New Works: Magical Northern Lights

30 May, 2023 2 comments Leave a comment

In my last post, Secrets to Painting Glowing Skies, I revealed three principles that helped me improve my skills in painting complex cloudy sky scenes.

In a nutshell, these strategies included colour testing prior to starting the painting, building up vivid colour gradually in many layers over many days, and adding colour quickly on wet watercolour paper for each layer.

Over the last year, I employed these principles to help 'up my game' in portraying the aurora borealis, and my latest creations are pictured in this post. (If you want more details about an individual painting, click on the image.)


In addition to this new painting strategy, a big breakthrough in painting northern lights resulted from my introduction to Holbein watercolour paints. They were awarded to me last year, as a prize in the Women in Watercolor International Juried Competition.

My first experience using these paints was in the creation of my largest watercolour ever, a 40 by 28 inch close up of dwarf yellow iris and river stone. I shared the whole story, including a time lapse video, in a recent post The Making of 'Where Garden Meets Rock'.

I am thrilled to have been introduced to Holbein paints, which are made in Japan. They have a lovely creamy consistency that makes them easy to re-hydrate and mix together, and the resulting colour combinations are clear and vivid without being garish. It was very difficult to make a dull, muddy mixture, even when combining warm and cool pigments. If you have worked with watercolour paints to any extent, you know how remarkable this attribute is.

Colour tests by Karen Richardson

Shown here are the colour tests I did on watercolour paper swatches, using Holbein yellows, blues and greens, in combination with some past favourite hues in the MaimeriBlu, Sennelier, Schmincke, Winsor & Newton, and Daniel Smith brands.  Although all the mixtures I tried looked luscious and fabulous when wet, they became dull and unattractive after drying.

It wasn't until the fifth test (shown on the right of the swatch photo) that I found a combination that stayed vivid even after drying. These brilliant greens and blues formed when I combined several layers of Holbein Permanent Yellow Light, Permanent Green, and Viridian, with Winsor Blue (Green Shade), and Daniel Smith Indanthrone Blue.

Another big step forward in my aurora borealis journey, and in all my northern landscape paintings for that matter, is that I feel I have reached the point where I can invent  imaginary scenes that contain believable lakes, rocks, and pine trees.

This was not always the case. In the early years of my art practice, I would rely on a single, perfectly-composed photo to inspire the details of shape, value, and colour in a realistic painting. Forays into imaginative work usually ended in disappointment.

Now, I often imagine the basic layout of a landscape painting, and then search through my photo archives to come up with, for instance, a few perfect pine trees for the focal area, interesting sky colours, a few lake reflection concepts, and ideas for a rocky shoreline.

I can whittle down these choices into a single scene, or create a series of paintings using the same colours but a variety of landscape elements. I might decide a painting should be a night scene with stars, or a sunny autumn morning, or I might add a soft blanket of snow.

Since I like to create the feeling of 'being there' for viewers of my landscape paintings, I also rely on my soul-deep memories from years of exploring the Canadian wilderness by kayak, ATV, snowmobile, truck, and on foot.

This imaginative way of planning and executing paintings has opened up a whole new world of artistic possibilities for me, and I can hardly wait to find out what new excitement the future brings.

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  1. Susanne Reuss November 19, 2023

    I’ve just found your website because I was looking for inspiration for how to make my watercolour cards showing northern lights more realistic. I am writing this comment, because I absolutely love your work and admire the way you are able to use watercolour!!! You captivate so many small and big elements in nature and make us appreciate them, the textures and colours of rocks, the reflections on water, the wind brushing by the branches… It is amazing! Thank you!

  2. Namaji June 14, 2023

    Thank you Karen. You are inspiring me!
    Wishing you wonderful creative travels.
    Warmly 🤗