Creating mood and atmosphere

Medium: Gouache
Support: Galeria acrylic paper, 300gsm/140Ibs
Colours: phthalocyanine blue, cadmium yellow, Prussian blue, cadmium red, coeruleum blue (hue), permanent rose, titanium white, burnt sienna, lemon yellow, cobalt blue
Materials: Daler Rowney System 3 Sky Flow brushes, 2”, 1½” and 1”
Size: 49cm x 38cm (19” x 15”)


The brief for this exercise was to create a painting that conveyed mood and atmosphere.


Dumbarton Castle from Levengrove Park

Dumbarton Castle from Levengrove Park

Walking in Levengrove Park in Dumbarton I came across a more unusual view of Dumbarton Castle, looking through the trees with the castle in the background. This was about 10 o’clock on a Sunday morning and the trees, silhouetted by the sun, were creating dramatic shadows. I felt there was potential to create a slightly edgy atmosphere with the dark area under the trees and the brooding presence of the castle in the background.

For this exercise I also wanted to try and work in a looser way. I’d been reading a book by Hashim Akib called Vibrant acrylics [1] which advocates:

  • Using bold colour for the base layer to help speed up the process, as you already have a midtone. This also allows flecks of colour to show through which can unify the painting.
  • Using, larger flat brushes to keep the painting spontaneous and reduce the likelihood of fussing. The flat brushes also allow you to load on more paint making the brushstrokes more dramatic.
  • Not mixing the colours on the palette, instead loading the brush with several pure colours by dipping into successive paints on the palette.

I liked the idea of the looser, more spontaneous style and decided to try this out.


Tonal study of Dumbarton Castle

Tonal study of Dumbarton Castle

Given that I was thinking of working in this style I didn’t intend to create a large scale drawing for the painting. I did, however, work on some linear sketches and a tonal study to make me familiar with the scene and help to make decisions about the best viewpoint.

In the park I was standing on the road, with the River Leven behind me, but moved around to right and left and also climbed onto the small wall to get a different viewpoint.

Finally, I felt that the view, as seen from the road, had the most impact with the shadows of the trees leading the eye up the grass banking towards the trees and the castle beyond.

Colour study

Colour study of Dumbarton Castle

Colour study of Dumbarton Castle

To practice working in this way I did a rough colour study in my sketchbook adding an initial layer of deep purple before adding in the trees, castle and foreground. I did find it quite a different way to work and had to resist the temptation to blend the paint on occasion but, overall, I liked the effect.

Initial session

Initial blocking in of colour

Initial blocking in of colour

For the initial session I painted a layer of deep purple using a mix of permanent rose, cobalt blue and titanium white. Using a 2” flat brush, I started with the sun at the top right of the picture, loading the brush with lemon yellow, cadmium yellow and titanium white. As I moved outwards I added more cadmium yellow and a small amount of cadmium red.

For the sky to the left I used the same colours, working quickly across the paper adding phthalocyanine blue to darken the area to the left of the picture.

I marked in the trees, castle, house and the bush on the right using a mix of Prussian blue and cadmium red. A similar mix was used for the dark tones in the foreground by adding some burnt sienna. The lighter areas of the grass were blocked in using phthalocyanine blue, lemon yellow and white.

I then worked over the sky, adding white to the area around the sun and adding more phthalocyanine blue and white to tone down the orange-red areas.

Development of sky, foreground and trees

Work on sky and trees

Work on sky and trees

I was enjoying working in this way. I liked the looseness and spontaneity though, at times, I had to stop myself from starting to blend the paint too much. At this stage I was also trying to avoid using the smallest, 1″, brush recommended in the book.

I worked on the trees using coeruleum blue and cadmium red to create flashes of colour on the tree trunks. For this I used some of marks from a previous exercise Getting to know your brushes.

For the grass I used lemon yellow, white and coeruleum blue to add a bit more detail to the lighter areas. Dragging the brush across the paper created a sense of the light filtering through the trees. I then added in a broad band of colour to suggest the wall at the bottom of the picture.

I did some further work on the sky, working on the large cloud behind the castle and creating a more uniform light across the sky.

Work on sky and castle

Development of castle and foreground

Development of castle and foreground

Having looked at the sky I felt that it was a bit too fragmented. I wanted to achieve that sense of brightness behind the trees so worked over the area using lemon yellow, cadmium yellow, white and a small amount of cadmium red.

I worked a little more on the shadows of the trees adding in some pure cadmium red to create slight flashes of colour.

The wall was developed, adding in a deeper shadow at the edge to suggest more of an angle and using a wash of Prussian blue and cadmium red to darken the surface.

On the castle I added some more texture to the rock and lightened the area in the middle.

Development of trees

Development of trees

Development of trees

In this session I concentrated mainly on the trees, adding in branches using the 2” and 1½” brush. At this stage I wasn’t quite sure how to tackle this but decided to add more branches and then consider how to progress from there.

For the branches I used the tip of the brush, dabbed flat onto the paper to create a sense of the canopy of the trees.

Final session

Final version of 'Creating mood and atmosphere'

Final version of ‘Creating mood and atmosphere’

Over the next session I did more work on the trees. I wanted to suggest more detail without starting to fuss over individual branches. In the end I decided to take a purple wash over some of the branches, just enough to suggest darker areas of foliage.

I added in some other branches so that the lower limbs didn’t look so sparse. Getting a little bolder with colour I then added more lemon yellow, white and coeruleum blue to the trunks of the trees. In particular I added some pure cadmium red to the tree on the far left and lemon yellow to the branches which made them stand out much more.

I used the 1” brush to add broad strokes of cadmium yellow and cadmium red to the area of shadow to the far right. While this was deep in shadow I felt that it needed something to break it up. To balance this I took a wash of cadmium yellow over the wall to suggest sunlight filtering through the foliage.

I also used a wash of cadmium yellow over some areas of the castle to capture the light.

Finally, I added a small corner of roof to the edge of the building on the left. At this stage I decided to stop as I could feel the urge to start using smaller brushes and that was not my aim for the exercise.

Learning points

Overall I feel that I’ve managed to work in a different way and have, to a certain extent, achieved a slightly mysterious quality.

I enjoyed working with the larger brushes though I did feel that I wasn’t quite getting the impasto effect of the demonstrations in the book. Later, having read through some of the chapters again, I realised that the paints used were of the heavy body variety which could account for the less tactile effect that I achieved. I would like to try a similar exercise using this type of paint at another time.

  • Working with the larger brushes was interesting. The bristles of the 2” brush had a tendency to divide giving the effect of using either two 1” brushes (where the bristles parted in the centre) or four ½” brushes. This produced interesting effects on occasion but was frustrating at other times.
  • After a while I did get an overwhelming desire to blend the paint a bit more and start to think about using smaller brushes but managed to (just) rein those tendencies in.
  • Once I got a bit bolder and added purer colours it did make a difference to the trees and shadows on the grass.
  • I’m not sure about the smaller branches of the trees – it was a case of trying to suggest the detail without copiously adding individual branches.


[1] Akib, H. (2012) Vibrant acrylics. Tunbridge Wells: Search Press Ltd


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