The Snowdon Horseshoe

I’ve been struggling in recent weeks with my painting, and it’s the old story of being too busy doing other things so that I’ve felt I’ve had to make myself sit down and paint (never a good way to generate quality output). The net effect of this is that I’ve tended to rush things and unsurprisingly been unhappy with the results.

It’s not helped that following the completion of the Cley Mill project, which our class all achieved within about half a lesson of each other, we moved onto a round of individual projects, choosing our own images to paint. This seems to have exacerbated the differences between the fast and good artists (who annoyingly seem to come under both of these headings) and those of us sat at the back of the class scratching our heads and barely able to decide what picture to paint, before the fast and good have finished. Our tutor then rolled out a series of tree and rock exercises to stall the class stars while us laggards caught up.

In my case this whole process has yielded no pictures that I’m remotely happy with, and it’s become a familiar phrase: “I think I’ll just look at this as an exercise in……” Doing my homework at the last minute has clearly also been a disaster.

Imagine my joy when I turned up at class last week to learn that it was time to do mountains. Of course I’d known it was coming. Our tutor had mentioned it, I suspect to try to keep me awake at the back of the class. She’d taken away a good number of my mountain photos and had also had a look at my Flickr photos from my recent weekend in Snowdonia. So I think there’s soon going to be the added pressure of the class all painting one of my own photos.

In class last week we were presented with the top part of a picture that was simply a line of mountains covered in snow with a line of trees below. The key to this one not in what was painted, but rather what was left unpainted, and the main skill exercised was that of masking the snowy areas. Interestingly the fast and good people seemed to be uncomfortable with the techniques being taught, not liking the “mask it and then paint across it in one go” approach.

Cheered that the playing field seemed to have been levelled, I masked up, slapped an ultramarine and raw umber mix with a touch of alizarin crimson across the paper, and left it to dry while I moved onto the tricky subject of mixing up suitable greens for the trees.

Me and trees don’t get along, but recently we’ve reached the beginnings of an understanding. They’ve promised not to deliberately sabotage my attempts as long as I keep my trees vague and indistinct and don’t try to make them look like particular species. So all of my trees tend to look a bit blobby. Here’s what I ended up with.

An exercise completed at last

An exercise completed at last

Whilst far from perfect, I left class at least satisfied that I’d finished something. I then did something unusual for me, at least in recent weeks – I got my painting stuff out that afternoon at home, rather than wait for the day before the next class. With no specific homework set, I leafed through my various books on landscape painting and found this picture of the Snowdon Horseshoe in one of my David Bellamy books.

Snowdon Range from llyn Mymbyr near Capel Curig

Snowdon Range from Llyn Mymbyr near Capel Curig

So I set about having a go. My first sketch came out alright, although it’s difficult to see as I tried to keep the pencil lines light.

The basic sketch

The basic sketch

I mixed up some paint and slapped it on:

  • a patch of yellow in the middle of the sky to indicate some sun somewhere behind the dark clouds,
  • another patch of yellow behind the leftmost mountain (which if anyone’s interested is Y Lliwedd) to illuminate it and also help it stand out,
  • a mix of ultramarine, tainted with some raw umber and a good dose of purple lake. I made a couple of versions of this wash – one lighter and one darker – and stuck the lighter on first over most of the sky area,
  • I then introduced the darker sky wash sweeping down from top left to lay over the top of Snowdon itself,
  • Finally I put in a bit of crimson for the edges of the purple patch.
Doing the sky

Doing the sky

Leaving this lot to dry, I then came back and tidied it up, getting rid of any hard lines I’d missed and softening the transition from the big purple patch of sky to the rest.

Now it was time for the difficult bit – making the mountains themselves look convincing. Having forgotten to mask the snow areas before starting, I made sure I did it now. Then an ultramarine and raw umber mix with just a touch of purple was used for the main slopes of Y Lliwedd and the parts of Snowdon and Crib Goch below the snowline. A darker mix of the same colours enhanced with a bit of good old payne’s gray was used to bring out the rocky parts showing above the snow. Having walked all of these mountains, I had a good idea what I was trying to indicate.

The main difficulty was getting the boundary between the cloud and the mountain right, and it took a few attempts at rewashing first one then the other until it got to a point that I decided to stop. Not because I’d got it right, but more because I realised it wasn’t going to get any better. I’m starting to learn about knowing when to quit.

The same colours, in different proportions were used for the middle and foreground terrain, and some dry brush work using the sky mix was painted into the lake to suggest a reflection on trees, clouds and mountains.

Now it came to the hard bit. The usual battle to get the trees looking like trees, or at least vaguely, and to get an acceptable variation of tones between them to add interest. I don’t think I quite pulled this off, but I knew when I was flogging a dead horse.

The rocks in the foreground were done last using the technique learnt in class a couple of weeks ago. A mix of burnt umber with bits of yellow and crimson was put on wet in wet and then selectively scraped off with a palette knife. I wasn’t happy with what I got, so then went over it again with paint, adding definition to the darker parts of the rocks and the shadows between them. Again I knew when it wasn’t worth going any further.

I left it to dry, then had one final round of touching up and softening edges, then put it aside as complete – or as complete as it would ever get with me as the artist. Here’s the finished product:

The finished picture

The finished picture


Ok, it’s not going to win any prizes, but given the few weeks I’ve had, I’m happy with what I’ve got and it is recognizable in comparison with the original picture I was working from. I think I could have made a better job of Y Lliwedd but really struggled to make it look like the separate tops that it really is. Also I’ve had big problems in the past with mountains overlapping and in front of other mountains, and in particular at defining hollows and cwms. I’d done a little better than usual, so whilst Mr Bellamy isn’t under any competitive threat from me, I still feel like I’m moving forward. None of the mountain pictures I’ve attempted in the past have come out with a composition working as well as this one has, so that’s another positive.

I think it’s now mainly a matter of much more practice – especially on rocks, mountain shapes and, of course, trees.

With our tutor having dropped hints as to which of my photos is coming up next, I thought I’d try to preempt that lesson and have a go up front. The picture of Carnedd Llewelyn seen across the outcrop of Craig yr Ysfa from Pen yr Helgi Du gives plenty of opportunity to practice shapes and textures of mountain features. Hopefully, even if I cock it up, I’ll take enough knowledge from the first attempt into the class to help make a success of it then.

Onwards and upwards.


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