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I’m describing step by step the technique and process used to create my impression of an 1870s water garden landscaped by Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Markham at Morland House – Cumbria England. Stepping stones, waterfalls, a rustic looking wooden bridge with water cascading into dams and lots of lush greenery.

The blank canvas… This is a 10z cotton duct on a 140cm by 80cm by 5cm deep stretcher. Notice the double frame. I believe this is why these stretchers don’t warp and there is nothing more annoying than spending two or three weeks on a painting only to realize that your stretcher is warped.

Priming your canvas with a base colour can help bring in depth to your painting or create a certain colour effect. For this purpose I have used a high quality PVA which I had specially mixed with extra toner. Now normally I would use the complimentary colour of the dominant final colour as a base. In this case it would be red to compliment the green, but I know from experience that red and green can be quite aggressive together. So today I’ll use a deep yellow instead to liven up all the greens and it will work well with my transparent blue layers, which will give the painting a cool fresh feeling. I’ll bring the reds in at the end.

Drawing out the basic composition… I suppose you can call my current style of painting realism with a touch of narrative (story telling art). I like my subjects to be convincing, in that, the proportions and colours are not distorted, but rather true to nature. I might loosen up into a more expressionistic style in years to come but for now I’m addicted to detail. I also want my art to be more than pretty pictures, so with each new work I am only satisfied if I can stand in front of the painting and tell you a story about it.

Tip. I’ve learnt that not all great photographic references make great paintings. So before I start, I try to visualise the end product, the composition, the colours, the brush strokes and textures. So this next stage is critical to get right. I sometimes compose compositions first on photoshop, adding in and taking out different elements until all the perspectives and proportions are perfect. I can even get the lighting right on photoshop, but all this usually adds a day or two to the process. Fortunately, I’m quite happy with my current reference. So let the drawing begin. I’ve used a dark blue coloured pencil which is easier to cover than the grey black of a lead pencil. The barely visible image is a close up of the bridge. The next stage will show up much better.

Painting in the sky and defining the darks… This is where the oil painting actually starts. I first mix my ‘black’ (this is probably my biggest trade secret). It is not really black but a mixture of one third Prussian blue and two thirds Vandyke brown. I almost never use any black in my paintings because I find that it renders the painting rather dull, but with my mixture I’m able to achieve the blackest black with depth and the most realistic greys for clouds, grey hair, silver objects etc, by just adding white. This colour mixture will be used throughout the painting, giving it the consistency found in nature. Next I have painted in some of the sky that will be peeking through the leaves and branches. It is always easier to put your sky down first rather than try and paint between leaves later on. Now I begin to paint all the darks with my “black” mixture. I don’t mix in any other colours at this stage. I only use an Oil Medium to create thin transparent layers, allowing the background yellow to come through producing a lovely green.

Oil Medium: I use a mixture of one part Genuine Turpentine, one part Refined Linseed Oil and one part Liquin (a quick drying medium that improves flow and transparency). This helps the oil paint flow better and dry overnight.

Note that if you don’t use a drying agent, your oils can take up to six months to dry, which would be unsuitable for this technique. Next I have painted in the first layer of the water. I have made my ‘black’ mixture slightly browner to give it a brown/black look. This is the first of 5 thin layers. Each preceding layer needs to be totally dry before the next is applied. That is why I add Liquin to my ‘oil medium.’ Next I begin to work in the rocks. Notice that I paint the basic outline and features and then I just give it a wash with the oil medium. After three layers of this the rocks will have a very real depth to them. I have added a close-up of what my rocks look like. I have used tissue paper to dab in the highlights and I’ve painted in some of the dark shadows under the plants. Notice that the new rocks are slightly browner, that’s because my “black mixture” has slightly more Vandyke brown in it. Now I’ve started painting the plants just above the rocks on the left. Notice that I also paint the edges of the canvas, this will mean that this painting will probably not need a frame. Or, if I put it in a floating frame, you will be able to see the detail all the way to the back edge. You could also just neatly paint the edge in your darkest dark at the end if you choose.

It slowly begins to take shape, patience and endurance are what’s required for a work of this nature. Persevere, persevere, persevere… Yes it does feel as if it might take forever to finish, but this is what makes the difference, i.e. the willingness to persevere and finish what we start. Next the first layer of the bridge is complete. Things should start moving a whole lot quicker now.

I’ve painted in all the dark shadows and my basic shapes are more or less defined. The next step is to bring in the colours and start working in all the fine detail. My water garden is beginning to take shape. I have decided to add in a few not so obvious forest friends. Note that all the yellow you are seeing in this painting, is shining through from my base coat. Just a few  final highlights and finally it is finished! I have had a professional photograph it. See if you can spot the more than 24 forest friends.