Lessons from Shelby Thayne’s Layered Mountains

One of the first watercolor classes I ever took was Shelby Thayne’s “Night Skies” class, back in April 2021. Recently I took her “Layered Mountains” class, and it feels like I’ve come full circle. 

It’s a funny story how I found Shelby. It was early 2021, at that point in the pandemic when everyone was worried about the toilet paper supply chain, and while anxiety-researching toilet paper alternatives I stumbled on Kula Cloth, a small woman-owned company in Washington State that makes pee cloths for backpacking. This is a great product because it levels the playing field for women and other hikers with vulvas, giving them the freedom to take longer hikes in more backwoods places with no bathroom that maybe didn’t seem accessible before, as well as encouraging openness and pride even in body functions by decorating the cloths with bright, bold, and beautiful designs from independent artists. Shelby Thayne was the artist of one of my favorite designs, Golden Hour (and my fave Claire Giordano was another, with the dreamy Mount Hood Alpenglow! I now have both of these paintings as prints – luckily I didn’t end up needing pee cloths.) 

Shelby’s paintings are deceptively simple; most feature loose layered mountains in bold, exciting colors. Based on the Teton Mountains in her current state of Idaho and the Cascades in her home state of Washington, they also remind me of the Great Smoky mountains and misty Blue Ridge mountains here on the East Coast. I’ve long loved photography and artwork of sunrise over mountains, the more colorful the better, and Shelby’s art just spoke to me.

In addition to selling pee cloths, Kula runs Kula Academy, a platform of eclectic social and educational opportunities for its customer base of mostly outdoorsy women. This includes art classes. Shortly after admiring her Kula Cloth design, I learned that Shelby was going to be teaching a “Night Skies” class. While I initially had wanted to learn how to do the layered mountains in “Golden Hour” and many of her other pieces, I was also curious about night skies, and that was the class that was being offered, so I took it!

Most of Shelby’s classes are aimed at beginners and included my introduction to some of the very basic concepts of watercolor, including wet-on-wet vs wet-on-dry and making gradients. I also made some night skies that I really liked. 

One approachable thing about Shelby was that she had only been watercoloring for a year and a half herself, so her art style felt attainable in addition to being beautiful, and she still remembered what it was like to be starting out. 

Now here I am eighteen months later, roughly at the same point on my watercolor timeline that Shelby was on hers in my first class, and I finally got around to taking Layered Mountains! At this point I could probably have figured out how to do them by examining the pieces, but it was still really cool to be able to have Shelby’s guidance and the benefit of her additional year-and-a-half of wisdom and teaching experience. I no longer need to learn what wet-on-wet is, etc., but I still find a ton of benefit from going over the basics again and filling in things I may have missed or forgotten. 

Here are some lessons I don’t want to forget.

Start small.

If a large piece of paper intimidates you, just cut it up and go smaller. This was especially helpful for me in my first class, when I made 4”x4” square paintings. This time, I worked a bit bigger than recommended, because I have more confidence in my water control, but this is a piece of advice I use often if I’m experiencing Fear of the Blank Page. Cut that page in half and it doesn’t seem so scary.

Hold your brush at the back for looser, more organic strokes.

When painting loose landscape elements like ridgelines and trees, you want to add some randomness. Choking up on your brush to give yourself more control can be counterproductive. Don’t hold your brush like a pencil, hold it behind the thick part of the handle, closer to the back.

Paint from the tube for more vibrant colors.

I actually did paint from the tube for my first class with Shelby (in part because I did not yet own a palette), but over the last 1.5 years I’ve gotten really used to painting from dried tube paint in my palette. This is a really handy way to travel, but I do most of my painting at home where it’s not necessary, so I’m wondering why I don’t paint from the tube more! (That said, I did the pieces above with dried paint – you can still get vibrant colors!)

Bring washes all the way to the bottom of the page.

In both the sky background and each layer of mountains, Shelby demonstrated bringing the wash all the way to the bottom of page, beyond the point where the paint had run clear. 

I can confirm that no matter how far down from your initial gradient you think you’ve gone, as it dries, the paint will find its way wherever the water is, and form a harsh line wherever you stopped painting.

Keep going.

Shelby works from the top of the page down (or the top of the mountain down) in each layer, and she encouraged us to keep moving downward and not turn around to go back up to parts we’d already painted. As soon as a part of the painting has even begun to dry, messing with it is a bad idea.

You can work on fixing any problem areas or adding a second layer when it’s fully dry. But no good can come from working a semi-dry wash. Work fast while the paint is still totally wet and shiny, then let it be. 

Wait for your layer to dry completely before adding another layer.

Layered mountains require meticulous, patient application of one layer at a time, so patience is the most important quality you can bring to the process (and the #1 reason my layered mountains don’t come out!) The good news is that each layer isn’t really very difficult to do, so as long as you can manage to be 100% sure your paper is dry before beginning the next layer you’re golden. (We only got to three layers in class, but Shelby’s paintings can have lots more.) 

Drying time can be sped up with a heat tool (such as a hair dryer or embossing heat gun), but a tip I hadn’t learned before was that you should wait for the paper not to be shiny anymore before using it, so it doesn’t cause blooms in the wet paint.

Whether or not you’re using a heat tool, here are some tips to see if you paper is dry yet:

  • The paint is matte
  • The paper has stopped curling: Often paper buckles when the page is actively wet, but flattens again when the page is dry.
  • The paper is room temperature (cool to the touch = still wet)

Look for opportunities to color-shift.

I had noticed that Shelby’s mountain layers often gently grade from one color to another (e.g. pinkish to pinkish-purple to purple to purplish-blue), an effect which she gets by gradually shifting color mixes with each layer. For example, she might paint the back layer in Quin Rose, the next layer in Quin Rose with a bit of Cobalt mixed in, the next layer with a bit more Cobalt mixed in, and so on. 

One thing I hadn’t noticed until she pointed it out was that her foreground trees also contain color shifts. She will generally use the same colors as the mountains, but continue to slightly shift the color from tree to tree (for example, some trees might be more blue and some might have more purple in them). This is such a subtle thing but it adds a lot of complexity and interest. 

I added tree layers to my “Golden Hour” knock-off the day after class and forgot to do this, which is why I think they look a bit flat. 

Work on clipboards to have several projects going at once.

This was a game-changer for me the first time I took Shelby’s class and remains one of my favorite ways to work, that I’ve never seen advised anywhere else! This is an especially good fit for layered mountains because working on another painting gives you something to do while your layers are drying.

Skill comes down to miles on the paintbrush.

Practice, practice, practice. There’s no quick secret to perfect paintings. 

Conclusion

Something wonderful about Shelby is how clearly she had a voice so early in her painting career. She is still painting wonderful layered mountain pieces similar to the ones I fell in love with in 2021, when she was 18 months into watercolor. 18 months in myself, I feel like I’m still working on figuring out my voice, and what I like to paint. I’m glad I now know how to make Shelby-style layered mountains since I like them so much, but I think they may take more patience than comes naturally to me. But the vibrance of the color is definitely a good match for my personality. 

But there is definitely something to be said for still figuring out my voice and still having a “beginner mindset,” where everything seems possible and nothing locked down. To that end, I am glad that I still have the capacity to be awed and challenged and changed by a class for beginners.

In particular, this class made me think about changing things up by incorporating more tube paint and more loose strokes into my work. For the class, I used a dagger brush, and it definitely enabled me to be a bit more loosey-goosey and random, if only because I don’t know what I’m doing – so that’s another area to explore further!

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