"Cow on Mountain" Landscape Acrylic Painting: Step-by-Step Process
A step-by-step overview of the different stages and decision-making involved in a landscape acrylic painting with a cow, mountains, grass, and sky.
Planning the Composition of the Painting
The success of a painting is decided before you put any paint on the canvas.
Believe it or not, it is not the subject matter, but the structure of your design that makes your painting. What makes a painting pleasing to look at is the way its shapes and lines relate to each other. The bearing pillars of a good painting stand on a well-planned composition.
How you organize the composition will affect how the eye of the viewer moves around the painting, whether the artwork will be able to retain the viewer’s attention and the way you express your subject matter.
It helps a lot to find the best cropping and the best composition for your scene if you make a few thumbnail sketches before committing to one version of it.
Sometimes it feels like a waste of time for the painter, but making a few small value sketches helps you to avoid a lot of problems later.
I Used a Great Quality Reference Photo for My Painting
To paint “High Pastures” I had a head-start on composition because I used a beautiful picture by professional photographer Lee Brown. Lee is an amazing photographer and artist, and each month he used to challenge artists to create a painting from one of his photos, a painting challenge open to anyone that liked to participate. Lee would then post the submitted artworks in the painting challenge gallery, on his website A Day Not Wasted.
So, since this scene on the Swiss Alps had already been cropped and edited photographed by Lee, I did not have to struggle to find a good crop to enhance the composition, it was already perfect.
How To Sketch the Composition on Canvas
Before drawing your composition on the canvas, you may want to draw a grid both on the reference photo and on the canvas, for reference.
A grid helps to keep the correct proportions; it’s easier to draw proportionally when you are referring to smaller shapes and how they relate to each other. Compare placement of lines to each other and within the rectangles. Pay attention to the negative spaces.
I like to keep my grid simple and to start with the lines of thirds, but you can make your rectangles as small as you need.
The line of thirds grid is a great reference for the placement of the focal points, which should fall close to one or more of the intersections, or sweet spots.
How To Draw Lines of Thirds
Draw four lines dividing your picture into thirds both horizontally and vertically. This lines will intersect on four points, that are called the sweet spots of your picture. They mark the general areas where the points of interest or focal points of the painting should be placed, according to the Rule of Thirds.
Finally Ready to Paint
It's finally time to start painting. Squeeze some paint out, not too much, because acrylics dry quickly.
How about you?
Do you make thumbnail sketches before you start a painting?
Stage 1. Block The Value Shapes In
After you sketch the scene, go over the drawing with raw sienna and fill the big shapes to establish the main value structure.
I may mix in some burnt amber for the darker areas.
Paint the sky a medium value of blue, leaving some white areas for the clouds.
At this stage, don’t look at details, but squint your eyes and try to see the subject as a combination of big shapes. The goal is to paint each big shape with a medium value for that shape. The darks, lights, and details will be added later.
Note: I didn’t know I would be writing about this painting while I was creating it. I took photos at different stages only to have a reference for myself. So maybe the timing of the photos is not precisely between each stage, there is some overlapping of phases, but they turned out to be a valuable visual tool to explain the process.
Stage 2. Painting Smaller Shapes and Different Values
Proceed to intensify the colors and adding some smaller shapes. I made the sky bluer, added details to the mountains, and painted in some darker shapes.
At this point the composition is becoming pretty clear, you can see the main shapes, and how they combine in the painting. You can still change and correct anything that you don’t like or does not seem to work.
In the meanwhile, I started getting some details on the cow and fixing the hue of its shaded areas.
Slowly the composition starts to get richer in details, smaller shapes, and different values.
Stage 3. Adding Details to the Painting
It’s time to focus on the different areas of color, making sure they are consistent with the values of the reference photo.
Some of the things that needed to get done at this stage in my painting:
- lighten up the sky;
- paint the lower mountain on the left;
- add more details to the taller mountain on the right;
- add details to the cow, paying attention to the reflection of the sunlight on the fur and the shades formed from the high sun.
- start creating some texture on the grass in the foreground. Since it is much closer than the background, my goal was to make it more detailed, with some grass strands visible, but I did not want the green to be too overwhelming and taking too much attention from my cow.
At this point, I really loved the contrast of the yellow-orange cow with the blue sky. When I like something the way it’s coming out, I make mental note to preserve that effect to the end and possibly create consistent effects somewhere else on the painting.
For example, if I like the brushwork in a particular area, I make a point not to mess with that area too much, and to use the same technique in other areas of the painting.
Step 4. Refining all the Elements of the Painting
The painting is pretty much done, but there are still some things that can be changed and tweaked, and details or texture that can be added.
In this particular painting, these are the elements that I focused on improving:
- Aerial perspective. The mountains in the back should be less defined and especially lighter in value. Making the colors cooler in temperature and lighter in value make things recede Also, the background needs to recede more.
- The cow’s shaded areas are too warm. Successful shades are not only darker than the original color, but they are also cooler in temperature. To achieve that, you can add the complementary color to darken and cool the hue. Adding blue to the cow's colors, that are in the orange family, dulls them and creates good shade colors.
- Highlights. The last step is always to look at the lightest spots on the reference picture and paint the lightest values on the painting. Here, this meant some highlights on the mountains, the clouds, and the white spots and reflections on the cow.
Sometimes the highlight is already there, but the nearby shape is too light to emphasize it, so instead of lighting the light area, you may darken the shape next to it, like I did on the front leg of the cow.
- Foreground. Being the closest to the viewer, the foreground usually has the most details and the most texture. I added the green areas to the mountains in the background and painted the grass in the foreground trying to give an effect of solid ground and texture.
Stage 5. The Painting is Complete
After some more tweaking here and there, focusing on the parts that jump out as "problems", the painting is finally finished.
To spot what might need improving, look at the painting with fresh eyes, either taking a break from painting or looking at its reflection on a mirror.
I keep a hand-held mirror in my studio, and it has proven itself a very valuable tool for spotting problematic areas.
Below is the finished painting.
About this Article
In this article, I explain the process I followed in painting the above landscape painting “High Pastures”. The article aims to be an example and by no means intends to show “how to paint” as if there was only one right way and I knew what that was.
Hopefully by reading about my creative process beginner artists can gain some understanding of what to think about while painting and how to proceed.
I enjoy sharing with others what I learn about art and painting, and I wrote this article hoping that it will help beginner artists in their painting process.
I hope you found it useful and enjoyable. Happy painting! : )
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Robie Benve