Learn How to Paint Better Landscapes With These 7 Tips
Every Painting I Do Teaches Me Lots
I have painted many landscapes, many from photo reference, but as often as I can, I go out and paint en plein air (on location).
Every painting I make teaches me something, and in this article I share some of the most useful tips I have learned - usually the hard way, making mistakes and ruining some paintings - about landscape paintings.
1. Know the Value Distribution in Landscape Painting
When painting a landscape, it’s very important for a successful painting composition to create believable darks and lights.
Only with clear value definition the viewer will be able to know what is in light and what is in shade, what is darker and what is lighter. If the value is wrong our brain can pick up very quickly that something is amiss, even if we have never seen that scene before.
Value Distribution in Landscapes, in order from lightest to darkest:
- Sky. During the day, the lightest shape in the painting should be represented by the sky.
- Horizontal. Second lightest is any flat and horizontal surface because it reflects the sky almost completely.
- Slanted and Diagonal. A little darker are the inclined surfaces, like slopes and roofs.
- Upright. The darkest shapes are usually the vertical elements, like tree trunks, because the reflection of the sky’s light is limited.
Here is some more information on value and why it's more important than color for the success of the painting.
2. The Color of Light Affects the Color of Everything
On a sunny day, the light of the sun is warm and bright and makes colors warmer and more intense.
The sunlight does not only make things lighter, it makes them yellower too.
So, to show that a patch of grass is in sunlight, the color must be painted lighter and warmer.
On the same note, if the sunlight is red or blueish, every object in the scene will have some of that color reflected on it.
On overcast days all colors are duller and shifts in value are less noticeable.
Tip: Mix the color of light into everything to get the idea of a particular atmosphere and make your painting more uniform and harmonious in color.
If you are interested in learning more about the effects of light on colors and values, this other article of mine might help you.
3. Atmospheric Perspective Influences Both Colors and Values
In landscapes, some objects are very far away, therefore the amount of air, or atmosphere, between us and the objects can be huge.
Air contains humidity and floating particles, which create a filter that influences how we see the intensity and the value of colors.
The farther away things are, the grayer and lighter they get.
You can see this clearly when you drive on a highway. Bushes and trees that are closer to you are crisper and darker, those closer to the horizon are grayer and lighter. This effect is called atmospheric perspective.
Which of these famous painters inspires your work the most?
4. Include in The Painting Only What Works
Looking at a landscape, it can be quite overwhelming to choose how to crop the image to paint.
Many important decisions are taken the moment you start drawing your subject on the canvas.
- What is the focal point?
- What size canvas works well with this scene?
- Where do I place the focal point on the canvas?
- What element do I include and (even more important) what things am I leaving out?
Simplify. Eliminate distractions. It does not matter if you are painting on location or from a photo, the bottom line is that you don’t need to paint every little bush, electric pole, street sign, etc. you see.
You can even leave out entire buildings, or move them to a different area in the painting, all for the sake of a successful composition.
One of my paintings in which I edited the elements to make the composition work.
Keep the Light Consistent
When moving an object from one spot to another in a landscape, or including an element from a different photo reference, make sure the light is compatible as far as direction and color of light.
Light and shadow consistency throughout the painting is crucial.
5. Simplify Busy Elements When You Paint a Landscape
Sometimes a scene is really beautiful but it may be too busy. It’s the artist’s job to simplify.
I learned to simplify by grouping shapes together.
Connect darks together by eliminating small and unimportant lighter shapes. To maintain color variety, keep changing slightly the color mix at each brushstroke, but keep it in the same value family.
Don’t worry about details and small defining strokes until the very end. Add them only if really needed to render the object, otherwise trust the viewer’s eye to interpret the item, leave out details that are not necessary.
A good way to simplify the scene is by starting with a value sketch.
Examples of Elements that Can Be Left Out of a Painting
Not everything that is present in a scene needs to be included in a painting. Some things are a distraction to the viewer, other things are disruptive for the composition of the painting.
The idea is to create a painting that captures the viewer attention, guiding the eye throughout the composition, using lines, value contrast, and color.
Naturally, we tend to enter a painting from the lower left corner and move towards the area of highest contrast.
A bright or very light object positioned at the edge of the scene can attract the viewer’s eye and keep it there, stopping the flow of the composition.
- Bushes and trees in “wrong” positions” – feel free to move vegetation around and edit the shape to keep it interesting (i.e. avoid to make trees are all the same shape)
- Trash cans, mailboxes, buckets, etc. – Sometimes is good to include everything that makes the scene real, but if I am painting a nice park for the natural landscape it offers, I usually leave out all manmade incidental objects.
- Electric poles, street signs, parked cars, etc. – When painting a cityscape, feel free to edit out some of the non-essential elements that don’t help to make the scene recognizable, or that detract from the flow of the painting.
Landscape Painting Tutorial - step-by-step; time-lapse video with text
6. Feel Free to Change the Color of Things
In some cases, it’s OK to include everything, but some things demand to be edited in color and value.
It’s good for the focal point of a painting to have high contrast and strong definition, but other elements should play a secondary role.
Considering that our eyes are attracted by vibrant colors and high contrast, if you have a bright yellow or white object somewhere in the scene, you may get the viewer’s eyes stuck there.
Let’s say you really want to include that bright object. You can consider including the object as is, but moving it to a different location where the contrast appears less, or where it can become the point of interest.
In most cases editing the color and/or value of the disrupting object, making it attract less attention, is the way to go.
Since it is easier to paint what you see, if you are working with a reference photo, you can use a photo editing software, like Photoshop, to change the colors and contrast of object or the whole image.
How about you...
Do you modify reference photos with Photoshop or other software?
7. Vary Your Greens
There are so many greens in nature!
Green paint from a tube will never get even close to fulfilling my needs for painting landscapes.
I learned pretty early out that greens are challenging to mix, and I find much more rewarding to mix my own from the primary colors, rather than using green from the tube.
Starting with a dark and light blue (ultramarine blue and manganese blue), a light and dark yellow (lemon and cadmium deep yellow), a red, and white, you can mix all kinds of green.
Experiment and you’ll see.
Three tips on greens:
- Vary your greens a lot, even within the same vegetation.
- Hide some red in them to make them a little duller. Most greens are too intense without some red in them.
- Many times you can use gray in place of green. Mixing all three primaries together or using gray from the tube, experiment how many grays read as green once applied to the painting.
Listen to the "Mixing Greens" article in the audio-video below: it provides a lot of information about translating what you see in the landscape, structuring color and value of the painting to fit into a believable limited arrangement of hues.
A Read Out of a Very Interesting Article on "Mixing Greens" in Landscape Painting
Enjoy the Painting Process and Learn from Your Mistakes
Painting landscapes (or anything else) is a continuous learning experience.
Every painting presents different challenges and many times those challenges can become amazing opportunities for experimenting and self-improving.
It may not be in the current painting that you see the results, but the next ones will definitely benefit from the struggle and the problem solving that you went through today.
Enjoy every step of it.
Learn from your mistakes.
Paint some more.
Have fun! : )
Questions & Answers
© 2015 Robie Benve