Blue Heron Writes

Sharing to Inspire through Words and Pictures
Photo of Beaver Creek on Covered Bridge Trail in Bracebridge

From Inspiration to Interesting Places

Well, here it goes. In this post I’ll attempt to explain my painting process to you. The focus will be acrylic painting.

The first thing I need to do is decide what to paint. Most often I’m drawn to nature but I also enjoy painting barns, unusual buildings and architectural details, like windows and doors. Whatever the subject, it must move me emotionally or stir me spiritually. Otherwise, I simply can’t paint it. I experience a rush of adrenaline and  feel driven to paint when a subject is ‘just right’.

Usually, I work from my own photographs of scenes and subjects that have moved me in some way. I shot the image chosen for this post of a creek near my home. The variety greens in contrast with the purple-grey rocks and white water, plus the way the sunlight lit up the background trees and played on the water drew me in. Also I loved the way the golden green water in the foreground tied in so well with the foliage in the back.

Photo of Beaver Creek on Covered Bridge Trail in Bracebridge

Photo of Beaver Creek on Covered  Bridge Trail in Bracebridge

To determine the best composition, I take two L-Shapes to crop the photo until it looks and feels right to me. Again, this is a visceral, subjective experience; I feel my shoulders drop, my eyes widen and my breathing slow down.

Cropping photo for best composition

Cropping photo for best composition

With the composition decided, I do one or more sketches, proportionally sized to match the cropped photo dimensions. At this stage I am deciding the specifics of the composition and analyzing the light and dark areas. The step is more objective to ensure the final painting has balance, draws the viewer into the painting, and evokes the emotional reaction I hope for. I delete or add elements to create the composition that pleases my eye.

Sketch of composition for painting

Sketch of composition for painting

Now I need to select paint colours using the Munsell Colour System.  Usually, I pick a palette that closely matches the original scene but this is the point where I may choose another set of colours to express a different mood and effect. Photos don’t capture all the colours the eye perceives so it’s important to take colour notes when photographing. And when time allows do a small watercolour sketch on location to capture the scene more accurately.

The Munsell Student Colour Set - the colour system I use

The Munsell Student Colour Set – the colour system I use

My colour palette for this painting

My colour palette for this painting

Next, I decide on the paper or canvas. In this example I am painting on canvas that I pre-gessoed. Gesso is a primer applied to canvas and board to provide a receptive surface for paints. If I’m painting on paper, I’ll choose the paper weight and texture depending on the effect I’m hoping to achieve.

Gessoed canvas ready for paint

Gessoed canvas ready for paint

It’s important to choose a paint surface that is proportionally the same size as my final sketch. This step is critical to create a painting that matches the composition, lights and darks, etc. built into the reference sketch. If the sizing is off, the result will be a totally different painting which may, or may not, be a good thing.

Before the actual painting starts I apply an undercoat of a colour that will end up showing through in certain areas of the final painting. I had a light wash of Burnt Sienna available that I used for this canvas. To help ensure the composition matches the sketch, I sometimes use pencil to draw the major shapes and areas of the composition onto the canvas or paper. (This was difficult to photograph – it really didn’t look dirty!)

Undercoat colour applied to canvas and sketched out major shapes

Undercoat colour applied to canvas and sketched out major shapes

While the undercoat is drying, I get my palette ready. I chose four basic colours: Ultramarine Blue, Quinacridone Magenta, Winsor Green and Cadmium Yellow. However, as the painting developed I added a touch of Lemon Yellow and Burnt Sienna, and for the water Titanium White. All of the painting colours were created from combinations of these.

The basic paint colours applied to my palette

The basic paint colours applied to my palette

Once the undercoat is dry, I begin painting at the top of the canvas and working my way down. Some artists work from dark to light and others the opposite. The  individual painting will dictate the best method to apply the colours. I work in layers building up colour to achieve dimension, perspective and to define objects in the painting.

The painting is underway

The painting is underway

At some point in this process I look at the painting and think I should rip it up and throw it out. But I’ve learned, this is where I need to simply walk away and take a deep breath before I pick up a brush again.

The break brings new perspective and I usually find a way to get over this hump and go on to finish the painting.

I realized as I wrote this post, I could have taken more development photos as I painted. The problem for me is once I get started it’s hard to pull away to take those shots.

Finished painting? - I'll take a break and then look again to see if it needs any final tweaks

Finished painting?   I’ll take a break and then look again  to see if it needs any final tweaks

When I feel the painting is finished, (it’s gut thing again) I set it aside for a few hours or days and then take another look. Is there anything that looks out of balance? Did I get the perspective right? Do the colours work together? Whatever needs tweaking happens now.

Paul Gardner wrote in From Strength to Love (1963) “A painting is never finished. It simply stops in interesting places.”  This is so true. Even days or weeks after completing a painting, I might look at it and see something else I could change or add. Wisdom is knowing when to sign the painting and walk away from the easel.

In this case I asked my mentor and a group of fellow artists for input. They suggested I simply brighten the water. Here is the final painting with those last touches.

2013-19 Beaver Creek on Covered Bridge Trail, Acrylic on canvas, 10 x 8 Copyright Wendie Donabie 2013

2013-19 Beaver Creek on Covered Bridge Trail , Acrylic on canvas, 10 x 8 inches,  Copyright Wendie Donabie 2013

After completing the acrylic painting of Beaver Creek I decided to do a watercolour version. As you can see from the photo below, I changed the composition to give it a different feeling.  I’m curious which one you like better? Or maybe, you don’t like either. That’s okay. Art appreciation is based on personal taste and not every painting or style will appeal to everyone.

2013-20 Beaver Creekon Covered Bridge Trail, Watercolour on paper, 10 x 8 inches Copyright Wendie Donabie 2013

2013-20 Beaver Creek on Covered Bridge Trail, Watercolour on paper, 10 x 8 inches, Copyright Wendie Donabie 2013

From initial inspiration to completed painting may take a few hours or a few weeks. Sometimes I have an idea that needs to incubate for a time before it’s ready to be birthed.

And the making of a painting doesn’t always go smoothly. Many times I’ve set one aside for weeks or months before I can finish it. But on those special occasions when it works the first time, it’s pure magic!

*   *   *   *   *

I’ve added two new areas in the right-hand column of my blog: NEW WORK and ART SHOWS & SPEAKING EVENTS. I’ll post my newest painting in NEW WORK and any upcoming shows or reading events in the area below that.  Click on the NEW WORK photo and you’ll be transferred to view all of my art work.

Please let me know if you have any questions about my painting or written work or my creative process. I enjoy receiving your questions and feedback.

© Wendie Donabie 2013



  1. A very comprehensive approach and one that makes a great deal of sense. I can see your interpretation of the photo of Beaver Creek and painted in acrylic is stunning and emphasizes your talent. You have a wonderful gift.

  2. shirley trimmer

    Wendie this is an insightful article. It is very interesting to learn the process that occurs from eye to canvass. You painted it both in acrylic and water colour and asked which might be preferred. It is a difficult question and I thought I was partial to acrylic but there is something warm about the water colour. I like what I feel looking at the colour of the water in the forefront. The same for the colour of the tree bottoms. It is a slightly brighter warmer colour that makes me feel warmer. I can see into the forest a little better it is more inviting. It invites one to enter. I have to admit though I am a person of the light.
    Thanks for sharing the process. I often wondered how an artist could sell their work. It is like selling off a piece of one’s heart I would think.


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