Learning to paint old barns on an aging farmstead takes more time than 9 easy steps will teach. Hopefully though, these tips will guide you to explore techniques and approaches to painting you had not before considered.
Why do you paint?
When you tackle a scene like an old farmstead, do you want to record every detail for posterity? Is it the way light filters onto the side of a barn; exploring the texture of the weathered wood; to tell a story about life on a farm?
Discovering what inspires and fills you with wonder and excitement will help you decide what and how to paint.
For instance, when I saw this farm I was driving on a
well-travelled road that had small sloping banks. The scene appeared as I came
over the rise of a hill. It had rained steadily for two days, but at that
moment the sun broke through and glistened off the wet roofs and landscape. It
looked like a postcard – the kind designed to convince you to “move here where
life is always ideal and peaceful”.
But ‘what’ about the scene gave me that impression? Why did
I suddenly feel compelled to paint it?
Was it the dazzling light after days of dreary showers, the
sheep grazing silently, the textures in the grasses and barns, the quirky design
of the buildings, the fence posts at odd angles, the rolling hills and shifting
lines, the brooding sky, the gently transitioning values of the landscape
contrasted with the silhouetted structures? Or, was it a combination of all
Whatever it was at that moment, it was enough for me to turn off and park on a small road and hike back up a couple hills with cars moving swiftly past me to get some photos while hoping it wouldn’t suddenly start dumping rain in buckets again.
The tricky part back in the studio is painting it in a way
that conveys that initial awe so the viewer can experience it as well.
That’s when it helps to ponder the questions above.
I decided it was a combination of many of those
factors, with an emphasis on textures. I also wanted to capture that sense of
light breaking through the storm.
In the photo, the buildings were spaced far apart. I loved the different sized groups of
9 Steps to Paint a Tranquil Farmstead with Old Barns
Since there wasn’t a strong dark value pattern to worry
about, I jumped right in with the correct sky value. Often, I will avoid white
at the start to keep my dark values clean. It’s a lot of fun when I get to mix
the values correctly right away.
There are some dark shapes to think about like a few barns
and a pine tree. Those shapes are so small compared to the larger and brighter
sky and landscape shapes that it’s easier to get the large shapes painted first.
Then when ready, you can simply scrape the sky paint off where a building is
I also wanted to use white immediately and get the value correct so I could play with thick textured paint in the storm clouds and grasses.
For the landscape portion I wanted to build it up in layers,
so I could get a variety of colors, values and textures.
I started by using a 1 ½ inch putty knife to quickly apply a
mix of Sap Green, Cad Yellow Medium, Cad Lemon and Phthalo Blue. That gave me
the overall basic color running through all of the fields.
I then took a large size 12 Rosemary Ultimate Long Flat bristle brush to push the paint around and cover the remaining white of the panel. I didn’t brush over all of the knife texture though because I wanted some of it to contrast with the smoother opaque texture of the brush strokes.
Thinking through those initial questions about what in the
scene inspired me is what prompted me to use a kitchen spatula – the first time
I’ve done that.
My thought was that the 3-inch edge of the spatula could scoop up a pile of paint and then leave broken patches of color by dragging a lighter color lightly over the green. In each instance I made sure not to over mix the colors on the palette. The goal was to have a lot of color and value variety.
A smaller palette knife was used to add the darker diagonal
banks, rocks and bushes.
Then I came back with the spatula to play with textures some more. I would set the spatula flat on the paint and pull up which caused the paint to stick and pull away from the panel in unpredictable patterns. I would also push and pull with the spatula in different directions to mimic the formation of tufts of grass and small dips and valleys.
Once I had some fun textures started, I scraped paint away
from some spots for the barns.
For the barn wood texture and the background
It took some time before I got the sizes and shapes the way
I wanted them. I would finish blocking in the barns, step back to look at them
and realize they were too big, or the spacing felt predictable and bland.
So, I would grab my palette knife and cut back into them or start over entirely.
Once I felt good about the organization and size
relationships of the shapes, I started adding more details using a variety of
brushes like the size 8 Ultimate Long Flat, a size 1 Series 278 Long Filbert
and a size 4 Series 272 Round.
I added textural bits of paint and color around the large
barn to help it feel in harmony with the fields of grass.
The large tree in front of the barn seemed to be more of a
distraction so I eliminated it. I did like the smaller tree near the barn
The bright house and barn roofs were also planned in as bright spots to lead the viewer around the painting and to tie the right and left shapes together.
The fence posts were a big part of what I loved about the
scene. They tilted in different directions while cutting diagonally across the
painting. That gave me a quirky line to lead the viewer to the first barn.
The placement of the sun high overhead and in the middle of
the landscape also allowed the shadows to angle in odd directions which added
to the quirky rhythm of the lines.
I added the trunks of the background trees and tried to
space them in a way that would add depth and interest to the painting.
Small details and splashes of color and texture were placed
in needed areas all around the painting – anywhere I felt a shape or color
needed to be broken up.
I used those bits of light and shadow to create movement as well and lead the viewer from one spot to another like an indistinct path.
Here I thought I was just about finished.
Then Kristie pointed out that the small tree’s foliage
blended in too much with the colors and values of the rock wall barn
So, I brightened the values as though the sun was
illuminating the tree. I also brought warmer color into the leaves to push it
away from the cooler shadow tones of the barn.
Kristie also felt the far-right barn needed a bit more structural damage to make it clear the barn was struggling and old. So, I added some holes and more texture to the roof and walls.
Nope, still not quite done.
After pondering the painting for a couple days Kristie and I
realized the house in the back was too ambiguous. It blended with the trees
like the small tree did with the barn’s rock wall.
I wanted the house to be distinct from the trees but not
distract from the barn. So, I played with a couple different color and value
Finally, I found a color that I felt worked well with the
barn while keeping the house back in the distance. I painted the values lighter
so it would contrast strongly with the barn and further separate the two
I also noticed that there was a large green oval in the middle lower landscape which I broke up with bluish grey shadows and brighter values and textures.
Tell me about your farmstead adventures and what motivates and inspires you to paint!
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