It’s said that to experience the present, view yourself as an outsider would, as if you were an actor in a movie scene. This is a fun way to look at life, and to force yourself to notice your surroundings when otherwise you might not; what do you hear, see, feel? Sometimes we don’t need to play this little mental game though–we find ourselves in a moment and wish to remember it forever. Writing about it or taking photos helps, but many artists choose to interpret the scene in a painting; perhaps a rushing waterfall that’s discovered on a mountainside, or a quiet trail alongside a minnow-filled creek.
Johannes’ Practical Advice for Compositions
Regardless of the scene, there are few things as frustrating as knowing what you want to paint but not knowing how to portray it. Landscape artist Johannes Vloothuis is passionate about painting landscape scenes in watercolor, pastel acrylic, and oil and here he shares that knowledge with us, starting with a simple, quick and effective approach to composing landscape paintings.
Johannes will also be hosting a Paint Along on Stabilizing Your Paintings with Pictorial Balance so be sure to reserve your spot and get all the tips and tricks he has to share!
Working with a Reference
When selecting the reference material, aim for a 75% ratio of the pictorial information to be useful for your upcoming composition. Your reference should be rich enough to even frame as a stand-alone photograph. The remaining 25% is reserved for tweaking. You can add secondary photos to strengthen your design.
1) Break the landscape down into 3 main masses:
- The sky
- The vertical mass (cliffs, mountains, foliage, buildings, and waterfalls)
- The horizontal mass (grass fields, rivers, streams, lakes, seascapes, and flat snow)
To understand what a mass is, round up all the elements into one unit. In this photo the evergreen trees, the bushes, the mountain, and the distant hill are all part of the vertical mass. The lake and the beach form the horizontal mass.
2) Decide which of these masses will predominate by giving it most of the square inches. Any of the three can make an interesting composition but the idea is not to try to have one mass compete with another in value or the amount of square inches. The other masses should be subordinate in an obvious way.
3) Decide the overall value you assign to each mass so they are quite distinct from each other. Under most circumstances an easy value plan would be:
a) The sky the lightest value (Usually a mid-light value)
b) The vertical mass the darkest (Usually a mid-dark value)
c) The horizontal mass is between the sky and the vertical mass. (Usually a mid-value)
Direct Application of the Approach
This photo from Kelly, Wyoming just outside of the Teton National Park had a boring field predominating it. It didn’t merit that much attention. The vertical mass was more interesting so I nominated that to be the predominate mass. The field and sky were then trimmed. By cropping out the field, the viewer focuses more on the trees and houses.
In most cases in landscapes, the vertical mass tends to be the darkest, the sky the lightest, and the field the mid-value. It’s a safe investment to plan your paintings that way.
The final work takes all of this compositional planning into consideration but, again, allows for that crucial 25% of inspiration that comes along while you are painting.
Workshops for All
In every workshop, Johannes introduces the paint itself by explaining how to best use it (since each has its own qualities and quirks), and offers several demonstrations on how to paint specific elements of scenes such as rocks, trees, and sand as he did just now, so that you can follow along with him and mimic his strokes. In his latest Paint Along on Stabilizing Your Paintings with Pictorial Balance, Johannes will be discussing even more composition tips and tricks so reserve your access right now!
After studying any of these resources, you’ll then be able to use the techniques to create that landscape painting that’s been in the back of your mind, waiting to be unleashed onto the canvas.
One key point to remember is that every step you take to learn how to paint gets you closer; every stroke, every article that you read and workshop you attend in person or view on your computer. The trick is to just get started. Then, you won’t have an excuse not to paint the glowing sunset over a river, or perhaps an oceanfront scene from your favorite beach (either of which you could imagine yourself in any day of the week, right?!).