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Add Structural Elements to Your Landscape Scene: A Demo

Fences, barns, roads — these elements help to add complexity to a landscape scene. Learn how to build composition and add narrative in this pastel painting demo.

By Susan Ogilvie

A range of reference photos, value studies and thumbnail sketches helped me determine the final composition for Summer Shade (pastel, 16×12). Follow along with the demo for this landscape scene below.

I’ve always been interested in rural scenery as a painting resource. I believe the ability to set a mood and narrative is enhanced with the addition of structural elements. Here’s how to add structural elements into your landscape scene.

I often include fences, barns, roads — any element that helps to connect the landscape scene compositionally. Keeping this in mind makes the work of selecting which elements to include and which to leave out easier.

In Washington’s Skagit Valley, uninterrupted views and flat terrain provide an opportunity to capture the feeling of distance and scale. In Autumn Afternoon (pastel, 8×6), there are vertical and horizontal elements in the design that open up the small space. The balance of neutral and saturated color, and the focus of warm light on the structures, helps create movement in and out of the composition.

Developing the Composition of Your Landscape Scene

Early in my painting career, I was told that there’s a reason horizontal is called “the landscape format,”
but I prefer a vertical format. When developing a composition, I consider the Golden Mean, or Golden Section (see below) as a way to ensure pleasing proportion and balance in the design.

When structures are featured in a painting, these structures — whether they’re in the distance or the fore-ground — become the main focus in terms of placement and proportion. I also want to introduce information that connects structural elements with a sense of age, locale, and narrative. These considerations are important in decisions about color palette, lighting, and design.

Knowing how to narrow the amount and concentration of details, and creating some open space in the composition, will result in stronger, less complicated paintings.

Demo: Summer Shade

I took photos for the pastel, Summer Shade, while visiting a working dairy farm in Connecticut. I took shots from a variety of angles, and I also drew quite a few value studies at the site.

Later, I did several compositional studies as reference aids for a studio painting. The main idea of the barn as a dominating element in the painting required attention to plane changes, shadow patterns, and roofline variations.

A thumbnail sketch helped me work through compositional decisions.

Going Vertical

First, I determined where my main vertical and horizontal intersection should be placed in this landscape scene. Then I blocked in the main shapes. I chose to leave out two grain silos located behind the barn and instead created a softer environment with trees. This provided a vertical shape, breaking the top edge of the painting, and allowing the eye to move beyond the roofline.

Getting Layered

I used multiple layers of pastel that were of the same value but different color temperatures; this implies the texture of weathered wood. I left the color broken on the surface; this allows a viewer’s eye to see the different layered colors as an interesting neutral — there, but not dominant. I then used more saturated hues both in the foreground and in the barn window.

Always Reviewing

I like to photograph the progress of a painting at different stages of completion, knowing there’s always more information to be gained with a later review. I make this part of my routine, and it always provides additional insight.

Working on a sienna-toned piece of Sennelier La Carte pastel paper, I started the block-in using very soft pastels.

I continued to apply pastel, paying close attention to the shadow patterns.

I further developed the landscape scene, adding trees behind the barn that contribute to the balance of shapes.

The final painting

The Golden Mean

The Golden Mean refers to a ratio, observed especially in the fine arts, between the two dimensions of a plane figure or the two divisions of a line such that the smaller is to the larger as the larger is to the sum of the two — a ratio of roughly three to five.

Susan Ogilvie, of Washington State, has been part of numerous group and solo shows. The artist regularly teaches pastel and plein air workshops.

This article originally appeared in an issue of Pastel Journal.

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