Paint with intent (Find Your Why) to create a Waterfall oil painting or anything else.
Do you grab a photo just because it’s pretty, or do you know exactly ‘why’ you want to paint that particular scene? Your painting will be much more powerful and progress easier when you know your intent.
Is it the textures in the landscape, is it the atmospheric light, is it the way the water creates beautiful flowing colors? Knowing exactly what touched your heart and made you want to paint it will help you focus your energy, your design, and your focal pathways during the painting process.
In this video, I talk about how I found my ‘why’ to help me create the waterfall oil painting Song of the Lonely Mountain.
Knowing my ‘why’ – the reason I wanted to paint the landscape in the first place – helped me eliminate distractions in the photo reference. It also helped me create a much more dynamic and focused design.
When you know exactly why you want to paint the scene in front of you it will help you touch the hearts of your viewers in a more powerful way.
Here is the ‘before’ reference photo and the ‘after’ waterfall painting that was created:
Transcript of Paint with Intent to Create a Waterfall Oil Painting.mp4[00:00:00] So this last Saturday, we had our monthly member painting critique, where I critique fifteen of the members’ paintings. And there was there seemed to be a dominant theme that came up during the webinar, during the critiques. And it was – what is the intent of each individual painter and why is that important? [00:00:24] And what we discovered was when we know the intent, when we know why it is that we’re painting what we’re painting, it makes the painting process so much easier because we know where to go with it. [00:00:37] So, for instance, with this waterfall painting, you’ve probably seen one of my previous videos, kind of a fast-motion one on this. This was the image I started with. I was out in Virginia. I went out there to do a Plein Air painting excursion and it was raining almost the entire time, just pouring down. But the cool thing about that was all of these little waterfalls that were everywhere out there seemed like anywhere I looked. I saw those. So this was the image that I started with when I did this quick, Alla Prima painting and this is what it turned into. [00:01:13] So how do we go from something like this to something like this? And that’s that really comes down to intent. What was my intent? What was it I was going for? And that’s how I was able to break away from the photograph to finish off with this. So, that is what I’d like to talk about today. The intent and why that’s even important at all. So let’s get to it. [00:01:51] All right, so getting back to intent. Let’s go to that image again. Not that one. This one right here. So when I saw this, I was really enamored with all those little waterfalls. And I didn’t get to paint one while I was out there, I ended up painting up on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It was really pretty up there. It was also super cold. I think it got down about 32 degrees. And when I had left home, it was up in the 60s and 70s. So I wasn’t very smart. I didn’t dress for the occasion. I had a coat, but I didn’t have any gloves. I didn’t have – I wasn’t very warm. So I sat out there painting. And I was freezing. But it was still so beautiful. And I enjoyed the whole process. [00:02:39] But I wanted to paint one of those waterfalls. So I went back to my videos and I actually took this image from one of those videos. It’s a still from a video. And I just thought, there’s something about the way that that waterfall cascades in that diagonal. It just seems very exciting to me. [00:03:02] But then I had all these distractions. So when I look at this and I see – let’s see, am I at 100 percent. Yeah. When I see this tree right here and I see these trees over here, they just seem like they are taking away from the waterfall. [00:03:21] When I look at an image like this, there are so many different directions that I could go to this to paint this. But to me, I wanted to paint the waterfall. I wanted that to be the focus of what I was doing. And so if I took all these trees and left them in there, to me, that detracts from the waterfall. I really can’t, I mean, look at this guy right here, we’ve got this tree right in the middle of the painting. I can’t see the waterfall there. When I look at this guy right here, it blocks off a big portion of the waterfall right back in here. All of these trees in here, they block off a lot of what’s happening with this waterfall. This little one coming across there. [00:04:06] And so when I first started the painting, I thought that I might leave some of those trees in there. But I had already decided that I would probably take this one out, possibly, but particularly this one right here? And these. And probably this one. [00:04:24] So that was the first step in deciding what my intent was, getting rid of those trees meant that I could focus solely or the viewer could focus solely on the waterfall. And so then I had to think about. OK. What about the waterfall is how can I really put my whole emphasis, all of the energy and the enthusiasm and the wow factor – my wow factor – “wow, I really love these waterfalls”. How could I help the viewer feel that, feel my enthusiasm for that waterfall? [00:04:59] So then I had to think about as well that the water if you look at all this water flowing down here, you notice it’s really all about the same value. It’s very bright and not a lot of differentiation in there. But if I really look closely, if I get in here close on this waterfall, I can start to see that there is some differentiation – like in here, that value and color is different than the value and color of this right here. And if I get down into this area and see that little spot, look at that yellow, green color. That’s really a lot of what I saw when I was out there. So when it comes down here, because it’s cascading down this rock right here, that changes the value and coloration as well. But also if I get down underneath into some areas like underneath where it’s in the shadows, I don’t know, there’s not a great example in here, I guess, but some of this sort of thing where it’s not so much out in the full light. That’s sort of what was in my mind when I started thinking about this waterfall. [00:06:09] The other thing was I noticed all of the fallen branches in here, or not branches, fallen leaves all over the place in there. And I love that. I love the texture of it. I like the color of it. That warmth. [00:06:24] And I also liked the dark shadows in all of these rocks contrasting against that bright water. [00:06:34] So those are some of the things that stood out immediately to me when I saw this image. And it brought back a lot of the memories I had of walking around and looking at those waterfalls and taking pictures and taking video and just all of it that intrigued me. [00:06:52] So how did I go from really this to ending up with this? Let’s watch a little bit of the video of me in the painting process so that I can share that with you. And you can see sort of what I was thinking about along the way, I’ll kind of describe that. [00:07:12] So if you notice in this final painting image right here. Well, let’s see. Let’s go back to here. You notice the waterfall in here, it goes all the way up and just takes off right up out of the top of that picture. And when I first started this, I thought I’d probably put that in there. But what I like to do is start off a little bit abstract in the early stages of my painting. I’m really often in the early stages, I’m focusing more on the shadow pattern and on the shapes. So it’s not so much the shape of here’s a rock shape and here’s a water shape, but more of the overall big shapes that make up the energy and the movement and the tension in the paintings. [00:08:00] So I’m thinking about shapes that way. And then as I go along, I’ll take those shapes and break them down into smaller and smaller shapes, depending on how the painting is progressing and how I feel about how much refinement I want to get into it. And a lot of times is the painting that kind of dictates that to me. It’s not that I have it entirely in my mind when I start. I have a good idea of what I think I want when I first start but often that morphs. It changes as I’m working. And that’s what happened with this painting, actually. [00:08:32] So the way it started, we’ll go back to this video right here. So first I put down an overall tone, because when I saw those, here let me bring this up again, when I saw all of this thatch in here, all I thought about was with that thatch, all those leaves and branches and other things in there, it kind of has a unifying characteristic to it throughout the picture. So I thought a nice unifying tone. I don’t always start with a tone on a painting on my panel before I start but in this case, I did. [00:09:09] So I started with transparent oxide red. I just wiped it across the whole, in fact, I just started, there’s no, I didn’t use any mineral spirits. It’s just straight paint. And I just wipe that on there with my brush. It’s like that. So I get the whole panel covered and then I use my paper towel to finish it off. Just get a tone over the whole thing and it’s just straight paint straight from the tube, no walnut oil, no mineral spirits, nothing, no medium at all. And I do that through the whole painting there. I don’t use any mediums. Nothing in this painting. [00:09:50] So then as I moved through that, I thought the main thing that I wanted to get on top of that is the structure of the shadows. So that’s what this is all about. I start to lay in, I start to think as I’m looking at that image, really, it comes back to this, when I’m looking at the image, I’m seeing this stuff. These dark shapes in here, dark shapes here. The overall shape of this rock, maybe. But a lot of it is these dark shadows that move us through the painting and I start to compose those in my mind. And so then when I go to the painting, I’m thinking of that as well. This is it. See, right in, as you can see, all these little areas here with the darks in there, that’s just those little dark spots underneath those rocks. [00:10:46] I don’t have to go in and draw each of those rocks perfectly and get this outline right from the start of all those little rocks. I don’t like to do that. Okay. That’s a possibility. And that works really well for a lot of artists. It doesn’t work well for me, because if I go in and I draw everything out with kind of an outline of all the different rocks, I feel a bit confined. And mentally it causes me to, it’s almost like I become a, it becomes a paint by number situation. And I think it sets up some mental boundaries for me. So that’s why over the years I’ve shied away from that. I tend to like to go right in and start to, either like this where I get the main dark shadows established all the way through, I’m kind of getting the movement of those dark shadows established in the painting, or I come in with big color field areas of just the major colors or values that are in the painting. [00:11:54] So when I do it this way, sometimes I end up here after a little while where the whole thing is kind of messy looking. It doesn’t make any sense to anybody else. But when I’m looking at it, I’m seeing in my mind all the big rocks and I’m seeing it in terms of value. Dark and light. I’m not worried about color here. I’m not worried about anything else. [00:12:20] But that underlying tone, if you notice, a lot of this is done with a dry brush stroke. And by dry brush, I’m talking about in the very end when I’m finished with the painting you’ll see all these little bits of orange sticking through. That is the original color that was in there. All of this right here. A lot of that is that original color or the original tone that was put down in the painting – over here, down in here. Much of that it’s just thin paint that is dry brushed, and by dry brushed, I mean the bristles of the brush kind of splay at the ends. And so I’m not putting down a thick, opaque layer of paint. I’m putting, I’m letting the bristles break up and just lay a broken amount of paint over it so that the underlying colors still come through. And I get layers of it. [00:13:17] And I love that because it works really well with rocks. And when I do that sort of thing, it feels to me like the striated color that I see in rocks oftentimes. So I get that down and then I start to come in with some of the, really figuring out the different rock shapes. And, well not really, I mean, as you can see here, I’m not going for a really distinct “here is this rock” and “here’s this rock”. It’s more like big strokes of color just to lay in some of the places where I think I’m going to want to have the rocks but it’s more about the movement, the motion of those rocks and what kind of energy am I creating in the painting. [00:14:06] And then I start to play with, as you can see here, the different, that yellow, the green, the light bluish-green down here in the bottom. Those are I start to lines and colors just so I can get a feeling for how those colors are going to react with what I already have there, and if I’m going to want to build those up as I go. So I start playing with that. [00:14:28] And then I come in with some, the color of the water. And at first, I started with that basic value of the water that I saw in the photograph. But in my mind, I knew that that was not the value that I would end with. At the same time, I put that in there as well just so I could get an immediate contrast of values. I get the really bright water against the darker forms of the rocks that are around it. And that gives me an idea of where I want to go with my values. [00:15:02] And it helps me to start formulating my intent. How do I put the emphasis on that waterfall and still move the viewer through the painting? So if I left the value of this water like that, that bright throughout the whole painting and didn’t change it, then the viewer would really not know where to look because the water is treated the same throughout it. So it all becomes just as important as anywhere else that there’s water. [00:15:33] So I know very quickly that I need to moderate that water. I need to change it so that one area of the water where I really want the central focus to be has to be where I reserve the brightest highlight areas, the brightest values, lightest values, I guess, for the most part. And then all the other areas I need to subdue them, generally speaking, with a little bit darker value so they don’t stand out so much, but enough interest and beauty to them that the viewer still wants to look there. And it leads the viewer through the painting. But I reserve one area as the center of interest. [00:16:14] So by doing that, I’m establishing, as you can see I ended up leaving out all the trees because I decided that my full intent needs to be the waterfall and those trees are just distractive. I kind of drew some in with my, just in my mind, I will take a paintbrush and kind of almost as if I’m actually applying it to the panel, I’ll draw with the paintbrush in front of me on the panel and simulate that I’ve put it in there so that in my mind I can see what that would look like. And I did that a couple of times through here to see if adding some of those trees would work. And it didn’t. So I never actually put those trees in. But I did go through the Technique or the idea of doing it just so I could see it in my mind if it was going to work. So I decided that they were going to be a distraction and they weren’t adding anything to the story. So they didn’t help the intent. The intent was to show off the waterfall. They didn’t add to that. They didn’t strengthen that intent. So those got left out. [00:17:24] And that’s how I go through and decide when I’m working from a reference image, I don’t want to be a slave to that image. I want it to just be the starting point for me. And I already know because I’ve painted a lot out on location, since the mid 80s, that photographs, generally speaking, something in there isn’t right. If I take a photograph and I’ve got let’s say a – I’m in the woods, or just like this waterfall scene, if I had something like this, there are all these dark rocks, then if there’s something bright in there, either the rocks are going to end up too dark in the photograph or the bright, the lighter areas are going to end up too light. Something’s going to get blown out. Either the shadows are going to be too dark and I won’t see anything in there or it’s going to compensate and I’ll see some of the actual nuance in the shadows but the whites or the brights, like if it’s a sky in there, the sky is going to just be blown out. And I won’t see any of the detail, the actual color variation, the nuances of value that’s in that sky. It’ll mostly be just one flat value. [00:18:41] So the way to know that is to actually go outside, out on location and observe that happening. And then take a photograph of it. And if you can, quickly see the differences between them, there’s going to be huge differences between actually being there and what happens in the photograph. [00:19:02] So that’s why it’s important not to get stuck on being a slave to that photograph. [00:19:07] OK. So in order to, by doing this, though, laying in these bright values all the way through with the water, I was basically with this figuring out, first of all, by having it all the same value right off and not thinking too much about it. I could decide the movement of that water and where I wanted the water to go because there are so many different ways I could do that. When it comes to painting it and knowing that I don’t have to follow the photograph, I could have had water moving all through different places in here if I wanted to. So I had to figure out the design of that water and how I wanted that to flow. [00:19:46] And, you notice I put the water up here at the top. But I ended up realizing that in the end that that was distracting. It wasn’t something I wanted to keep in there. So I take that water, and once I decide my design, I tried a couple of different things and finalized on the water kind of coming into, you know, across the rocks in a couple of different directions down here and over on the right side over here and then culminating in this area right in here where it’s really there’s a lot more of it and I can play with it there. [00:20:24] And that’s kind of where I wanted to the center of interest, the main focal area, to be. Everything else is going to lead the viewer to that. So then I start putting also some color into the rocks and other areas. But mainly I was getting established quickly what it was that I wanted to have happen with that water. [00:20:47] At the same time, all of these units, the shapes of the rocks, they’re still very ambiguous. And that is so that in the end those rocks will not be there won’t be a rock that’s very important or that’s so important that I’m afraid to change it. All of these are just abstract ideas, really. And I can refine them or leave them simple to my heart’s content. [00:21:15] And it really is the painting that dictates how much I refine them and how much I leave them simple and don’t do much at all to them. So right here, I start to put in some of those more shadow colors of water the way that I know them from having observed them on location so often. And I use that knowledge to help guide me and in designing the water, because it’s not in the photograph. You know, if we go back to that photograph, right here, you can see that there really isn’t much at all in the way of color variation in there. So I have to use what I know from direct observation to compensate for what’s lacking in the photograph. [00:22:04] And even if this was how it looked when I was there, I could still change that because I like to have a lot more color than that. So right here I start to figure out in that, as you can see up in the top area, that I wanted to change some things up there as well. As far as how the water works up there and how I want to guide the viewer in that area. I didn’t want too much attention up on the very top because I didn’t want that to be a distraction from the main area, the main focal area. But I want it to also be interesting up there. [00:22:40] So here I start to lay in some colors into the rocks. And I do that in a way that allows me to determine if they’re going to detract from the main area of focus, which is the water coming down those rocks. And so I keep those colors on the more darker middle value area. For one, because that’s where you get the strongest color, and two I don’t want such bright spots over here at the moment that it’s going to start pulling away from that main focal area. [00:23:17] And you can see by leaving a lot of these things more ambiguous and abstract in nature, I can change things at will. So when I first started this, over here, let’s see, where is this at? When I first started putting water in here, you notice at the bottom, I have it stopping here and then moving across and having a big rock here. I decided I didn’t like that. And so I was able to easily change that and start moving the water more and more. A little bit here I start with because I thought, oh, I’ll have some of that water just look like it’s kind of flowing over that rock that’s there. But then as I move along even more, I get rid of that rock increasingly as I move through this painting. And that really is because of how I felt as I went thinking that it was just too distractive. [00:24:06] So keeping things a little bit loosey goosey, as Jim Carrey would say, I can have a lot of leeway to let the painting tell me what it needs as I go. But if I if I had outlined in the very beginning, this is where this rock’s going to be, this is where this rock is gonna be, then I feel more confined and I might end up sticking to that even if…and not realize that it might be better a different way, because I’m so locked into that mindset that I might not see any other possibility. So that’s kind of why I like to start more with the abstract nature of things. [00:24:46] And then really from here, the whole process at this point is just deciding how to make it stronger. Not to change everything. Right from the start, I got the major intent, which was the energy of that water, with that diagonal S, or that diagonal curved design that was in there, I got the feeling that I wanted right from the start. [00:25:17] So after that, it’s just really coming in and deciding at each little stage, how much refinement I want. And like with an area like this, with these rocks up here, where do I want to go with that? Should I block it off or should I open it up more? And this whole process took, I think, about two and a half hours to finish the painting. So it’s pretty quick. It’s Alla Prima, it’s all done in one session. Everything was just straight paint. And and then it’s just layering on top of the other things that are there. [00:25:52] And that for me, is so much fun to paint that way because it’s like it’s a living organism or something. Everything is developing almost like almost of its own volition, is what it feels like. Like the painting is saying, OK, I need it right here. You need to do this right now. And then I just kind of go, oh OK, that makes sense. [00:26:16] So in the end, I end up breaking up some of this area up here. Until I get like that little highlight on that rock right there and then, which to me, I loved it because it took that dark area that rock and turned it into a much more dynamic shape. And that highlight coming across the top like that moves me down into other areas of the painting. So each thing is kind of I’m trying to get it so that it leads the viewer again back to that main focal area, but also leads the viewer around throughout the whole painting. [00:26:58] And then when we get towards the end, it’s all just small refinements, little things that I feel need to be done, like right here. Over here we’ve got these two, almost looks like a Baboon face right there. The nose right there. The two dark eyes, the shape of the head. So I kind of watch for that, too, so that I don’t have things that look like something else. [00:27:22] And then little shadows in here in the water that can help it to feel like it’s going more under the rock in that area. Kind of like right here. All of that is just refinement as we go. But in the beginning, if we have our intent, that will help us to know what the painting needs and what it doesn’t. What might be in the photograph that works for us and what really doesn’t work at all in that photograph. And we get rid of those things that don’t work, the things that don’t contribute to the main intent that we have with that painting. [00:27:58] So I talked about some of that in the last video using my Aspen Tree paintings, but I thought it might be instructive going back to this, especially after that webinar. [00:28:08] So this critique webinar that I was talking about, that’s with our membership. I can only do 15 a month because I spend, generally speaking, anywhere from an hour to three and four hours apiece using Photoshop to critique the images that are sent to us. But we do a rotation where if one artist was in on one month, then the next month if they’re, you know, depending on the new people that come in with that, we try to make it so that everybody gets a shot at having a painting critiqued. [00:28:50] But it’s a live thing that I do. Once I’m done finishing the critiques, we do that live webinar on a Saturday morning, the last Saturday of the month, and everybody can come in and watch and there is live interaction with it. So for me, we’ve been doing that since 2015, and it’s a great way to really get to the basic principles. [00:29:17] And in this last one, the basic principle that really stood out was, what is your intent? Why are you painting this? Is it just to make a pretty picture or was there something about that when you were there, when you experienced it (unless you’re using somebody else’s photographs which I really don’t recommend). Sometimes that can happen if you see a photograph where you’re already familiar with with the subject. You’ve been there yourself, but you just saw someone’s photograph and you go, wow, that’s really cool, and something about that intrigues you, I can understand that. [00:29:53] But overall, using our own photographs, it’s much better because we have a personal connection to it. There’s something about that that was important to us. And so remembering why did you take that photograph in the first place? If it’s like National Lampoon’s Vacation, where they just jump out, they see, they’re at the Grand Canyon, they jump out, take a picture of it, because that’s what you’re supposed to do when you go to the Grand Canyon and then you hightail it out of there without really experiencing it. Yeah, that’s a completely different thing. [00:30:27] Although that is a really good thing to do. Go to the Grand Canyon. Experience that and then take pictures of it, and when you get home you’ll realize when you’re looking at those pictures, there is no comparison between being right there and feeling the enormity of what you’re experiencing, and then looking at a photograph. You’ll just go, wow, it is not apples to apples here. There’s there’s no comparison between the feeling you get from that photograph and what you’re going to get when you’re standing right there, especially standing on the precipice somewhere. [00:31:03] So that’s really what this is all about. It’s that idea of, there’s a feeling we get when we’re there. There’s some first thought, whether it’s a texture that we saw on the rocks or the way the light was filtering down through the leaves of the trees or the colors or something about the atmosphere. There was something at that moment when we first saw it that caused us to just go, wow, that is so cool. I love that. I want to share this with my family, with my friends, with anyone that I can to get that same feeling. To have that same experience. [00:31:50] So if if you’re trying to figure out with your painting, how can I really express to my viewers or to anyone, why I love this so much, then you’re on the right track. If you look at a picture, at a photograph and you think, oh, that’s so pretty, I want to paint that, then you might want to rethink that. [00:32:22] There’s nothing wrong with just painting a pretty picture. Nothing at all. Painting itself is just, it’s therapeutic, you know, for a lot of people, it’s a relaxing hobby, that sort of thing. But if you’re wanting to go farther than that and you want to share with somebody what it was that just grabbed your heart in that first instance, then that comes back to the intent.
00:32:46] Why did you want to paint this in the first place? What what did you see there that you just thought oh, man I really want to paint that. That will put you on the right track. That’s what you have to go for.[00:32:59] So if you can capture that first intent, you’re on the right track and then you can take your, the reference images that you take and you can ignore anything in there that doesn’t help to magnify that first intent, what it was that captured your heart. And if you can paint what captured your heart and focus on that, then you’re going to end up capturing somebody else’s heart in your work as well. [00:33:26] So good luck with that. And remember, go back to that first intent. It’s a winner. It is the way to do it. And you won’t regret that. It’s so much more powerful than just painting for the sake of painting something that you think is kind of cool. So anyway, or just painting a pretty picture. So have fun with it. And if that’s a little bit confusing, let me know and I’ll try to explain it better if I can. So have fun and happy painting.
Thanks for the blog Bill…..really was helpful and makes a lot of sense. I have forgotten many times the
“why” of a painting and really just end up spinning my wheels and tossing out the painting or painting over
it. This is one of my favorite paintings of your’s; thanks for using it as an example.
Thank you, I never thought of looking at things the way you just did. You have opened up a whole new ave. to me!
Thank you. Your instructions on the intent of why I am painting something has changed my art for the better. I love the way you express your ideas. I look forward to learning more from you. I believe the higher power put you into my life. Thank you again Moe Fountain
Thank you!!! Have this process in my mind in such a similar way and you expressed it at such length. Very helpful. Excited to read it all.
Bill, I appreciate your explanation of why you do things the way you do them ….To create the intent and the focus of the painting. I look forward to learning more from you. Thank you very much, Joan