Tutorial: How to make an oil painting of a simple window and make it look interesting.

Painting tutorial. Oil paint.

This is a beginner-to-intermediate oil painting tutorial. It can be completed in about eight hours.

Don't be fooled by the simplicity of the subject as there are many things to consider including:

  • Composition
  • Temperature of the ambient light
  • Texture
  • Temperature of shadows
  • Perspective of shadows
  • Colour
  • Balance
  • Weight
  • Pattern
  • Impact
  • Technique

Keen observation is key. The more you look at a subject, the more you will find. This is the core skill to develop as an artist. You need to paint what you see and override your knowledge about a subject unless you need to make up detail that is not present in the reference. Otherwise, things start to look a little cartoon-like. Making up detail needs to be done with care. You need then to use your collection of observations about the world and turn those details into something believable. In many cases, deciding what to leave out is more important than what to leave in.

The inspiration

It looks boring right? Well, we are going to crop it and enhance the colouring,
It looks boring right? Well, we are going to crop it and enhance the colouring,

Intro

Sometimes you see something every day and pass it by without a second look. But sometimes, something happens with the light, and there is the seed of a painting. This was one such case. There was something about the evening light from the sky, and the way the artificial light cast shadows across this window that educed an artistic spark.

The first thing to do is to crop it and make a drawing that is compositionally comfortable. I liked the way that the light patch on the top left balanced the sign and the shadow on the right. Those are two framing elements that will keep the viewer's eye focused on the subject.

Another compositional element that is interesting is how the oblique light casts strong cool shadows across the wall. This can be exploited to create a 3D effect.

Finally, the colours are easy on the eye. By enhancing them just enough the finished painting will be useful as a feature in an interior design project.

The finished painting.

The finished painting.
The finished painting.

Charcoal drawing guide

Use charcoal to draw the scene.
Use charcoal to draw the scene.

The charcoal preparatory drawing is relatively simple. You will need to be sure to keep it in the centre, and get the shadows right. Normally, shadows come from the sun which is a very long way away. This makes shadows that are all parallel to each other. However, the source of light here is very close and therefore the shadows diverge. This means you need to imagine where the source of the light is and draw lines to the edges of the object that casts the shadow in the same way that you use a vanishing point to create the illusion of perspective and depth. In effect, the light source is a vanishing point for the shadows.

I drew in some token suggestions for brickwork just for kicks.

The palette

This is the chosen palette. Note the maroon colour which is a mixed colour. This is the base for the window frame.
This is the chosen palette. Note the maroon colour which is a mixed colour. This is the base for the window frame.

This is my chosen palette. I wont be using all the colours.

The important ones are:

White for the wall, tinted with a pinprick of Phalo blue. This blue is very strong so you will only need a tiny amount. To dull it slightly, add a tiny tony amount of cad red and cad yellow light. Adding a little more will give the shadow colour.

Cad red and permanent mauve makes the nice maroon colour for the window frame.

The other colours, you will need to make as you need them from the available palette. I did not record the mixes.

Acrylic underpainting

Apply red acrylic underpainting in broad strokes evenly spaced, using a pad.
Apply red acrylic underpainting in broad strokes evenly spaced, using a pad.

I decided to use an acrylic underpainting over a cotton duck pre-stretched canvas that I'd prepared with multiple layers of undercoat. I did not want too much of the weave to show in the painting.

I chose red for the wall as it will contrast with the blue bricks and show through later as I plan to scratch away top-paint to reveal the underpainting in the joints.

Incidentally, the real colour of the wall is white but because it was dusk, which is a particularly warm light, coupled with the yellowed light from the tungsten spot, wherever the wall in shadow, that shadow is read by the eye as cool. Where the spotlight strikes the wall directly, our eye registers this as the highest highlight and automatically we interpret it as near white. This is despite the technical knowledge that the tungsten lighting is inherently yellow.

To make the red lines reflect the joints in the brickwork and keep them straight, I used a clear plastic document sleeve as a mask. Put some paint on a cotton wool pad and draw it down the edge of the plastic sheet. Be sure to move it down the same distance each time to make the brickwork uniform. Don't worry about the vertical joints at this stage.

I left a light patch in the top left, and did not touch the shadow areas.
I left a light patch in the top left, and did not touch the shadow areas.

Note that I left the white light patch in the top left corner as a reminder that there will be no dark cracks in this area because it will be bleached out by the direct light.

Now put in some vertical guidelines.
Now put in some vertical guidelines.

When the paint is dry, put in similar guide lines for the vertical cracks. Don't worry that they are not staggered. These are only guides.

Check the values by adding some token textures and deeper shades. This is just exploratory. Put a blue wash over what will be yellow sills and lintel.
Check the values by adding some token textures and deeper shades. This is just exploratory. Put a blue wash over what will be yellow sills and lintel.

Using the cotton wool pad, dab some texture into the brickwork. It might come in handy later.

Lay a thin wash of blue over the yellow sill and brick lintel.

Start adding oil paint from the centre outwards. In this case, the window glass gets a thin coat, and the wood frame a slightly textured layer.
Start adding oil paint from the centre outwards. In this case, the window glass gets a thin coat, and the wood frame a slightly textured layer.

Now for the oil layers.

I use a painting medium at this stage to thin out the paint to make it easy to get a smooth texture-free glassy effect. An art shop will have several kinds of medium available. Linseed oil is one, walnut oil is another, etc. It's really another topic too deep to discuss here. You should do some research on painting mediums.

Mix a slightly blue tinted grey and flatly paint it into the top window. Use a lighter version of it in the bottom window. Do not put in texture as this is smooth glass and we want it to recede.

Use the maroon mixture for the window frame. Don't put it on too smoothly as we want it to display the effects of weathered paint. Use the palette knife to pick up feint lines of lighter colour and drop thin lines into the paint. This will help to bring realism.

Note the left vertical part of the window frame is in shadow, and the wall is just visible, showing it is recessed slightly.

Scratch in the bars in the upper window.
Scratch in the bars in the upper window.

In the reference photo, the bars in the upper pane are muted because this is a sash window and the upper pane of glass slides down over the lower pane. The bars are in the same place, which means that in the upper pane, they are further back from the glass. This makes them muted and undefined. If we painted these in, they would look like they are on the outside of the darker grey-looking glass, so in this case it's better to scratch them in to emulate translucency. Translucent effects recede, while opaque effects advance. As a guide, I used the edge of a blade and a stick supported at one end on a dry area. The bars are made from a collection of thin scratches. Do the horizontal one first, because the vertical ones are in front. By doing it in that order, you get the right effect.

Paint in the bars in the lower window. Make sure they line up.
Paint in the bars in the lower window. Make sure they line up.

The lower bars were painted in because they are more prominent in the reference photo. For some reason they catch the light and so the left side (or top) on each one is bright, and the right side is in shadow. Again, do the horizontal bar first.

When this is complete, put in the vertical shadow on the left over the window and bars in both the upper and lower panes. This obscures the bars in each case but that's the effect we need. It makes the window recede into the painting.

I've also mixed a yellow-ochre base for the window sill and painted in that layer. Leave a thin line above it as this edge catches the light.

Add earthy yellow to the sill and lintel. Suggest the joints with a different value.
Add earthy yellow to the sill and lintel. Suggest the joints with a different value.

Do the same for the yellow bricks above the window - and draw in some different tones to separate the bricks. These are guides. Later we will scratch out paint again to make the gaps.

Use a palette knife to lay on thick paint for the brickwork.
Use a palette knife to lay on thick paint for the brickwork.

The painting is nearly finished. Use a substantial amount of titanium white because it is opaque. Mix in a pin prick of blue just to give a very light pastel colour. The palette knife is ideal to apply the bricks. Work horizontally and pull the paint loosely downwards within the red guide-lines. Don't worry about the vertical gaps.

Use slightly different mixes of colour as you go, otherwise it will seem too regular and artificial. These bricks and the paint have been in the weather for several years without being cleaned or touched up and this means there are a lot of imperfections and stains.

Develop the texture in the bricks and retain the gaps between bricks with texture.
Develop the texture in the bricks and retain the gaps between bricks with texture.

When all the wall is covered, drag the paint into the gaps, leaving texture to show where the gaps are. Finally, using the tip of the palette knife pull paint away to expose some of the underpainting. Now is a good time to put in the staggered gaps in the vertical direction.

To get a little more texture gently touch the palette knife flat on the paint and pull it vertically away. The sticky paint will leave peaks. Just fold these over with a light downward touch until it looks right. In this layer of paint, there is only a very small amount of medium. If you put in too much, it will not retain the texture. My white paint is old and sticky, but your might not need any medium.

Finished

This is the finished painting. In a dark frame it will glow and look 3D. The window recedes due to the flat slightly translucent application. The wall advances as it is opaque and textured. The shadows seal the deal.
This is the finished painting. In a dark frame it will glow and look 3D. The window recedes due to the flat slightly translucent application. The wall advances as it is opaque and textured. The shadows seal the deal.

Here is the finished product. Previous photos are a little muted because the light was fading. This photo was taken in full sunlight in the morning and shows the proper colours. If you choose to make a similar painting, then it might be best to refer to these colours as shown, but of course, you can make up your own colour scheme.

Note the orange stain that falls below the sign. This is probably rust-stain from the steel in the bracket. Touches like this make the painting more believable.

The white patch of light in the top left is not quite pure white. It's tinted slightly.

Don't forget to sign and date your painting. It will be a new and unique work.

On the back please write, "After Jeremy Lee 2011". This is the proper way to attribute a design originated by another artist. There is nothing wrong with copying other people's styles as a learning exercise but it's not considered good form to pass it off as your own.

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Comments 2 comments

Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

Hi, I never realised that there were so many layers to painting a wonderful picture like the above. My aunt was a really good artist but sadly I never got the genes for it. Amazing talent, and a great tutorial, voted up! nell


Robie Benve profile image

Robie Benve 4 years ago from Ohio

Great hub, I love your step-by-step photos. Voted up and useful. :)

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