How do I use aspen trees in the foreground to create depth in a mountain painting?

"Autumn Attire Near Fish Creek Road"  9x12 plein air oil
“Autumn Attire Near Fish Creek Road”
9×12 plein air oil

Cover the three large aspen shapes with your fingers and see what is lost in this painting! Without the large shapes in the foreground, you lose a lot of depth and interest in the painting. Also, the warm yellow helps to contrast against the cool gray greens of the distant pines on the mountain and the gray mountains. Click on it to enlarge and notice the soft edges on the yellow foliage. Tree foliage does not have hard edges, unless you want it very close-up and to show individual leaves. Even in this case, you would want to paint most of it softened and be selective about bringing out too many hard edges.

Now that you have large shapes in the foreground, how do I get back to the background?
Now that you have large shapes in the foreground, how do I get back to the background?

The zig-zag pattern of the yellow grasses and bushes helps get from the foreground to the background. Notice how the yellows in the distant part of the zig zag are not as intense as the foreground portion. The ground is also warmer in the foreground than in the distance. Think!

“Autumn Attire Near Fish Creek Road” was juried into the Plein Air Artists Colorado exhibition at Mary Williams Fine Arts in Boulder, CO.

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How do I soften the edges on aspen foliage to make it less distinct?

"Lining Up for Fall" 17x11 Watercolor

“Lining Up for Fall” 17×11 Watercolor

In this demonstration I painted for the Irving Art Association in Irving, Texas, I showed how to soften the foliage behind the tree on the left in order to leave the foliage near the tree on the right, my star, more distinct. In order to do this, I didn’t soften the edges with a damp brush after I applied the paint; instead, I started at the top and tried to paint the sky and the foliage at the same time in order to have them “mingle” a little in the process.

Tip of the Day

This is a little difficult to do, more so in watercolor than in oils, because you have to be a magician and juggle several things at once before your paper dries on you! It takes practice – applying the sky color, then the foliage color while the sky is still wet – and at the same time, not getting any paint on the white aspens where you don’t want it! The paper can’t be TOO wet, or your sky and leaves will totally run together. Practice, practice, practice. It’s so rewarding when you get the effect you want in watercolor.

This watercolor recently won First Place in the Associated Creative Artists Annual Awards Exhibit in Dallas!

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How do I use shapes to point the viewer where I want him or her to look?

How do I use shapes to point the viewer where I want him or her to look?

Plein Air Watercolor 15 x 11
Plein Air Watercolor “Summer Glow”
15 x 11

In “Summer Glow” I rearranged some logs that were there (and eliminated the ones I didn’t need) to “point” the viewer into the painting. There is no way the viewer can’t to into my picture with these strong “pointers” in the foreground! Click on the image to enlarge.

When you add a shape in the foreground...
When you add a shape in the foreground…

Be sure the shapes you add as “pointers” don’t actually take you OUT of the foreground at the bottom of the painting! I tried to prevent this from happening, which would defeat the purpose, by putting my logs in shadow closest to the viewer, then having them come out into the light as they “point” into the painting. Strong lights at the bottom of the painting would lead to the bottom of the painting, not to the aspen trees.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post and will visit my web site, to see the eight new paintings I’ve added under Plein Air Studies and under Landscapes.

How Do I Mix Colors for Fall Aspen Foliage in Shadow?

"Autumn in Bloom" Oil on Linen Canvas 14x11
“Autumn in Bloom”
Oil on Linen Canvas

In order to make the center of interest aspen stand out, I made its foliage the brightest, and this meant that the foliage of the other aspens had to be dulled down a little, or put partially in shadow. I hate using the word “dull” or “gray” when it applies to yellow aspen leaves, so how do I keep them bright and clean while dulling them? First I take a color I use in the bright yellows, for instance cadmium yellow medium, and add touches of the other two primaries – in this case, alizarin crimson for the red, and either cerulean or cobalt blue for the blue. Using touches of the last two primaries darkens the yellow while keeping it clear and doesn’t muddy it. (Click on the image to enlarge it).

Notice that I left something out...
Notice that I left something out…

When I dull down the aspen foliage, notice that I didn’t use any white! I want to keep it in shadow. If it gets too dark, I add more yellow. Some people seem to stick white in everything, thereby cooling the mixture and sometimes making it chalky looking. Use as little white as possible!

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“Autumn in Bloom” will be on display at the Panhandle-Plains Invitational Western Art Show and Sale at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, TX, from March 7th – 28th, 2015.

How to keep yellows bright in fall aspen tree foliage

"Autumn Showcase"  Plein Air Oil on Board  12x9
“Autumn Showcase” Plein Air Oil on Board 12×9

How to keep yellows bright in fall aspen tree foliage

Autumn Showcase was painted in front of our house in Colorado. I changed the background and singled out three trees and went to work! It will be one of my submissions for Plein Air Southwest Salon (PASW) at Southwest Gallery in Dallas, TX, beginning April 11, 2015.

On a sunny day, I try to keep my yellows as bright as possible, because that is the way I see them on sunlit fall aspen trees. To do this, I use three yellows in varying combinations: cadmium lemon, cadmium yellow medium and Indian yellow. On the beginning block-in and first layer after that, I do NOT add any white. At the very end, and only for the most sunlit leaves, I add a tiny bit of white to this mixture. Too much white changes the color of the bright yellows and makes the paint have a chalky look.

What about edges of the foliage?
What about edges of the foliage?

The sharpest edges should be kept around the center of interest, in this case the largest tree out in front. Most of them, not all of them, should be softened as the foliage goes away from the center of interest. It’s kind of like a camera focusing on something and the rest of the picture is a little blurry. To do this is easy if you’re painting plein air – you can just put down the color and with one brush stroke, sweep the color out into the background while it is wet. (Click on the image to enlarge). Stay tuned for next blog, how I mix the yellows in shadow. Feel free to pass this on to a friend and tell them they may email me at to receive notifications of posts, or they may leave a comment on my blog. Thanks for tuning in, and Happy New Year!

Another lead-in for aspen tree paintings: puddles

"Star of the Show" oil on linen canvas 24x36 Available at Weiler House Gallery in Ft. Worth, Texas
“Star of the Show” oil on linen canvas 24×36
Available at Weiler House Gallery in Ft. Worth, Texas

This large painting was done from several studies I did in Rocky Mountain National Park. I often work this way because it gives me the truest colors and values, much more accurate than a camera, because it is what I saw, not what the camera saw. I added the puddles in the road for a reason.

Breaking the rules a little
Have a plan and a reason for everything you do.

I decided that another way to lead into the painting could be puddles, placed in strategic places, not just at random, to work in the painting. The largest puddle in the foreground is mostly in the shadow, so it won’t distract, but the right top edge of it forms a sharp “pointer” to the main aspen on the right. Click on the painting to enlarge it and see what I’m talking about. Then the logs take over and hopefully further lead you to the aspen tree.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post and that it gives you something to think about. Feel free to share with friends and have them email me at if they want to be placed on my notification list of new posts on my blog. Merry Christmas!

Even more about leading the eye around an aspen tree painting!

"Two Tall Tales" Plein Air Watercolor  11x8"
“Two Tall Tales”
Plein Air Watercolor 11×8″

In this watercolor, pharm I have a very strong lead-in of the log on the lower right. It leads you to the main aspen on the left, and there is no subtleness or misunderstanding about it! I used the small pine tree in the distance between the two trees to hopefully lead you back to the right with its foliage connecting to the aspen tree on the right. This allows the viewer to go back down the right aspen, back to the log, and back up to the main aspen on the left. I painted this on the Gem Lake trail in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Breaking the rules a little
Breaking the rules a little

I purposely “broke the rules” in the watercolor by having the log coming in right from the corner. I wanted to make a strong statement on this one. However, I was mindful that the portion of the log from the corner to the left of the corner was a larger measurement than the portion of the log from the corner to the upper right. In other words, if you make something come in or out of the corner of a painting, make sure the two distances on either side of the corner are not the same!

How do I add color to a green and yellow aspen painting?


"Aspens and Purple Wildflowers"  watercolor  10x8"
“Aspens and Purple Wildflowers” watercolor 10×8″

Most of the time in any landscape, we face a lot of greens, and, in this case, yellows and yellow-greens also. Adding a touch of violet or red-violet is the compliment of yellow and yellow-greens and does wonders for a landscape of mostly greens!

How to plan leading the eye around the painting
How to add another color to an otherwise green aspen painting 

I added the purple wildflowers to add the complimentary color to all the yellows and yellow-greens. I tried to add them in a pattern that would lead back to the log, then to the aspens. After that, I wet the paper and added them wet-into-wet so that they would be soft and not lead the viewer anywhere.  I hope it worked – the log to the aspens, down to the yellow and back to the log in a kind of circular, or  C composition. Any feedback on this – feel free to email me at and I have very tough skin, so you won’t make me feel bad, I promise!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post! Sorry it’s been so long – I’ve had a lot going on, and will try to do better on a weekly post.



More ways to lead the eye in an aspen tree painting


I decided to use this painting as an example because I have some very exciting news about it. “Autumn’s Peak at Wild Basin” just won Best of Show in the Rocky Mountain Plein Air Painters Centennial Celebration Plein Air Fine Art Show in Rocky Mountain National Park. Part of the proceeds from the sales (and this one sold minutes before the opening reception began!) benefit the Rocky Mountain Conservancy. I am so honored to have won this! So…I must  have done something right here, and let’s discuss: There is a small log on the left, partially buried by grass, that helps as a lead-in (click on image to enlarge). Then when you get to the big aspen, the bright foliage behind it (which is brighter than the foliage behind the aspen trees on the left) curves from right to left and almost connects you to the foliage on the left, which completes an “arc” and leads up the two aspen trees on the left. Then, at the top, you are stopped by more foliage, which almost connects with foliage from the “main actor” aspen on the right and has you look at it again. You come back down it and hopefully the arc leads you around again (instead of leading you out of the picture and on to the next painting)!!!

"Autumn's Peak at Wild Basin"  Plein Air Oil  12x9
“Autumn’s Peak at Wild Basin” Plein Air Oil 12×9
How to plan leading the eye around the painting
How to plan leading the eye around the painting

Many times in my preliminary sketch, I’ll use arrows to remind me how I want to lead the eye around. Also, as in the above foliage, things don’t have to actually connect – they can almost connect, as in this painting, and the eye automatically connects them! Hope you’ve enjoyed, and please feel free to tell your friends about my blog!

How do I lead the eye into the painting?

Here I rearranged the logs while painting this on location. The bottom one “swoops” you right into the picture and immediately points you to the major aspen. Then the log to the left of the “main star” aspen allows your eye to travel to the group of aspens to the left, and the  log on the extreme left points you back in to the picture. Notice how the log on the left is highlighted nearest the aspens and more “lost” as it goes out of the painting for less contrast there.

"End of Summer Greens - Endo Valley" 11x14 Oil has an obvious lead-in.

“End of Summer Greens – Endo Valley” 11×14 Plein Air Oil

Plan how to lead the eye into the painting!
Plan how to lead the eye into the painting!

I see a lot of paintings where students have set up a “roadblock” to the eye instead of planning how to lead into and around the painting. Think of a zig-zag or S-curve (I think these are the two easiest ways) and set it up yourself, even if it isn’t already there, which it probably won’t be. Next blog will explore other ways to lead into and around the painting. Hope you have enjoyed my blog, and, remember that you can click on the painting to enlarge it.