Suggestions to help you loosen up your landscape painting style
My very first watercolor paintings were local landscapes, and as I’ve grown and evolved as an artist, that’s one thing that hasn’t changed. I often say that if we ever moved, my way of settling in my new region would be to get to know it through the medium of brush, paint and paper. No matter how barren, diverse or humble, the artist can find inspiration in the simplest and smallest square inches that are overlooked by others.
When I realized that my heart was yearning to paint in a looser, more intuitive style, I really struggled to transition this style to landscape paintings. Floral paintings felt natural for a loose, suggestive style, but when I tried to paint a landscape, I continually felt myself falling into copying the reference photo, a slave to realistic detail.
It was tempting, as I painted yet another stiff, overworked landscape, to assume that maybe I was just meant to be a floral painter. After all, many artists specialize in painting along a single theme. I could make my floral paintings my specialty. But I was curious; why DID I find florals so natural? When I started looking at how I thought about florals, I realized that there were approaches I used in floral painting that I could adapt to make my landscapes transition to the loose style I yearned for. That breakthrough has transformed how I paint landscapes and was pivotal to freeing me to paint whatever I want with excitement and energy.
Choose a Focal Point
One reason my floral paintings worked was because I tended to start painting at the focal point. I would choose the largest flower, or the largest mass of a single color, to be my focal point. That element got painted first, positioned on the paper where I felt it would have the most impact, and throughout the painting process, I kept in mind that that area was the focal point - where I wanted the viewer to spend the most time looking. Every other element in the painting was painted to support and direct the eye toward that focal point.
In landscapes, choosing a focal point can feel difficult, because often many areas feel important. A scene with a lake, a barn and a beautiful sky needs all three elements to feel complete, but by recognizing a hierarchy of importance, it’s easier to see how the second and third elements might support and direct the eye toward the foremost area of the scene.
Additionally, often it’s not even an object that is the focal point; it might be a convergence of line, each of the elements angled to point the viewer’s eye more deeply into and through the scene.
The longer I paint, the more I seek to simplify. A rigid adherence to the details I could see in my reference photo weakened my landscape paintings when those details distracted from the focal point. I would often move too quickly into painting detail when I hadn’t yet spent enough time establishing the major shapes. Learning to slow down, to simplify and paint the largest masses of shape, helped me to be able to observe how different elements interact. I find that there is a beauty in simplified shapes that helps showcase the expressive flow of watercolor, one that might be lost with an overemphasis on detail.
I often see watercolor artists post beautiful landscape paintings on social media, followed by a description outlining all of the painting’s faults. When I paint a landscape painting with a number of different elements, I make mistakes. Maybe I fail to get the proportions right on a distant object, or my water doesn’t look as reflective as the reference photo. Maybe I struggled with the foreground. If the painting works as a whole; if the viewer’s eye journeys through the scene and falls on the focal point, and if the viewer feels a little of the emotion I was hoping to convey, I’ve created a successful painting. It doesn’t have to be perfect to make us feel in response.
Don’t get so tangled up in trying to get your painting to match the photo or the idea in your mind that you fail to see the beauty in what you’ve created.
Nancy Hillis, in her wonderful book The Artist’s Journey, calls this the “adjacent possible.” Paint with a vision of the outcome, but be open during the process to the new possibilities that suggest themselves as your painting is developing. It might just create something even better than you imagined!
The paintings I’ve shown with this post today are all scenes that I’ve painted repeatedly. Every time I paint a scene or subject again, I develop more confidence in handling, and that means more of my own expression is able to show in the painting. Don’t be afraid to repeat to obsession! Repetition gives us the opportunity to try out different ideas, to take risks and really explore past the boundaries of what we might think is possible for that subject.
Today’s Video Lesson
In today’s video lesson, I’m going to spend about twenty minutes showing you how to paint a waterfall in watercolor. I simplify my reference photo to really emphasize the beauty of flowing water, and show off the beauty of granulating mixes of neutral color in the rocks. I’ve painted this scene before and while water can feel like a difficult object to depict, I’ve learned that every time I paint it, I grow a little more confident and willing to take a few risks to create the energy and contrast that makes my painting more appealing. Watch the video and download the reference photo here so you can paint along: https://youtu.be/MPQ_BKlXfmQ