"Cow on Mountain" Landscape 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, the way shapes and lines relate on the painting surface that make your painting. 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.
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 shares one of his photos with artists, and creates a painting challenge for anyone that would like to participate. Lee posts submitted artworks in the painting challenge gallery, on his web site A Day Not Wasted.
As this cow on the Swiss Alps has been photographed by Lee, I did not have to struggle cropping, and finding the focal point, because the image had a great starting composition.
How To Sketch the Composition on Canvas
Before drawing my composition on the canvas, I drew the lines of thirds both on the reference photo and on the canvas, as reference.
Drawing the lines of thirds helps keeping the correct proportions; it’s easier to maintain the proportions having the different shapes relate to each other and to the sides of each rectangle.
I drew the scene sketching with pencil on the canvas, using the nine rectangles formed by the grid as reference for my drawing and to place the focal point, which should fall close to one of the intersections, or sweet spots.
How To Draw Lines of Thirds
Draw four lines dividing your picture in thirds both horizontally and vertically. This lines will intersect on four points, that are called sweet spots (or focal points) of your picture, where the point of interest of your painting should be placed, according to the Rule of Thirds.
Finally Ready to Paint
It finally time to start painting. I squeeze some paint out, not much because acrylics dry quickly.
While painting, I didn’t know I would be writing about 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.
How about you?
Do you make thumbnail sketches before you start a painting?
Stage 1. Block The Value Shapes In
After I sketched the scene, I went over my drawing with raw sienna paint, and on the darker areas I mixed in some burnt amber. This helped me establish the main shape and value structure.
The Sky was painted a medium value of blue, living some white areas for the clouds.
At this stage I don’t look at details, but I squint my 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.
Stage 2. Painting Smaller Shapes and Different Values
I intensified the color of the sky, and added some smaller shapes to the mountains, and painted in the darker shapes as well.
At this point my composition is becoming pretty clear, I can see my main shapes, and how they combine on the painting. I can still change and correct anything that I 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 on the reference photo.
Some of the things that needed to get done at this stage:
- 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 sun light 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 brush work in a particular area, I make a point not to mess with that area anymore, and to use the same technique in other areas of the painting.
Step 4. Refining all the Elements of the Painting
I added the green to the mountains in the background and also changed the grass in the front to a point of full satisfaction.
At this point the painting was pretty much done, but there were still some things that I changed and tweaked:
- 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, and the background needed some receding.
- The cow’s shaded areas are too warm. Successful shaded areas are not only darker that the original color, but they are also cooler in temperature. To achieve that, I need to add the complementary color to darken and cool the hue. Adding blue to the cows colors, that range from raw sienna to brown, takes care of the shaded areas very well.
- Highlights. My 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, I darken the shade near it and the result is the same, like on the front leg of the cow.
Stage 5. The Painting is Complete
After much tweaking, here 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.
By no means I consider myself a master artist, but what I know I enjoy sharing with others. I wrote this article hoping that it will help beginner artists in their painting process, not because I believe I “know” how to paint.
I hope you found it useful and enjoyable. Happy painting! : )
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Robie Benve