How To Paint Landscapes
During this lesson you will be learning how to construct and paint a landscape painting. I've chosen to begin with painting landscapes because they allow us to utilize all the different skills we've been working on so far. Instead of using "Plein Air" techniques which are very popular today among painters wishing to capture "light" I will be teaching about the structure of the landscape and letting you know about how it works. There are a lot of varying principles which should be taken into consideration. This may seem like a lot to consider but I'm more interested in giving my students a chance to make great work as opposed to praising mediocre work. Let's first look at the steps involved and the things we are to consider when composing,drawing, and painting our landscape painting.
Finding a photograph to work from, or learning how to photograph landscapes yourself.
The first step is to find (or take) a photograph from which to work. If you want to find an image from the internet to work from then that is fine. You may want to jump to google images and use the first "cool" image you find. This is not the way to go about choosing a photograph. I would suggest looking for images in the creative commons. You can use this search engine to search the creative commons for images that you can use to create paintings from. When searching for a photo to paint from it is important to start seeing a few different elements. Take a look at the image below that I found in the creative commons from user Isamiga76 . It's a photograph of a french landscape.
It's very important to have an image that has high contrast and a clear definition between the foreground, middle ground, background, and sky. In the following photos below I've separated these different elements so you can see very clearly what I am talking about. If you are choosing to take your own landscape photos then having a definitive foreground, middle ground, and background should be one of your first considerations when taking a photo which will turn into a painting. This gives the image a sense of depth and creates clear markers for our brains to understand how the elements recede towards the horizon line.
The foreground will contain the brighest colors present in the entire painting. This is because colors lose intensity as they get farther away. This is a scientific fact based upon the amount of water vapor present in the air. You can imagine that as you look farther into the distance you're actually looking through more and more water vapor. This clouds everything and gives it a cooler greyish blue glaze. I've also taken out the cows, and have chosen to ignore the barbed wire in the foreground.
Middle ground Landscape
The Middle Ground will generally contain the darkest values present in the painting.
The background of the landscape will be lighter than the middle ground due to atmospheric perspective (stuff farther away gets a cloudy blue glaze).
Clouds are an important element of any landscape and in this photo they seem a bit bland really. If you want to paint these types of clouds you can review Lesson 15 How to Paint with Acrylics . It is here where I first spoke about hard edges vs. soft edges and when painting clouds we are essentially looking at a large mass of hard and soft edges intermingling. This is the most important consideration to take into account when painting clouds. In the photo above we can see that the clouds closest to the horizon are also the most blurry (soft edges) while the clouds closer to us at the top of the photo have a bit more contrast and harder edges.
For this painting we don't want to have some weak clouds so let's try and energize this landscape a bit. I'm going to be adding some different clouds using a free image editing program called gimp. This is a habit you should also get into. If you find a photo, don't just copy it, try and mix it up a bit to make it yours. Gimp is completely free opensource software and it works great for doing some simple editing to photos. There are also loads of tutorials all over the internet on how to use all of its different features. The good thing about painting is that you don't really have to worry about making a perfect photoshopped version of what you want to paint. It can have clunky collaging and look ridiculous, but you can always clean up any of those edges in the final painting. As you can see in the photo below. The new clouds seem to make the entire image look brighter. You wouldn't guess it but this image is quite dark overall. In the black and white version you can see the values of the colors and just how color intensity can trick you into thinking a bright color is light, in this case the bright green in the foreground is actually quite dark.
Black and white
Now that we can see the values of our colors we start to have an idea of the sort of color harmonies that are at play. One of the most memorable phrases I heard during art school was that your palette should look like an abstract version of your painting. To further visualize this I have created a value scale of the colors present in the image above. This will serve as a visual reminder as to what colors and values I need to be mixing during the painting process. If you are able to I highly recommend that you create a similar color value scale before you begin painting on your landscape.
Notice the cool and warm colors and the harmonies they create. For your white I would suggest that you never use pure white in a painting as it tends to stand out in an unrealistic manner. Your whitest white should be the light cream color which will only be used for small highlights and parts of the clouds.
The first step is to make a quick, yet accurate sketch of the landscape. You are mainly looking for the main lines that separate the foregound, middle ground, and background.
Next you will paint in the major values with a broad brush. Your goals is to have at least 4 varying tones, but not too many. This is not the point to be concerned with details. You are only looking for large value shapes and painting them with their corresponding values.
Step 3 Blocking in Color
Using a large brush block in the major colors in your landscape. You are going to try and create colors which are the same value as the grey you had previously painted. The reasons for painting the black and white underpainting are now evident during this phase as acrylic paint tends to be somewhat translucent. Your colors in your painting won't look streaky and white but instead solid and bold. You can also notice how large some of those dark shapes are. This is because we can trim these value shapes down during the next step. At this point you want your painting to be a very quick impressionistic light study.
Step 4 - Details and Cleaning
This is the step where you get to cut away at your large value shapes with a smaller brush. It's very easy for this step to continue on indefinitely as many beginning painters want to keep refining small details. The result of this can often be a painting that lacks freshness. Remember this isn't meant to be a finished painting. These are still studies. They should be treated more as assignments, and less as finished pieces. I would suggest using these same steps to paint other landscapes as well. Practice makes perfect and this step by step process will provide the structure, and framework needed to paint countless landscapes.