The Process of Painting Sunset Canyon

Today, I am revealing my process in creating the sunset canyon painting.  This painting was inspired by a trip my wife and I took to the Snake River canyon near Twin Falls Idaho.  The majestic cliffs and the large river cutting through them seemed like the perfect subject matter for a painting.

Sketching phase

As I quite often do, I began this painting with a series of sketches.  These are done quickly and are done in a very loose style in order to get down general shapes and composition.  I decided on the one I liked the most and then continued the process by painting in more detailed greyscale silhouettes.  Once I was finally happy with the overall shapes of the silhouettes, I quickly painted in a backdrop, which works as a sort of place holder for my idea of what I eventually want the sky to look like.  I do this mainly because I don’t like working on a solid black or white background.  Here it is as that point:

The sky and river base

What follows next in my painting process varies from painting to painting.  In this case, I knew that I wanted to have a striking sunset.  So, I had to get the colors in the sky worked out early on, as I knew it would effect the rest of my painting.  I also didn’t like the feeling of my silhouettes floating over nothing so I painted in a base color for the river that would be flowing through the canyon.

Painting in the shapes

Next, I began the real grunt work of carving out the shapes of the cliff faces with different colors.  Since I began with dark silhouettes I started painting with my midtone colors.  Once I had the general idea of the forms I blended in the highlights and shadows.  I worked hard to not get drawn into getting too detailed in any one place because I knew that I was going to make a main focus later on and wouldn’t want to distract from that.  Once I was done with the process of painting the cliffs, I painted in the sun and some more specific lighting details to really ground the lighting in the painting.

The process for the river and atmosphere

At this point, I moved onto the river surface.  Making waves and ripples in water is a time consuming, sometimes frustrating, but also meditative process.  I really love working with water in art and have since I started working with environments back in 1995 although back then I was working with computer animation.  The colors I chose for the water are probably a little more teal colored than would be realistic but, for me, one of the reasons I prefer painting over something like photography is that I can push and even cross over the boundaries of reality.  If the colors speak to me, those are the ones I want to use.  For the final stage of this process I took a very large brush and worked in some atmosphere and glow.  This really pushes that sunset aspect of the painting, giving the mid and backgrounds a haze of mystery and possibility, while also making the foreground elements pop which will be especially important in the next and final phase.

Finishing the details

Finally, it comes down to the details.  Clouds, more haze, reflections and shading on the water, grounding the painting into reality.  Then I finally add the two action elements.  I wanted to leave their details vague.  Are they jets or spacecraft?  Are they fighting, racing, training, something else?  That’s all up for the viewer to decide.

In the end, I love the contrasting warm and cool colors in this work.  I like the action racing into the bright, hazy sunset.  I hope you do too.  If you would like to own a print of this painting for your living space or think it would be the perfect gift for someone, it is available for purchase in a variety of formats in the store here or you can click on the store button in the menu at the top of this site.

Thank you for reading and as always, please comment, like, and share with your friends.

Michael Simpson