical painting tutorial, detailing the creation process of the acrylic on canvas “Woodland Rendezvous”


It is often important in physical painting to have a clear idea of what you want from the final image. Launching into a picture freestyle and with no plan is great for experimentation and expression, but will only yield a polished result for the most competent and confident of artists.

In digital painting an artist can free associate in this way, and work up a very accomplished image from very expressive and unplanned gestures (in fact many digital artists swear by this method) but with real paint there are no layers, no adjustment effects and no undo button! Thick opaque paint (my favourite kind) does not willingly forgive mistakes and hours of licking, backtracking and correction will be readable in the final result.

What then, can we do to pre-visualise our ideas before beginning our masterpiece? Here are a few suggestions...

Work from life
- the choice of the traditionalist, direct painting should make pre-visualisation almost totally unnecessary. You know the scene/subject is attractive - that's why you're painting it. You may still have to think about compositional factors, but all the colour, value, drawing and edge information is right there is front of you. There are times however, when direct painting is not applicable - if your idea is fantastical for example.

Take one or more photographs
- a single photoshoot can solve your planning issues with the click of a camera button. It was years before I realised that most of the artists I worship used one or more staged and lit photoshoots as reference and compositional guides.
Working from a single photo is not so different from painting from life, but those who use several photos composited together must rely more on their technical knowledge to smooth over the inconsistencies.

Prepare a sketch, or thumbnail painting
- a very popular method, and one I often use myself - do all your planning on a disposable image. This can be a drawing, paint sketch, photo collage or a combination of these methods. As planning for a physical painting I always use a digital sketch (with perhaps a few photos thrown in) to quickly establish my design - planning my composition, values, tonal information, edges and drawing in an easily editable format.

For “Woodland Rendezvous” I chose the second method, using a photo taken on a winter's dawn with some slight digital embellishment. I cropped the photo to the same aspect ratio as my canvas and made sure the large foreground tree hit one of the two major horizontal Fibonacci beats. I added the figures digitally, placing them on the right horizontal Fibonacci beat (if you don't know what Fibonacci is you can read about it here). With a cheap phone camera and five minutes digital work I had a complete guide that would lead me through my painting. Fidelity, obedience and attentiveness would do the rest.


My first task was to prime the canvas, and measure out where those horizontal beats would occur. Remember that the guide image is the same aspect ratio as the canvas, so every measurement could be uniformly scaled.
Next, I had to place some broad strokes that would act as a cornerstone for the whole painting. If you look closely you can see a little blob of paint on the printout - this may look a bit darker here, but in real life is was exactly the same hue, saturation and value as the far treeline and therefore was splashed across the canvas where the far treeline would be.
This opening stroke of paint would act as the calibration standard for ALL other decisions - I could see if any mixed colour about to be applied was too light, dark, warm or cold compared to this accurate opening gesture.

Once this had been established I began to work a near white back into the purple to suggest the tree line. Unless I am absolutely certain it's appropriate I don't like to employ pure white (or pure black) in the opening stages of a painting - I may need it to add extra sting in some hero area of the image later, and I don't want to fire that shot too early. This off-white contains a drop of purple, which is the atmospheric colour.
My reasoning behind working the sky on top of the trees here is that I like the sharp forms that this subtractive method creates. I only wanted to suggest trees here, so painting leaves onto sky would have been much too definite. Instead I hinted at bright dawn light eating away at each tree's silhouette. Note the tints of ultramarine at either end of the tree line - this is caricatured colour that I added for extra coldness. It is a darker hue to focus the brightness at the centre of the image.

My next move was to set down patches of colour at strategic locations on the canvas, for the same reason as I placed the area of purple in the opening stage - they are hue and value markers, against which I could measure all other mixed colours in the grassy area.
There is a triangle of influence on the forest floor with warmer greens to the left, colder greens at the right, and a transition to purple over distance - next time you think you are an expert at designing colour schemes, remember that nature regularly concocts more magical and seductive palettes than any of us ever could...

With my dual guideline of the printout and the big marks made in the previous stage, I was able to paint the grass with confidence. I always intended to treat the unlit grass and the pools of light coming through the foliage in separate passes, so I was going for total coverage and mostly low values.
That little white circle - in case you were wondering - is a button of dried acrylic paint that I like to stick to a dry area of the canvas for use as a perspective marker. It is of course, removable.

Here I laid the groundwork for the patches of light. It was not appropriate to go blasting straight in with the highest values seen on the printout - there are local colour changes around where the grass is lit, caused by temperature differences, reflection and refraction in the morning dew.
Typically, they are warmer (which makes sense on a scientific level) but there are some decidedly cool patches on the right - a reminder that planning lighting effects based purely on the things we know about light will not always give the complete picture.

In this stage I continued to layer on higher values at the appropriate colour temperature, and with increasingly broken marks. It was reassuring to see the tree shadows emerging in the negative space.

This was my final pass for the forest floor, which partly employed the pure white what I had purposefully denied myself when solving the sky. The wet grass is a surface with extremely high specularity, and from this angle really deserves the pure white sting. I used a spatter/spray effect to suggest granulate highlights in the dew - alternative methods of applying paint are always fun, and when used appropriately are always appreciated by the viewer. In this case I thumbed the bristles of a lightly loaded toothbrush.

Having solved the forest floor, it was time to address the mid-height elements of the image. I really wanted to get the figures right first time, so I allowed myself the crutch of doing a quick construction drawing onto the canvas where they would appear.
Drawing onto parts of the canvas you have finished is not as risky as it seems if you strive to confine that drawing within the expected silhouette of whatever you are drawing for. Don't waste time on detail, or try to solve values - just use it as a measuring tool (which is all any underdrawing should be) and keep it quick. NEVER use a pencil to do underdraw for any painting - lead is very shiny, and will tell even through thick paint. I like to use those grey markers employed by fashion designers - expensive though they are, they leave wet marks that can be erased with a damp finger and dry marks that do not influence paint.
The figures, and the trees near them are solved with pure black - I am a fan of contrast, especially as a device to emphasise a focal area.

With the figures established - in just the pose I was hoping for - the trees swiftly followed. When underpainting for the leaf canopy I kept it patchy, leaving lots of incidental gaps that would show through in exactly the manner of the subject. There are deviations from the forms in the printout, but hopefully not in the colours and values. Plant forms give us liberty to interpret as long as we get the major cues right - they are, by their very nature a different shape every time. Machine forms of course require accurate drawing, people and animals fall somewhere in between.

The canopy was thus painted with an intent to capture the colours and rhythms of the leaves as opposed to defining them in detail. I mentioned before that nature's colour schemes are magical, and the raw blues, luscious purples and spikes of green in the leaves that morning were a joy to behold.
They have suffered the degrading filters of a camera lens, digitisation, a printer, the limitations of paint pigment, and my own unavoidable errors in judgement but in real life this painting still resonates with that alluring combination.

The final stage was to add some optical effects in the light holes of the canopy, and highlights on the trees. Finishing touches are important, but should be handled with extreme caution - don't fall at the final hurdle. You will feel crushed if you slave meticulously on your masterpiece, then at the final stage flounce up to it with cavalier arrogance and destroy the entire thing.
Also, know when to stop. Every worthy art tutorial will tell you to walk away from painting before you ruin it's spontaneity and energy and still so many people keep tinkering away until they crucify their work. Don't become one of them! Overworking a painting is like overfeeding a pet, killing it with abnormal devotion. Learn to know when you have won, and make no more marks that are absolutely necessary.

So - “Woodland Rendezvous” was completed and served both to teach me new things and confirm what I had already suspected.
If you are a digital artist I cannot recommend highly enough that you regularly attempt a physical painting. Oil, acrylic, watercolour, whatever medium you choose, the lack of computerised editing methods will force you to plan, obey and ultimately respect the image you are trying to visualise. This heightened sense of discipline can be recycled back into your digital work and will improve it tenfold.

Thank you for reading this tutorial and good luck in your painting!