Painting rocks and mountains


I have finally made a decision that I need to learn how to paint. Being a VFX Supervisor I find that my communication skills sometimes lack proper English (not my first language) to better communicate and artistic idea. More often then not I find my self doing small concepts and doodles to better explain specific idea. So 4 days ago I decided to bring old memories back (I used to be a matte painter about 10 years ago, mostly working off photographs) and learn how to draw and paint. I’ve got all the necessary books, bought some videos and do my daily dose of sketching and painting.

Today I got stumbled by a fact that no matter what I do I cannot paint rocks or mountains and thought, I think, I have understanding of their geometrical structure I fail to lay them down no matter how hard I try. I see a lot of speed paints, concept art works with mountains as an environmental element and envy those artists in a good way.

Here is an example of a 15-20minute speed paint I did today that clearly shows that I cannot paint mountains.

Though, this clearly is a speed painting, I spend most of the time to paint mountains and failed completely at it. I crave for some explanation, tutorial, hint or technique that would guide me in the right direction!

Thanks in advance =)


Did you have a goal before you started this image? If so, what was it?

See, paintings need to have a purpose. If you’re just copying values and colors and shapes mindlessly, then the image will be nothing but a simple technical exercise.

You need to think about what you want to convey. Is it the texture of the rocks? The composition? The lighting? the overall ambiance? The colors? The weather? The sense of scale?

Your brushwork needs to describe the material and form of the surfaces you are depicting. If your trees and rocks and mountains and sky are all the same homogenized, vague, purposeless brushwork, then nothing ends up having any individual meaning beyond being abstract shapes on the canvas.


Never thought of it this way. Thanks for clearing this for me. Actually the purpose was to copy color values by eye while looking at the reference image. I’m trying to get sense of how to pick the right color for what I see. At some point when I got to the part where there are mountains it felt like a hit a brick wall. Painting details, scale or shape was not my goal at first, but when I wanted to go in that realm I got puzzled as I did not know how to approach it, as I don’t right now.

Of course, I could go with smaller brush and just paint in the details, however what I’m seeking is how to paint mountains with least amount of brush strokes possible. Not that I’m lazy, but I want to end up with something that is just missing detail. My main purpose as I’m self studying right now is “speed paint”. So I guess I seek a way to paint mountains in this manner…

EDIT: Found an example of what kind of detail, style I’m looking for…


I’m going to post something here that’s taken from the workshop I teach (Becoming A Better Artist–it’s linked below in my signture). This is taken from week five of the workshop, where we focus on line quality, brushwork, edges, appropriate amount of detail, textures, and how they fit into the overall context of an image. It is only a tiny fraction of the entire week’s topics, but it’ll give you a good idea of the difference between speed, economy, and expressiveness.

Speed, brush economy, and expressiveness

In the recent years, the whole “speedpainting” approach has become very popular in the concept art circle. The phenomenon started at Sijun Forums at the turn of the 21st century and was spearheaded by Craig Mullins, and has its roots in alla prima and plein air painting. It is an approach represented very well by 19th Century painters like John Singer Sargent, Joaquin Sorolla, Anders Zorn, and modern painters like Richard Schmid, Jeremy Lipking, Scott Burdick, and so on.

I want to address a misconception here about speedpainting. Do not confuse speed and brush economy with expressiveness–they are not the same thing. Although they intersect in some places, the motives and the conditions are different, thus the goal is also somewhat different. When dealing with brush economy and speed, one would try to simplify and use brushwork that describes the most with the least amount of work–that is the main point of speedpainting–to capture the overall atmosphere and important information of an image as quickly as you can, and thus needing brush economy to help with speed. The motivation is borne of time limitation. When dealing with expressiveness, speed is not a factor, and the motivation is to impart the most interesting brushstrokes possible for the image. So basically speed requires brush economy, while expressiveness does not.

The reason why many people confuse the two is because very often the amazingly expressive painters just happen to be very fast as well, because they have such mastery over their tools and techniques that they can execute brushstrokes like a master samurai warrior–fast, clear, deadly, and on target. The fact they can paint fast is the byproduct of their experience, not necessarily a motivation. Some of these master painters (for example, Richard Schmid) focus on alla prima and plein air painting, which are inherently short-session oriented, thus the factor of speed does come into play. It just happens that often economic brushwork tends to look quite expressive, which adds to further confusion. On the flip side of the coin, John Singer Sargent paints very expressively, but his motivation is not speed, and he takes far longer to complete a painting than someone like Richard Schmid. Sargent would often paint a portrait in multiple sessions, taking days, even weeks. He would complete a portion and decide he could do better and wipe the whole thing off the canvas and start over. He would freeze for a long time with the brush in hand, studying the subject and the canvas, contemplating and poised as if ready to pounce, and then in a split second execute the brushstroke with a sudden flick of his wrist so that it’s as expressive, descriptive, and daring as his talent and skill could muster.

Although upon casual glance, the results from alla prima and plein air paintings (speed painting) look very similar to expressive/impressionistic paintings, there are differences. Usually, when speed is the motivation, the brushwork tends to be a bit more chaotic and less thought out, and the overall look tends to be more raw. When expressiveness is the motivation without any speed concerns, the brushwork tends to be more refined and well thought out, resulting in a more harmonious look. But every once in a while, amazing masters like Richard Schmid can achieve both–being able to both paint very fast and with such expressive and well thought out brushwork that’s refined and spontaneous at the same time. Perhaps to reach such a goal is the dream of many artists, because when one reaches that level, it’s no longer a matter of confusing the two motivations, but having actually mastered both and melding them into one perfect result.

It is important to understand this, because many novice artists mimic the popular speedpainting look without knowing anything about why the more advanced artists paint that way, and they only mimic the brushwork with amateurish and messy brushstrokes that betray their lack of skill and knowledge. They do not understand the point is to present the most important information about an image’s content in the simplest and most economical way–it’s not to be messy and loose for the sake of faking expressiveness. And in reverse, one does not have to be speedy in order to be expressive–you can take your time and execute each brushstroke with control and elegance, as long as you really think about what each stroke is supposed to achieve when seen in the final result.

One more thing I want to point out is that achieving speed AND quality at the same time is only possible if:

  1. You know what you are doing and you know what you’re after. Most likely, you can see how the finished result should look in your head already, so you’re not constantly changing your mind as you work.

  2. Your foundational knowledge is strong and you don’t have to second guess everything–from composition, lighting, colors, anatomy/figure, to perspective, or constantly have to go dig for references (when working out of your head) because you haven’t learned enough about the world we live in and the scientific reasons for the way things look.

  3. You know the brushes you use very well, and you have learned how to customize them so you are working smart–painting in a fraction of the time with these customized brushes instead of taking much longer and still not being able to achieve a good result. (I’ll talk about this in this week’s videos.)

  4. You are well-versed in a wide range of styles and approaches of drawing and painting, and know when to apply them appropriately and effectively.


Robert! This made a lot of sense to me and opened my eyes! Guess I was asking a wrong question, and didn’t even know that what it soured like, after reading your reply, is basically “How to paint?”

I’m really considering taking you class now. Guess there is just so much that I don’t know that stops me from painting much better!!!

Thanks again for taking your time with this reply!


Spend an hour in PS today.

I have rethought my process … It is still way far from what I want, but I think it is much better.


Much better. Now you’re thinking about surface properties and deploying appropriate brushes for portraying textures and forms.

This is exactly the kind of “AHA!” moments we have all the time in the workshop. Every single week, students experience new “AHA!” moments that completely change the way they think about how they approach their work, and how they observe/analyze visual art. I’ve had students compare the experience to how Neo in The Matrix says “Whoa. I know Kungfu,” and how Daniel in The Karate Kid suddenly realize he could block attacks from all the “Wax on, wax off” Mr. Miyagi made him do. :smiley:

My workshop is very intense, and it’ll change the students from the inside out, in ways they could never have imagined (or so they tell me). It’s a big surprise for them, but in a good way. :slight_smile:


Just signed up for you class =)


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