How to Paint a Landscape | A Demo With Ryan S. Brown

Artist Ryan S. Brown takes you step by step through his process for Hudson River School-inspired landscape art, from his field study references to his compositional sketch to his actual painting in the studio, as he shares some of his landscape painting techniques for working out composition and values in Kaaterskill Clove, Catskills, New York (below; oil, 54×112).

The Artist’s Magazine has published a feature article on Ryan S. Brown, focusing on his portrait work in their January/February 2013 issue. Click here to download the issue with that Ryan S. Brown article.

Completed landscape art, Kaaterskill Clove, Catskills, New York, by Ryan S. Brown

Kaaterskill Clove, Catskills, New York (oil, 54×112) by Ryan S. Brown

By Ryan S. Brown

The Concept

The idea for Kaaterskill Clove, Catskills, New York began the first year I was awarded the Hudson River School Fellowship to paint for one month in the Catskills. I’ve always loved the grandeur and refinement of the Hudson River School painters in landscape art; so to paint in some of the same locations as these painters was a real honor.

I spent that summer studying different locations and trying to find areas that resonated with me. I settled on a spot looking upstream in Kaaterskill Clove and did a number of studies at this site of specific details of the greater scene. The next summer I went back and spent another three weeks making more studies at the same site. Once back in the studio, I compiled all the studies into a final compositional sketch (see below). I find this an important step in my landscape art/painting landscapes—and an essential one for such a large painting.

drawing before laying it out on canvas Brown

The composition isn’t a portrait of the scene, but a compilation of many elements in and around Kaaterskill Clove that give a broader view of the area. The process of figuring out how to paint this particular landscape and capture its essence has helped me tie myself to the traditions and ideals of the original Hudson River School painters in a way that I don’t think I could have otherwise achieved. It’s my hope that viewers will get a similar sense of awe and respect for nature when viewing this piece as I felt when I was there.

Step-by-Step Demo: How to Paint a Landscape

1. Initial Drawing

This is a large painting, so I did a small initial drawing to work out the final composition of the landscape. This made it much easier to lay out the drawing on the large canvas, which is what you see below.

initial drawing of Ryan S. Brown landscape


2. Drawing on the Canvas

Below is the canvas with the drawing all laid out. Redrawing it on the canvas allowed me to reassess the composition along the way and make sure the original drawing still worked in a much larger format.

compositional landscape drawing on the canvas


3. Painting the Darks

Filling in the darks first helps me establish the drawing. The goal is to cover the entire canvas with a thin layer of color. I start this stage with the darks to help establish a better sense of my value range. (See below.)

laying in the dark values landscape painting techniques


4. Establishing a Color and Value Sense

The image below shows you further into the initial stage of covering the canvas. I’m trying to establish a nice average color and value sense across the entire picture.

establish color and value in landscape painting


5. Setting Up Multiple Studies

The photo set in my studio, below, shows how decisions are made in the process and how each decision is informed. I surround myself with multiple studies made on location of different pieces of the composition. It’s much easier to develop the final piece when I’ve already solved so many problems.

Putting together multiple studies for Hudson River School effect


6. First Layer Nearly Finished

Here’s the canvas almost completely laid in.

further along into Ryan S. Brown's step by step demo


7. Beginning to Refine Specific Elements

At this point I’ve completely laid in the canvas, and I can see pretty clearly how I need to progress. Everything up to this point has been done to establish the overall impression of the landscape painting. Now I can work on refining more specific parts of the painting.

refinements in landscpe painting techniques


8. Attending to Specific Aspects

Now I’m bringing in different studies to begin developing more specifically different aspects of the work. I did over 40 studies from life for this painting, so I’m continually switching out the paintings I have surrounding me, depending on what I’m developing at the moment on the larger piece. I’ll always have the final color study next to the large painting as it helps me to constantly think about controlling the overall impression.

refer to various landscape art studies


9. Bringing Things Into Focus

In this image you can see how I’m moving from the general impression established earlier to a more refined definition, bringing things into focus. With a painting this large, it was very important as I developed more refinement to constantly step back, even as much as 30 or more feet to make sure that the overall feeling of the work remained intact. I didn’t want to sacrifice the overall effect by over-painting any one part. I wanted everything to be refined, but still harmonize into one great unified feeling.

painting techniques to bring landscape into focus


10. Refining Back to Front

Up to this point I’ve really been bouncing around and working all over the canvas. But from here to the finish I really worked back to front, finishing things the furthest back in space and moving forward to the closest thing in to the viewer.

Hudson River School effect achieved


11. Completing the Final Color Study

The first summer I did studies for this landscape painting, the water level was very low. The original design only had a trickle of a stream running through it. The final color study was done between the first and second summers I spent in Kaaterskill Clove. The second summer, however, it rained for four straight days, turning what was a small trickle of a stream into a pretty good running river. I thought this created a great new dynamic to my composition and I felt it was important to rework the composition to include this new element. (See the finished painting at top of this article.)

Here are several of my other landscape paintings:

High Falls, Adirondacks (plein air oil, 9x12)

High Falls, Adirondacks (plein air painting; oil, 9×12)

Wave Study (plein air painting; oil, 8x18)

Wave Study (plein air painting; oil, 8×18)

The Aspen Grove (studio painting; oil, 11x22)

The Aspen Grove (studio painting; oil, 11×22)


Other Items That Might Be of Interest to You:

To find out about The Artist’s Magazine’s Jan/Feb issue with the feature article about Ryan S. Brown, click here.

Learn to capture a sense of mood, time and place in your landscapes with The Painterly Approach, an art instruction book by Bob Rohm.

If you prefer acrylic as your medium, watch a preview of this video workshop in which Mark Mehaffey demonstrates how to paint a dramatic acrylic landscape painting step by step.




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