Everdon Stubbs, oil on canvas, (30x30cm)

Martin Taylor explains how to explore the colours of spring in oils as he paints a bluebell woodland scene en plein air.

Top advice for painting bluebells en plein air

In the middle of May I make my annual trip to paint bluebells en plein air. It is a challenge to depict a visual experience such as this and a pleasure to work with colour. The changing light, the wind and differences in temperature from hot to very cool all have a profound effect on the work experience and can be part of the joy, too.

When working directly in front of your subject there is a connection, or even a kind of communion, which is very satisfying and cannot be achieved by working from a flat photograph. The camera is, however, a useful tool and a well-taken photograph can be a very helpful resource when back home or in the studio.

When the bluebells are in full bloom it can be difficult to find a place to set up, as everywhere you look can be a possible painting. I have considered some abstract ideas where there is no focal point, but for this demonstration I included a pathway, which provides focus.

Colour mixing for a spring woodland scene

Light in the Woods, oil on canvas, (20x25cm)

The mixing of greens is, for me, one of the pure joys of painting landscape.

I avoid viridian – it’s a wonderful colour in it’s own right but I just do not see this colour in nature. With lemon and cadmium yellow, cerulean, French ultramarine and Prussian blue you have everything you need to mix most shades of green. The addition of yellow ochre, Vandyke brown and burnt sienna will make the greens earthy and natural. Black and lemon yellow makes a good olive green.

In mid-May, the first flush of new leaves on the trees is often much lighter and more yellow than the green of full mature leaves of late summer. I therefore find myself using a great deal more of the lemon yellow mixed with white to give it some body

The actual colour of the bluebells is very elusive. Blue they certainly are, but which blue? French ultramarine is a good base blue and, when directly mixed with white, it’s close to the general colour. There is a sometimes a tendency towards purple, in which case the addition of some Winsor violet is good, as well as giving a darker tone. To achieve the lighter bluebell areas I sometimes add pure white on top of the blue on the painting. The green stalks of the bluebells have more cerulean, and I pick up the shadow with Prussian blue and black.

Painting methods

Buckland Wood, oil on canvas, (40x50cm)

It is difficult working with wet oil onto wet oil, as the colour will inevitably mix. Fine lines are also difficult to achieve in oil. It helps to tell yourself that you can go over it when it’s dry – which will take about four days. However, it is surprising how close you can get in one session. I often like there to be some evidence of sky in these ‘enclosed’ paintings – in this case the sky is a pure white.

Small dabs of pure colour will stay put if you do not move them too much. This can also give texture if you consider the brushstrokes carefully. Painting is a continual addition and correction process, backwards and forwards.

Having established the composition I start at the top left-hand corner of the painting and work in sections from left to right, until arriving at the bottom right-hand corner. When painting the bluebells you can use downward dabs of blue and white remembering each dab is a bluebell. To achieve the lighter bluebell areas sometimes add pure white on top of the blue.

I covered the whole surface in one day, which was eight hours’ work, and often have two or three canvases on the go at one time. It is possible to paint over the painting after one day but the paint is touch-dry after four days.

In this way of painting there is a moment when the whole surface is covered with paint to a certain degree of finish and it is possible to see the picture representing the whole scene. While there is still canvas showing this cannot be. Arriving at this point is significant and there will be obvious areas that will be underworked.


How to finish an oil painting

Returning to the painting after a few days, the paint was dry enough to paint over.

Once again I started at the top left-hand corner, painting light over dark, reshaping and remodelling, going back across the trees, criss-crossing branches, adding dabs of light and leaves.

The additional work of the bluebells in the very near foreground seemed endless as I focused on single stalks and flowers.

All subsequent work brings the picture to a finish. Bringing areas to a finish or that improves the painting is, of course, worth doing. It is time to stop when the work is detrimental, or you feel you have achieved your initial vision.

A finished oil painting should not be varnished properly until after six months.

Demonstration: Bluebells in Everdon Woods

Bluebells in Everdon Stubbs, oil on canvas, (25x20cm)