How to Paint Landscapes In Oils: Top 10 Tips for Beginners

how to paint landscapes in oils

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Landscape painting is one of the most popular genres for collectors and artists alike. However, styles of landscape paintings vary widely.

Some artists use quick, broad brushstrokes, making paintings look more like abstract art. Other painters add excruciating detail creating photographic-like detail.

Regardless of your style, here are 10 great tips to get you started on or improve your landscape paintings.

1. Indoor or Outdoor Landscape Painting?

First, when preparing to paint a landscape, you need to decide whether you will paint indoors in your studio or go into nature and paint the scene from life in a style called en plein air painting.

Painting in your studio has the advantage of convenience. Nothing is worse than getting to your landscape painting site and realizing you forgot your yellow ochre or paper towels.

However, painting outdoors gets you exercise and can inspire vitality in your paintings, which is often lacking when painting landscapes from photographic references.

Typically, the absolute beginner at landscape painting will paint indoors until they get comfortable with painting landscapes and later try painting in nature.

The following landscape painting tips will be invaluable regardless of your chosen method.

indoor or outdoor landscape painting

What Materials and Planning are Needed?

Outdoor painting requires extra planning, equipment, and considerations such as:

  • a portable easel and palette, water (for you and your painting), and comfort items like a stool and shade umbrella.
  • more time due to travel either by car, on foot, or both.
  • an understanding of how to paint the landscape while the lighting constantly changes.

Planning the Reference Image

The image or scene you use as a reference might need special planning:

  • Studio Painting requires resource photos (unless you are one of the few who can paint from memory)
  • When painting outdoors, the scene is right in front of you, but may require a camera to capture that moment of the day with “perfect” light.

2. Compositions for Beautiful Landscape Painting

Because landscape paintings are so common, you will need a strong, captivating composition to get the attention of viewers, galleries, or art competitions. Coming up with fresh landscape painting ideas can be a challenge. Here are a few quick tips on how to plan an arresting composition.

Composition Style – Add to the Mood of the Scene

learn landscape painting
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Different compositional arrangements can give good landscape paintings different moods. A circular or cross-composition style often gives a calm or stable mood.

tips for painting landscapes
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An ell or steelyard composition can cause the viewer to feel a sense of power and intensity in the landscape painting scene.

Don’t Divide the Canvas in Half

Landscape paintings tend to be static and, therefore, need elements to make them more engaging. One way to make a landscape painting more dynamic is to avoid dividing the canvas in half when you start painting.

The above layouts are a good example of how you can distribute things in space.

tips for landscape painting
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Draw Viewers Into the Scene

Another way to get viewers more interested in a landscape painting is to invite them into the scene and lead them to the focal point.

Using a winding road, creek, or heard of animals that begin at the bottom edge of the painting is a popular, effective way to direct the viewer’s eye and make them feel as if they are in the landscape scene.

draw viewers into the scene
Painting by Samuel Earp

3. Begin with a Drawing and Block-in the Scene

Whether you are starting your landscape painting with a pencil drawing or paint thinned with water or a solvent. This allows you to begin your paintings with a drawing, providing several advantages you’ll learn about below.

To prevent having detail, some artists use a palette knife for this stage. Many artists even use palette knives for the entire finished painting.

landscape painting techniques
Plein Air Painting by Jennifer Young

Check Your Composition

If you draw in your landscape scene with a rough sketch, you can check your composition to ensure you have a painting that is pleasing to the eye and doesn’t break any compositional rules to avoid wasting time.

Stepping back from your drawing, turning the canvas upside down, and looking at the early stages of a painting in the mirror are three ways that allow you to see if the composition “works” or not.

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Easily Move Shapes

Pencil lines can be erased, and thinned paint can be wiped away, making early changes easier. If you begin putting details in one section before you have drawn out your scene, you may be less likely to make changes because of all the time and effort you have already spent.

Preliminary drawings allow shapes and lines to be easily moved before thick paint builds up. If you didn’t do a preliminary drawing and want to make changes, the thick paint would need to be scraped away.

Establish Base Colors

Blocking-in is the technique of filling in the big shapes of your drawing with a thin layer of the base color of each object without variations of lights and darks. This technique allows you to see how the color of each object affects the colors of other objects. If the color isn’t working, you can just scrape it off and try a new color.

establish base colors
“The Garden of Zion” by John D. Cogan

4. Pick the Right Color Palette

Knowing your paint hues and how they mix with each other is critical to painting beautiful landscapes. An Ultramarine Blue will mix very differently with Cadmium Yellow than with lemon yellow.

Tubed Terre Verte green paint and Viridian green paint are vastly different and can be used for different plants and seasons.

Harmonious Color

The biggest factor is ensuring that all the colors you use in one painting are harmonious. For this reason, most painters use fewer tube colors and prefer to mix their own hues.

Limited Palette

limited palette

One strategy when painting landscapes is to have warm and cool colors of the three primary colors: red, yellow, and blue. Introducing an exotic tube color may be tempting, but it can clash with the other colors on your palette.

This strategy is known as a limited color palette. Anders Zorn is known for his use of only four colors, which is called the Zorn Color Palette.

Specialized Tube Colors

Sometimes, you just can’t get the color mixture you need, and you might need to buy a specialized color like a Green Gold green paint. Or, you might need an odd color for mixtures like Naples Yellow to achieve certain grass or foliage colors during specific seasons.

5. Value, Value, Value

The most important factor to focus on to paint a commanding landscape is value, or the range of lights and darks in your painting.

A Variety of Strong Values Makes Landscapes More Dramatic

One of the biggest differences between experienced landscape painters and beginning landscape painters is the value range. A limited value range means there isn’t much contrast between the light areas and dark areas of the painting.

strong value
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A wide value range is one in which the painting has some very dark darks, almost black, and some intense areas of light that are almost white. These areas of extreme light and dark, seen in the above painting, do not need to take up a lot of space; a little goes a long way.

The best way to check this is to squint one eye and blur the other, making the extreme lights and darks stand out easily. If nothing stands out, you need to add more value extremes.

Value Emphasizes Separation of Background, Middle-ground, and Foreground

Good landscape paintings have a clear background, middle ground, and foreground.

Atmospheric perspective is the phenomenon where moisture and other particles in the air make objects like mountains in the distance harder to see.

landscape painting

Atmospheric, or aerial, perspective causes colors to become bluer and duller, and the value to get lighter for objects further away, like distant mountains. Using this technique will make your landscape paintings look more realistic.

Work Dark to Light for Each Shape (Except in Watercolor Painting)

For several reasons, it is advisable to work from your darkest values of an object to the lightest values.

For example, if a tree is a medium green but has some areas of dark on one side and some highlights on the other, most painters fill the whole tree with the dark value in a thin coat, then add the medium green with thicker paint, and finally dab the highlights in with the thickest applications of the lightest tree color.

6. Simplify Detail

Trying to paint every leaf of a tree or even every tree of a grove is an exercise of futility; it’s just not likely to happen or even look good. Good landscape painters learn how to minimize detail and “suggest” individual leaves or trees out of the whole bunch.

simplify detail
“The Garden of Zion” by John D. Cogan

Don’t Paint Every Leaf. Paint the Canopy

An effective way to avoid having too much detail is to roughly paint in the whole shape of the canopy of a tree or the tree line of a grove and then add some strategically placed leaves at the edges of the canopy or areas of value or color changes to suggest separations of one tree from another.

This takes practice, looking at many other painters’ landscapes, and may require a painting tutorial, but once mastered, it will make your landscapes look effortless.

When painting landscapes, palette knifes reduce the temptation to add detail. Palette knife paintings tend to have a fresh, energetic feel to them. A good set of palette knives don’t have to be expensive.

Our Brains Fill in the Missing Details

Minimizing detail works because our brains extrapolate or subconsciously fill in the details, making us believe we see everything. This is similar to a computer algorithm that takes a blurry, pixelated picture and can sharpen the detail by calculating what the blurry parts should look like.

7. Use Artistic License

If you try to paint every detail just how it looks in a photograph or the scene before you, your landscape will look artificial. Our eyes only see the detail in what we are looking at directly and the edges of our vision, the periphery, are blurry.

Cameras are for Copying the Scene Exactly

landscape paintings

One of the reasons the Impressionist painters like Monet and Renoir started painting so loose and with exaggerated brush strokes is because cameras became more attainable during their time.

Paintings were no longer necessary to capture likenesses or document events or moments. Instead of being completely accurate, paintings evolved into expressions of the artist’s feelings or impressions of what they were painting.

Don’t paint the scene; paint what the scene makes you feel. The above painting is a great example!

You Can Add Elements or Details that Aren’t in the Scene

Unless you post the reference photo next to your painting, no one will know what the scene looks like. You can eliminate elements that disrupt a composition or detract from the scene’s beauty.

Likewise, you can add elements to create more interest or that appeal to your tastes. For example, you might add a boat as a focal point to an empty lake scene to add more life to the painting.

8. Have a “Star of the Show”

There must be a center of interest in your landscape paintings. Also known as the focal point, the center of interest is the “star of the show”. In a landscape painting, the focal point can be the largest tree, a tree or shrub with interesting shapes or colors, a cool river in the middle of a desert scene, or any other element that has caught your attention in the scene.

star of the show
Painting by Laurie Kersey

Sometimes, the best way to determine the focal point is to determine what feature of the setting grabbed your attention enough to want to paint it.

Once you determine the focal point, you can emphasize it by giving it a sharp contrast. Adding more detail, giving it more color, making the value darker or lighter than the other elements, or other techniques help make the focal point stand out to the viewer.

9. Utilize Warm-up Sketches

Whether you are painting outdoors from life or are using photos in the studio, an excellent way to ensure a successful painting is to sketch the scene multiple times with quick, warm-up drawings and paintings.

These warm-up sketches shouldn’t have a lot of detail, and the colors don’t have to be perfect. The idea is to become extremely familiar with the scene you are painting.

This can be done in pencil but is more effective in thin washes of paint. This helps you see the setting more accurately, builds your color-mixing skills, and gives you confidence.

utilize warm-up sketches

10. Step Back Frequently

This tip was mentioned in tip number three but is so important that it needs to be repeated.

It’s hard to see mistakes or areas that aren’t working when you’re up close. We get tunnel vision and have difficulty seeing areas that aren’t working unless we step back to see the work as if it were in a museum or gallery.

Stepping back, sometimes up to ten feet, will help you see problems with composition, value range issues, color palette problems, and a number of other troubles that can occur when painting landscapes.

Don’t wait until the end; you should be stepping back whenever you get hand, body, or eye fatigue or every half hour or so, whichever comes first.

painting a landscape
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Cleaning Up

Landscapes are a popular subject for artists that can be fun and build painting skills. These top ten tips should give you ideas to improve your paintings, but you can also improve your techniques with online painting classes and courses.

Either way, the best way to get better is to start and have fun giving it a go. Happy painting!

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