In last week’s blog we discussed the major differences between the reference photo and the final painting. I’m including the references here again so you can refer to them as the major steps are detailed.
Ready to get started?
First, let’s walk through each of the 10 steps together. Then we can finish up with a fast motion video that shows the entire process from start to finish.
10 steps to your own Peony Masterpiece
When a scene has a fairly tight range of colors I often determine if one or two main colors will work for the undertone or initial washes. Since the subject had a lot of greens and lavenders I decided to start with a warm yellowish color mixed from transparent oxide yellow, transparent oxide orange and some cad lemon for the top where the sky would be and added some transparent oxide red for the bottom wash. I knew that the bits of color that would still be visible at the end of the painting would harmonize well with the final colors.
Then I used simple strokes of color to indicate the general placement of the different spaces in the painting – the distant trees, peony bush shadows, foreground grasses and the shed window. Try to keep your brushstrokes varied in the early stages – different sizes and directions – to add energy and movement right away to the painting.
A paper towel is very handy to wipe back down to lower layers of paint or to the white of the panel, to establish a bright clean area for each of the translucent colorful flowers. I generally leave a little of the background colors on the edges to help integrate the flowers with the rest of the painting – that way the flowers don’t feel like cardboard cutouts.
I quickly dry brush a mix of quinacridone red and cad red into each of the flowers, making sure to vary the direction of my brush strokes to make the flowers more interesting. The first layer of color is applied with darker middle shadow values that I can then add brighter thicker colors on top of.
I like to get a few value tones established with the flowers right away to help judge how dark or light to make the other areas of the painting – generally reserving the darkest darks and lightest lights for the center of interest which in this case is the two peonies close to one another on the upper left. That is not a rule – sometimes the darkest or lightest value might be somewhere else in the painting, but I want to make sure that nothing else in the painting distracts the viewer from the primary center of interest, which a very dark or light value or strong color is capable of.
I also begin to refine some of the details in the flowers to help me judge how much detail to add to other areas in the painting. This is a point in the painting where I begin to decide how much or how little detail I really want. I can change my mind anytime in the painting and choose to simplify more or increase the detail, but this is often when I get a strong feeling one way or another.
Once the peonies are placed the leaves and small twigs are developed. Even though we are working with small objects like leaves and flowers, we need to pay close attention to the shapes that groupings of flowers or leaves create. Having a variety of big, medium and small shapes is essential for a pleasing composition and a painting that will keep the viewer’s attention. The leaves are placed quickly, but also in a way that allows for the distribution of light and shadow to lead the viewer around the painting. Some leaves will be left as a middle value color, others will be darkened a bit to recede into the shadows and still others will be lightened to move them toward the viewer and into the direct light source (or a reflected light source, depending on the situation).
Now that much of the spaces are broken up and made more interesting with leaves and stems, the peonies are brought to a greater level of refinement. Much of the detail that is added now will remain in the final painting. I am paying close attention to light and shadow to create a realistic look to the flowers. Leaving some areas of the flowers in shade and other parts in full light helps to create that 3-dimensional look.
Edges are critical at this point – we need some edges to become diffused with the background colors and values while others are left sharp and defined – that all is dependent on how we want to lead the viewer around. Think of hard and soft edges as closed doors and open paths – harder edges tend to stop the viewer while softer edges allow the viewer to continue through unimpeded. Hard edges also demand more attention and are often employed in the center of interest.
Many of the brightest leaves are placed near the two primary peonies. Other bright leaves are added in areas that need a bit more engaging content to help build a more substantial feeling bush. Notice how a few bright leaves bring a heightened vitality to the painting – we just want to make sure we don’t overdo it and all those beautiful bright colors everywhere – a bit of spice adds liveliness, too much overwhelms. Don’t fret if you overdo the fun highlights – just take your palette knife, brush or paper towel and simplify – happens to me all the time.
The garden shed behind the bush (originally a house) gives me fits because I struggle to find the right color temperature and value that works in harmony with the peonies without demanding too much attention – like a character actor that helps the lead star shine even brighter. After playing with warm wood colors that competed with the flowers…
I finally found the right grayed down blue that felt like weathered wood – it also pushed nicely into the distance and allowed the peonies to come forward and take center stage. Many different ideas were experimented with like small windows, but in the end, I decided the shed needed to be simplified to eliminate distractions.
The foreground grasses were left sketchy – just a few clumps of grass here and there. The patch of shaded grass in the distance was too strong of a shape that led the viewer out of the painting and did not allow us to move through it. So, I added some quick simple strokes of reddish lavender to simulate dirt – that was enough to let the viewer move through that shape and into the back trees.
The distant grass was made into a slight incline or hill to help direct the viewer back to the peonies, rather than out the right side of the painting.
The colors in the farthest trees were created with a combination of warmer and cooler blues and lavenders to create vibration and interest while using minimal detail – that allows it to be fun for the viewer without taking too much attention from the peony bush.
Now let’s pull it all together!
One of the wonderful things about painting is the limitless possibilities. If I did this same painting again I would experiment with the foreground grasses and add more lavender tones, similar to those in the garden shed, over the warmer orange colors to see how that might affect the feeling in the painting.
Remember, it’s generally better (as long as the painting doesn’t have glaring problems) to experiment like I just described, with a new painting – not by endlessly changing the original piece. We will learn and progress much faster by creating new paintings than we ever will by reworking the same painting over and over.
I hope this gave you some ideas and motivates you to experiment with your own peony paintings – I sure had fun with these flowers.
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