Iconic images like the Spanish Peaks require a bit more thought than simply painting a mountain range from memory or imagination. Even when I’m painting on location – plein air – I will often shrink or enlarge, rearrange or even eliminate an object for the sake of the composition or focal point.
With the Spanish Peaks being so well known and beloved by not just the local community, but mountain lovers across the country, I am hesitant to let my imagination take control because viewers will wonder ‘who does this guy think he is, trying to outsmart Mother Nature?’
Besides that, I had two other reasons for painting the mountain range basically the way they are shown in the photo:
- I lived just down the road in Rye, Colorado for twelve years and grew a fondness for the Spanish Peaks
- This painting was part of our Master Oil Painting bi-monthly Paint Together where we all paint from the same photo so we can see all the different approaches artists can take using the same image.
Spike, one of our members living in Colorado, supplied the photo for us.
That’s the reason I also decided to do a small 6×8 as a completed gallery ready painting, rather than a study for a larger painting. A larger painting may follow sometime in the future, but I thought the members would appreciate seeing how I tackle creating a small painting without getting too bogged down with a bunch of distracting details.
As wonderful as the original photo was, the red dirt and rocks found throughout Colorado seemed like the perfect foreground to lead the viewer into the painting. I hoped some warm color nearer the viewer would help create a greater feeling of distance and push those mountains farther away.
So, I tweaked things a bit.
Using nearliy 60 images, I combined yucca, Indian Paintbrush Pinon Pines and rocks from around the area into a more open scene that would lead the viewer back and through the painting.
Now that you see the image I worked from, let’s see how I transformed that montage into a gallery ready painting.
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9 Steps to Paint the Spanish Peaks
Using a little walnut oil, I began with thin washes of Manganese and Ultramarine Blue for the sky and Transparent Oxide Orange for the foreground. After quickly laying in the paint with a large bristle brush, I wiped off most of the paint with a paper towel.
Then I mixed up a fairly large pile of paint for the mountain range by adding Quinacridone Red to my sky color with some more Ultramarine and Phthalo blue and just a touch of Transparent Oxide Orange to dirty up or grey down the lavender color.
I used the same color in a flat application, saving the small color or value shifts for the final touches at the end of the painting.
Our paintings will generally be stronger if we simplify the initial large shapes into flat tones of color or value – almost like adding cutouts from colored paper.
Unfortunately, I sometimes get a head of myself and add value or color shifts too early in the painting process – which I did in this painting a few times. When that happens my paintings become busy and distractive, and I often end up scraping off much of my work and starting over with simplified shapes.
After I finished the block-in of the mountain range, I realized that this presented a great opportunity to teach the members about using grids.
So, even though I didn’t use a grid to create my mountains, I added a grid using Photoshop to demonstrate how handy a grid can be when we are wanting to keep close to the proportions and look of our subject.
In over 30 years of painting, I can count on one hand the times I have used a grid, but when I have it has saved me a lot of time and possible frustration, especially if I am not paying close attention to my drawing.
It can certainly be disheartening to finish several hours of work only to discover that we have to wipe it all off and start again.
This was a painting commissioned by two brothers who grew up in this beautiful home, and whose mother still lives there – the home holds decades of happy memories for their families. They wanted it to be a surprise birthday present for their mom.
Since there were so many specific architectural details and because the building’s features were etched forever in the minds of its owners, I wanted to make sure I stayed true to the design, without any major alterations.
So, I used a grid to give me some initial guidance. You can see the process from start to finish in this short video (less than a minute).
I then began to fill in the other layers of color for the water, snow and middle ground bluffs.
For the snow I went straight for the thicker brush bristle texture paint since the mountains were the primary focal point of the painting. I wanted the thicker paint texture to draw the viewer’s attention.
With the water and middle ground areas I used two layers of color for each – a lighter and slightly darker value color to create a feeling of light and shadow.
Then the foreground rocks, yucca and sagebrush were sculpted and shaped with broad strokes of thick paint using both Utrecht Series 207 size 8 and Jack Richeson Grey Matters Hog Bristle size 6 brushes.
Right off I fell into the dreaded ‘repetitive shape’ dilemma with three practically identical shadow masses that you can see circled in this photo:
Endless variations available and I make them all the same like ants poised on some imaginary starting line.
Next, I refined those masses of color with thick strokes of lighter value paint to create a sense of reality with light and shadow.
I used a palette knife to create the thin edge on the rim of the dark rock near the middle of the painting, although I could have easily used a brush and simply cut back into the highlight with darker value paint if my paint stroke wasn’t thin enough.
Notice the play of warm and cool colors next to one another with the cool dusty green of the yucca plants interspersed through the warmer reds and yellows.
I also used a lavender shadow color in the rocks farthest from the viewer in the upper right. I should have done the same thing to the shadows in the closest rocks and made them a step or two lighter as well – looking at the painting here in my studio those shadows seem a little too dark and dominant to allow the viewer to travel easily back to the mountains.
At this stage I decided to forget about the taller pinon pines in the reference image, feeling they would create a distractive border on the sides of the painting.
The sky color was never intended to be left as thin washes – the thicker strokes were applied with lots of textured brush stroke movement and color gradation from darker blue at the top to lighter greenish blue near the mountains.
With Rosemary & Co Series 279 Extra Long Flat sizes 4 and 6 the finishing details topped off the sagebrush with thick rich orangish yellow middle values and bright Cad Lemon and white highlights.
Using a Rosemary Series 272 Round size 6 I broke up the mountains’ snowy peaks – I tried to keep the value and color shifts very subtle because the distance and size of the mountains meant the details would be mostly obscured.
Unfortunately, in my desire to maintain the Peaks’ iconic presence, I got carried away and lost the strength and naturalism of simplicity with too many details.
So, after floundering for a while trying to save all that work and paint I spent so much time manipulating, I took my palette knife and did what I should have done half an hour earlier – I scraped the right half of the mountains off and started over.
Besides scaping off the snow, I also simplified the base of the mountains by taking a large bristle brush and layering a light lavender color over most of the previous work.
At about the time I thought I had finally achieved the feeling in the mountains I had hoped for, Kristie paid me a visit and told me “where the lavender and the snow meet they form a line that cuts the painting in half – you’re going to have to make the mountains bigger”.
Fortunately, I pondered it for a while and had a happy thought come to me – “I don’t need to completely rework the mountains, I can simply add more snow and lower that offending line”.
After reworking the bluffs with extra blue color to emphasize the distance, and layering some green tinted color over some of the foreground rocks to tone down their warmth, I put on my parka and plunged back into the snow again.
You can see that I didn’t pull the snow all the way down in a uniform line across the bottom of the mountains – I varied the height of the snow quite a bit to break up any line that might distract the viewer or put undue attention on the middle-of-the-painting placement of the mountain range.
I also got rid of most of the shadow shape on the left of the foreground area and increased the size of the lake. I did pay close attention to the shape of the lake to make sure I didn’t entirely mimic the shape of the mountain.
Thick horizontal brush strokes created the semblance of wind rippling across the surface of the lake.
The little touches of red in the distant shoreline were to help tie the fore and middle ground together and create a bridge for the viewer to cross the lake to the mountains beyond.
I probably got a bit carried away with some of the detail in the foreground rocks and plants, but it sure was fun creating them. The splashes of red from the Indian Paintbrush flowers are pure joy for me, especially placed next to a complimentary green color.
I’ll enjoy looking at the rocks in the foreground for a while and then probably simplify them a little more so the attention is directed strongly to the mountains. Maybe just a slight lightening of the dark front shadows.