How to Paint Cottage on Holly Ave

Fine Art Post by Christopher Spicer
Cottage on Holly Ave - Finished Painting

It's my grandparents' cottage along the Chesapeake Bay. And it's where I spent most of my summers as a child - piloting the fishing boat across open waters, discovering bugs amongst the blackberries and tomatoes in the garden, and drawing dinosaurs at the picnic table on the screened-in porch. The memories are endless, and feel as vivid today as they did when I was ten years old. So it felt only appropriate to capture the home of these wonderful experiences in an acrylic painting.

Along the way, I documented each step of the project with sequential photographs and detailed notes, which I will share with you here in this complete how-to-paint tutorial. So if you like the rustic serenity of this tranquil composition, you may enjoy painting this scene yourself. Or if there is some other composition that has sparked your inspiration, you can apply many of these techniques to any painting that you may wish to create.

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Materials and Tools

Before we get started, we'll need a few basic items: acrylic paints, brushes, a surface to paint upon, and some other miscellaneous materials and tools.

Acrylic Paints

Acrylic paints are enjoyable to work with because of their ease of use and great versatility.

When applied thin, acrylics behave much like watercolors, allowing us to apply delicate translucent glazes that enrich the layers beneath. When applied thick, acrylics behave much like oils, allowing us to blend directly on a surface and to create bold impasto textures.

But unlike watercolors, acrylics are permanent when dry and will not flow when rewetted. And unlike oils, acrylics are water-based and dry quickly. Therefore it is wise to work fast when blending on a surface, or to blend on the palette when more time is needed.

If you are new to acrylics, you may wish to experiment on a scrap surface before applying a technique to your painting.

Acrylic paints are available in tubes, jars, and bottles. They are also available in "artist" and "student" grades. I prefer tubes because they make it easy to apply the appropriate amount of paint directly to your palette. And I recommend artist-grade paints because they contain more pigment and less binder, allowing us to produce much richer effects.

Here are the colors that we'll use for this composition:

  • Burnt Umber
  • Cadmium Yellow
  • Hooker's Green
  • Light Blue Violet
  • Light Green Permanent
  • Mars Black
  • Naples Yellow
  • Neutral Gray
  • Pthalo Blue
  • Raw Umber
  • Red Oxide
  • Titanium White
  • Unbleached Titanium

Brushes

Paint brushes are available in a large variety of shapes and sizes. Here are the brushes that we'll use for this composition:

  • 3/4in Filbert Brush
  • #8 Filbert Brush
  • #8 Flat Brush
  • #4 Round Brush
  • #2 Round Brush
  • #1 Liner Brush
  • Art Sponge

Surface

Acrylic paints can be applied to nearly any surface that has been primed with gesso - stretched canvas, canvas board, wood paneling, etc. Projects created in a thin, watercolor-like style can also be applied to canvas paper or watercolor paper. For this composition, I used a:

  • 12x9in Canvas Board

But you should feel free to use whichever surface at whichever size you prefer.

Palette

Palettes are available in a variety of materials - metal, glass, wood, plastic, etc. I prefer to use a:

  • Rectangular Plastic Palette

However, rather than applying paint directly to the palette, I recommend first covering it with two layers of damp paper towels. Paint is then applied to the damp paper towels. This creates a "wet" palette that keeps the paint usable for a longer period of time, allowing us to work at a more relaxed pace.

Other Materials and Tools

Finally we'll need a few other miscellaneous materials and tools:

  • HB Pencil (Wood or Mechanical)
  • Permanent Markers (Fine and Ultra Fine Point)
  • Spray Bottle
  • Water Cup
  • Paper Towels
  • Masking Tape
  • Liquid Frisket (Optional)
  • Toothbrush

For a workspace, I prefer to use a drafting table adjusted to 45 degrees. But you should feel free to use an easel if you prefer to work vertically, or a table if you prefer to work horizontally.

Prepare a Reference

Before we begin to lay out our composition, it is useful to have a reference image. For purely imaginative pieces, some hand sketches and color studies are usually all that is needed. For more realistic pieces, photographs are a valuable resource.

For this piece, we'll reference a digital photograph that I had taken during a previous visit to the cottage:

Cottage on Holly Ave - Reference

As we create our painting, we don't want to copy the reference image exactly. Instead we'll use our artistic license to make subtle changes to color, contrast, and detail to produce a warmer tone and to remove some clutter from the background of the composition.

Create the Sketch

A great painting starts with a great sketch. It allows us to lay out our composition before ever touching brush to canvas. And because acrylic paints are translucent, the sketch will show through the initial layers of paint, providing a guide as we develop our painting. So taking the time to create a detailed sketch is well worth the effort.

If this feels like a challenging composition to draw freehand, you may find it helpful to lightly pencil a grid onto the canvas and a matching grid onto the reference image. This makes it easier to locate objects within the scene.

We start by blocking in the major contours with our HB pencil - the basic edges of the roof and exterior walls of the cottage, the treeline in the background, and the bushes in the foreground. Then we continue to add more detail - the windows, gutters, and interior structure of the cottage, along with some of the individual braches and leaf clusters in the trees and bushes. To place focus on the cottage and create a more isolated and peaceful scene, we want to remove some of the clutter from the background. So we purposefully omit the pickup truck and neighboring homes from our sketch. We also draw the cottage with greater detail than the background trees and foreground bushes.

Once the contours are complete, we trace over them with an ultra-fine-point permanent marker. This ensures that our contours have enough contrast to show through the initial layers of paint. To give form to our contours, we shade the midtones of our composition using the same HB pencil. And we shade the shadows using a fine-point permanent marker.

Here is the finished sketch:

Cottage on Holly Ave - Sketch

Establish the Underpainting

With the sketch complete, we're ready to start applying some color. At this stage, we're not concerned with detail. We only want to set the overall tone and temperature of the painting, and to loosely define areas of major contrast.

This is a good time to visualize the final piece and how it will differ from our reference image. The most significant alteration we want to make is to shift the highlights to a warmer (yellower) tone. This will create a greater sense of happiness in the viewer that is more fitting of the fond memories that this composition holds. To preserve a sense of balance and contrast, we'll keep the shadows in a cooler (bluer) tone.

If you plan to display your painting without a frame, I recommend painting the edges of the canvas with Mars Black.

  • Mars Black

Apply the Midtone

The first layer of paint we apply is a translucent glaze of Unbleached Titanium to add a warm midtone value to our composition.

  • Unbleached Titanium

This midtone value sets the overall tone and temperature of the painting. It will also serve as a convenient reference point as we work to develop warmer/cooler and darker/lighter values later on.

To create a smooth glaze, we add only a little bit of water to the Unbleached Titanium to reduce its opacity. We then load a small amount of the mixture into a 3/4in filbert brush and apply a thin layer over the entire composition. We work in broad, horizontal strokes, starting with the top-left corner of the canvas. Each row is completed in a single stroke to prevent over-working any areas and smudging the graphite from our initial sketch.

The contours and shadows that we shaded with permanent marker should remain clearly visible through the midtone value.

If coverage appears a little thin after the first pass, we can wait for the initial glaze to dry and add another layer by repeating the same process. The desire is to create a meaningful base of color while allowing the sketch to continue to show through.

Here is the painting with the initial midtone applied:

Cottage on Holly Ave - Midtone Applied

Develop Contrast

Next we develop contrast throughout the composition by adding a gradient to the sky and by roughing in some value for the background trees and foreground bushes. We will generally work from background to foreground, starting with loose forms and adding more detail as we proceed.

Before loading any paint into the brush, it is helpful to mask off the roofline of the cottage using masking tape. This will preserve the sharp edges and prevent unwanted paint from spilling over onto the roof. Liquid frisket may be used instead of tape if you prefer.

With the masking tape in place, we are ready to paint.

For this step, we add one color to our palette:

  • 50% Burnt Umber and 50% Hooker's Green

And one gradient:

  • Light Blue Violet
  • Titanium White

Using the same 3/4in filbert brush from the previous step, we develop the sky with values from the Light-Blue-Violet-to-Unbleached-Titanium gradient. The sky should appear darker toward the top-left corner of the composition and lighter toward the treeline. We use broad strokes and work quickly to blend paint directly on the canvas.

This process adds more opacity to the sky, but we still want to ensure that a subtle impression of the initial sketch shows through - particularly the treeline and satellite antenna.

Next we clean the brush and switch to an art sponge. We load it with a bit of the 50% Burnt Umber and 50% Hooker's Green mixture, then touch it to a dry paper towel to remove any excess paint. Using our reference image as a guide, we dab value onto the canvas to create the loose impression of trees and bushes.

At this stage, we're not concerned with matching colors precisely or rendering detail. We only want to create general form. Still we are conscious and purposeful with each dab of the sponge to indicate leaf clusters while allowing the sky to show through in appropriate areas. Feel free to rotate the sponge and use different faces and edges to produce a variety of shapes on the canvas.

When we are finished and the paint has dried, we remove the masking tape.

Here is the painting with the initial contrast developed:

Cottage on Holly Ave - Contrast Developed

Render the Background

With the underpainting finished, we are ready to start completing individual areas of the composition. We will begin with the background of the painting and then work our way forward.

For this step, we add two colors to our palette:

  • Burnt Umber
  • 50% Burnt Umber and 50% Pthalo Blue

And two gradients:

  • 50% Burnt Umber and 50% Hooker's Green
  • 50% Hooker's Green and 50% Neutral Gray
  • Naples Yellow
  • Light Blue Violet
  • Titanium White

To ensure that the subject remains the point of focus, we only want to loosely render the background with a low level of detail.

We already have the sky and treeline roughed in, with some subtle impressions of the initial sketch continuing to show through. As we add more opacity to these areas, the sketch quickly will disappear beneath the new layers of paint. So we want to ensure that we capture any critical details before moving forward.

First we restore the satellite antenna on the cottage roof. We use a #1 liner brush to pick up a little of the 50% Burnt Umber and 50% Pthalo Blue mixture, adding a touch of water so that it flows smoothly while still remaining relatively opaque. We carefully trace over the faded sketch contours until the antenna lines are sharp and dark.

Next we restore the tree branches in the background. Here we use Burnt Umber, again adding water where desired. For the tree trunks and larger branches, we use a #4 round brush. For the medium-sized branches, we use a #2 round brush. And for the smaller branches and twigs, we use the same #1 liner brush from the previous step. Like the antenna, we want the branches to be sharp and dark.

With these details captured, we're ready to complete the sky. Once again it is helpful to mask off the roofline of the cottage using masking tape. We'll use the same 3/4in filbert brush and Light-Blue-Violet-to-Unbleached-Titanium gradient that we used to rough it in. All we're doing here is adding another layer of paint to bring up the opacity and smooth out the gradient. Don't be afraid to work over top of the antenna and tree branches that we just painted - we will still be able to see clear traces of those details through the new layer of paint. When the sky is fully rendered, the area should be smooth and opaque, transitioning from a darker hue toward the top-left corner of the composition to a lighter hue toward the treeline. All traces of the initial sketch should be covered while the satellite antenna and branches should continue to be visible.

With the sky rendered, we're ready to continue developing the background trees.

We return to the art sponge to pick up values from the Burnt-Umber-and-Hooker's-Green-to-Naples-Yellow gradient. Paying close attention to form, we select different values throughout the gradient to render various portions of the trees. We use values from the darker end of the gradient to develop the shadows toward the bottom. We use values from the middle of the gradient to develop the midtones. And we use values from the lighter end of the gradient to develop the highlights toward the top. The desire here is to build upon the loose form we developed in the underpainting, adding more opacity and definition along the way.

By now we've probably covered up some parts of the satellite antenna and tree branches by painting over them in the previous steps. Let's use a #1 liner brush and the 50% Burnt Umber and 50% Pthalo Blue mixture to trace over the faded antenna lines one final time. Then let's do the same for the any faded tree branches using Burnt Umber.

At this point, the background trees that we sponged in should appear fairly well formed. But they lack the appropriate level of detail. To finish them, we want to add definition to some of the shadowy areas by dabbing the edge of a #8 filbert brush onto the canvas, applying darker values from the Burnt-Umber-and-Hooker's-Green-to-Naples-Yellow gradient. We also want to create the impression of individual leaves by dabbing the tip of a #4 round brush onto the canvas, applying lighter values from the Burnt-Umber-and-Hooker's-Green-to-Naples-Yellow gradient. Remember that some of the leaves should appear on top of the tree trunks and branches.

Finally we use a #1 liner brush and the 50% Burnt Umber and 50% Pthalo Blue mixture to add the electrical wire on the right side of the cottage.

Here is the painting with the background rendered:

Cottage on Holly Ave - Background Rendered

Render the Cottage

With the background finished, we are ready to complete the subject of the painting - the cottage. The desire is to emphasize the subject over the background, so we will paint the cottage with a higher level of detail. We will begin with the roof and interior of the cottage and then work our way toward the exterior walls.

Roof and Interior

The roof and the interior are the two areas of the cottage that produce the greatest contrast. To my eye, however, the reference photograph displays these areas in somewhat muted tones. I imagine a more dynamic and evocative piece where the roof is bathed in warm (yellowish) sunlight while the interior is cast in cool (bluish) shadows. So we want to ensure that our color palette properly reflects the desired temperature differential.

For this step, we add one color to our palette:

  • Neutral Gray

And two gradients:

  • 50% Burnt Umber and 50% Pthalo Blue
  • 50% Light Blue Violet and 50% Unbleached Titanium
  • Raw Umber
  • Unbleached Titanium

We will use the Raw-Umber-to-Unbleached-Titanium gradient to render the warmer areas and the Burnt-Umber-and-Pthalo-Blue-to-Light-Blue-Violet-and-Unbleached-Titanium gradient to render the cooler areas. If we find that values from either gradient appear too strong in tone, we can dull them at any point by mixing in a little Neutral Gray.

We start by covering the roof area with midtones from the Raw-Umber-to-Unbleached-Titanium gradient using a #8 flat brush. The shape of the brush is perfectly suited for filling larger areas that include sharp internal corners.

While the midtones are still wet, we apply some slightly darker values from the same gradient to the high-pitch area of the roof, blending them into the existing colors already on the canvas. This creates a more realistic and aged look by adding some color variation and staining to the shingles. The low-pitch area of the roof is angled toward the sun and catches a much stronger highlight. Here we use a #4 round brush to apply some lighter values from the same gradient, creating a strong highlight on the left side while allowing it to blend into the midtones as we move to the right.

Continuing with the same brush, we apply darker values from the Burnt-Umber-and-Pthalo-Blue-to-Light-Blue-Violet-and-Unbleached-Titanium gradient to create the dormer shadows.

To render the exterior walls of the dormer, we use a #4 round brush to apply values from the Burnt-Umber-and-Pthalo-Blue-to-Light-Blue-Violet-and-Unbleached-Titanium gradient. We work in narrow, nearly horizontal strokes, alternating between light and dark values to indicate the wood siding. The front-facing wall should be rendered with slightly lighter values and in higher detail than the left-facing walls. We use darker values from the same gradient to develop the windows. We use lighter values to develop the eaves, the corner posts, and the window frames. And we use a combination of both to define the gutters.

To finish the roof, we switch to a #1 liner brush. We use lighter values from the Burnt-Umber-and-Pthalo-Blue-to-Light-Blue-Violet-and-Unbleached-Titanium gradient to define the window grills. And we use darker values from the Raw-Umber-to-Unbleached-Titanium gradient to define the shingle edges.

With the roof finished, we are ready to complete the cottage interior. This area is cast entirely in shadow, so we'll render it using the cooler values from the Burnt-Umber-and-Pthalo-Blue-to-Light-Blue-Violet-and-Unbleached-Titanium gradient. First we use a #8 flat brush to block in large areas of value. The interior is farily dark overall, but catches some highlights toward the righ side of the composition. So we want to blend some lighter values into that area.

With the larger areas blocked in, we switch to a #4 round brush to complete the smaller areas and begin some of the more detailed work. We use the same gradient to render the figure sitting on the porch, as well as the interior doors and windows. The highlights on the right side of the composition clearly show the siding along the interior wall. Here we use nearly horizontal strokes, alternating between lighter and darker values, to create this effect. As we move toward the left side of the composition, where the shadows are stronger, we allow the highlights and shadows of the siding to fade gently back into the base color.

Finally we use a #1 liner brush to add some lighter values along the edges of the windows on the right side of the composition.

Here is the painting with the cottage roof and interior rendered:

Cottage on Holly Ave - Cottage Roof and Interior Rendered

A close-up of the left side:

Cottage on Holly Ave - Cottage Roof and Interior Rendered - Right-Side Detail

And the right side:

Cottage on Holly Ave - Cottage Roof and Interior Rendered - Left-Side Detail

Exterior

With the cottage roof and interior finished, we are ready to complete the exterior walls.

For this step, we add one color to our palette:

  • Red Oxide

And two gradients:

  • 50% Burnt Umber and 50% Hooker's Green
  • 50% Hooker's Green and 50% Neutral Gray
  • Naples Yellow
  • Mars Black
  • Neutral Gray
  • 50% Light Blue Violet and 50% Unbleached Titanium

First we use a #8 flat brush to block in the larger areas using midtones from the Mars-Black-to-Light-Blue-Violet-and-Unbleached-Titanium gradient. Then we switch to a #4 round brush to complete the smaller areas like the window posts and gutter downspouts.

Continuing with a #4 round brush, we alternate between lighter and darker values from the same gradient to define the exterior siding. Pay close attention to the perspective lines when angling your brush strokes. On the front-facing wall, the lines should converge to a vanishing point located off the canvas on the right side of the composition. And on the left-facing wall, the lines should converge to a vanishing point located along the edge of the canvas on the left side of the composition.

The exterior walls of the cottage have been subjected to heavy weathering. And this is a nice touch of realism that we want to replicate in our painting. So we brush in some darker values here and there to indicate locations where bare wood is exposed. We also brush in a few strokes of Red Oxide to indicate where an older paint color might show through the peeling top coat.

Along the left-facing wall, there is a glass storm door. Continuing with a #4 round brush, we apply a variety of colors from the Burnt-Umber-and-Hooker's-Green-to-Naples-Yellow gradient to indicate the reflection of neighboring trees.

Finally we switch to a #1 liner brush to complete some of the finer details like the address numbers and the contours along the window frames and gutters.

Here is the painting with the cottage exterior rendered:

Cottage on Holly Ave - Cottage Exterior Rendered

A close-up of the left side:

Cottage on Holly Ave - Cottage Exterior Rendered - Left-Side Detail

And the right side:

Cottage on Holly Ave - Cottage Exterior Rendered - Right-Side Detail

Render the Foreground

Now that we have completed the background and subject of the painting, the final step is to develop the foreground. To keep focus on the cottage, we want to render this area with a lower level of detail, similar to the background.

Bushes and Fence

First we render the bushes and fence.

For this step, we add four colors to our palette:

  • 50% Burnt Umber and 50% Pthalo Blue
  • Cadmium Yellow
  • Light Green Permanent
  • Unbleached Titanium

And one gradient:

  • 50% Burnt Umber and 50% Hooker's Green
  • 50% Hooker's Green and 50% Neutral Gray
  • Naples Yellow

To render the foreground bushes, we generally use the same color palette, brushes, and techniques that we used to develop the background trees. Again, we apply values from the Burnt-Umber-and-Hooker's-Green-to-Naples-Yellow gradient, starting with an art sponge to create general forms and softer edges. Then we move to a #8 filbert brush to produce further definition and harder edges. Finally we use a #4 round brush to give the indication of individual leaves.

To render the fence posts and gate, we apply the 50% Burnt Umber and 50% Pthalo Blue mixture with a #4 round brush. For the wire mesh, we switch to a #1 liner brush.

To my eye, the background trees and foreground bushes seem to appear a bit more muted in tone than I had imagined. Using a #8 filbert brush, let's apply some Light Green Permanent to add a little vibrance to the midtones. The highlights look like they could use a bit more intensity as well. So we use a #4 round brush to apply a few dabs of Cadmium Yellow to the highlights.

Continuing with the same brush, we dab in some Unbleached Titanium along with values from the Burnt-Umber-and-Hooker's-Green-to-Naples-Yellow gradient to indicate the gravel between the fenceline and the road. A few angled brush strokes toward the vertical are an effective technique to indicate blades of grass.

Finally we use a #1 liner brush to add some small twigs to the bushes.

Here is the painting with the bushes and fence rendered:

Cottage on Holly Ave - Bushes and Fence Rendered

Here is a close-up of the painting with the twigs rendered:

Cottage on Holly Ave - Twigs Rendered - Detail

Road

Finally we render the road.

For this step, we add two colors to our palette:

  • 50% Burnt Umber and 50% Pthalo Blue
  • Titanium White

And one gradient:

  • Raw Umber
  • Neutral Gray

Using a #8 filbert brush, we bend in some values from the Raw-Umber-to-Neutral-Gray gradient. But we seem to be missing the pebbly texture that we expect from an actual road. To create this effect, we place our brush aside and switch to a soft-bristle manual toothbrush.

The technique is simple enough - wet the toothbrush with clean water, dip the bristles into the desired paint color, then rake your finger along the bristles to flick small specks of value onto the canvas. But small variations in water saturation, paint loading, distance, and force can dramatically impact the size and density of specks. So I recommend practicing on a scrap surface before attempting this on the composition.

Once you are comfortable with the process, use this technique to apply dark specks of 50% Burnt Umber and 50% Pthalo Blue and light specks of Titanium White.

Here is a close-up of the painting with the road rendered:

Cottage on Holly Ave - Road Rendered - Detail

Finishing Touches

Our composition is nearly complete. All that remains is one final detail - the roof shingles. We render these by drawing a #1 liner brush through Raw Umber, heavily diluted with water.

  • Raw Umber

As we create the shingle pattern on the roof, we want to continue to pay close attention to the established perspective lines.

Here is a close-up of the painting with the cottage roof shingles rendered:

Cottage on Holly Ave - Cottage Roof Shingles Rendered - Detail

And with that...

Congratulations! Your painting is now finished and ready to sign:

Cottage on Holly Ave - Finished Painting

And there you have it! A beautiful cottage landscape that you can hang in your home.

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