Opalescent Lake – Step by step

Happy spring, everyone! I am so excited to share this step by step breakdown of my most recent painting, “Opalescent Lake” (2017, 16″ x 20″, oil on masonite). 

The painting sold to a buyer from Temiscaming QC, who has a special connection to Algonquin Park and wanted a reminder of the many happy memories that were created there. As always, I posted update photos to both my Instagram and Facebook feeds, since I love to pull back the curtain and reveal how my art is created. Creating new works usually take me at least 30 hours for the smaller pieces, and upwards of 100 for my current major project (a 30″ x 60″).

I’m including this painting in the show taking place in the Alex Dufresne Gallery in Callander, Ontario, which is celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday. To me, there is nothing more Canadian than heading into the woods with a canoe, and portaging deeper and deeper into the wild. One of the reasons this painting speaks to me is because the mists are shrouding everything past the edges of the lake; it’s almost as if the rest of the world ceases to exist. This profound sense of stillness, coupled with the distinct presence of Algonquin flora staples including white pine and granite, situate the painting deep within a local context that makes me feel a deep sense of belonging and home. 

In my step by step breakdown, I am using detailed descriptions of artist-grade materials, which can be a little overwhelming if you’ve only worked with primaries or student-grade products! When I first switched from using student grade Wallack’s paint to Golden Acrylics, it was rough. I didn’t understand colour bias and none of my colour mixes turned out well. With patience and perseverance, you eventually learn the personalities of each colour in the spectrum, and can put them to work.

Before I plunked in these details, I took the masonite panel (bought specially from Curry’s) and primed it with gesso before sanding it down with a 300 grit paper, and priming again. I repeated this 3 times, adding a bit of Burnt Sienna acrylic to warm up the gesso and to provide a coloured ground. I never, ever paint on a white background, I always tone my painting surface with a colour. After the surface was nice and smooth, I mixed a colour that was close to the background using Payne’s Grey and Titanium White. Then, using watered down acrylics, I put in the details of the painting, making sure I took time to get the drawing right. As you can see, I’m mostly concerned with shapes, not details.

The painting might not look that different at this point, but this was extremely important to get right. I’ve added in the sky and water colour using artist-grade oils. I was looking at the existing blue background, and knew it was slightly off, so I added just a touch of dioxazine violet to correct the colour, which matched my reference photo almost exactly. I mixed two colours here, the darker and the ever so slightly lighter, and put each one in with a different brush before blending them together to create a gradient. It’s difficult to see with the glare, but there is a transition from darker to lighter as you move towards the horizon. The effect is subtle, and necessary to complete the photorealism. Playing with light is my greatest asset for tricking eyes into thinking it’s looking at a photo.

I had to work quickly on this piece while the background and water were still wet to get that watery look. I worked in both the tree line and the reflection simultaneously, scratching in shapes above the waterline and blending softly underneath, to keep the colours consistent and matching with each other. The misty look was created by blending a mixture of the tree colour with the sky colour, then applying it lightly and loosely. I know at this stage I’ll need to revisit the reflection, as it’s looking a little chunky, but I have to hurry to keep working the rest of the painting before the sky and water dries (I have about three or four days as a window for oils when I don’t add Winsor & Newton’s Liquin, my preferred drying agent).

At this point, the sky and the water were dry, which made blending the water a little difficult. To cheat, I mixed a colour that was as close as I could get to the water, and worked it in sideways to soften the lines of the tree reflections. There are no harsh edges in reflections, and when you work wet on dry the lines can often be very sharp.

One of my favourite parts of the painting to work on was the rock in the bottom left corner. It was just so much fun! This rock is a mixture of rich purples, pinks, mossy greens, icy teal, and rusty reds. Of course, when you step back, you just see granite, but that’s what make these rocks so visually interesting to me, and is one of the perks of living in the north. The Canadian Shield asserts itself almost everywhere, including a chunk right in my backyard, and it’s so full of depth and colour.

When I’m painting, I often throw on a movie in the background, one I’ve seen before that will just provide a running narrative to keep my mind occupied while I dab, dab, dab. It took me the duration of X-Men: First Class and Jane Eyre (the 2011 version) to paint the rock, so about 4.5 hours.

Of all the steps in the painting, putting in submerged rocks frightened me the most. My water surface had long dried out, so I didn’t have the advantage of wet-on-wet. What I did use was Photoshop’s eyedrop tool on my reference to help me determine which colours to use. Basically, when I get really stuck, I can use the eyedropper to help isolate the exact colour that I need, so I can match it. This in and of itself is an art, because matching paint colours can be very difficult. I really took my time with it, and spent nearly as long choosing the paint colours as I did actually painting. What you see above is not the final product; after I put in all of those rocks, I took a clean brush and buffed the edges to make them look softer, most misty. I wanted the effect to be subtle, and above, the rocks look way too in your face.

This photo is a little grainy, but I was finding that when I turned the lights on in my studio, the glare on the painting was making it too difficult to photograph. The lily pads were crucial in finishing up the photorealistic effect of this painting. They broke up the reflection and sat on top of the underwater rocks, helping your brain understand that it’s looking at water. I stayed very true to my reference at this point, trying to mimic the clusters that I saw in the original photograph.

Finally, the last thing I did was to go back into the rock, and sharpen up some of the details, I lightened it a little, texturized it more by layering more small specks on top of the foundation I’d already laid, and scribbled in some scraggly grass in the bottom left corner.

Ta daaaaa!!! The finished product. I signed my name into the rock on the left instead of on my usual spot to the right because I didn’t want to break up the water. This painting was so much fun to do; I could embrace the fluidity of water, relax, and let the wet paint do the work for me.

Any other questions you have about how this painting came into being? Let me know in the comments or by shooting me a message, I’m happy to keep my practice transparent and would love to help you in your painting journey.