My Process:
How I Create
Acrylic Paintings
from Photos

The music I listen to while painting:

Music is a great inspiration to my art.
The names below are favorites and put me into a perfect "zone" for painting:

Creating works from photography or sketches is my favorite way to work. I sometimes use my imagination and just "go for it" on the canvas as well. But for this particular page on the website, I thought it would be interesting to some to show how I create a painting from a photograph.

I like to walk around on my property in southern Indiana and take pictures of the various places that I think are beautiful and many of these photos have ended up being paintings later on. It sure beats painting in the woods with all the mosquitoes and flies and heat and rain. Plus, my light doesnt change in a photo.

I take the photo and scan it in on my desktop scanner. Then the fun begins. I have several styles that I paint in: Photo-real, impressionistic, fauvism, post-impressionistic, etc. So, I take each picture and try to figure out which would work best.

This particular photo (Picture A) was not a spectacular piece of photography, but I could see beyond its limitations and thought it would make a nice painting in a realistic style. Flowing water and it's reflections and shadows are a challenge for me, and I wanted to take them head-on, without any special effects to cover up my own limitations. I like being pushed beyond my limits in art.

I decided to only bring up the contrast since the photo was rather flat and also accentuate the water using color and shadow. I also edited out a rock in the middle of the large reflection to help simplify the picture. After that, I used a filter in Photoshop to simplify the rocks and surrounding areas (Picture B). With so much detail staring me in the face, its sometimes hard to start on a piece, so simplifying it down to shapes and colors in busy areas helps quite a bit. I then printed out a copy to work from. This will be my reference and I will hold it in my right hand or put it right above the painting at all times.

I also reduced my picture to black and white lines (again using Photoshop) and printed out a smaller copy to project onto the canvas. I transferred this onto a 16x20 inch canvas with pencil (Picture C). I'm not trying to do a finished sketch here, just getting some reference points on the canvas. Some might say using a projector is "cheating" but I've been a professional illustrator for over 20 years and I'm more interested in getting the painting started. I've already done enough nice freehand drawings.

Now I'm ready to paint. Here is my pallete and my water dishes. (Picture D) I use acrylic in great ranges with a very liquid consistancy. I use two dishes of water, one to pick up water for washes and the other to clean the brush. I change water often (although this picture shows it dirty!) and also wash my palette off frequently. Acrylics dry quickly so I use them sparingly on the palette. The palette is a piece of 1/4" thick glass, with sanded edges. I put a piece of white paper under it to make sure the colors are correct.

The first thing I want to do is paint in broad areas of general color, almost a chariscuro or underpainting with my largest 3/4" round-tipped brush. This helps define each area and the basic colors. (Picture E). I'm only doing broad brush strokes here, no details, no fancy brushwork, a few darks and lights. I usually laugh at this point, wondering if I'm going to be able to "rescue" this painting and make it look good. I'm just slopping on the paint and being reckless. Why not? The beauty of acrylic is it dries fast and you can cover up anything. I've started with cobalt blue for the water and a light brown for the rocks, with some black for the darkest shadows

Next, I start working in highlights and shadows and some of the colors of the rocks (Picture F) with a 1/2" square brush. You can see that I'm concentrating on getting the tonality of the reflections correct by using grey in the farthest ones and white in the closer ones. I'm just beginning to get the water swirls in now, as well as differentiating the rocks by using reds and greens. A few sticks have begun to emerge now as well.

At this point I want to bring out the highlights a little more and more of the rippling water effect. You can see that I've done this with pure white and greys (Picture G). I've also started to add detail to the rocks that are under the water. This is a good time to do this because I know that I'm going to apply washes later and want the rocks to be "UNDER" the water, not on top. Again, look how much detail I'm leaving out, not being fussy about it at all. That comes later.



Now comes the overall wash. (Picture H) I've mixed tourqoise and cobalt and white with a bit of metallic blue ink which gives me the phospherescent quality I'm going for. I can still see my lights and darks but the water now has a sheen to it that helps give it a completely different look than the rocks. This wash has changed the whole mood of the painting for the better and I'm getting happier with each application.




Now for the hard part. I've been dreading this step because I'm just not a good water painter. But this is the challenge I've been wanting to take on. I begin to paint in all the ripples of the water. This will be what I concentrate on for the next hour. I'm using cobalt, black, grey, white and turquoise, mixing them into each other as needed. (Picture I) As you can see, these are hard edged now but I will want a more liquid, softer look later. A careful application of these ripples will pay off in the end, so I'm being very detail oriented at this point and following my reference material closely. I'm working in a bit more of the rocks with highlight and shadow as well.

At this point, I'm not happy with the monotone look of the water. My reference shows it going from greyish blue, to torquoise to cobalt to almost purple. I want this same look, so I'm going to apply thin washes of pure color in each area and blend them with a huge watercolor brush. (Picture J). This also helps bury the hardness of the ripples a bit. I'm starting to really like this painting now. If I'm emotional about the painting, it usually turns out much better than normal.


The rocks need help now. I'm going to use an old technique I learned from reading Rudy DeReyna's magic realism books on painting years ago. I mask off the water with some old papers (Picture K) and put black, white and brown on my palette in big soupy puddles. I get out an old toothbrush and begin to splatter the rocks with all three colors, being careful to splatter the darkest tones near shadow areas and the lightest ones in the hightlight areas. I'll paint out the splatters that don't work later. This gives the rocks exactly the texture I'm looking for. The beach where there are no rocks is looking better already.

After taking off the mask, I then begin to use washes of white and black to make my rocks have form. (Picture L) This is a really fun part and only takes a few seconds on each rock. Using my brush and a wadded up paper towel, I paint in the highlight first and daub the back half off. Then I go in with the dark wash for the shadow and daub the front edge of it. This gives the rocks a three-dimensional look and slightly covers the splatters to tone them down.

Now I'm ready to add final details. I work on the water even more, putting in shadows of the rocks underwater, the tree branch reflections and adding small highlights and reflections with a thin brush. I'm skipping all over the painting at this point, adding small touches of color, creating leaves out of brown patches by defining their outlines, adding moss to the rocks with a small sponge and dirty green paint.

This is a critical moment, because I don't want to "overwork" the painting. It's not necessary to add all the details, just the important ones. I'm concentrating them in the foreground and the forward part of the far bank because I want the viewer's eye to end up on the large rock underwater, where the reflections play against the surface. This also keeps the painting from going flat like the photograph, which shows all detail to the same degree. I'll do one final wash of light cobalt-torquoise mixture to soften the ripples a bit more and take the rocks under the water deeper. After a few minor touches, I add my signiture and I'm done (Picture M).

I hope you have learned something from my process. This is the first time I've revealed how I work, so if you have any questions or I've left something out, email me and I'll try to answer them.

Steve Tibbetts (link to his CD site, his stuff makes me paint like crazy!)
Smetena (link to info page)
Pat Methany (link to info page)
Lyle Mays (link to info page)
Steve Roach (link to info page and CDs)
Lou Harrison (link to info page and CDs)
Pink Floyd (link to info page and CDs, AWESOME site!)
Sarah McLachlan
(link to info page and CDs)
Joni Mitchell (link to info page and CD's)
Gillian Welch (link to site, this is one haunting woman!)

I usually do better with just instrumental stuff, but sometimes vocals are a help when I'm working on abstract pieces. I can't imagine painting without music being played, on the stereo or at least in my head if nothing else.

NOTE: To see any picture larger,
just click on it.
Picture A
Picture B
Picture C
Picture D
Picture E
Picture F
Picture G
Picture H
Picture I
Picture J
Picture K
Picture L

Picture M:
Otter Creek 3, Reflections,
16 x 20", 2002.