Stacked Perspective

The Sagami River woodcut by Hiroshige has seven 'curtains' or layers in its composition

A stacked perspective is when, rather than relying on a vanishing point as in one- or two-point perspective (“the railway lines thing”), elements are piled (stacked) one above another in the composition to give the illusion of depth and distance. Or to put it in art speak: when objects are placed higher on the picture plane to create spacial illusion.

It’s easier to understand by looking at an example than reading about it. In the book “Japanese Prints : The Collection of Vincent van Gogh” I came across a fabulous example of stacked perspective in a print by Hiroshige. Van Gogh copied this print into the background of his “Portrait of Pere Tanguy” painting.

In the photo of the print below, start counting the stacks or elements with the white heron at the bottom, or Mount Fuji at the top. Then look at how the elements overlap, linking the parts of the composition whilst creating the sense of some things being behind others.

The Sagami River woodcut by Hiroshige has seven 'curtains' or layers in its composition
The Sagami River, from the series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. Edo, fourth month 1858, Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858). Colour woodcut on Japanese paper, 36.4 cm x 25.5 cm. In the collection of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Hiroshige’s composition is extremely sophisticated, involving a stacked perspective of seven ‘curtains’, starting with the white heron in the foreground, and ending with Mount Fuji in the distance.” [Quote source: “Japanese Prints : The Collection of Vincent van Gogh” by Chris Uhlenbeck, Louis van Tilborgh, and Shigeru Oikawa, 2018, p. 108]

Calling the elements or layers “curtains” and imaginging transparent shower curtains with images printed on them, really works for me in terms of understanding “stacked perspective”.

  • The Van Gogh Museum website has a section on the Japanese prints that Vincent van Gogh collected, here.
  • To see sample pages of the book, go to Thames & Hudson’s website

7 Ways to Create a Painting

There are different ways to create a painting, routes that take you from blank canvas or sheet of paper to finished painting. None is better or more correct than another, they’re merely different. It’s a question of trying each and seeing which you prefer, which may be a mixture of techniques..

1. Blocking In
This is my favourite way to paint. With a blocking-in approach, the whole of the canvas is painted or worked up simultaneously, every part of the painting is brought along at the same time, no bits are left behind for later. The starting point is deciding what the main shapes are in the painting and to paint these areas a colour (blocking in the composition). Then you gradually refine the shapes and colours, working your way towards detail and correct tones.

5 Stages of Making a Painting

2. One Section at a Time
Some artists like to work on one section of a painting at a time, moving onto another part of the painting only when that section is finished. You might paint from one corner outwards, finishing a certain area of the canvas at a time or complete an individual element before moving onto the next. It’s used with all subjects, from landscapes to still life to portraits. It’s not something I often do, because I find the blank areas are distracting and influence my judgement of the colours and tones I’m applying.

3. Background Last
Start with the main subject, the details and foreground, then when this is finished, or almost finished, you paint the background in around this. If you’re uncertain about your brush control, this is probably not the approach to take as you’ll end up worrying about accidentally painting over something as you add the background. Watch out for having a background that goes around a subject, or not quite up to it, which will ruin a painting. I don’t like this approach as it treats a background as a separate thing to the rest of the painting, rather than integrated.

4. Background First
If you start with the background, you can get it done and don’t have to worry about it. There’s no concern either about having the background go behind the foreground elements as you’re literally painting those on top (even if you left white gaps where these would go, their edges will go over the top of the background). The danger is being so in love with what you’ve done that you’re resistant to changing it even if, as you add foreground elements, you realise it needs it.

5. Underpainting or Delayed Colour
This is an approach that requires patience as it involves first creating a monochrome version of the painting, then glazing colour over this. For it to work, you must use transparent colours, not opaque, for glazing, otherwise the form or definition created by light and dark tones of the underpainting will be lost. This approach has the advantage that you work out tones etc. without the distraction of colour. Depending on what you use for the underpainting, this approach is called different things: Grisaille = greys or browns. Verdaccio = green-greys. Imprimatura = transparent underpainting.

6. Detailed Drawing, Then Paint
Some painters do a careful, detailed drawing first, and only then reach for their paints. There is a strong argument to be made for the fact that if you can’t get the drawing right, your painting will never work. However, I think there’s a balance to be found between a drawing that guides you and one that constrains. You may find you like this degree of control, but don’t be afraid to paint outside the lines.

7. Alla Prima (All at Once)
Alla prima the term used when a the painting is finished in one session, working wet-on-wet instead of waiting for the paint to dry and building up colours by glazing. Quite how long a painting session lasts depends on the time that’s available to you. Limited time to complete the painting tends to encourage a looser style and decisiveness as well as the use of smaller canvases! Landscape painters working on location (plein air) are doing alla prima, but it applies to studio painting too.

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Monday Motivator: Black Isn’t For Beginners

Monday Motivator Motivation Quote“…black is a color that is best used after having some experience.”
Brad Teare, Black is a Color

“Not yet” rather than “never” I think should be the rule with black.

It all too easily gets used for shadow where other colours will be more interesting. It all too easily gets used to mix darker colours ending in dulls colours.

As a beginner, if you think you want black, try a dark blue or purple instead. After that, a chromatic black (the darkest mix you can make with blue/green/red/anything but single pigment black).

When you’ve quite a few miles under your brushes, then add black. As a colour, not as an agent of darkness. And start exploring black as an alternative blue to mix with yellow for green.

How to Avoid Cauliflower (the watercolour variety, not the vegetable)

Blooms, washbacks, backflow, cauliflowers … whatever you call it when you’re painting wet-into-wet watercolour and the colour you just applied pushes out the one already down, rather than making friends and sitting with it. There’s one rule to avoiding it (or to use if you deliberately want to get this result, much as watercolour purists might shudder at the thought). In the words of that skilled Australian watercolourist John Lovett:

If you are painting a soft edge into a wet wash, make sure there is more pigment in the color you are applying than is in the underlying wash or obvious blooms will be created.”
Source: John Lovett, Watercolour Edges


So how do you know whether you’ve got more pigment or not? Like everything, practice. It starts by deliberately considering it, and eventually it becomes ingrained knowledge, instinctive. If in doubt, add more pigment (“thick paint”). Or pull some of the water from the brush hairs by holding a piece of paper towel to the ferrule end of the hairs, a tip the artist Katie Lee taught me.

Imagine a Fly (a tip about drawing dark and light lines)

Hairy Caterpillar

“Imagine a fly walking on a surface. If the fly walked across a line and disappeared by going around a corner, then that line should be heavy. If the fly walked across a line which marked a change in material in the same plane then it should be light.”
Brian Ramsey, “Trade Secrets”

Or if flies give you the heebie-jeebies, perhaps imagine an ant.

Or a caterpillar, though not a very hungry one like Eric Carle’s.

Hairy Caterpillar

The Rule of Odds

Monsieur P big pencil

Monsieur P big pencilThe Rule of Odds in art runs along the lines of “whatever odd thing you do, people will put it down to your being arty”.

No, wait, that’s the Rule of Oddbods.

The Rule of Odds in art is that a composition will be more dynamic if there’s an odd number of elements in the composition, say three or seven, rather than an even number, say two or six. The reasoning is that having an odd number  means your brain can’t pair them up or group them as easily, that there’s somehow always one thing left over, which keeps your eyes moving across the composition.

Why do we pair things up naturally? Perhaps it’s because our body is designed in pairs: two eyes, two ears, two hands, two feet, and so on. (Okay, only one nose, but it’s got two nostrils!) Whether we’re painting apples, apple trees, or apple-eating creatures (aka still-life, landscape, or figures), the same Rule of Odds applies.

Take a look at the brushes in the jar in these two versions of a painting.

Rule of odds and evens in art

If I asked you to count the brushes in the left-hand photo, you’d likely be able to do so quickly — once glance and you’ve taken it all in. Whereas in the right-hand version you’d have to spend a little more time and you may, ultimately, be uncertain because some brushes are hidden behind others — you’re spending longer looking and engaging with the composition.

It’s the Rule of Odds in action. That I painted this scene at all, well that’s the Rule of Oddbods.

The 5 Stages of Making a Painting

5 Stages of Making a Painting

While I think it’s nearly impossible to answer to the question “How long does it take to make a painting”, I do believe there are five definite stages every painting goes through as I’m making it. Not every painting or drawing spends equal time at each stage, and some never get all the way through. I divide it as follows:

Stage 1. Anything is Possible
Stage 2. So Far So Good
Stage 3. The Ugly Stage
Stage 4. Don’t Mess It Up
Stage 5. Are We There Yet?

1. Anything is Possible
The very first step is simultaneously stimulating and intimidating. That moment you overcome the fear of a blank canvas, your hesitation to make that first mark, and start translating the image in your mind into paint. At this stage, anything and everything is possible, and it’s up to you to decide which steps to take. It’s about narrowing down the options, choosing from all the possibilities, and stepping boldly onto the path even though you’re not entirely sure where it’ll lead.

2: So Far So Good
Once you’ve made a start (whether it’s by blocking-in colours as I like to do or working on establishing shapes or whichever of the approaches for creating a painting you prefer) you quickly get a feel for whether the foundation for the painting you’ve in your mind’s eye has been laid, or not. So far so good… though exactly how far this is varies for each of us.

3: The Ugly Stage
At some point, nearly every painting takes a turn for the worst, you doubt what you’ve done, and wonder whether it will turn out okay or if you’ve ruined it. Accept it, keep going, and don’t give up yet. It can be ever so tempting to throw your brushes down in despair at the mess you’ve made, but it’s only by continuing, pushing on and through this, that you develop your artistic skills and persistence. I might not do it until tomorrow when I’ve a little emotional distance from it, but I’ve learnt that “doing something dramatic” can lead to a better and unexpected result (though there’s no guarantee).

4: Don’t Mess It Up
For me, this is the most stressful stage of a painting’s creation. Where lots of things are working well,but there’s still some way to go to bring all aspects of the painting to the same level. The potential for ruining it looms overhead, intimidating me into hesitation. I start second-guessing myself, my colours, the brushwork, and can end up desperately trying to preserve “the good bits” while “fixing the rest”. The solution is to either stop completely (which if you do every time means you’ll never finish a painting!) or to be bold. Trust in your ability, in what you’ve learnt and your experience, that you’re not a one-trick pony, and keep going. Don’t try to protect bits, but try to paint? as if there were no “good bits” to protect.

5: Are We There Yet?
Deciding whether a painting is finished or not can be tricky, but it’s always better to stop too early than too late. Come back to it tomorrow with fresh eyes and decide if you still think it needs that tweak. I try (note: try, I don’t always succeed) to stop when I find myself fiddling, thinking “I’ll just quickly” or “this little bit” and to continue only if I’ve something definite, decisive in mind. If you’re uncertain, it’s time to stop and put down the brush for now. Sometimes it’s very obvious when I get back to a painting what needs to be done, sometimes it’s still not clear, and on rare occasions I can’t think what I thought might still need doing and like it as it already is.

5 Stages of Making a Painting
The 5 Stages of Making a Painting: This painting was to be one in my sheep series, an early spring-inspired landscape background with some large sheep dominating the composition. I started with some pink-red as a ground, roughly brushed in something for the sky, and deciding where the sheep will go and how big they’ll be on the 100x100cm canvas. So far so good…

Further Reading:

Sun & Moon Reflections Don’t Do the Railway Lines Perspective Thing

You know that perspective rule with the railway lines, where they get further and further apart as they come towards you? Usually stated as the lines getting closer and closer together as they recede into the distance, meeting at a vanishing point on the horizon?
Perspective in train track

Well, it’s not true for the reflection of the sun or moon in sea.*

So please stop painting reflections getting wider and wider in a neat band as it comes towards you, because it doesn’t follow that perspective rule. The distances are too great. Movement in the water, ripples and cross currents, can also have an impact on how the reflection appears.

This photo might seem to prove this:

Sunset over the Minch.

But it’s more complicated than that because, when I took the photo, nature was playing optical illusions. The sun is in fact still fairly high above the horizon, hidden by cloud, and what’s reflected in the sea is both the sun and the band of light coming towards you (not getting wider).

*Same is true for reflections of trees, and shadows cast by sunlight and moonlight. Though your camera will lie to you and show it otherwise if it’s set on any kind of wide angle.

Sketching the river at Uig, Isle of Skye
Reflections, ripples, autumnal colours…

Transparent vs Opaque Colours in Oils and Acrylics

Pigments Transparent vs Opaque

A misunderstanding I regularly encounter in workshops is what is meant by “transparent” in a paint colour. It seems to come from conflating “see-through” and “colourless” into “transparent”.

We can see through some things that have colour. Think of stained glass or coloured cellophane or sunglasses. You see through it, though it adds colour to what’s behind it, changes the colours of things seen through it. Normal window glass is colourless; stained glass is transparent (to varying degrees, but that’s a digression).

If you’ve done a workshop with me, you’ve probably seen this “visual aid”. One day I’ll create a neater, textbook version!

At the bottom right of that sheet is a black line with opaque, semi-opaque, and transparent colours painted over it.

Pigments Transparent vs Opaque

How opaque or transparent a pigment is depends on the inherent properties of a pigment, but also how thickly you use it. Red iron oxide is one of the most opaque pigments there is, even more than titanium white. It obliterates whatever’s beneath it.

Figuring out which colours are which is best done by creating a chart of your own. Yes, many tube labels give an indication, but you can’t beat trying it for yourself, straight from the tube and thinned somewhat, as well as adding white to transparent pigments to shift their opacity.

It’s an excuse to get out every tube of paint you’ve got and say hello to it. Neatly in a grid or not, that’s a potential procrastination. Just put brush into paint onto paper and save neatly for another day.

Also: Transparent Watercolour Doesn’t Mean Colourless Paint

My Top Painting Tips: Head Away From an Edge

My Top Painting Tips: Brush Away From an Edge

If you’re wanting to paint neatly up to an edge, say the side of a vase or tree trunk, painting away from that edge or imaginary line rather than towards it is easier. You position the brush at the exactly the right point when you start, then move the brush away from the edge. If you’re painting towards it, you have to decide when it’s time to stop. Lift the brush too early and there’s a gap; leave it too late and you go over the edge.

This short video demo was done with a flat brush and watercolour, but it applies to all brush shapes:

My Top Painting Tips: Brush Away From an Edge