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Structures - In Oil

(click on any image to enlarge)

In last month’s newsletter (“Structures” May, 2010), I talked about the importance of integrating structures into your paintings. I often feel that artists treat buildings like they were alien objects to be painted separately and placed on top of the landscape. The result is that the buildings can have a somewhat “pasted on” feel.

I have often seen landscapes that were beautifully painted; with loose and expressive strokes, and somewhere in the painting will be a structure that is tight, cerebral and looks like it was painted with a one-hair brush, thereby destroying the continuity of the piece.

I decided to paint of couple of oil painting demonstration landscapes with structures. Both demonstrations employ a technique that I occasionally (but not exclusively) use to ensure that my buildings become an integrated part of the scene. It requires thinking in terms of negative shapes, and a bit of faith, but it’s fun and creatively liberating. 

Umbrian Farm Demonstration

I found this watercolor painting of an Umbrian farm in one of my sketchbooks. It was simple, semi-dramatic, and wasn’t overloaded with detail. I figured this would be a good model to demonstrate integrating structures into a painting.

Umbrian Farm 9 x 12 watercolor

Step One:

Using three primary colors (red, yellow and blue), mixtures thinned with mineral spirits, and a large flat brush, I give the canvas a general overall color tone. In order to avoid muddiness, it is essential to work with thin paint at this stage. In order to maintain the separations of warm and cool tones, I keep the strokes simple, and try not to overwork the areas. I want the brush strokes to be evident, because this will add interest to the final painting. I model the darks and lights to roughly follow the watercolor painting. At this point it’s a bit like performing without a net. I’m not concerned about outlines, or object placements. I’m giving this painting a chance to discover itself. This type of a beginning is exciting and very liberating. Unlike what they taught you in grade school, you don’t have to stay between the lines.

This initial stage will be the foundation for my painting. Already the painting has a cohesive feel, because I’ve covered the canvas with a tone that will relate all of the various areas and structures to one another. I want some of this transparent under-painting to remain evident at the completion of the work.  I will have to be conscious that I do not later cover the entire painting with opaque paint, and thereby destroy the entire block-in.

This step is really the essence of what this newsletter is all about. Because the canvas has overall color tone, my structures and landscape will have a commonality that makes their relationship stronger. The stage is set. My job is now to educe the structures and landscape elements from this initial block-in.

Step Two:

Now, for the first time, I begin to do some drawing. I study my watercolor sketch, and look for some easily identifiable indicators to help me get started. In this case, the eaves of the buildings, and the shadows they cast seem to offer an obvious direction. I’m not concerned whether these buildings turn out to be an exact mirror image of my sketch. Mainly, I’m interested in the general rooflines and their relative perspective. This is the exciting part of carefully extracting images right from the block-in, and letting the painting discover itself.

In about ten minutes time, and with about a dozen strokes, the buildings just seem to emerge from the background, and they are totally integrated into the entire painting.

This approach has a “leap of faith” quality about it, but with some practice, and the growth of self-confidence, your paintings will be freer and more expressive.

Step Three:

Now I put in the sky and the dark background hills, cutting negatively around the buildings. I sculpt the trees flanking the buildings, and add more substantial darks to the foreground. Even if I were to walk away now, the painting statement has been pretty much made. The rest of the work is finishing work.

Step Four:

I add more interest to the shadow sides of the buildings, suggest some windows, and form the fences by negatively painting the shadows around the initial underpainting.

Step Five:

Now I add some color to the roofs, and echo that with some warms beneath the fence line.

Step Six:

Using some of the shadow mixture, I chop the fence down a bit, and, for interest, add some impasto strokes to the foreground mass.


I conclude by adding some window indications on the light-struck side of the building. The elapsed time for the entire painting is about one hour and fifteen minutes.

Umbrian Farm 9 x 12 oil

Wolf Moon Demonstration

I found this photo of a rather decrepit old adobe building. I liked all the interesting lines, and thought I could use it as a springboard for a painting.


I had a 34x60 canvas already stretched, so I did a painting of three banditos, who find their mountain hideout compromised (there’s actually a fire in the hills to the left side of the painting), and decide to take it on the lamb, under the light of the Wolf Moon.

Wolf Moon - 34 x 60 oil

Step One:

I decide to use the old adobe again, in a cropped version of the larger piece, and I grab a 16x20 canvas. Just like the last painting, I begin by scrubbing in thin, medium dark washes of warm and cool tones (Pthalo Blue, Transparent Oxide Red, Hansa Yellow) into the building and foreground areas.

(Incidentally; this is the same approach that I used on the larger work)

Step Two:

I paint some faux texture in the stone area and, with a dark mixture of Pthalo Blue and Transparent Red Oxide, I scribe some shadows that begin to give definition to the interior contours of the building.

Note: Once again, I could care less whether this building mirrors the old black and white photo, or the building in my larger work. I’m letting the building unfold naturally, and give me direction in the process. After all, I’m the architect, and I can fashion this building to suit my fancy.

I do a little more scribbling in the foreground and on the face of the building, and leave it.


Step Three:

Now, using primarily Pthalo Blue and Hansa Yellow, with a bit of Alizarin Crimson (for violet tones), I paint in my sky and background, negatively scribing the outer contours of my building. I add some cools to the façade, and some violets in the dark areas of the façade and the foreground, to echo the violets in the distant hills.


Note: It’s always important to relate the colors of the foreground and the background.


Step Four:

Using Pthalo Blue, Hansa Yellow, Quinacridone Gold and Transparent Oxide Red, I mass in some foliage below and to the side of the building.

I’m about an hour and a half into the painting.

Step Five:

I continue to mass in my foliage, getting some good darks underneath and on the shaded sides. About the time I’m finishing that up, the remaining shape at the bottom right of the building seems like it could be a couple of burros. This kind of thing is like finding stuff in cloud formations. I think about it for a while, and decide that the burros would be a nice counterpoint to the light-struck upper story of the building. So I put a suggestion of burros in, and decide to finish them later, after I finish the building. I put some tone at the base of the upper story, to delineate it from the bottom part. Notice that I left lost edges between the upper and lower stories.

It’s about this point that I notice that the two dark areas on the right of the building have about the same weight, and linear design. Boring! So I do a little lifting and reshaping to vary their interest.


Step Six:

I finish up the path on the right, which connects the burros more solidly into the painting.

I’m now about two and a half hours into the painting.

Step Seven:

I decide to finish the building completely. So I carefully put in some windows, a door, cracks and highlights. I render some protruding vigas and their corresponding shadows. This part is a bit tedious and cerebral. I go slowly and carefully. I want to be totally convincing, but I don’t want to be photo-realistic. I don’t feel that it is the job of an artist to tell people what they already know.

Wolf Moon finish:

Now I finish up the burros. I tone down their packs. Live things in a painting will always draw more attention than inanimate objects, so they don’t need a whole lot of help. I put a few branches in the trees, some rock indications in the foreground and some strong shadows to anchor everything under the moonlight.

Total time from start to completion was about four and a half hours.

“Wolf Moon” 16x20 oil

I strongly want to emphasize that this is just one way to approach paintings with structures in them, whether its houses, boats, trees or whatever. It also works well on location. You might want to experiment with this technique. It may give your paintings a different look, and open up some doors to new ideas. I find that each subject demands a particular approach, and having a plethora of techniques in one’s arsenal gives an artist an edge in solving problems.

Happy Painting!