Dinosaurs and ostrich feet.
That was the first thought I had when I saw Azita’s beautiful photo of Cypress Trees in British Columbia, Canada.
The spectacular Spanish Moss draped over the branches like strands of woven hair cascading around the green velvet dress shimmering softly on the bark prompted me to title this painting Lady of the Lake. The trees arc gracefully against a bright hazy sky, and cast deep dark reflections that swallow up the light.
We have a live webinar each month with our our Monthly Members and 6 Week Course owners where I offer a critique of a selection of their paintings – the session is recorded and made available for those who miss the live event. Every other month the critiques revolve around a specific photo that each of us paints from – we call them Paint Togethers. Normally both the live session and replay are only available to our members, but they agreed that we could share this particular replay, which you can view at https://youtu.be/I3r5sv63COk.
For November’s Paint Together, instead of a photo references from my own collection we asked if the members would like to send in a photo to share with the community. Once we narrowed it down to several photos we thought would be interesting and challenging, Azita’s photo was chosen by random draw.
The photo was beautiful and dramatic and I knew at once that I wanted the photo to remain a photo. Which meant I needed to do some playing around with it in Photoshop so my painting could capture the drama without competing with the photographic essence.
With that said, let’s jump into the art instruction starting with the painting broken down into 9 steps, and then wrap it up with a fast motion video of the entire process to pull it all together. If you’re a Monthly Member and want to view the full length 5 hour instructional video you can sign in and watch it here: https://masteroilpainting.com/monthly-member-videos/
If you’re not a Monthly Member, but would like to learn more about it you can do so here: https://masteroilpainting.com/monthly-member-landing
9 Steps to Paint Cypress Trees with Water Reflection
So, the first step for this painting was something I do rarely – I tried out some glazing techniques using Photoshop. Actually, this is the first time I’ve done this – sure, I’ve moved things around and added or combined trees and flowers from several photos before, but I’ve never thought to glaze over areas in the photo using a low opacity color.
I also changed the size of the photo to mimic the 12×16 proportions of my painting panel.
I was thrilled with the result.
Of course, there was still more detail in the photo than I intended to portray in my painting, but the overall feeling and direction was captured.
Now it was time for some paint. I decided to soften the contrast in the photo by darkening the sky a bit and lightening the trees. I still wanted some dramatic lighting, but chose to warm up, reduce the size and target the brightest light source strategically so it would draw the viewer subtly through the trees and across the water.
I also darkened the rest of the water with cooler blue sky and mountain reflections to add greater color harmony and help guide the viewer back.
Since the bulk of the water was now cooler in temperature, I began with a warm transparent oxide wash using yellow, orange and red. A warm undertone would allow bits of that warmth to interact with the blues and lavenders I would be painting on top, by showing up in spots where my brushstrokes wouldn’t entirely cover the wash.
Then it was time for the major shapes to be blocked in using a variety of combinations of ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson, transparent oxide red, blue black and sap green.
I started with strongly dark values knowing that it is much easier to lighten a dark area than it is to try and darken a light area.
The green bush was one of the larger shapes that was blocked in right away.
For some reason, the trees distracted me enough that I completely forgot to carry the mountain range all the way across the background. You will see shortly what I had to do to remedy that oversight.
Spanish Moss, that’s what did it! I was so excited to tackle the challenge of painting the moss clinging to the branches that I got ahead of myself.
This was the first time I had ever attempted Spanish Moss.
My trusty Utrecht 103 extra-long #6 filbert did the trick. I loaded the brush up with paint and then scraped it sideways, using the full length of the brush, alternating between the thin and thick sides of the bristles.
That left a very soft looking dry brush stroke that let the sky filter through while still feeling solid enough to be wispy plants.
Some scraggly branches helped to bring structure to the color masses.
Adding moss to the bark also softened the edges of the tree trunks – with all that moss everywhere, this was not going to be a painting full of sharp edges.
Here’s where I finally realized that I had forgotten to paint in the mountain range.
So, I took a size 4 synthetic blend flat with slightly splayed bristles to paint in between as much of the moss as I could. The splayed bristles kept the brush strokes softened and allowed some of the original color wash to come through which added to the textural quality of the moss and branches.
It was also time to introduce some of the warm, bright skylight by mixing up a touch of cad yellow medium with titanium white.
I also added a line of reflected light to suggest the shore along the mountain range. Unfortunately, I forgot to take into account the mirror image sizing of the reflection and the mountain itself, so in the next image I move the line up farther.
Now the shoreline feels much better. Moving the shoreline back also had the added benefit of increasing the depth in the painting and creating a more dramatic diagonal slant to the mountain range.
Notice how soft I am keeping the edges of the mountain tops where it meets the sky. I liked the hazy quality of the light in the photo and wanted to maintain that same quality in my painting – I felt it complimented the soft texture of the moss.
At this point, my shapes are all formed, so I start to play with some of the fun ripples throughout the water that I hope will add an energetic painterly flow to the painting.
I debated taking the bush out entirely, because I didn’t want to have something that detailed and large in a corner where it might take attention away from the Cypress Trees.
I decided to leave it in because I felt it would break up the strong diagonal line of the trees and direct the viewer’s attention to the trees better than if I replaced the bush with water or an extra cypress tree.
I used the branches and leaves of the bush to point to the trees.
I just had to make sure that I didn’t make the bush too bright or too dark, either of which could become distractive and trap the viewer in the corner.
I added enough detail to make it interesting to look at, but not so much that the viewer felt compelled to stay – I want the viewer to wander throughout the painting.
These final touch-up and refinement stages can often take as long or longer than all the initial stages combined because I increasingly step back 20 feet from my easel or look in my mirror to locate out of place brushstrokes, colors, values or shapes.
With all that blue and green in the painting, I make sure to add some warm reddish browns, oranges, and yellows throughout the reflections and the trees to add sparkle and energy to the story.
I lighten the values in the farthest receding tree to really push it back in the distance, and ensure that it doesn’t compete with the values of the shapes closer to the viewer.
Kristie enters the scene at this point to help me see weaknesses in my design.
Right off she tells me the dark thin tree trunk in the middle of the painting is too strong. She never knows what I should do to fix it, just that it doesn’t work as it is.
That critique causes me to go through several renditions of different values and shapes and sizes until I feel good about the final tonal relationships.
Shrinking the middle distant tree and lightening the values of both the trees and their reflections works out so much better – thank you Kristie!
After reducing the number and simplifying some of the ripples in the water, adding bright accents of green, orange and yellow to the tree foliage, and double, triple, and quadruple checking in my mirror, I put down my brushes and call in Kristie for the final okay.
Now let’s pull it all together in fast motion:
What a challenging and engaging subject! That may have been my first attempt at moss covered Cypress Trees, but it will certainly not be my last.
There is so much beauty in this world to explore and paint – boredom is a word that should be removed from the dictionary, especially for an artist!