Painting Landscapes

Create Dynamic Landscape Paintings

Painting landscapes can be done in several different ways. You can go out to a specific location and paint plein air, or you can capture the scene with a camera. Each has it’s own advantages and disadvantages.

Plein air painting enables you to:

  • get more accurate colors because of the natural lighting,
  • feel the mood of the scene to help project it into your painting,
  • eliminate unnecessary elements of the scene by selectively filtering out distractions, and
  • it also gives you enough information to go back to the studio to make final adjustments. Many people also take multiple photos for reference back in the studio

The negative side of plein air painting is that:

  • the lighting and shadows are in constant change as the sun moves through the sky, so you have to work quite rapidly,
  • the weather can be a factor if a storm moves in or the wind picks up, or
  • you have difficulty finding a place where you can set up you easel for a prolonged period of time.

Using the camera to capture a scene also has several advantage.

  • You capture the shadows and lighting precisely at the moment that caught your eye.
  • The mood of the scene carries through into the photograph.
  • You can filter out distractions or move things around without being limited by time constraints.
  • You can work in the studio at your own pace, and
  • you are not affected by the changes in the weather.

The negative side of using a photo is that:

  • the camera does not capture the colors accurately,
  • color values may be distorted by excessive contrast areas in the scene you are trying to photograph. and
  • some people have problems avoiding painting the exact replica of the photo, instead of more interesting adaptations.


Adding Depth to Your Landscape

Art PrintsOne thing you will notice when painting plein air is that you see the atmospheric effect of distance.

  • Values get lighter.
  • Colors get cooler
  • Details get less pronounced as the distance increases
  • Shadows have detail in them

When looking at a photo reference, these effects are not so prevalent.

Cameras tend to keep sharper detail throughout, except in shadows. The shadows tend to be darker than they naturally are, reducing the detail that you would normally see in shadows

As an artist, you want to use the atmospheric effect to your advantage to draw the viewer into the painting and sense the distance that the landscape covers.

yosemite valley paintings


Here is a fun way to practice developing atmospheric effect.

I did this as a monochromic painting just so I could focus more on value changes. I did struggle with using only one color since I have never done it before, but it was a great learning experience.

    Notice that

  • The most detail is in the shrubs in the foreground.
  • The darkest value in the trees is the one on the right which is the closest to the viewer.
  • The values get lighter as you go back so that the mountain is the lightest.

Right click on the painting to see a larger version.

From Photo to Painting

Here is a photo I took of a sunrise right after the rain in a desert neighborhood.

It is rare to have puddles in the desert for reflections so I took advantage of this moment.

As I looked at the photographs I took, I felt that I really didn’t want the cars and houses in the painting. I wanted a desert landscape


My next step was to take the photo into Corel Painter 11 and modify it to eliminate some of the distractions.

I made some corrections in how the camera perceives light.

There is always a problem when there is excessive light in one area resulting in darkening of the areas immediately against the brightness. The camera records the brightness of the sky, but totally darkens the mountains eliminating any visible details.

I added lightness into the mountains as if they were receiving reflected light from the sunrise. In doing so, it would help me establish depth in the painting.

Now it is time to start painting.

First I applied some under painting to establish placement of components on the canvas.

This is what I always call the “ugly” stage. I almost hate to have people even see this stage because it is hard to believe that something decent will come out of it.

Doing the under painting like this gives you the opportunity to play around with abstract shapes for the different areas to make the finished painting more interesting. It also helps you establish tonal values.

The following images show progressive steps in completing the painting.

In this first one, I have lightened the distant mountains so they can by glazed with sunlight colors. I have also started adding more layers of color in the sky and water.

In the second I have added ochre and burnt scienna to the distant mountains.

I added darker clouds in the higher, closer sky to make the horizon recede into the distance.

I continued to add more color to the water and started introducing some shapes in the foliage areas.

In the third one I started to add blues into the water along with more reflections of clouds. The coloring in this example is different because of the camera and lighting, not the painting…sorry.

Next I went back into Corel Painter 11 to experiment with cactus placement and alteration to the shoreline.

You will also notice in this image, that I added rocks in the foreground shorelines before going back into Corel.

Here is the finished painting. I added in the cactus, changed the shoreline in the right center, and made some adjustments to foliage.

Does it resemble the original photograph?

Not at all, but it looks like what I had in my mind’s eye, A southwestern landscape after the rain.


See More of My Southwestern Art
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