An in-depth look at landscape

"The Road Home" watercolor by Pat Rayman

“The Road Home” watercolor by Pat Rayman


Many artists enjoy painting landscapes, but painting a convincing landscape is more than just finding a pretty scene.  The best landscape paintings have a convincing sense of depth, letting the viewer feel that he can walk right into the picture.  The trick is to make a piece of flat canvas appear to contain a mile or so of landscape that goes off into the distance.  The best way to do this is to break the process down into six parts.

OVERLAP is the easiest way to show distance.  Draw the forms in the foreground completely, but only draw parts of the background objects; let the things in the foreground cover part of the background. For example, if you’re drawing a forest, draw the foreground trees in their entirety, but let the background trees be represented by fragments of foliage and trees, to fill in the space that’s left.

DIMINISHING SIZE means that things which are far away from us look smaller than things that are close to us.  This is a simple concept, but very important if you want to get a feeling of depth and open space.   In the forest, you may be in an area where all the tree trunks are the same thickness, but the ones closer to you will look larger than the ones that are further away.

LOSS OF DETAIL occurs as you get further away from something.  Up close, you can see individual leaves on trees and patterns on bark; further away, trees appear as masses of shape and color.  In a painting, if you paint distant objects with the same detail as objects in the foreground, the distant objects will look out of place and unrealistic.  Allow things to blur, fuzz, and disappear as space recedes.

SOFT EDGES:  Like details, edges blur and fade with distance.  Normally we focus on things that are close to us and let the background fade into softer focus.  If you soften distant edges it helps to portray depth and it is also a good way to reinforce the focal point in the artwork.  The viewer’s eye will be drawn to the objects that are most in focus.  The soft focus areas give background, mood, and just a suggestion of shapes that don’t compete with the main subject.

DECREASE OF CONTRAST:  Contrasts of value (light and dark) also decrease with distance.  Light values look darker and dark ones seem lighter.    In a painting, the foreground will have the strongest contrast of light and dark.  The background will usually contain middle values with no strong darks or lights.

COOLING THE COLORS:  When you’re looking off in the distance, you’re looking through layers of atmosphere.  It’s like looking at your hand through water – the more water there is between your hand and your eye, the more tinted your hand will appear.  Air works the same way, but because it is less dense than water it takes more air to affect what we see.  So objects that are in the far distance will appear blue or blue-grey.  The further away something is in your painting, the cooler (bluer) it should appear.

To use these principles, divide your painting into three parts:  foreground, middle ground and background.  You can either draw lines to show these divisions, or just picture them in your mind.  This gives you an idea of where to put details, where details begin to fade, and where to soften the edges and cool the colors.

The next step is to decide which principles are the most effective for this particular painting.  Every painting that indicates space realistically will use overlapping and diminishing size.  You can make your own choices about the other principles.  You don’t have to use all of them – just study your subject and think about what you want to express, then use the principles that work best for your purposes.

Remember that the principles, and dividing the painting into three parts, should not be obvious in the finished piece.  Just use them as tools the next time you want to show depth in your landscapes.

Published by on June 2016. Filed under Paint Box Section. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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