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How To Paint Better Landscapes: 7 Tips

Updated on September 10, 2016
Robie Benve profile image

Robie is an artist who believes in the power of positive thinking. She loves sharing art tips and bringing people joy through her paintings.

Tips on How to Paint a Landscape - Background artwork: View of Saint-Mammès, by Alfred Sisley, 1839-1899.
Tips on How to Paint a Landscape - Background artwork: View of Saint-Mammès, by Alfred Sisley, 1839-1899. | Source

Every Painting I Do Teaches Me Lots

In my life I have painted many landscapes, several 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 expression 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 is represented by the sky. The sky is the lightest light in the painting.
  • Horizontal. Second lightest is flat ground and horizontal surfaces, because they reflect 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 reflection of the sky’s light is limited.

Values in Landscape Painting: Lightest to Darkest
Values in Landscape Painting: Lightest to Darkest | Source

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 light of the sun does not make things only lighter, it makes them yellower too.

So to show that a patch of grass is in sunlight, the color needs to be 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.

In 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.

Claude Monet excelled at painting light.  In "Poplars at the Epte" the blue of the sky is reflected and included throughout the painting resulting in a very pleasant and fresh color combination.
Claude Monet excelled at painting light. In "Poplars at the Epte" the blue of the sky is reflected and included throughout the painting resulting in a very pleasant and fresh color combination. | Source

3. Atmospheric Perspective Influences Both Colors and Values

In the landscape some objects are pretty far, and the amount of air, of atmosphere between us and the object can be huge.

The air has humidity and floating particles in it, and they create a filter that influences 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 closer to you are crisper and darker, those closer to the horizon are grayer and lighter. This effect is called atmospheric perspective.

Here the effect of atmospheric perspective on the trees and hills farther away is clearly visible. View in Marostica, Italy.
Here the effect of atmospheric perspective on the trees and hills farther away is clearly visible. View in Marostica, Italy. | Source

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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.

Me and a one of my landscape paintings. Here I semplified quite a bit. There was a building in the background, the fence was intricate, and the trees were distributed differently.
Me and a one of my landscape paintings. Here I semplified quite a bit. There was a building in the background, the fence was intricate, and the trees were distributed differently. | Source

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.

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 making 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 all image.

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7. Vary Your Greens

In nature there are so many greens!

Green paint from a tube will never get even close to fulfill 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 on the painting.

Listen to the "Mixing Greens" article in the video on the right: 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 arrangements of hues.


A Read Out of a Very Interesting Article on "Mixing Greens" in Landscape Painting

Patches of Light, oil painting  - all rights reserved ©RobieBenve
Patches of Light, oil painting - all rights reserved ©RobieBenve | Source

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.

Keep painting.

Enjoy every step of it.

Learn from your mistakes.

Paint some more.

Have fun! : )

© 2015 Robie Benve

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    • profile image

      Kaywalsh 7 weeks ago

      Thank you for great tips finding it hard to paint landscapes.

    • profile image

      Gillian 9 months ago

      Loved this post. Thank you Robie

    • Robie Benve profile image
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      Robie Benve 23 months ago from Ohio

      How Dolores, knowing that reading my hubs may have inspired you to make some art makes me very happy! :) Thanks a lot for stopping by and taking the time to let me know. Happy Painting!

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 23 months ago from East Coast, United States

      How inspiring! I used to paint landscapes on salvaged wooden panels but have not done so for a couple of years. I miss it so! I am going to read more of your hubs to fuel myself. I love your paintings!

    • Robie Benve profile image
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      Robie Benve 2 years ago from Ohio

      Discovering the effect of the color of light on everything present in the picture was a big eye opener for me too Amanda6868, one of those ahah moments. Not only it makes a lot of sense, it has also helped me immensely rendering more harmonious paintings.

      Thanks a lot for your comment and vote! :)

    • Amanda6868 profile image

      Amanda M 2 years ago from Unknown

      I never thought about the color of light! Great hub and voted up!

    • Robie Benve profile image
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      Robie Benve 2 years ago from Ohio

      I hear you, CherylsArt, way too cold for me too for plein air right now. I admire those than can paint winter scenes on location, but I rather wait for spring. :)

    • CherylsArt profile image

      Cheryl Paton 2 years ago from West Virginia

      Robie, thanks for the extra tip. I'll be looking forward to doing that in the spring.

    • Robie Benve profile image
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      Robie Benve 2 years ago from Ohio

      Hi CherylIsArt, a good way to get the taste for painting on location is to paint in your own back or front yard. You are close to home if you need any supplies, yet exposed to the ever-changing and exciting outdoor conditions. :) Thanks for your feedback!

    • CherylsArt profile image

      Cheryl Paton 2 years ago from West Virginia

      I like the idea of painting a scene while being there. Thanks for your tips.

    • Robie Benve profile image
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      Robie Benve 2 years ago from Ohio

      Hi BlossomSB, I like to change media too, though my favorites are oils and acrylics. The important thing is we do what we enjoy! :)

      Thanks for your comment!

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      Robie Benve 2 years ago from Ohio

      Hi MHiggings! Sketching is a wonderful way to keep the artistic skills fresh. I often think I need to find more opportunities to sketch. :) Thanks a lot for your nice comment and vote!

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      Robie Benve 2 years ago from Ohio

      Hi heidithorne, 2015 sounds like a great year to start painting, hope you'll have fun with it, and I'd like to think I may have a little to do with getting you inspired! :)

      Thanks for stopping by and your lovely comment!

    • BlossomSB profile image

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 2 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      Thanks for an interesting hub. You had some useful information and the examples were interesting, too. I like to use a variety of media at different times as I think it adds to the fun.

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      Robie Benve 2 years ago from Ohio

      Hi Dbro, you are absolutely right: moving objects can be tricky if the lightning is not consistent! I will add a note about that in the hub. Thanks a lot for your feedback and your kindness. :) Happy painting!

    • MHiggins profile image

      Michael Higgins 2 years ago from Michigan

      Very nice hub, Robie. I used to do some sketch art but never got in to colors. You do very nice work both in your painting and your writing. Thanks for sharing your talent! Voted up.

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      Robie Benve 2 years ago from Ohio

      I'm very happy you find my hub useful and helpful, Chitrangada Sharan! Thanks a lot for your kind feedback! And happy painting! :)

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      What lovely work! This is something I've always wanted to do. Maybe something to try in the New Year. Thanks for sharing the tips and beauty with us!

    • Dbro profile image

      Dbro 2 years ago from Texas, USA

      Great hub, Robie! I think all of your advice is spot on for landscape painters. One word of warning though about moving objects within the landscape. Make sure the lighting on the objects stays consistent. For example, a tree in one place will cast a shadow in a certain direction. Make certain that if you move that tree, the shadow remains consistent with the other shadows portrayed in the painting, and not necessarily the same direction it was in its original position.

      I don't usually paint landscapes, but I have a great appreciation of them when they are done well. The examples you provide in this article are beautiful. Thanks so much for this well-written and informative article!

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 2 years ago from New Delhi, India

      Very useful and helpful tips for painting landscapes. You have mentioned some very important points here which will help those who like painting landscapes.

      I enjoy oil painting and have done many portraits and landscapes too.

      Well done and well presented hub! Voted up!