Landscape Painting Demonstration – Ascension from Photo to Finish



My final post for 2016 seems like the ideal time to present my most recent finish, Ascension, North Cascades, a wintery, snow-filled composition. Rooted in abstraction, as are all the pieces in my Sunlight & Snow series, Ascension is also about simplified shapes and patterns.

Ascension is a studio painting, yet the steps I follow are the same as those I outline in a previous post about plein air painting: “The Approach” – Four Essential Steps to Plein Air Painting.

Starting at the source

ascension-sourceI often discover interesting compositions hidden in some small poertion of a photo, sometimes years after I’ve taken the photo. Here, by isolating a small portion of the original photo, I create an entirely different and more interesting composition. When I take reference photos, I don’t try to establish my final composition through the camera’s viewfinder; that would lock in my compositional choice at the moment I press the shutter. Instead, I include more “real estate” than I would ever include in a single painting. This allows me to find more potential compositions from that one photo.

Digital study

ascension-digital-studyAny painting I do that is based on a photo always involves some form of a digital study. There are two things I try to achieve in the digital study. First, I establish the composition by “cropping.” Because it’s so easy to crop a photo on the computer, I can try various compositions very quickly. Second, I apply filters in Photoshop that eliminate detail and simplify the shapes, which gives me an idea of how the image might look when painted. In this example.

Color study

ascension-studyMitchell Albala, Ascension, Study, oil on paper, 6 x 6. I never start a painting without doing at least one color study. A color study is my way of finding the “color light” that works best for a particular painting. It’s also a low pressure way to warm up and get familiar with my subject. In Ascension, I am intrigued by the subtle warms I find in the the typically cool shadow side of the mountain.

Laying the foundation – underpainting

ascension-underpaintingMy first step in the actual painting is the underpainting or block-in. There are several ways of doing an underpainting; but since this piece will use a fairly limited palette, I chose a monochromatic underpainting. The goal: to establish my composition, relative values, and drawing. If I can’t work out these foundational issues at the outset, it will be much harder to resolve them later after I’ve gotten involved with color.

Initial lay-in of color, texture building, and “color balancing”

ascension-brush-devI begin with an initial block-in of color. It’s very important to establish the right values and color temperatures. This is a many-stepped process I call “color balancing.” The photo also shows how these initial layers can begin to establish texture. I usually assign the greatest texture to foreground elements (like the rocks), and thinner, possibly transparent layers to areas that are farther back, like the mist and sky. To my eye, variations in texture offers a much richer tapestry than one woven with uniform texture.

ascension-knife-brush-detailMy childhood hero Spiderman famously said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” The same can be said of the palette knife. Many painters revel in the knife’s ability to lay in color thickly and rapidly — and get carried away. I also love the raw textural qualities of strokes produced by the knife, but I eschew the telltale scalloped edges it can leave behind. I avoid this by using the knife and brush in combination. I particularly like the textures I get when I apply knife strokes over previous layers of texture. The knife does not have to be heavily loaded with paint in order to create interesting textures.

Ascension, final

ascension-final-mitchell-albalaMitchell Albala. Ascension, North Cascades, 2016, oil on panel, 18 x 18 inches. Colors are balanced to my satisfaction. The shadow side of the mountain plays with both cool and warm tones. Even in this relatively small reproduction, you can see the textures in the rock and on the highlighted ridge of bright snow.

ascension-detailShown, a detail corresponding to a 5-inch square section from the bottom center portion of the painting.

Additional Resources

“The Approach” – Four Essential Steps to Plein Air Painting

The Power of Limited Color Groups in Landscape Painting

Getting the Light Right: The Power of the Color Study

Using Photographs Like an Artist


About Author

Mitchell Albala is a Seattle-based painter known for his semi-abstract and atmospheric landscapes. His book, "Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice," is a national bestseller with nearly 40,000 copies in print. Mitchell is also a popular workshop instructor at Gage Academy of Art in Seattle, Pacific Northwest Art School, and Daniel Smith Artist’s Materials. He led painting adventures in Italy in 2015 with Arte Umbria and in 2017 with Winslow Art Center. He has lectured on Impressionism and landscape painting at the Seattle Art Museum and written for International Artist and Artists & Illustrators magazines. His popular painting blog, which serves as a companion to his book, was awarded #12 on’s Top 75 Painting Blogs.


  1. The solstice, mountain man with a brush … celebrates you. I sold one of the paintings I did in your workshop so now I think of your touch: delicate, enduring and loving. Keep on trucking.


  2. Mitch,
    Thanks for the lovely demo. Great snow texture! Fascinating choice of rock and key colors; very effective.

  3. Thanks for sharing your thought process in creating the painting. I really like the idea of looking for new compositions within one photograph. I must try this with my own work. Best wishes for 2017.

  4. Beverly Phaneuf on

    Thanks again for sharing your talent and expertise. Beautiful painting.
    Merry Christmas, Bev