Posted by: Julie Duell | April 30, 2008



Greetings and welcome!       Note: Please go to seperate post for  more detailed information on Colour Mixing

Hello and Welcome!

This post will give a little insight into  approaches to painting, which some of you may like to try. Of course there are many various methods used by different artists.  This first one is a still life study, which is always a good place to begin.  What is learned from drawing and painting simple shapes can be applied to more complex subject matter later.  

This method is suitable for acrylics or oils, using appropriate mediums. (Mediums are what you mix with the paint). If you use acrylics, use water for brush washing and to thin the paint a little if needed. There are also excellent retarders to slow the drying of the paint if you need to.

If you use oils, there are various commercial mediums you can use but I prefer an odourless solvent for cleanup and 50/50 linseed oil & solvent for diluting the paint.  Here is the nice little still life I set up next to a window in my studio.  I knew I would be committed to finishing the painting reasonably quickly because that pear was quite ripe!  The jug and bowl are ones I made in my pottery era and I chose to use acrylics for this study…

The shadows (darker areas) need to be suggested as well as the outlines because it is these that constitute the strength of the composition.  At this stage all is simplified into 3 tones – dark, medium and light.   Tone simply means the graduation from light to dark.  This is easier to see for most people when there is no colour present.  However with a practised eye, you can learn to see tone in all colours as well (i.e. just how light or dark they are).  Here is a small chart to illustrate what I mean…


Above is my final painting, which I’m happy to say I think captured the lovely colour, light and form whilst keeping the shadows soft.  This is a realistic approach, but more loose and painterly than a photographic one.  In other words, many bold brush strokes have been proudly left without too much “smoothing out”.

If you have a strong feeling for design, you could flatten the shapes and form a pattern instead of using light and shade to portray the three dimensional form.   ____________________________________________________________________

22/5/08   Ah! Here we are again…this time with a step by step demonstration for an Australian landscape featuring beautiful eucalypt (or gum) trees, which would have to be one of the most popular subjects for artists in Australia.  I’m sorry but I can’t locate the original photographs I took for reference at the moment, (If they turn up I’ll insert them later) but here is the finished work and then we will look at the process followed in achieving it.   The atmosphere was an early morning misty one on the old highway to Gosford from the Hawkesbury River.  It was approaching mid-summer and the bark was shedding.

For a more detailed explanation of achieving this colour mix, please read the Post on Colour Mixing.

In the above mix, you can see a graduation from cool to warm as you go from left to right – then as each swatch of paint is gradually reduced with white downwards you come into the medium tones and finally the light tones.

My first thought in developing this painting was to plan an eyepath for the viewer of the picture. It is so easy to lead the eye right off the edge, never to return … and a clever layout can help prevent this.  It is all in the arrangement of the lighter and darker tones.  This eyepath sketch is just a tiny planning thumbnail one on scrap paper.

The subject is “Dark positive”.  This means that most of the painting is light in tone and a smaller amount is tonally dark, so the viewer’s eye will be drawn to the darks.  Following the eyepath plan above I now do another tiny thumbnail sketch, to map out where my darks (or shadowed) areas will be.

Whichever is the smaller in painting area (dark or light) is where the viewer’s eye will be drawn – so you can, as an artist, lead them on a little guided tour of your work.  It takes a bit of thought initially, but most landscapes are dark positive so it becomes instinctive to arrange the positive areas in a pleasing manner and not have them shoot off the edges of the composition before the eye has explored the work.  It is also helpful to decide on a main area as a focal point (usually where the strongest light meets the strongest dark).  The focal point is what attracted you to the subject in the first place and it is this you want to convey to the viewer of the painting later.

OK that is enough planning!  I am keen to start on the canvas!  First a minimal sketch to indicate the layout of the trees.  For this I used a little acrylic paint thinned with water.

Next, quickly wash in those planned dark areas still with thinned acrylic paint, to be sure about where they are going to be – otherwise I might get side-tracked, which is so easy! Notice that the darks may form only part of the ‘named objects’ (in this case, the trees) and include caste shadows.


Time now to mix plenty of juicy paint, choosing two complementary colours – Redish-orange and blue-green mixed across gradually from one to the other and then reduced with white, as shown above.  Complementary colour ranges are fully demonstrated in the Colour Mixing Post.

I dislike mixing colours along the way – for me it feels like having all the piano keys there ready to play to have a nice colour range laid out to choose from.  I also like to mix as much of my range from just primary colours … it makes me feel like a MAGICIAN! 

In this case I am using Oil Paints, but the same method can apply to acrylics.  (If you use acrylics this way however, you need to keep them from drying out before you can use them e.g. mix in a shallow lidded container and spray lightly with water from time to time, putting the lid on whenever you are not using the paint.)

Now I paint quickly, confidently and with energy.  It is common sense to me to work from the furthest thing away towards me in a landscape so that each stage working towards you is overlapping.  Otherwise you may find yourself having to cut in around foliage with bits of sky.  Some artists don’t mind this however, so it’s really up to you.  

In this case, I laid down the pale non-blue ‘sky’ colour smoothly with a brush (I am planning lots of texture later and texture against smooth is lovely) – then the distant hills (again smoothed out with a brush), next the distant foliage (starting to use knife texture now), then the tree trunks and finally the foliage and ground textures.  I used a painting knife for added texture.  This takes practise to handle but I love it as I can’t get too fussy and obtain effects I could never achieve with a brush.  The greatest texture is in the foreground and the greatest contrast … around the base of the largest tree, where it was planned on that little scrap of paper in the beginning!  Yea!


So above are step by step demos for a Still Life and Landscape…now here is a moonlit seascape for something different…

Here is the middle stage on the actual canvas…


Next is a very soft seascape in unusual colouring…


So! Now we have a Still life, a Landscape & 2 Seascapes- so how about one for those who like still water reflections…

If you want to know more about colour mixing, Post 11 covers this in more detail.

Now here is the finished painting.   Turning the painting on its side helps with painting mirrored reflections.  I usually paint them with brush strokes top to bottom of the normal painting view, then very gently blur them with a soft dry brush horizontally. A few more distinct shimmer lines across establishes the surface of the water “on top” of the reflection.

Sometimes different colours appear in water reflections that do not mirror what is above the water line. This can be due to the cloudiness or clarity of the water, the colour of the bottom, etc. Very often the colour of the sky is reflected in the water, but muted by these elements.

In the case of ice, we sometimes see a deep greenish look as you can see in this snow scene below. Also note the very subtle cream used in painting the snow and the beautiful transparent soft blue shadows caste on it.

Finally, for those of you who like buildings and figures in landscape, here is one more demonstration.  I completed a fairly clear tonal plan on cardboard the full size (for use in classes as an example).  Normally I only do very tiny rough tonal plans. Dividing the area into 4 helped me re-sketch it onto the canvas in the right proportions.

I always feel confident with the final full bodied paint laid down mainly with a painting knife once I have thinly washed and clarified where the lights and darks are going to be.

I like the finished painting below, especially an accidental bit … I was carrying it home wet from an art demonstration at a local Art Society in the back of my little van.  Going around a corner, something slide across the top of it as I went around a corner – creating the lovely broken pattern in the foreground shadows. It had a wonderful softening effect – so “thankyou” to Nature for the happy accident to help it along!

Here are a few close-ups of the texture.  Using thick buttery paint is a lovely feeling!

Below is another adaption of this composition which I never got around to finishing. It was to be developed as a semi-abstract.


There are so many approaches to painting and this is for those of you who like to feel in control and have a fairly definite plan to follow.  I think it is a great idea, especially if you are starting out to do this (start with a small tonal plan, mix a colour range from primary colours, then apply).  

Don’t overlook what is around you in your home as subject matter… these are 2 early still life paintings from my old kitchen at MacMasters Beach.  They make great decorations for a kitchen or galley…

Warning! You might find yourself falling in love with pumpkin or capsicum shapes as I did! After just completing the painting below “Captivating Capsicums” in 1981 I took it to show my Dad, feeling very pleased with myself as I considered I’d made progress in putting the paint on with bold brush strokes.  Dad, bless his heart, said “Thanks very much” and promptly nailed it to the wall!  Of course I didn’t have the heart to say “Well, I only brought it to show you Dad” and I was torn between being pleased that he liked it, disappointed to part with it so quickly and insulted that he should hammer a nail through the top of it!  (If framers relied on Dad, they would have gone bankrupt!)  Anyway here is the painting, which I now have once again since Dad passed away some time ago…

Once you have built up confidence in your techniques and colour mixing etc., it is much easier to “jump in” more spontaneously. I have to confess that I frequently do this, paint myself into trouble and find a way out! 

Anyway, that’s it for now folks!  I hope it proves helpful to someone out there to view the above methods and maybe even try them out. Everything on this Post is designed as exercises for you to follow if you wish.

A small tip:  If you want to practise knife textures, use up any leftover paint at any time by doing small cameos using only the knife.  If you are buying a painting knife, get one that has a raised handle (to keep your knuckles out of the paint!), a rounded point at the tip and as flexible as possible.   Practise loading the paint various ways and using the knife blade’s edge, tip and flat for different effects…also dragging one colour lightly over another for a broken effect.    Of course, nothing can replace basic drawing skills that underly many of these techniques – but this is a great way to free up if your paintings are too ‘tight’ or ‘precise’ for your liking and you want to become more impressionistic. 

Happy arting & don’t forget to let us know how you get on.


To view or leave comments you may need to click on “Continue reading” below.


  1. I need a brand(s) of paints or glazes to use on a mermaids tail in translucent colors. I only know of acrylic paint but it’s not for this tail. Any advice is appreciated. Thanks. Joanie

    • Hello Joanie, Amongst some acrylic ranges are fluorescent colours which might be what you need. They are very transparent so you may need to have white underneath them unless you just use them for glazing. They come in lemon yellow, orange, pink, green and blue. The lemon and pink make a good glowy orange so orange in the tube might be unnecessary. I have found them to be long lasting permanent colours. Acrylics also come in silver, gold and bronze. Good luck!

    • Hello Joanie, Amongst some acrylic ranges are fluorescent colours which might be what you need. They are very transparent so you may need to have white underneath them unless you just use them for glazing. They come in lemon yellow, orange, pink, green and blue. The lemon and pink make a good glowy orange so orange in the tube might be unnecessary. I have found them to be long lasting permanent colours. Acrylics also come in silver, gold and bronze. Good luck!

  2. I am just starting to use colour and am really inspired by your websit. Thanks

    • Glad if I can help. Please feel free to ask any questions at any time. Julie

  3. I love your lessons. You have inspired me to take up art again. Thank you for your wonderful advice!
    Love Kay
    God bless!

  4. Julie, May I call you that? I love your lessons. I’ve had two teachers from the U. S. and one from Australia. I love them all, but the lady from Australia paints bold and beautiful. Your lessons have inspired me to take up painting again. My friend from Australia is going home to do some classes and take lessons from some art teachers from her home country. Thank you so much for your wonderful advice. I’m from Florida and I’m excited to get started trying your wonderful lessons. Thanks again and God bless
    Love Kay.

    • It’s always exciting to get fresh inspiration Kay and we all do this for each other by sharing. Thank you for leaving feedback. It’s good to feel useful!

  5. I am the leisure and life style coordinator for a nursing hostel. I have been directing some of the residents who take my art classes biweekly to your sight so they can get even more enjoyment from art. Its so good when they come to class and show me the new thing they have learn’t from you . Thank you so much. In sharing we grow better in so many ways.

    • Thankyou Heather. I am very glad the lessons are helping. Very best wishes to all. Julie

  6. I just want to say thank you very much for your fantastic painting advice! I’m Australian but am living in France and have discovered oil painting only about 6 months ago. I just love it!
    Despite the fantastic scenery here I only want to paint Australian landscape as I always feel as if I’ve gone there and back when I finish my painting session. You may think I’m joking but while I paint,I can almost feel the sun , hear the birds and smell the good old eucalyptus which I love so much.It’s much cheaper than taking the plane. I’m using old Australian calenders as my reference photos. I’m hoping to “perfect” my trees so thank you so much. I’ll put all your advice into action!

    Thanks again

    • Hi Michelle, Thanks for getting in touch & I’m so happy you are finding the website helpful & putting you in touch with home. I have just returned from seeing a bit more of my big backyard (Australia) – the Top End from Broome to Darwin so numerous reference photos and sketches to have fun with! Happy painting! Julie

  7. Dhaka ,Bangladesh.
    4.5.2009 .
    Dear Julie,
    I am pleasantly surprised watching your paintings!Generally we don’t get the exact thing that we want.Thank u so much,u’ve presented so many types of paintings.
    I just want to know one thing,how u’ve mixed the colour of the white waves,it was so natural !Sorry ,I didn’t get your post 11.If possible please reply.Best wishes,
    Dilara Hafiz.

    • Thankyou for your comment – much appreciated. There are many ‘whites’ as you can discover if you try to paint an all white subject. I use mostly just the primary colours of red, yellow and blue plus white, avoiding black (although sometimes a touch of black is handy to subdue tints). There are many ‘neutral’ or ‘natural’ colours to be found by mixing the 3 primary colours together in varying amounts – then adding white gradually. This is how I would have achieved the ‘whites’ in the waves, keeping the pure white only for where the light hits. (Even then, I add a teeny bit of lemon to the white so that it doesn’t look ‘chalky’. Good luck, Julie

  8. Thankyou Julie, You are a star !

    I am in Australia as carer for my elderly mother and have only been here a short time. My painting is my lifeline, but everyting is so different from the scenery I am accustomed to. The eucalypts have so far defeated me so I am so…ooo grateful for your help . You are very generous in sharing your expertise so thankyou for your time and the care you take to inspire others.

    Marlene G.

  9. I have just skimmed a bit. What a kind, gererous lady you are. I shall return. Thanks Lamoine

  10. Hi SK,
    I’m glad you are finding the blog useful. Painting reflections is a lot about observing them to start with. There’s nothing like leaning over the edge of a boat going up a quiet estuary to take in what happens as ripples in the water disturb the mirrored reflections & to observe how sometimes water disturbance elongates the shapes and breaks them up with slicks of shimmering light. A lot of what we paint requires thinking ourselves into the subject (being part of it) In looking at reflections we are aware of 2 things – the mirrored image and the surface of the water and both need to be represented when you paint them. Colours are usually muted in the reflection compared with the objects being reflected, and textures are smoothed out – so therein lies the contrast between above and below water. Turning the painting on it’s side to mirror shapes is a great help in echoing them and be sure to use a very soft, dry brush to blur the reflections before they dry, especially with acrylics. A retarder might be helpful to slow the drying and make blending easier.
    Good luck and please let us know how you get on. Julie

  11. Hi Julie,

    I was in the midst of a painting and wanted to be clear on how to paint reflections in still water. I came across this great site and I am so happy..there are a lot of useful articles and I definitely want to go through all of it. I will try out the tip mentioned about still water reflection. If possible please let me know any other tips you would have used for still water reflections.I use acrylic.And thank you so much for providing such great articles.


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