Today, I decided to buck up, puff out my chest, and try a painting from Joseph Zbukvic’s Mastering Atmosphere and Mood in Watercolor: The Critical Ingredients that Turn Paintings into Art.

This book is out of print, and the only used copies available for purchase cost several hundred dollars. So, I printed the book from the website above on my crappy home printer, and put it in a three ring binder.

The tutorial I followed is on pages 88-91 in the book. It was pretty difficult for me to do because my printer sucks – so the quality is horrible. But I think I got a decent approximation, and more importantly I learned some interesting lessons.

Here’s the picture I was trying to paint:

I obviously still have loads to learn, but here are a few lessons, and a bit of my tips on this tutorial in case someone wants to follow song.

Step 0: Sketch

I sketched the image, but again, because my printer is awful I had to guess on some bits. This isn’t really even a step in the book, but it’s an important step, so I set it aside… and didn’t take a picture of it. Oops.

After doing this, I think the most important things to sketch are the two largest buildings, and the pond. The rest I think you should just add with the paintbrush because it’s a pretty loose process, sketching too much out might result in a tighter painting and could kill the excitement that comes with the looseness of his style.

Steps 1-4: Initial washes.

The first four steps all need to be done in quick succession, so if you are following his tutorial, make sure you know everything that needs to be done in these steps before you begin. Also, get your pigments all activated and mixed on your palette.

I don’t have the colors Joseph Zbukvic used, so I used Cerulean Blue instead of Cobalt, Ultramarine Turqoise instead of Cobalt Turqoise, Cadmium Yellow (I had that one), and Alizarin Crimson instead of Cadmium Red. I wouldn’t normally add Cerulean to the sky, or UM Turquoise, I would normally use UM Blue + Phthalo Blue. I sometimes use Cerulean, but don’t usually like the granulation. In this case I think it was good because over half of this painting is sky and distant trees, so the granulation adds some interest to this part of the painting.

I painted one thick line of blue across the top, and then started working in the cad yellow to get green. I kept adding cad yellow, and eventually Raw Umber as I worked my way from the horizon to the bottom. Toward the bottom, skip over the buildings – keep them white – and paint the last rows very quickly so you get some of the paper texture to show through. Also, before the shimmer is gone, add a bit of creamy yellow or browns to make it look like hills and valleys.

When that’s done, and it needs to be done fairly quickly, I waited for the shimmer to come off, then sprayed clean water below the horizon.

Normally I would go from blue to yellow ochre to green, so going from blue through green to yellow seemed odd – but it works much better. No surprise I guess – cooler stuff in the back.

I then let this dry completely.

Steps 5-7: Set the Stage

This is what Joseph Zbukvic calls “adding the players” and I really like the analogy. Pretend you are directing a play, now is when the actors are out on the stage. You need leading roles and supporting roles, and they should be placed accordingly. In this case the buildings and cows are the leading roles. Everything else is a supporting actor. The house needs to be bright, with shadow at the bottom. In order to distinguish it from the relatively light ground, some dark values trees are added behind it. The same goes for the other house.

The cows are leading roles, so the fences can’t run tangentially to them. We don’t want to cut into the shapes of the cows.

The trees are all supporting actors. They should all be painted quickly with as few strokes as possible.

Once again, it’s important to have the colors you’ll need premixed on the palette. Here’s mine just before starting this step:

Start at the top with coffee blue/violet, then add a creamy mixture at the horizon. This was confusing to me. I think I consider coffee to be darker than Joseph Zbukvic. I painted what I would call an M3b instead of an F3b… this darkened the value structure of the whole painting. Fortunately, I still had enough room for darker values, but if I were to suggest anything it would be to use caution here to make sure that blue isn’t too dark.

This was mixed into Raw Umber to start the trees. As I moved down I gradually increased the size of the trees, and used less blue. By the time I was painting behind the houses it was straight Raw Umber. This is what the book recommends, but I would like a little more yellow ochre in the mix for next time.

Then, before anything dries, dab in some violet to the tree bottoms.

Step 8: Buildings

In this step the buildings are painted. This went very quickly. I used Cerulean Blue, and dabbed some of the purple into the blue at the bottoms of the buildings. Then, I painted the roofs with Perinone Orange leaving some white between the roof and the walls so the colors wouldn’t bleed. Once that dried I added thin lines of black (UM Blue, Raw Umber, Quin Red, Quin Violet, Cad Yellow).

Step 9: Cows and Details

I then painted the cows using a thick black (above mixture) and then dabbed in some chinese white to finish the cows.

The fence posts were added using quick short confident strokes. Larger and darker at the foreground, smaller and lighter near the buildings.

Then I mixed a brownish green and added some darker values to the trees. This wasn’t in the tutorial, but I thought my trees needed it.

The pond was a careful line of Indie Blue, which I then lifted some from the left edge. I dabbed in a bit of Quin Purple on the right edge to get a reflection of the trees.

Then, I let that all dry and added some more undulations to the grass. For this I painted a quick slash of brown or purple, then used clean water on a nearly dry brush to feather it out. The most important part is on the bank of the pond. I painted a clean line of water, let it soak for a second or two, then tapped in a drop of brown and a drop of blue. Let those settle at the bank of the pond.

I mixed a brownish green and swiped the shadows in – these were painted very quickly in order to not over do it.

Step 10: Pink Glaze? WTF?

The last step is to turn the painting upside down and add a light pink glaze to the horizon and above. I don’t know why this was done – but I did it. It felt terribly wrong to dash pink into the sky, but it was very light and barely noticeable. I think this helped to blend the trees and mountains together a bit and give a little sense of depth to the sky.

Then I splattered some yellow with a tooth brush, and signed my name. Done.

When all is said and done, this painting is really quite gorgeous. I like the simplicity of it all – and the scene is the kind of thing I want to paint when I go outside. I would tone down the value in the Sky next time – it’s much too dark here, and use more green when I first paint the trees, but not too much.

Making the foreground grass a brownish Yellow is definitely helpful – it reads as green when compared to the sky.

The genius in this painting is how simple it is. It looks really hard, but breaking it down and tackling it step by step was much simpler than I thought. Of course, I didn’t get the level of perfection or detail that Z did, but I’m happy with my attempt.