Landscape painting for beginners is hard! I can remember one of my first outdoor painting ventures when learning to paint. I was in Italy with my school for the summer for an intensive landscape painting master class. It was a wondrous feeling being able to paint outside and study the landscape, not to mention be in Italy.
At the same time though, I was reallyyyy struggling and getting more discouraged by the day as none of my paintings were working out. It wasn’t a matter of me feeling simply dissatisfied with my work. I was entirely behind my peers and didn’t know how to move forward.
Looking back, I wish that I understood then what I will share with you here. These are some simple but universal truths when it comes to landscape painting. I hope these will help you as much as they do me when out painting landscapes!
Things farther away are lighter in value
Corot’s ‘Bridge at Narni’ is one of the most recognizable landscape works from the 19th century. It is also an excellent example of how things become lighter as they recede into the distance. You can see how the mountains in the background are much lighter in the distance in comparison to the darker green bushes you see in the foreground of the work.
Next time you go outside for a walk or to paint, take a minute to notice that what is far off in the distance is much lighter than what is in the middle ground or foreground. When you apply this to your work you will achieve a much greater sense of space and ‘air’.
The foreground tends to be warmer in temperature and the background cooler
The foreground tends to be warmer in temperature – but there are certainly exceptions. Noticing these moments and making the foreground warmer in your painting will help to create a greater sense of space. As can be seen in the painting above by JMW Turner, you will notice that the foreground is primarily green/ yellow. This green/yellow coloring becomes increasingly ‘bluish’ as it recedes to the background.
So, what recedes into the background of your landscape is generally cooler in temperature. As you can see in the above painting above, what is farthest in the background are the blue mountains – the coolest color in the entire painting. You will create much more depth in your piece if you follow this rule of thumb. Like with everything though, there are exceptions to this rule. The best thing you can do is to observe very closely what you are painting.
Always compare certain aspects of the landscape to another. By doing this you are able to deduce what the temperature of something is. For example, if you compare a piece of the foreground of a landscape with some distant mountains – you will be able to deduce whether something is cool or warm. Temperature is relative. It is only when you put something in relation to something else that you can know if it is ‘warmer than’ or ‘cooler than’ something else.
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In general, keep sharper edges towards the front and softer edges in the distance
Edges are one of the most important aspects that create interest in paintings. As a general rule of thumb, sharp edges move your eye to the foreground while soft edges make things recede. The above work by Elise Schweitzer is a wonderful example of sharp and soft edges present in a landscape painting.
Notice the sharp edges along the hedges in the front of the painting as well as the sharp edge of the hill in the middle ground. Then, look at how the colors in the background are quite soft in comparison. The brush strokes almost take on a ‘smudged’ appearance.
All of these varying degrees of edges help to create a sense of space in which the sharp edges of the foreground make us feel that space in front. While the soft edges in the background make us feel the vastness of space recede far back.
Make use of mixing complementary colors together (mute your colors!)
When painting landscapes it is easy to see and use a lot of the same colors. For example, when painting a green meadow there will be a lot of, well, green. This is one of the many reasons why painting out of doors sharpens your feeling for color and temperature. You must observe and compare different colors to one another – including different greens.
This is where learning to mute your colors and spending a lot of time mixing will come in handy. If the green you see is not very vibrant, make it less ‘green’ by adding red (the complementary color of green). If the green is not very vibrant but is somewhat cooler in temperature then add red to mute it but add some blue as well to make it cooler.
It is important to experiment when mixing your colors. Color mixing is very much an intuitive thing. There are certain principles, but beyond that you will mostly learn to mix colors entirely by just doing it. Check out the ‘color mixing guide’ for some of the principles.
Look at and study a lot of other landscape paintings
Like anything, studying excellent examples of those who came before you does wonders to the learning process. Go to museums and look at landscape paintings. Buy books of landscape artists you admire. Draw from them, paint from them. In fact, doing little studies of landscapes accelerates your learning process vastly more than simply looking at paintings.
When actively making a study of something, you inherently look deeper at the landscape you are copying. Therefore, you notice things you would not have noticed otherwise.
The above image is an example of such a study. It is a small 5 x 7 in oil on canvas sketch after Corot’s ‘Bridge at Narni’ (pictured at the beginning of this article). I strongly recommend doing such studies either in paint, charcoal, or pencil. You will develop a strong sense of composition and value. As well as have a lot of fun in the process of making studies of great landscape paintings!
Leave a comment below if you enjoyed this article or have any questions. I will be more than happy to answer them.