We asked eight leading landscape painters for tips on how to resolve a landscape painting composition. Artists who work in pastel, acrylic paints, oil paints, and watercolours share their thoughts below.
The Importance of Drawing
Tor Falcon on Landscape Painting Composition
Drawing is everything to your picture. At no point in the process can you relax and forget drawing. It’s sometimes fiendishly difficult but attend to it, make it your friend. Don’t be precious, be bold, be prepared to correct mistakes and move things about – even if you think you’ve very nearly finished. Don’t be afraid to move that beautifully painted tree if you suddenly realise you’ve got the span of the spread of its branches wrong. The finished picture will be better for it and if you’ve painted a beautiful tree once, of course you can do it again.
Tor Falcon is having an exhibition of Cumbrian drawings at the Archive Gallery, Heaton Cooper Studio in the Autumn.
Adebanji Alade on Landscape Painting Composition
Drawing is so important. This is what helps you as an artist to have first hand connection with whatever you plan to paint in the Landscape. Your ability to draw gives you an edge because this is where you make the first marks, skeletal marks, planning where your shapes are going to fit and how your lines are going to depict each element in the landscape. It’s through drawing that you are able to get all your proportions and positioning right. It doesn’t matter what method you use: plumblines, gridlines, a view-finder, sight-size method or freehand- it’s all to make sure that the foundation of the main elements on the landscape are properly and proportionately positioned – all this comes down to being able to draw properly.
Where this fails and the drawing is faulty, the landscape will be weak no matter how embellished the tones, texture and colour may look.
How do I improve my drawing? By constant practice from life, you observe, analyse and respond, it’s all about your eye-hand coordination. Training yourself this way will improve your drawing which is the most important element in approaching landscape painting.
Adebanji will be exhibiting with the Royal Institute of Oil Painters from 29th of November to the 16th of December 2023 at the Mall Galleries, London.
Don’t Be Afraid to Edit, Select and Move
Ian Sidaway on Landscape Painting Composition
It sometimes seems that nature has an inherent sense of design, as elements come together so perfectly no adjustment is necessary, however help is sometimes needed, and adjustments should be seen as perfectly acceptable. Moving position is not always an option so visually editing out those elements that look wrong or even adding elements that strengthen the composition is a legitimate course of action. These adjustments often come naturally to the seasoned landscape artist, with even very subtle alterations making a huge difference. Moving trees, adding clouds, using cast shadows, changing the colour or scale of an element, using paths or streams to direct the eye can all be powerful tools. The essential thing is that these changes do not subvert or alter the place one is painting beyond all recognition.
Use the Subject as a Vehicle for Self Expression
Louise Balaam on Landscape Painting Composition
Spend some time making pencil or charcoal thumbnail sketches to explore the expressive potential of the position of the horizon (higher or lower). We generally prefer a painting to have more sky than foreground, or vice versa, rather than have a horizon which divides the painting roughly in half (though there are plenty of painters who break this rule!). A dominant sky gives a feeling of openness, airiness, freedom, or awe if there are huge storm clouds. A larger area of foreground makes us feel closer to the earth, grounded, more aware of its textures and complexity. It’s also good to play with how the angle of your strokes change the feeling of the work. Steeper, more diagonal marks give a sense of drama and energy, while more horizontal brushstrokes make us feel calm and peaceful.
Tessa Coleman on Landscape Painting Composition
Be clear about what your interest is in the subject you chose to paint. I work from both line and tonal drawings made out in the landscape along with colour notes made in gouache or watercolour, and then recreate the impulse that first drew me to a particular landscape back in my studio. I find note taking about what that initial visual impulse is always helps, be it a particular colour relationship, tonal relationship or interesting compositional structure that draws one to the view in the first place.
Once back in the studio I spend time deciding on a palette and mixing paint to create my colour world. I always work with a limited palette of five or six colours but the initial colours vary according to the subject. Over the years I have built up a huge library of palette references that I save at the end of each day’s painting which I can use to find the starting point for new work according to the season and type of light that I want to make. Once I’ve got my drawings and colour world sorted the painting fun begins. I start large paintings with a first layer of what I call a colour map, in order to stretch my colour gamut in every direction from my restricted palette. It doesn’t really matter what goes where but it does give me a palette to sample from as I add successive layers to the painting.
This is the point in the making of a painting where ‘naer het leven’ becomes ‘uyt den gheest’. ‘From the life’ is combined with ‘From the spirit or imagination’. In the Dutch Golden Age, the ideal painting encompassed both modes of thinking to a greater or lesser extent. I was reminded forcibly of this two-way painters’ pull whilst looking at Michael Andrew’s paintings at Gagosian a few years ago. He had a perfect pitch drawing eye, but also the most original imaginative and spiritual viewpoint, using both photography and many other sources of material, both visual and literary to develop his painting imagery. He also had an absolute mastery of painterly techniques, knowing just when to describe and when to leave well alone and let the paint do the work for him. Many of his paintings, particularly in the Lights and School series, visualize scenes impossible to paint or draw on the spot: deep under water, high in the sky. He nevertheless captured something much more than the merely visual, he captures the feeling of what it must be like to inhabit those spaces: floating high in the sky in a hot air balloon, submerged deep underwater, silently watching fish swim by.
I make cartoons to transfer my drawings over my coloured shapes and slowly areas of the painting start to coalesce into spaces that need description, and spaces that need to breath. Once the main elements are in place, colour decisions take centre stage. This part of the painting can go on indefinitely but there will be a point in the making of the painting where the decisions that you’ve already made will start to guide you if you let them. A landscape painting six feet wide can turn on a sixpence sized brushstroke of saturated colour, entirely changing the time of day, season of the year, the weather, everything.
Stourhead Spring is one of a series of four paintings depicting the seasons at a beautiful lake not far from where I live. Each painting uses a different compositional strategy in picture making: Spring is all about high intensity colour and the space is flattened right up on the surface of the picture. The other three seasons use very different ideas of space, but all are made with very similar colour worlds stretched in completely different directions.
Tessa Coleman is exhibiting with Stella Agnew and Judy Buxton at Eastwood Fine Art this June (by appointment after 17th June). She is a member of the Royal Drawing School Faculty.
Let Colour Lead the Way
Josie Clouting on Landscape Painting Composition
It is easy to get overwhelmed with information when painting a landscape, especially painting on location. Try to simplify the scene by focusing on colour and shape rather than detail. Often features in the distance appear more blue/purple and muted, whereas areas in the foreground will appear brighter and more saturated. Make the most of the variety of colours and textures the landscape has to offer and don’t be afraid to play; unexpected colour combinations are often the best.
Josie Clouting is exhibiting in Associations 1st – 9th July, Ayres House Studios in Wallingford.
Chloe Fremantle on Landscape Painting Composition
“Urban landscapes are a fascinating challenge – I find it useful to note the areas with the strongest colours and use them as the key to the composition, whether to accentuate & exaggerate them a little, or use them as tiny highlights.
This focus can help you place the rest of your image into a balance, and allow your painting to be very much your individual response.
Awareness of what the “complimentary colours” are to the tones & shades you are using, and how these affect your colour choices can help make your selection simpler & surer.
It’s best to have a variety of tones in your work, & including some very dark & very light areas, (even if only small) will help bring structure & intensity to your composition.
Olivia Adamczyk O’Sullivan on Landscape Painting Composition
I often paint the landscapes of Southeast London where I live (usually acrylic on paper) but recently have done more work with rural and coastal areas. Even the harshest urban setting can provide flashes of colour and light which excite me visually, and can lead to a sketch and/or painting. I tend to use one or two dominant colours in a painting, captured from my observations, sketches, iPhone videos and photos – sometimes is isn’t possible to sit and sketch. Several of my paintings have focused on the recycling plant at New Cross Gate in Southeast London. I live locally and love to see it from the train to London Bridge and back. I don’t use colour in a literal way. For example in the case of the recycling plant paintings I’ve used mainly blue and yellow for blocks of colour which dominate the painting.
In other paintings, it’s the colour, light and shade on a house that I pass regularly which form the focus of the painting. More recently I’ve been drawn to the beach at Worthing – due to family connection, I go there often. The beaches are brown, the light there is endlessly varied. Again it is not a typical beauty.
I have done a series of paintings and many sketches. My starting point is usually creating rough blocks with the brown of the beach, together with grey/blue, often adding flashes of orange or blue, which might come simply from a piece of nylon rope left on the beach, and then set out to create more textures. I like my paintings to reflect the feeling of a place and use colour to do that. Use limited colours boldly to create your painting. Sketch out rough shapes with a brush and use tonal values and marks (eg from stubby crayons, inks, using a thin brush) to vary your work. But also, if you find a subject you like, go back there at different times of day, even night, in different seasons and lights, and see how the colours change. The more you get to know a place, the more you find to paint in terms of colour, light, shadow, form, and everything else.