Would you like to paint an old mill with an Alla Prima technique using thick paint texture and loose, colorful brushstrokes? In this video and blog post, I will show you the principles of art that I followed to create an 8×10 oil painting of Mabry Mill.

Painting Mabry Mill was so much fun. This was one of our Member Paint Together subjects (we all paint from the same photo) so we got to see a fantastic variety of approaches. What we learned is that there is no one way to paint any landscape.

I chose to focus on textures and color throughout the mill, lake, and background trees. Thick paint can be tricky to work with, but that is one of the joys and challenges of painting Alla Prima or wet-in-wet.

In this blog, I will share the 9 basic steps I used to create an oil painting of Mabry Mill. I will teach you about painting textures, simplifying shapes and finding the primary subject of your painting.

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Find Your Why – Don’t Just Paint a Pretty Picture

Mabry Mill is an iconic landscape to paint. It’s so well-known we might be tempted to create a perfect photographic likeness. Please don’t – that’s what cameras are for.

The original Mabry Mill reference photo we all used during the Members' Paint Together.

The original Mabry Mill reference photo we all used during the Members’ Paint Together.

What’s important is to follow your instincts and focus on what excites you as an artist about this specific scene. Remember, it’s easy to get caught up in the details and lose the big picture.

Ask yourself:

  • At first glance, what stood out to you immediately?
  • Are you attracted to the mill, the trees, the reflections, the colors, the contrast, the textures, the atmosphere, the emotion?
  • Why do YOU want to paint it?

Once you have your ‘why’, stay true to your original intent – unless you have a good reason to change direction.

When I saw the image above I fell in love with the textural contrasts between the weathered wood, the layered rock walls, and the rippled reflections in the water.

That scraggly tree behind the mill was really tempting to paint, but I felt it drew too much attention away from the mill. The wood fence and paver stone foreground were a complete distraction that cut the viewer off from the mill.

So, I cropped the picture in Photoshop and focused on those shapes and textures I really wanted to paint. I liked that the mill was set lower in the composition so I could group the primary textures right up front near the viewer.

The cropped image of Mabry Mill to use as a reference for creating an oil painting with thick paint texture and loose impressionistic brushstrokes

The cropped image of the Mabry Mill oil painting reference

 

The 9 Steps I Used to Create a Painting of Mabry Mill

Mabry Mill Oil Painting Step 1 – Squint to See the Shapes and Value Relationships

Mabry Mill Oil Painting Step 1 – Squint to See the Shapes and Value Relationships. A blurred version of the Mabry Mill photo reference to demonstrate the effect of squinting

Mabry Mill Oil Painting Step 1 – Squint to See the Shapes and Value Relationships. A blurred version of the Mabry Mill photo reference to demonstrate the effect of squinting

Whether I’m working Plein Air or from a photo, I squint to get rid of distracting details. Squinting also helps me group the major shapes into basic values and see how they relate with one another.

Squinting is not an exact formula; it is a tool that helps us simplify shapes and values. Play with it until you can quickly identify the shapes and values you want to focus on.

Mabry Mill Oil Painting Step 2 – Measuring the spaces between shapes

Mabry Mill oil painting Step 2 - using the end of a paintbrush to make relative measurements of the building proportions and spacing

Mabry Mill oil painting step 2 – getting relative measurements using the end of a paintbrush

During the block-in phase of a painting, I rarely draw or sketch objects with lines. I prefer to paint color or value shapes and use light and shadow to design the composition. Then, if my proportions are off, I can simply carve back into those shapes with a paintbrush or paint over them to fix my ‘drawing’.

With this painting, I broke from that technique a bit by drawing outlines of the buildings, and it actually made the process more complicated. I ended up getting distracted by details because I focused on the lines rather than the shapes.

If I’m really trying to be precise with the placement of my shapes I will use my paintbrush as a ruler. To do that I will hold my arm and the brush straight out in front of me for each measurement. Then I will use my thumb to mark on the brush what the size of a shape is and use that to see how each shape’s size matches the sizes of other shapes in my painting.

As an example, in the image above I measured the size of the left bridge shape to see how big it was in comparison to the bank of grass next to it, compared to the size of the building beside that, and so on. That way I could manage the proportional relationships throughout the painting.

Mabry Mill Oil Painting Step 3 – Blocking in Shapes

Mabry Mill Oil Painting Step 3 –  Blocking in Shapes

Mabry Mill Oil Painting Step 3 –  Blocking in Shapes

During the early stages of the painting, I try to ignore the small details and focus on the larger shapes. Keeping those shapes loose and not spending too much time on them helps me mentally know that I can change the size, placement, or values of those shapes without losing a lot of painting time. I don’t get attached to any of the shapes like I might if I spent hours on intricated details.

And that mindset worked out well because in just a short time I realized the two main buildings were too identical in size and needed to be restructured. That is one of the benefits of painting Alla Prima – the paint is still wet and easy to work with.

Mabry Mill Oil Painting Step 4 – Readjusting the Buildings’ Measurements

Oil painting Mabry Mill step 4 - readjusting the buildings' measurements

Oil painting Mabry Mill step 4 – readjusting the buildings’ measurements

At step 4 in the painting process, I looked closely at the shapes. I wanted to make sure there was plenty of variety in the sizes of the shapes and that the focus was clearly on the Mill.

I realized the two main buildings were too much alike, and that the first building felt too long, so I reworked them. It was definitely a blessing to figure that out early, rather than later after lots of time had been devoted to creating texture and detail in the structures.

Since I liked the location of the first building, I decided to move the middle building over to the left. That meant also moving the far right building to the left as well.

I had meant to make the two larger buildings a bit different from each other in size, but once again made them the same length. Oh well, it wasn’t critical – it just seemed like a good idea for a stronger composition.

At this stage, I also began breaking up the shapes of the background trees. The large green one in the middle distracted too much from the mill.

Mabry Mill Oil Painting Step 5 – Laying in Thick Paint Texture

Mabry Mill Oil Painting Step 5 – Laying in Thick Paint Texture

Mabry Mill Oil Painting Step 5 – Laying in Thick Paint Texture with Loose Brushwork

Even though this was a small 8×10 inch painting, I wanted it to be a joyful experience to see. To accomplish that I used thick paint texture and loose, colorful brushwork.

All that thick paint showing the texture of the brush bristles also worked well to mimic the texture of wood grain, and rocks, and grasses. I made sure that the brushstrokes moved in different directions – diagonal, horizontal, vertical, and curving. I wanted plenty of variety, both in the size and direction of the brushstrokes as well as in the color and value of the paint.

Even the sky was created with large swirling strokes of thick paint. The water was laid-in with smaller textured paint strokes to help it feel calmer. I approached each area of the painting a bit differently from the other areas to show the specific character of the shapes – whether they were grass, water, rocks, or wood.

Mabry Mill Oil Painting Step 6 – Painting the Wheel

Mabry Mill Oil Painting Step 6 – Painting the Wheel

Mabry Mill Oil Painting Step 6 – Painting the Wheel

The wheel on the side of the mill was a challenge. In retrospect, I should have simply measured everything more closely, but I wanted to give my eye-hand skills a workout. That meant that I had to rework poorly calculated proportions a few times. In reality, even after reworking parts of the buildings, the entire painting took less than 5 hours. If I had spent days on the painting, I would have felt a lot more regret.

The one regret I have is that the horizontal slats on the wheel begin angling down. The slats should have remained at the same horizontal angle from top to bottom. What changes as the eye-level shifts are the amounts of the top or bottom of the slat that the viewer can see, not the angle. I didn’t notice that until after the painting was sold. Fortunately, I still loved the finished painting.

Another thing to point out is the brush you can see in the photo. I used the sharp edge at the tip of the brush to place a spoke in the wheel in one movement. Rather than using a small detail brush and drawing the lines in, I loaded plenty of paint on the end of the brush and applied the paint by setting the whole flat edge on the painting. You can see that in action during the video at 50:18.

Mabry Mill Oil Painting Step 7 – Background Trees

Mabry Mill Oil Painting Step 7 – Background Trees

Mabry Mill Oil Painting Step 7 – Background Trees

Early on in the painting, I had the value of the background trees close to the value of the building roofs. The roofs blended in and didn’t stand out well from the background trees. I decided to darken the value behind the buildings enough that it caused the roofs to pop out and become more visible to the viewer. That helped create depth in the painting and place more emphasis on the primary center of interest.

I did the same thing with the values in the water. By keeping the values toward the darker middle-value range the colors felt richer and the brighter building on the left stood out more. Notice that even the reflection of the sky in the water is much darker than the value of the sky color.

Throughout the trees, I concentrated on varying the direction of the brushstrokes and giving just enough information to add interest in the background without detracting from the buildings.

Mabry Mill Oil Painting Step 8 – Refining the Foliage, Grass, and Rocks

Mabry Mill Oil Painting Step 8 – Refining Foliage, Grass, and Rocks

Mabry Mill Oil Painting Step 8 – Refining Foliage, Grass, and Rocks

There was so much lavender, yellow, and orange throughout the painting the grass shape on the lower right felt too strongly green. Instead of covering up all the green, I simply added some orange tones to the top with a broken brushstroke application. By holding the oil-paint-loaded brush parallel to the painting and lightly dragging it across the green it covered much of the green while allowing bits of the green to show through.

The leaves in the trees were created by holding the brush in a similar way. I grip the brush farther back on the handle and then let it dance lightly on the surface of the other thick paint so the paint on the brush is dragged off the brush without disturbing the other paint too much.

My primary goal was to break up spaces and tree trunks without adding too many small details.

Because of the Alla Prima technique, it was easy to soften the edges of newly added tree trunks so they felt integrated with everything around them.

Mabry Mill Oil Painting Step 9 – Final Details and Refinements

Mabry Mill Oil Painting Step 9 – Final Details and Refinements

Mabry Mill Oil Painting Step 9 – Final Details and Refinements

In step 9 of the painting process, it was all about refinements. I was watching for any brushstroke, value, color, or shape that detracted from the primary center of interest or that demanded too much attention.

I worked on and added to the reflections in the water of the right bank of rocks and grass, making sure I kept them darker and less distinct. I wish I had noticed the sharp edge where the grass slope and the mill meet. If I still had the painting I would soften that edge more to help it round over and move quietly into the shadows.

There were other things I could have changed a bit, but that’s true of most paintings. In the end, I was very happy with the fun textures and colors, and the harmony throughout the painting.

I hope you have a joyous time creating your own Mabry Mill oil painting masterpiece!