To paint this picture I choose a palette restricted to four colors: titanium white, ivory black, raw earth sienna and sky blue. It's the same palette that I used in my other Saharan landscapes. I review, just for information, that the oils used are brand Titan, which is the one I have ever used, for no particular reason. Therefore, I can not say that these oils are of good or bad quality, for me, apparently, they are of intermediate quality.

The quality oils are obviously more expensive and not really necessary for a good picture. Their higher cost price is due to containing a higher proportion of pigment in the mixture, which is more expensive than the binder, which in oil paint is a mixture of equal parts of oil and turpentine. When the paint dries in the table, turpentine is evaporated and only remains the pigment and the oil that agglutinates it. By having a higher proportion of pigment, the most expensive oils have a greater covering power and a more intense color, but these oils have a disadvantage compared to cheap ones, and it is that having a lower proportion of binder reduces the elasticity of the paint when dried, so the paint layer breaks more easily, or earlier, than when using inferior paint that includes a greater proportion of binder. Same thing happens with crayons of professional quality because of a higher proportion of pigment in their mines, they break easily when trying to sharpen, which does not happen as often with school quality pencils , which contain much more wax in their mines.

The brushes used were those shown in the image; from left to right: a flat brush caliber 10, a flat brush caliber 2 and a round brush caliber 10/ 0. They are already highly deformed by use, but remain soft, which is essential as otherwise they leave marks when painting. For brushes to remain soft and not spoiled, they should be cleaned thoroughly with soap and water after removing the paint from the bristles in the pot of turpentine. When washing with soap and water you should stir the bristles vigorously, separating them and rubbing them with your fingers to remove the paint which is trapped between them, that would harden and stiff them, especially on the bottom, next to the ferrule, where the paint is difficult to clean and thus accumulates. If we allow this paint to harden, the brush will lose a lot of flexibility.

In my personal experience, the oil painting is easily diluted by rubbing the bristles on the bottom of the pot of turpentine and the forementioned process is often unnecessary for me, so I only perform it occasionally, as it helps to keep under control the tendency of the bristles to veer sideways. To achieve this, do not remove entirely the soap when washing the brush and let it dry in the bristles, as so the dry soap will keep them joined together until the next use of the brush. However, if we use the brush to varnish, then it is almost essential to make a thorough washing with soap and water every time you finish using the brush, as the varnish for paintings is very sticky and would leave the brush stiff and unrecoverable. The varnish is so strong that even after a good washing, when the brush is dry it stays half stiff and you have to flexibilize it by stiring the bristles with your fingers before using it.

As the subject of the picture I choose a landscape from the central Sahara, located somewhere between the Ténéré desert and the Aïr mountains. These mountains are volcanic in nature and are mainly composed of granite and basalt, a dark color that contrasts with the pale color of the surrounding sands.

I found the reference image in a book; I took a picture of it and made a copy on my computer, which then I proceeded to gridding. Regarding the photo, the painting shows a different composition: firstly, because in my opinion, the framing of the photograph is unbalanced, so I added more space for the sky while in return I discarded space from the bottom of the picture, and secondly, because I eliminated the foreground trunks, for they were just obstructing the view. The picture is an interpretation of what appears in the picture and does not have to be an exact copy of it.

I painted this picture, like all my other pictures, on a plywood board primed with three coats of gesso. The board, though small (42 x 32 cm), is thin and therefore tends to curl, so I stuck it to a wooden frame to make it rigid. I drew in pencil a grid that was proportional to the one I had made on the photograph and I simply drew the most basic forms of the image to guide me.

Graphite, as well as ink, is supposed to be able to pass through the paint over the years, so I traced gently and then, always using a soft rubber, I decreased the intensity of the drawing, leaving only the necessary to be perceived, and deleting everything possible the lines of the grid. Note that graphite grabs strongly in gesso and it is often impossible to completely erase.

I started painting all areas of the picture without going into details or in all colors, defining only light and shadow areas. Mixing the raw sienna, black ivory and titanium white I covered the table with various shades of brown and gray, worrying only to define the shapes and volumes of the elements, to understand the structure of them and thus have a basis on to build further details. As for color, I do not care that it resembles the final color from a chromatic viewpoint, as I just need to establish the areas of chiaroscuro.

In this first layer, I apply paint lightened with some turpentine, enabling faster extending of the paint, speeding drying time and making this paint layer leaner than the ones that will be applied over, which relieves the danger of the new layers of paint being cracked due to hardening over a still bland layer. The amount of turpentine applied to painting should be small, as paint must always remain pasty, without ever becoming a liquid. An excess of turpentine dangerously reduces the oil's binding capacity, reducing the cohesion of the paint, which may cause the paint layer to detach from the surface of the table after a time. It is therefore obvious that the first layer of paint is the most critical one, because if it is detached, all what has been painted over it will suffer the same fate, like a faulty foundation would cause the fall of the house that it supports.

In a second phase, the elements of the picture are repainted with new colors, taking into account the criterion of depth or aerial perspective, managing gray and sienna ratios consistent with each of the planes of the landscape. The proportion of gray increases at the greater distance and the proportion of sienna increases at the closer distance. Thus the more distant planes, which are the sky and the mountains in the background, will have a cooler tonality, and the closest ones will have a warmer one. The bushes, already from the beginning, are highlighted because they have been painted with the sienna color in its practically natural form, without lowering its tone with white, which is present in all other areas of the picture.

At this stage, I have increased the detail of the work in general, except in the mountains in the background, which are more shaped and already include a slight texture. Certainly, chromatic changes made in this second phase could have been made directly in the first phase of painting, having worked from the very beginning the closest colors. However, doing so in two phases will increase the thickness of the paint layer and this is always a significant factor in the work, as this will prevent the paint layer to be poor in some areas, which can result in an uglier final result.

As for the texture, which in my pictures is always smooth, I applied the treatment I normally use, of allowing the sky perfectly smooth, extending paint when painting, and applying a light texture in close-up planes, tapping with the brush to apply paint instead of extending it.

After a long phase of work, the picture has acquired more color and detail. As I do with all landscapes, I start by painting the fartest planes and finish painting the closest ones. For this painting I decided that the colors should not be saturated, so I mixed some amounts of light gray on the colors used.

Firstly I painted the sky by using a mix of blue, white and black. The sky was darkened on the top area, simply by adding more black on the mix, and truth be told, exceeding somewhat. I used the large brush to cover the area of the sky faster and make sure the gradient were more uniform and that strokes aren't marked, breaking the softness of the sky. Near the edge of the mountains I used the intermediate brush (caliber 2), extending the paint to avoid any strokes to be marked.

Then I continued working in the background mountains, using a mix of gray and blue, in two different shades, one lighter and one darker for shadowed areas. Firstly I painted with the lighter color much of the mountains, leaving uncovered part of the color and texture given in the previous phase, which served to represent the brighter zones of the mountains. Then I covered with the darker color the areas that should be more shadowy. All this process is performed by loading very little amount of paint on the brush, which is known as scrubbing technique or frottis, and favors that the colors of the paint layer that is below are better perceived, as they are optically mixed with the new layer of paint rather than being buried by it, which improves the richness of color tones in the areas painted with this technique. To get the proper sense of distance (also called spatial depth or aerial perspective), we must ensure that all tones used in these fartest mountains, even the darkest ones, are clear in comparison with those of nearby planes, and must also have a bluish tonality.

Later I worked in the small mountain on the foreground and the surrounding dunes. This mountain is basically composed of two colors, a dark one that represents volcanic rock and a clear one representing the sand that adheres to the mountain. The darker color intensity is quite strong, to make sure that it will properly contrast with the mountains in the background and achieve the separation of planes that transmits the feeling of distance. Actually, the rock is so dark that it almost shows no difference in tone between the shaded areas and those exposed to the sun. Creating the texture of the mountain is not complicated, just use a fine brush and splash with dark bits the clear regions, and in the opposite way, splash with pale bits the dark areas. This represents the complex interaction between sand and rocks, scattered small rocks emerging from the sand and small sandy patches that adhere to the rock.

Finally, I covered with dark gray the shadows of the sand dunes. This tone resulted certainly too dark, so in the next phase I lowered the tone to achieve a more natural tone. But for now, I left it, and by using the lighter shade of sand, composed only of white and a bit of sienna, I was tweaking the shapes of the dunes, for when painting the shadows I had spoiled somewhat the shapes by painting in some parts more area than needed. It is important that the dunes are well shaped and outlined, because if its structure is not well represented these will look chaotic and meaningless, when in fact their shapes correspond accurately to the action of wind.

In this last phase I was satisfied in the fartest planes and only worked on the nearby ones, from the closer mountain and sand dunes to the foreground. In the mountain I did some retouches with sand color to increase the level of detail and reduce a certain excess of dark matter. I lowered the shadow of the dunes by applying a gray color mixed with siena, clearer than the one applied in the above phase. Then I prepared a clear sand color to retouch the lightest areas on the dunes, and taking advantage that the paint applied in the shaded areas of the dunes already had dried, I scrubbed this clear sand color in these shaded areas, being the result achieved much better than the previous one, so I left it that way. During this stage I used scrubbing to soften the edges of the dunes, since these were sharp and not always should they be like that.

Then I worked on the details of the ground in the foreground, that include pebbles and some shrubs, and finally I worked to finish the vegetation, preparing for this a greenish color by mixing sienna with a bit of sky blue, and lowering this mixture with white. I painted with this new mix over the pure sienna that I had previously applied as base color for the vegetation, applying paint in touches with the finest brush, thus creating a texture in which the base sienna and the greenish mix blend. I reviewed also the shadows with a dark color based on sienna and black, and added some twigs to the vegetation to give it a more realistic look.

Once the painting is finished, I wait around a year before varnishing. I apply two layers of gloss varnish, leaving a week to pass between them.

~ Next Chapter: Process for an oil portrait ~


:: Process for an oil landscape

Detailed process for painting a desertic landscape with oils.

:: Process for an oil portrait

Process for executing an oil panting by individual areas without any pre-painting stage.

:: Diverse concepts about painting

Diverse dissertations about the execution and characteristics of some paintings, such as composition, chromatism or texture.


:: Process for an oil landscape

Example about the process of painting a rocky landscape with oils.