A well-executed landscape painting can transport us to a different place, making us feel like we are there, a part of the scene. But if you are just starting with landscape painting, the prospect of accurately capturing the beauty of nature can be pretty overwhelming.
Luckily, I’ve compiled a list of tips and essential things to consider to help you paint expressive and dynamic landscapes.
1. Value is Key
Value refers to the lightness or darkness of a colour on a scale of white to black and is possibly the most critical element of creating a successful landscape painting, even more so than colour.
This is because the human eye understands what we are looking at based on value rather than colour - think of a black and white photo, for example. Even though there is no colour, your brain still knows what it is in the photo based on the patterns of light and shadow.
Proper use of value will add depth and form to your work as it creates the illusion of volume. Contrasting your values can also help you emphasise your painting’s focal point, as the human eye will be drawn into the highly contrasted areas.
Generally, the area of lightest value in your landscape painting should be the sky. The second-lightest areas will be any flat, horizontal surfaces (such as bodies of water, grassy fields, etc.), as they reflect the most light from the sky. Vertical elements, such as trees and buildings, will typically be the darkest in value, reflecting the least amount of light.
If you have trouble applying the proper values to your piece, try completing a monotone study where you paint or draw only with black, grey, and white shades. Additionally, many artists use a value scale like the one below as a visual reference when picking colours to match the values accurately.
2. Light Has a Temperature
Not only does light help us to determine the value of our landscape paintings, but it also determines the colours we will use. Before you start your painting, try to determine the quality and temperature of your light.
If your painting is a scene from a bright, sunny day, then your light will likely be warm. Colour temperature is relative to the other colours in your painting, though, so this does not mean you have to paint only with warm colours (reds, yellows, oranges).
If you are painting green grass, for example, try adding a bit of yellow or red to the areas in direct sunlight. These greens will be warmer than the greens without red mixed in, giving the illusion that they are in the light.
3. Use Atmospheric Perspective to Give Your Landscape Depth
"Atmospheric perspective" refers to the idea that objects receding into the distance lighten in value and lose colour intensity and detail. It's an excellent way to add a sense of depth and scale to your painting.
This optical illusion occurs due to a layer of dust and moisture that hangs in the air close to the Earth's surface, scattering light in all directions. To add atmospheric perspective to your paintings, try painting elements in the foreground with darker values, more saturated colours, finer details, and bolder outlines.
Try to make distant objects softer, more muted in colour, and lighter in value the further they get from the viewer. Additionally, objects receding in the distance tend to become cooler and slightly bluer in colour.
Note that the mountains closer to the foreground are more detailed and more saturated in colour than those receding towards the background.
4. Simplify Your Reference
Whether you are painting from a photo or life, don’t feel that you need to include every element of your reference. Trying to include every detail you can see will not only drive you crazy but can also lead to a painting that is too busy or has no clear focal point.
For example, if you are painting a city scene, don’t feel the need to add every single sign, stoplight, or telephone wire. Instead, your reference will be the starting point and decide what elements work in the painting and which are unnecessary.
An excellent way to achieve this is to pinpoint what elements of your reference made you want to paint the scene in the first place and try to emphasise those.
When painting this piece of Durham Cathedral, I chose to omit many elements from my reference. Instead of painting the other buildings in detail, I left them as simple dots of light. This helps to create a focal point and draw the eye immediately to the Cathedral.
5. Group Textures and Shapes
With some aspects of landscapes, such as trees or fields, it is easier to group textures and shapes rather than trying to paint every individual leaf or blade of grass. Instead, try painting general shapes that suggest trees and adding simple textures on top that look like leaves.
An excellent way to achieve different textures is to try using different paintbrushes and varying the amount of paint you use. Although you haven’t painted each leaf, your brain will still understand that they are trees and fill in the rest!
To create the trees in the foreground of this piece, I first just painted the forest as one dark mass. Later, I went back with varying shades of green and dabbed them on top to break up the shapes and suggest individual trees.
6. Give Timed Plein Air Sessions a Try
While it is okay to paint from a photo reference, most landscape artists agree that nothing beats painting from life in the great outdoors (also called “painting en plein air”).
You can get a better sense of a landscape’s essence by immersing yourself in it, but plein air painting also gives you a better understanding of the light and value in your scene. Besides, your eyes can pick up much more than a camera.
Plein air studies will also teach you to work quickly and with more confidence, as conditions such as light can suddenly change in the natural world. This means you have to act fast and make intuitive choices with your painting!
7. Do Studies Based on Artists Who Inspire You
What better way to learn than from the masters? Go to a museum and find landscape paintings by other artists that inspire you.
Try to pinpoint exactly what makes their paintings stand out to your eye and replicate it through paintings and drawings of your own. Completing landscape studies like this will teach you new techniques and improve your observation skills.
This gouache landscape study from the film “The Secret World of Arrietty” (animated by Studio Ghibli) taught me much about value!
The more time you spend painting landscapes and observing them, the more intuitive these things will become. But most importantly, remember to have fun while you are painting and enjoy the process. Remember that nature is incredibly diverse and that there is no single right way to paint it!
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