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"Cow on Mountain" Landscape Acrylic Painting: Step-by-Step Process

Robie is an artist who loves sharing what she has learned about art and painting in the hope that it might help other creatives.

How to paint a landscape with acrylics—"High Pastures" acrylic on canvas (18" x 24")

How to paint a landscape with acrylics—"High Pastures" acrylic on canvas (18" x 24")

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.

Thumbnail Sketches

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 photographed, cropped, and edited by Lee, I did not have to struggle to find a good crop to enhance the composition. It was already perfect.

The original reference photo used for the painting

The original reference photo used for the painting

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 the placements 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.

Draw four lines dividing your picture into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. Place your focal points near the intersections.

Draw four lines dividing your picture into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. Place your focal points near the intersections.

How to Draw Lines of Thirds

Draw four lines dividing your picture into thirds both horizontally and vertically. These 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, but not too much because acrylics dry quickly.

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 one of the painting: Block the value shapes in.

Stage one of the painting: Block the value shapes in.

Stage 2: Painting Smaller Shapes and Different Values

Proceed to intensify the colors and add 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 two: painting smaller shapes and different values

Stage two: painting 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 take 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.

Stage three: adding details to the painting

Stage three: adding details to the painting

Stage 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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, as I did on the front leg of the cow.
  4. 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 four: refining all the elements of the painting

Stage four: refining all the elements of the painting

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 after taking a break from painting or by looking at its reflection in 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.

Stage five: The painting is complete.

Stage five: The painting is complete.

An Example, Not a Rule

In this article, I explained 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!

© 2012 Robie Benve


Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on November 27, 2017:

Thanks a lot RTalloni! I try to write useful tutorials, and tips for artists in the hope that what little I know can be of help for someone else. A lot of people start painting later in life, most after retirement, so I enjoy trying to provide some kind of shortcuts to learn a little faster things that I have learned the hard way, through trial and error. Painting can truly be a lot of fun if we don't let frustration take control. :) Thanks a lot for your kind comment.

RTalloni on November 21, 2017:

Lots of good feedback here on this useful tutorial. Appreciate reading through your replies as well. Thanks for putting this together. I may never paint this particular scene but I learned things from your lesson that will be helpful in other projects. Enjoyed seeing your painting as well.

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on November 21, 2017:

That's great to hear Amberle, painting mountains can be a little tricky, I totally understand the need for a visual example. As for any subject that has volume and areas of darks and lights, at the beginning focus on the big shapes. Squint and paint the geometrical shapes that you see. Don't worry about what they really are, just think in an abstract way. A dark rectangle here, a diamond of light there, a long rectangle above, etc. It's even easier to do this if you turn your photo and your canvas upside-down. It will all make sense at the end. Don't worry about the details until a later stage. Thanks for your feedback. Happy painting!!!

Amberle from Banff, Alberta, Canada on November 19, 2017:

Hi there! Thank you for posting this! It was exactly what I needed to figure out how to build my painting. It has been almost 20 years since my first (and only) attempt at oil and Ive decided to try my hand at it again. So I am now with a mountain landscape sketched out and this was just what I needed to push me into the next steps. That values underpainting really helped me visualize what I've read elsewhere. Thank you!

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on November 25, 2014:

Hello Mister terrific ( what a great screen name, BTW!) Happy to hear you found my hub interesting and motivating! Thanks a lot for you feedback and happy painting! :)

Mister Terrific from United States on November 22, 2014:

That was wonderful, I'm going to do it for myself, I just started taking Acrylic Painting Classes. Thank you for sharing your talent and making painting fun.

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on October 26, 2012:

Hi Marcy, in your super busy lifestyle, wouldn't it be great if you found the time to start painting again? It can be fun and relaxing.

Thanks a lot for your comment. :)

Marcy Goodfleisch from Planet Earth on October 25, 2012:

I love the step-by-step instructions you have here! This should be an HOTD - it is just plain wonderful! I used to paint, but I didn't really know the right sequence to do things, so my work wasn't nearly as great as I dreamed of - or as yours is!

Voted up, and up, and up!!!

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on October 25, 2012:

Thanks a lot for the positive feedback Dbro, Vanderleelie, and Nettlemere. It's wonderful to hear that you found the painting knowledge shared here valuable.

Vanderleelie, I like the tip of the colored glaze to unify the painting, I'll have to try that.

Thanks! :)

Nettlemere from Burnley, Lancashire, UK on October 20, 2012:

Very interesting to see how the painting builds up through the different stages which you have explained nice and clearly too.

Vanderleelie on October 19, 2012:

A very good hub with simple instructions that lead the painter through the process of working from a photograph. The only step I might add to the finished work is a glaze of acrylic medium and pigment to unify the range of colours. Voted up and useful.

Dbro from Texas, USA on October 19, 2012:

Great hub, Robie! Your advice on composition is applicable to all two-dimensional media. I really enjoyed reading about your thought process as you completed this painting (which is great, by the way). Thanks for sharing your knowledge and love for painting. Both shine through very well in this article.

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on October 19, 2012:

Hi Kathleenkat and Carol777,

thanks a lot for your warm comments, I'm happy your find my hub interesting. :) Happy painting both of you!

carol stanley from Arizona on October 18, 2012:

I always love your art hubs and learn something new. I am going to bookmark this as I do all of the hubs. Great instructions and easy to follow. Thanks and keep going. Voted UP.

kathleenkat from Bellingham, WA on October 18, 2012:

One of the things I missed out on while studying art in college was paints and pastels! (They made you choose a specific medium, and I chose fabrics). Okay. THis is officially on my 'to do' list. Thanks for sharing this; this is a comprehensive guide by the looks of it. If I ever get around to doing this ('getting around' to things is a challenge for me) I'll let you know the results :)