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Lathkill Dale Tutorial


How do you make paintings look bright?

 The choice not of the landscape, but of the lighting conditions, has a big part to play.

Paint “lightscape”, not landscape. It can seem challenging to take this approach but here is how. When you look toward a low sun, landscape comes alive. Even mundane scenes spark and fizz with life and energy when observed looking into the sun. Turn the other way and the view can be dead and flat. Seek light first, landscape second. Here is how to paint it.   

The upper part of Lathkill Dale is a steep wooded ravine, running west – east, which means that an early morning stroll down stream puts the sun ahead for some sparkling light. Some angles put the sparkle on the water but here I chose to seek sun glints on leaves. Glints occur when the light source is ahead but out of the frame, and the light bounces or literally reflects off any surfaces positioned at the angles where a mirror would reflect the sun into your eyes.  Thousands of leaves act like little mirrors, despite being nothing like as reflective. This is because the sheer power of the Sun. Painting into the sun turns creation into a jewellers shop window. 

Other leaves behave like coloured glass. Back lit leaves have sunlight shining through them – translucent - like little stained glass windows they glow with colour. Colour is fresher and biased toward yellow when compared with normal leaf colour.

Other leaves are shaded. There are about three layers of shade in the painting. Bright colours are balanced by deep tones of silhouetted solid objects and deep shadow. This gives the maximum possible tonal range.

Materials Used


Cadmium lemon
Green gold
Burnt sienna
Light red
Burnt umber
Neutral tint
French ultramarine


Hog hair brush
Small well pointing brush 2 or 3
Two Sable brushes
4 – 8
10 - 12

Masking fluid

Gum Arabic

Indian ink pen

Fig 1.

Basic sketch. Pen nib masked leaves. Highlight on trees and small branches – refer to finished image – all fine whites masked. A few spattered highlights using a toothbrush.


Figs 2. (and 3.)

A few hog hair brush masked highlights - very gently dab fibres in masking fluid and touch these onto the paper to add a little chaos to the finely mannered pen nib masked sycamore leaves.




Fig 3.


Figs 4. (and 5. to 7.)

Ripped up paper forms the stencilled border for these passages of thrown colour. Hurl some water from a well pointing large sable brush – a 10 or 12, and then hurl the colour on, by banging the brush handle down on the upturned palm of your hand. Work from bottom to top for each swathe of texture, so the droplet sizes diminish with perspective. Do it once and dry it. The colour is Cadmium yellow, Green gold, and Burnt sienna. Use a lot of yellow.   


Fig 5.

Fig 6.


Fig 7.





Fig 8. (and 9.)

Brush the trees in with the yellow green and repeat the spattering when dry, adding a dark to the mix – I used French ultramarine and Burnt sienna.


Fig 9.


Fig 10.

With the paint dry, another layer of slightly darker spattering before progressing to the intense dark created with a black or neutral tint added to a little Phthalo green. Dry between each layer of spatter. The twiggy forest floor to the left is lightly brushed with Light red. When dry a few black lines are roughly brushed over. 




Fig 11. (and 12.)

Build the darks with a combination of spattering and brush work, drawing the trees with the brush and painting round some leaf shapes while leaving some spattered shapes to speak for themselves. Darks can be from French ultramarine and Burnt umber, Phthalo green and Paynes grey or Neutral tint, there are many ways of getting strong dark. More leaves will appear with the removal of the masking. Green shadows from the trees were brushed onto the foliage with Phthalo green and some darks from the palette. Shadows enrich the green in the foliage.



Fig 12.




Fig 13. (and 14.)

Add a little blackish blue wet into wet to the base of the painting with a mix such as French ultramarine and Light red used here, and dry it.

Brush a small amount of gum Arabic onto the water area, just a few strokes, not total coverage. Next wet the paper and start adding yellow.


Fig 14.




Fig 15. (and 16. to 17.)

While it’s still wet add more yellow, Burnt sienna and Phthalo green, separately in vertical strokes.



Fig 16.




Fig 17.




Fig 18.

Its all a bit of a mess, don’t try to be tidy. Add the colours wet into wet but if it dries re-wet it. Add darks of tube black, Neutral tint here. These horizontal darks represent the tracery of bottom shadows.


Fig 19.

The colours are built up in the wet reflection mass area, and dragged out roughly over the dry paper below for tree reflections and the reflection break up zone. The mass zone is worked wet, the break zone dry.

Fig 20.

The reflections are finished and all masking removed. A horizontal light was lifted with a damp brush.


Fig 21.

A few glinting leaves are touched in lightly with muted greens from the palette. Masked tree edges are touched in and some Cadmium lemon applied to the left side trunks.


Fig 22. Finished Image
(Click image for larger version - Image will open in new Window)

Finished image.


The foregoing was directly concerned with showing how this painting was done. This discusses some of the thinking behind it.

Painting a scene like this is not about landscape, but your position in relation to the landscape – the place you are observing it from, and particularly your position relative to the light. I paint light first, landscape second.

Light in your painting – where it is in the stream of time.

Light implies not just place but time. Impressionist painters sometimes painted a fragment of time as with Monet’s poplars on the River Epte, working several canvasses at a time work several days, working each for a specific time period each day to capture the light at that time of day. Australian painter Ken Knight is an exponent of this, with an article in International Artists featuring him working several canvasses throughout the day in this way. Light changes from one moment to the next. Light behaviour is specific to this moment in time. In times gone by many traditional British painters where more concerned with mood and atmosphere. The impressionist’s approach was actually quite scientific. The approach shown here is influenced more by French impressionism than the traditional English one. It has little to say about mood, atmosphere, and it avoids sentiment.

Does that leave anything for the artist to convey? It leaves a great deal. It is a passionate treatment of the subject – bright light in the landscape. Colour, heat, light, form, shape, line, texture and much more, combining in relationships on the paper. Textures and patterns of light have to be kept distinct and separate to paint light, and just as important – where it isn’t.

Light approaches the subject from a point on the compass and in the sky. Backlight and sun glints change according to the precise angle of the light – a point on the compass. Glint – bouncing or reflected “mirrored” light, is returned from a myriad of objects and not always shiny ones like leaves. The sun is powerful enough to turn matt surfaces like wood, stone, even a brick wall into a mirror. The mirrored light can be rendered white on the paper. The textured distribution of this white light on the paper is key.

In other words, don’t paint light, paint what light is doing.

So why not paint light directly?

Sun light is fantastically powerful and you cannot paint even remotely as brightly. Similarly the eye and visual mind have coping mechanisms for bright sunlight, visual responses. Painting these visual responses to bright light makes the viewers mind respond as it would to real sunlight. The white seems brighter than the paper. Knowing how to paint what light does is similar to putting a gearbox on a car engine. The power source is the same but it will do more.    

This article was first published some time ago in Paint magazine – the journal of the Society of All Artists. I am a member of the SAA and you can join too. Myself and fellow artists help all painters develop through the SAA. 

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