This art tutorial breaks down how to paint a mountain forest scene in 9 easy steps.
Does that mean you can read through these steps and voila, you’ve got it down and you can then quickly paint the same scene yourself?
Learning how to paint a mountain forest with feeling is a quest that requires courage and miles of brush stroke practice.
An easy formula for copying how I paint is not the point to any of my training videos, workshops or oil painting tips. Learning to paint masterfully is a journey that takes a lifetime of study, observation of nature and painting like crazy – every possible day we can.
Painting well is incredibly challenging, and the pursuit of mastery is oh so much fun precisely because it requires so much from us.
We can’t casually glide into becoming a painter who creates art that stirs the soul. It’s much, much more than learning to paint a nice picture that gets a few compliments from friends and family. It goes way beyond skills that help us paint something that looks like a photograph.
For me, masterful art offers the world a glimpse of God’s love for His children. It compels us to feel something – it turns our hearts to Heavenly Father and fills us with gratitude and joy because of His mercy and the beauty that surrounds us.
Mastery in art is unique to every painter – we are each blessed with experiences that make us beautifully individual – and that in turn contributes to the beauty of this earth.
Art training works best when it guides with principles that can be tailored to individual adaptation – rather than rigid formulas that restrict our own personal creativity, imagination and way of viewing the world.
Take what I share about my processes and ideas and use them as starting blocks or inspiration to create your own masterful works of art!
Here are the 9 easy steps for painting a misty mountain forest that describe how I experimented with a new approach for painting thick colorful fall foliage.
How to Paint a Breathtaking Mountain Forest with 9 Easy Steps
That trowel has been used to prime my panels from time to time, but this was the first time it was used to begin one of my paintings.
It was the rich red, orange and yellow fall leaves in my reference photos that inspired the idea.
I’ve been playing and experimenting with texture since I first learned oil painting in the mid 80’s – both the thin texture that comes from a dry-brush stroke, and texture created by applying thick paint.
All that beautiful fall foliage just begged to be painted with thick textured strokes.
An idea came to me to see if starting with a bunch of thick white paint would help create the wonderfully textured leaves and branches I had in my mind.
I figured, instead of mixing those fall colors on my palette, I could skip a step and simply mix them all right on my panel.
So, I took Gamblin’s titanium white straight from the tube and covered the top half of my panel using a 2” putty knife.
Alla prima or wet-into-wet is my favorite way to paint. I love how easy it is to soften edges and harmonize colors as one area picks up colors from another area.
So, filling my painting with a lot of white paint didn’t intimidate me too much until the time came to add darker tree trunks and branches into the mix.
Adding a one-stroke tree branch by pushing a paint brush through thick paint isn’t tough – it just needs to be done deliberately with a hog bristle brush and in one fluid motion to avoid pulling up the color underneath.
The difficulty with painting larger branches or tree trunks on top of thick white paint is that the white tends to either blend in with the new darker color and change the value, or it grabs on to the brush bristles and shows through as strong bright streaks in-between darker streaks of paint. That striated look can be beautiful, especially with rich colors that harmonize well, but when pure white is placed side by side with a darker value it can look unnatural. The white also tends to deaden the new color and strips the life out of it.
So, while it worked great for the lighter lavender background colors, it took extra effort since I had to rework the tree trunks several times each to get the values and colors the way I wanted them.
Fortunately, the striated paint had the look of tree bark and I was able to use that to the painting’s advantage.
That strong diagonal tree trunk, I quickly realized, was way too strong a statement without plenty of verticals to soften the visual impact.
The other major diagonal – the ground sloping downhill – also needed some visual lines and shapes to balance the downward direction toward the bottom left corner. Without some counter balancing with smaller tree trunks and shapes of color in strategic places the large diagonal shapes would demand so much attention from the viewer that the rest of the painting would suffer.
The goal is to have a powerful primary idea or center of interest while allowing the viewer to enjoy all the parts and nuances of the painting.
The X-Long Filbert Utrecht 103 you see in the photo has been replaced with Rosemary’s 2085 Egbert brushes. They are so much fun to use for quickly applied plants and shapes where we want unpredictable brush strokes, edges, shapes and movement. The long hog bristles really move the paint around and we can push and pull and splay the bristles without damaging the hairs.
With the warm fall foliage colors, I was not casually throwing leaves around to make the painting exciting. Each group of leaves becomes a shape and each shape is used to guide the viewer on a path around the painting.
We are designers. We use colors, values, shapes and lines to compose. Rarely, if ever, do we want to use our reference photos exactly how we see them. They are the starting points or guides to give us some initial direction.
Then our imagination and knowledge as artists will take those references and make something soul stirring – something worth the viewers’ attention and time.
There was a several-week break between painting sessions for this piece because I needed to finish a different painting for the membership site. The original thick white paint dried, so the red, orange and yellow leaves you see me painting here are being added to the top of and not blended into the other paint.
My goal of using all that white paint to save time with the bright foliage was thwarted a bit, but there was still plenty of paint and brush texture from that early thick paint to help add vitality to the new leaves and the overall painting.
Tree trunks of varying sizes, colors and values were added to suggest closer and distant trees and create depth in the painting.
For the tree trunk colors, I stayed away from the transparent oxide brown, mixing primarily with ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson, and quinacridone red so the darker and lighter lavender tree trunks would not get too warm in color temperature. I needed the cooler lavenders to contrast with all the warm colors in the tree top foliage and foreground leaves.
I also worked a lot of lavender and blue tones into the background to suggest bushes and plants and add variety between the trees. Although the lavenders and blues are relatively cooler, I used a mix of warmer and cooler variations of those colors – for instance, adding blue to cool and red to warm a lavender. I also began to focus on the lower left corner – adding elements that would stop the viewer from stumbling out of the picture as they traveled down that steep slope.
Now the painting is starting to take shape in earnest – feeling much more natural and alive.
The foreground was so much fun.
Using smaller and larger brushes like a Rosemary series 279 size 4 compared with an Ultimate bristle flat size 8 I added lots of contrasts and varied brushstrokes to create the idea of leaves, rocks and small plants throughout the forest floor. I wanted to emphasize the warm colored leaves from the trees falling to the ground without overwhelming the viewer with too much warmth. That’s why I added so many bits of light grey blues and purples and greens among the warmer reds, yellows and oranges.
The values were kept mostly in the middle value range with strategically placed dark accents and bright highlights to catch the viewer’s attention and lead them around the painting.
With the groups of trees, I changed up the direction and size of them often to mimic the random placement of nature and create a sense of life in the forest without getting too dense. I want the viewer to have plenty to see while still feeling that they can easily wander through the scene. I also add warm and cool colors that are basically the same value throughout the tree trunks. Light glancing off leaves and other objects can cause shifts in both values and color temperatures.
That’s why adding color temperature changes within an area like the shadow side of a tree trunk, especially different colors that are the same value, can enliven our paintings and increase the sense of realism.
I use leaves and branches to overlap trees that I want to push into the distance. Lightening values is also helpful to create the illusion of trees and bushes receding into the misty atmosphere.
On rocks, trees or even individual leaves it’s a good idea to add plenty of value and color changes. The reason for that is because natural objects have lots of plane changes that catch the light from different angles.
For instance, on a round tree trunk there will be knots or branches that stick out or the tree may suddenly curve or angle in spots. A rock can have smooth textures, cracks or broken fragments formed by falling rain or swelling winter ice shaping and moving them over the centuries. Each of those changes in angle and texture causes a value and color shift.
Leaves may bend or face the viewer straight on or from the side catching the light in slightly different degrees. Adding a light, shadow and halftone accent here and there will help increase the realism in our paintings.
Viewers will feel like they are right there walking through the woods listening to the birdsong and the rustling of leaves.
Paint texture is one of the powerful benefits of oil paint. We can brush on oil paint in thin transparent washes or with thick strokes that show the individual bristle marks from our brushes.
That thick texture is amazing for separating a painting from a mere photograph.
It is also wonderful for directing the movement of the viewers eyes through a painting. Rather than arbitrary strokes of thick paint simply to get texture in our paintings, we can use the direction of our strokes to guide the viewer – just like we would with a tree branch or color temperature change.
The brush bristle texture is made up of small lines – those lines point one way or another – up, down, sideways. If we are aware of those directional pointers we can use them to our advantage.
Sometimes it’s large textured brush strokes that create obvious movement in the painting while other moments it may be small subtle strokes that direct the viewer’s eye onto a new path.
One of the significant and understated additions I made from image #7 to image #8 was the extra branch on the lower left tree.
That tree breaks the descent of the sloping hill and the new branch helps direct the viewer back into the painting – hopefully without being too obvious. I use a bunch of small twigs and trees to disrupt large shapes of color or movement and to bring energy and diversity to areas outside the center of interest.
The final step shows very subtle changes.
As much as I love red, I felt there was too much red in the leaves in too many places. So, I added a bit of medium value orange and yellow as a scumbling over some of them. That created more variety in the colors and psychologically increased the feeling of depth and light and shadow throughout the painting.
Each of the little changes was made after days of observing the painting – putting it out of sight for a while and then returning to it with a fresh eye.
While the experiment turned out well, I will probably not add white to another panel quite like I did in this painting. I will however continue to play with texture – especially thick strokes of paint that show all the fun bristles of my brushes.