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Painting Rocks in Oil by Albert Handell

Painting Rocks in Oil by Albert Handell

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This article on painting rocks in oil, by Albert Handell, first appeared in the June 2015 issue of Magazine.

Painting rocks, for me, is, in part, a matter of contrasts and harmonized similarities. Contrasts can consist of lights and darks; large areas and smaller areas; and sharp edges, lost edges and all edges in-between. Then there are the textural contrasts of the paint itself and the manner in which it’s aplied. These textural contrasts add dimension to a painting and please the eye.

Painting Rocks: Thin to Thick to Thin Again

To a large extent, I achieve textural contrasts when I paint rocks in oil by progressing from thin washes to thicker applications to final thin layers. Here’s a more detailed description of my process:

I begin my oils with transparent color washes, using either Martin F. Weber Turpenoid or Gamblin Gamsol as my diluting medium. With Nos. 10 and 12 Richeson Signature bristle egbert (cat’s tongue) brushes, I apply these washes with broad strokes and a sense of abandon, varying from light to dark and warm to cool colors.

After establishing this transparent underpainting, I address the center of interest, usually the most eye-catching area. Using flats and brights, I apply colors from dark to light, paying special attention to proportion, placement, relative local color, value relationships and lost and found edges. I don’t rush to leave the center of interest but paint it very close to its finish, if not its actual finish. Then I paint from my center of interest out, relating everything to what I’ve already established.

At this point, I start working with a painting knife, which allows me to apply paint thickly, as if with a trowel or, by turning the knife to its side, to create the most delicate and sharpest of lines.

Eventually, I must marry the initial transparent color washes with the added applications of opaque paint. To harmonize them, on top of the transparent colors I apply opaque colors of the exact same value as the transparent colors. I firmly believe in selective finishing, so I don’t complete all areas of the painting to the same degree of intensity or focus.

Now let’s turn to specific examples of creating textural contrasts while painting rocks.

Painting Rocks: Merest Wisp of a Scumble

While standing on a ledge by Amicalola Falls, in Dawson County, Ga., I was taken aback by the rainbows formed by sunlight on the sprayed mist. I wondered how I could paint the effect and, back in the studio, I started experimenting (see Painting Rocks: semi-opaque scumbling, above).

With large brushes, I applied transparent paint mixtures to the entire surface. The rich greens at the upper right set off the grays, mauves and warmer tones of the cascading falls. With more opaque paint I began the falls and then added the rhythm and movement of the water as it swirled around the rocks and moved on. When the surface was completely dry, I tackled the rainbow. I quickly learned that less was more, yet even when I painted as lightly as possible, the rainbow looked artificial. It lacked luminosity and appeared to be pasted onto the surface of the painting. I repainted the area of the rock face beneath the rainbow so I could try again.

This time I added a little Liquin to Naples yellow, “beating” the two components together until the paint was semi-opaque rather than opaque. I scumbled (scrubbed paint thinly over a dry underlayer) this mixture on the rocks on the right so that the stone showed through as if under a veil or mist. Then I lightly repainted the colors of the rainbow (see detail, above), bringing A Misty Moment at Amicalola Falls (above) to resolution.

Painting Rocks: Sleight of Knife

The center of interest of Simply Granite (above) is the variety of strong grays in the granite on East Beach of St. Simons Island, Ga. I like the sense of weight conveyed by these arbitrarily piled rocks, and the tracery of shrubbery sets off the rough-hewn texture of the stone. To achieve the effect of lacelike branches, I loaded the edge of a painting knife with bright yellow and swiped on the color (see detail of Simply Granite, above).

The variety of strokes one can achieve with a painting knife is amazing, and there are many different types and shapes of knives available; I used an Italian-made Che Son 844 knife to paint the shrubbery (the Richeson 814 knife would also work well). This particular application of knife painting has a beautiful, spontaneous effect­—but it does take a lot of practice. (If you’re interested in working with painting knives, be prepared for a lot of experimentation.)

Painting Rocks: Glazed to Perfection

Sometimes a glaze (thin, transparent application of paint used to build up color) saves the day, as it did for Chamisa (above). I had painted the sky transparently with titanium white and light, off-gray mixtures, which gave that area a luminous quality. I painted the lower parts of the canvas transparently at first and then with a combination of painting-knife strokes and brushwork, leaving areas untouched so the transparent colors of the underpainting would show through to the very end. The color of the mountain behind the adobes, however, needed to be intensified.

Rather than repaint the mountains, I decided to glaze them, using a mixture of ultramarine blue and Winsor Newton Liquin on the right and cobalt violet light mixed with Liquin on the left (see detail of Chamisa, above). To keep the colors clean, I used two brushes. The glaze gave the painting a wonderful richness of color.

Painting Rocks: Brushstrokes of Genesis

I apply the transparent colors of my underpaintings broadly, with abandon, and keep the edges soft to lend a sense of atmosphere. These energetic brushstrokes can be special all on their own. Leaving them untouched adds freshness and visual variety to the finished painting. Such is the case with First Runoff (above), an example of transparent colors used in an underpainting applied while painting rocks, and then largely left alone.

For the woods at the top of the painting, I brushed in the underpainting with mixtures of ultramarine blue and burnt sienna. When I wanted the area warmer, I used more burnt sienna; when I wanted the area cooler, I used more ultramarine blue. Below these mysterious woods are the lighter colors of the rocks. For these I used a light gray mixed with yellow ochre (warm) or Holbein violet gray (cool). The lower rocks are darker and cooler, so I used a darker gray mixed with ultramarine blue and raw umber. In the detail of First Runoff (above), many of the initial underpainted brushstrokes can easily be seen.

Painting Rocks: A Variety of Transparent Applications

The intense white of the calcium carbonate of a rock ledge caught my eye and became the center of interest for Rock Ledge (above). I painted much of this piece transparently but applied the paint in several ways.

The dark background of the woods is a combination of ultramarine blue, burnt sienna and viridian green brushed on with a sense of abandon. For the sky holes and the few suggestions of leaves, I used a painting knife.

To achieve the glow and the sense of light and weight of the calcium carbonate, I applied thinned-out white and opaque white mixed with Gamblin Gamsol. Initially, I scrubbed on these colors transparently with large bristle egbert brushes, which allowed for wonderful luminosity.

I painted the bottom third of the rock ledge opaquely at first, then with thin glazes of ultramarine blue and cobalt violet light.

As a finishing touch, I re-established the dark, sharp accents underneath the flat stone at the top of the white rock ledge with the edge of my painting knife. Thus, with transparent paint applied variously with brushes and a painting knife, I achieved a variety of textural effects in painting rocks.


  • Find links to more free articles by and about Albert Handell at
  • Learn more oil painting techniques from the book Oil Painting With the Masters.

Watch the video: Albert Handell Interview (July 2022).


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