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When I teach students how to create realistic, vivid and evocative works of art, I constantly revert to two pieces of advice for working in layers: 1) get it darker, 2) build it up in layers.
Get It Darker: Create Eye Catching Contrast
As I teach students, I often sound like a broken record in repeating the phrase, get it darker. I say “get it darker” so often, I even have a banner bearing the mantra hanging in my studio. When I don’t speak, I point; I point to the banner to remind students to get it darker.
When I say “get it darker” what I really mean is to add more contrast to the work. Beginner artists are notorious for trepidation in applying tones and fear their work will be too dark. When in reality, works of art appear too dark because of a lack of tonal contrast. The less contrast, the more monotone a work of art appears. The less tonal contrast, the more a work of art appears to be one shade of gray.
In reality, the artist must go into the darkest areas of the painting and really get them deep. Getting darker in the dark areas of a painting makes the other areas appear lighter and brighter. The contrast between the two adds a deeper level of realism to the work of art.
Build Up Layers: Create a Solid Foundation Before Adding Detail
The second mantra I repeatedly chant is “build it up in layers.” Too often, I see students who cut to the chase, too fast and too soon. Slow down, take a breath, and build it up in layers. In order to create great works of art, the piece must be built up in back layers before you add detail. Regardless of the medium, it is important to layer in the tones and place the detail on top of foundational layers.
Lets go through a step-by-step example of an acrylic painting I worked on with my students last week. It is a great example of how to build things up in layers. Keep in mind, there is a lot of work in between each of these three phases.
Work from back to front: When creating landscapes in particular, you must always work from back to front. This means, you must paint everything in the background first, including the sky and the land furthest away from the front of the painting; everything in the foreground will overlap the background. Never try to paint the background around the foreground in your painting – it never looks convincing. Notice how I paint in the layers of color in the sky first and then paint a color map in the mid ground and foreground. The color map covers the canvas and creates a foundation to build upon.
The awkward stage: The second phase is what I call the awkward stage. This is where you build up the colors and apply some of the texture, such as foliage and tree trunks. In the awkward stage you must pay attention to the composition to make sure to keep your painting well balanced.
Creating the details: Phase three is the lengthiest. This is where you create the painstaking details. In this particular painting, I added layer upon layer of color and texture. I used a variety of techniques and brush strokes to create a multi-layerd effect. I have the most fun creating the final layers. I use a sponging technique to create the illusion of foliage. I take a common cellulose, kitchen sponge and tear it into small pieces. I then dab the paint onto the painting with the sponge, which makes it look like the small dots and details of foliage.
The irregular edges of the sponge varies the application of the paint, so it doesn’t create repetitive, cookie cutter spots, like a brush can.
As you can see, the results are fun and look realistic. If you try this technique, just be patient. It takes a long time to build things up to create believable details. It is all an illusion, so be sure to step back and view your painting from a distance of 4-6 feet periodically. Then you can see the magic happen. And just keep building it up in layers.
Until next time,
Edited by Meghan Norton, Online Education Manager at ArtistsNetwork.com
Lee Hammond is known as the Queen of Drawing. That may not be fair these days, since in addition to providing the best drawing lessons, she has also created fantastic books and videos filled with the same easy to follow acrylic painting techniques, colored pencil techniques, and more. Click here to see all of the instructional books and DVDs that Lee Hammond has to offer!
Free download! Easy Acrylic Painting Techniques by Lee Hammond