How to Paint a Piece of Americana

Shaker Barns by Charles Sheeler, 1945, tempera on board.
Shaker Barns by Charles Sheeler, 1945, tempera on board.

When I think of the features that make up a truly American landscape, there’s one structure that always sticks out in my mind—a big, broadsided barn. They dot the countryside from coast to coast, sometimes crisply painted and cared for, other times weathered and ragged, worn out by time. They have been painted thousands of times, in oils, watercolors and as acrylic paintings, and many by well-known and skilled artists. How, then, do I find my way of painting this ubiquitous part of the American landscape?

To get to that answer, I went searching for barn paintings that I’m visually attracted to. I studied three of them to learn how each artist created the work and what painting techniques they used. One is a watercolor, one a tempera painting, and one an acrylic painting. Each shows the personal style of the artist as well as how they use techniques endemic to their chosen medium.

In Shaker Barns, Charles Sheeler visually pulls apart the barn complex and spreads it all around the composition. It looms across the entire expanse of the painting and juts into the foreground at the right. The barn has realistic details—the surface of the clapboard siding and roof shingles are highly finished, conveyed through crosshatching tempera brushstrokes—but the artist was most interested in the broad, flat planes of the structure. He gave the barn, which is usually presented with a folk-art feel, a modern cast.

Red Tree by Brenda Horowitz, acrylic painting, 10 x 12.
Red Tree by Brenda Horowitz, acrylic painting,
10 x 12.

Brenda Horowitz is an acrylic painting artist who works with bold, strong colors. When she incorporates a barn into the landscape, it has to compete for attention against things like a pink sky, blue mountains, and orange land, as in Red Tree. The artist created the barn as a broad swath of red acrylic paint with a white roof and two white lines marking a corner of the building and the edge of the roof. It is as if she is painting with a palette knife—scraping large passages of pure color across the surface.

Joseph Alleman’s paintings of barns are haunting. They are usually situated in wide open, somewhat desolate landscapes, and they seem forlorn. In Break of Dawn, the colors are muted but not muddy, and they seem to float above the surface of the paper, like a cloud of color. With watercolors you can get this by lifting out after you put down a stroke of color, but you have to be careful how you do this if you don’t want to leave marks or edges behind.

Break of Dawn by Joseph Alleman, watercolor painting, 20 x 16.
Break of Dawn by Joseph Alleman,
watercolor painting, 20 x 16.

Sheeler’s crosshatching details, Horowitz’s broad swaths of acrylic color, and Alleman’s ability to create muted hues that seem to float on the paper are all successful because each combines strong painting techniques and innovative ways of employing them. That’s what all practicing artists should strive for—the balance between knowledge and execution.

In the Acrylic Artist Favorite Things for Summer Collection, dozens of different acrylic painting techniques are discussed in detail, from color mixing to acrylic mediums and more. That knowledge can put you in command of your acrylic artwork and allow you to better understand how to create the effects you want so that when you try your hand at a barn painting or your next still life or your first portrait, you do it with confidence and a style all your own. Enjoy!


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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

14 thoughts on “How to Paint a Piece of Americana

  1. I have a watercolor painting of my neighbors barn that I would like to post here. I don’t see how I can download a jpeg. Please let me know how to download the picture.

  2. /Users/jameshead/Desktop/DSCN1425.JPG

    We all should paint barns before they become extinct. This one was painted in W/C for the fun of it. JHead

  3. To post an image, I believe you must first put it on the web (like facebook or on Yahoo then put the link in the comment here on this page. This was the only way I could do it. If anyone has another way of doing it, please let me know.

  4. Hi all,

    Yes, please include a link in your comment. Or you can add the image to the Member Gallery and link to it there. Can’t wait to see!!