Secrets to Gorgeous Landscapes Revealed!

Brighton Dam Azalea Gardens is one of my favorite places to paint in the spring.  These azaleas have been there for years and in the latter part of April and the first part of May the blooms are magnificent.  I try to go there every year .The gardens are adjacent to a reservoir which adds color and counterpoint to the many-colored flowers.

This is a recent plein air sketch and I thought it would blow up nicely into a larger painting.  The frustrating thing about painting azaleas (and perhaps most flowers) is that the tube colors will never match the vibrancy and intensity of the real colors.  I am going to make it a 24 x 30.  This sketch is 11 x 14.

Azalea Park, Step 2 – Photos from Brighton Dam Azalea Garden

These are three of the photos I took that day.  You can see how I took liberties with the scene, especially showing more of the water than I could really see.  I also accentuated the light on the path and the way it turned behind the azalea bushes.

The painting will be based on the plein air sketch but I will use these photos as reference information.

Azalea Park, Step 3

Sorry this is hard to see, but it is a gridded enlargement of my plein air sketch onto my 24×30 linen canvas.  With plastic wrap taped over my sketch, I ruled a grid of squares with a pen and drew a corresponding larger grid on my canvas with soft vine charcoal.

Then following the sketch, I enlarged it square by square, carefully wiping off the charcoal as I went along.

Even though this sounds like an extremely elementary step, I find that I must do it to retain the accuracy and feeling that I had in the initial sketch. It definitely increases my comfort level.

Azalea Park, Step 4

For the underpainting, I combined burnt sienna and ultramarine blue to make a dark, warm tone.  Then I carefully followed the charcoal lines, wiping them off with a rag as I proceeded.  I used a medium of Liquin and OMS (odorless mineral spirits) in a proportion of about 1:1.

For the lighter areas, I used more medium to thin the paint.  I paid careful attention to the light and shadow patterns so I could begin to get a sense of the sunlight on the azaleas and the path.

Working from back to front and top to bottom, I painted the sky, the far trees, and the water.  I used cool colors introducing some pinks here and there for the atmospheric perspective.

My limited palette consists Naples yellow dark, cadmium yellow light, cadmium orange, cadmium red light, permanent madder deep ( a more permanent color than alizarin crimson), burnt sienna, ultramarine blue, thalo blue, thalo green, and ivory black.

So I used a lot of thalo blue and thalo green.  I have learned to be judicious with these powerful colors, but they have a wonderful tinting strength.  Many times I dilute the thalo colors with pinks and reds.

Azalea Park, Step 6

Here I have completed the color underpainting.  I have roughed in the values and a variety of colors in the garden and on the path. I am following the plein air sketch fairly faithfully.

I have to stand back at least twenty feet and then squint to see the color and value masses clearly.  This is how I see what needs to be done.  For instance there are too many azalea bushes the same color and there is a stripe of pink ones on the right which looks dumb.  I like the little spots of red ones, but right now they stand out too much.

Azalea Park, Step 7

Working back to front, I have refined the background mass of trees, trying to keep the edges soft so they don’t attract too much attention. I want them kind of blurry since they are not the center of interest.

The reflections in the water suggest that there is some movement in the river.  The river would reflect the entire mass of trees if the water were calm.  I’ll add a few ripples later.

I  have also put in some foliage on the large park trees, letting my brush dance to shape the leaves.  I always enjoy doing that since it is lively and animated.  I think it makes the leaves look more alive.

This part is really fun, as I enjoy painting these beautiful flowers and making them look like azaleas.  There are areas of the shrubs that need to be massed but the branches go every which way.  I have found that it is important to make some areas ditzy or they won’t look like azaleas.
I enjoyed making the subtle color and value changes so you could differentiate one bush from another.  The foreground bush on the right was the most difficult to paint convincingly.  You can see from the photos what the bush really looked like.  All these foreground bushes had lots of branches and dead leaves showing, and I didn’t want that.  Fortunately, among all my reference photos, I have some shots of azalea bushes where the blooms go all the way to the ground.

I refined the shadows and colors on the path and added some “dirt” and weeds to the grassy areas. I also added some light areas to the tree trunks where the sunlight was hitting them.

Azalea Park, Step 9

This final step is where I start to tweak areas that bother me. Mainly I look at shapes and where my eye goes. I’ll walk away from the painting and come back and take a look. If my eye goes to a place that I don’t want it to go, then I know that’s a problem area.
One of the major things I did was make a more definitive light and shadow pattern on the light side of the trees where leaves were casting a shadow  I made them a little more distinctive.  I also lightened the light areas of the path which help make it sparkle more.
I added some pink above the background trees to add atmosphere and color in the sky.  I felt that some pink there would help move the colors around the painting.

This is the finished painting and the most difficult part was coming up with a title.  I have painted so many azalea paintings that I have nearly run out of ideas.  I settled on “Favorite Azaleas” as this is my favorite area to paint the flowers.

About Barbara Nuss

Barbara paints landscapes directly from nature and still lifes from studio arrangements.  She learned the nuances of color and light on every imaginable subject from the rolling hills of the countryside to the delicate petals on a peony. She shares her landscape painting skills through area plein air workshops. Barbara is also the author of the book Secrets to Composition, 14 Formulas for Painting Fabulous Landscapes and a 2 hour DVD where she completes her painting Tranquility.
For more information about Barbara Nuss:
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