Acrylic Landscape Painting: a Step-by-Step Guide

Jul 2021

7 mins read

Today, landscape painting is generally considered to be the best-selling painting genre. It’s also one of the most popular, and a great way to put your skills into practise. This is a step-by-step guide to creating a stunning acrylic landscape painting, but the same principles apply whether you’re using oils, watercolours, or any other kind of paint.

Acrylic landscape painting

What is landscape painting?

Landscape painting depicts natural scenery, such as mountains, trees, or winding rivers. This genre of painting often uses a wide view, utilises deep space, and captures the atmospheric effects of weather. Landscape painting is therefore appealing as it can represent the natural world in a dramatic, expressive, or even spiritual way.

RELATED READING: Acrylic Painting for Beginners

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How to create a landscape painting in 12 steps

What you will need to start your painting

  • Stretched canvas
  • Acrylic or oil paint
  • Paint brushes
  • Graphite pencil and soft eraser
  • Easel
  • Paint palette
  • Bottles and rags for cleaning
  • Camera (smartphone or DSLR)

Step 1: Find a good reference to work from

The best reference comes from getting outdoors. You can do this by taking photos of scenery using a camera, or painting ‘en plein air’, which means creating a painting outdoors directly from nature. Using your own reference is advisable since it will make your painting more personal, and eliminate any need to worry about copyright infringement.

Step 2: Use a good camera

If you don’t have time to create a plein air painting, or for some reason being outdoors for that amount of time is not practical for you, make sure you use a good digital camera. The following guidelines are recommended:

  • 10-megapixel resolution or higher
  • A good lens quality and image sensor size
  • Both RAW and JPEG format options
  • DSLR camera or a good quality smartphone

Step 3: Use compositional guidelines

‘Developing an eye’ for a composition refers to the skill of arranging a composition. This skill is best developed through practice, either by looking at photos or using a viewfinder to frame your own compositions. 

Composition landscape

The following compositional guidelines should be considered:

  • Know what your focus point is. What makes the image interesting?
  • Use the rule of thirds. This is the grid that appears over most viewfinders. Arranging important elements along a third line creates an elegant, asymmetrical feeling.
  • Be aware of the horizon line. If the land scenery is interesting, use a high horizon line: two-thirds land, one-third sky. If the sky is more interesting, use a low horizon line: use two-thirds sky, one-third land.
  • Use leading lines. These lines lead the eye and create a sense of direction. Examples include diagonal or perspective lines (such as a road), and meandering or curved lines (such as a river).

Foreground landscape painting

  • Break the frame. Using a foreground object to break the frame will create interest and lead your eye into the composition.

Step 4: Use good lighting

Soft lighting produces the best colour, shadow, and detail. Soft light conditions include:

  • Twilight (just before sunrise or just after sunset)
  • The golden hour (sunrise or sunset)
  • Partly cloudy conditions
  • Winter light

Make sure you shoot images at about a 90° angle from the sun: with the sun to your left or right, rather than ahead of you or behind you. Shooting directly into the sun will result in a loss of detail, while shooting with the sun directly behind you will result in a loss of shadow variety. Also, avoid midday or harsh lighting.

Landscape painting lighting

Step 5: Select and edit your reference

The more reference images you collect, the better. This will help you to narrow down your images to a handful of good quality ideas. Once you have selected your best images, use an editing program to refine your image. This could include cropping the image, increasing the contrast, or lightening shadows. Remember that RAW format photos allow you to work on separate areas of an image independently, such as highlights or shadow areas.

Step 6: Create a coloured ground

A coloured ground refers to a mid-tone colour that is painted onto your canvas at the start. This is done to remove the pure white of the primed canvas and will help you to create a more balanced range of tones in your finished painting.

Step 7: Create an under-drawing

Once your coloured ground is dry, use a graphite pencil to create an under-drawing. An under-drawing will help you to correctly arrange a composition, minimising the need to correct mistakes at a later stage. Remember to use a relatively dark pencil such as a 4B so that you can see your under-drawing clearly. A soft putty eraser is also recommended when erasing lines on a canvas, as hard erasers tend to smudge the graphite.

Step 8: Blocking in

‘Blocking in’ refers to the process of adding large areas of colour and tone, and is a quick way of visualising the essential elements of an image without getting too detailed. To simplify this process, try to limit your colour to two or three mixtures and your tone to two variants: shadow and light areas. Also use a large brush, avoid details, and work quickly with thinned-down paint.

Blocking in: how to start a painting

Step 9: Blending and building

To add interest and solidify forms, you will need to add more paint and complexity to your image. You can do this by introducing a greater variety of colours and using thicker mixtures of paint with less dilution. This process is important for focus areas such as the foreground.

To create a more realistic effect, you can try various blending techniques. These will create smooth transitions between different colours or tones. Examples of blending techniques include:

  • Dry-brush
  • Wet on dry (or glazing)
  • Wet on wet

Instead of blending you can also use the technique of optical mixing to add complexity. This is the use of separated or fragmented marks of colour that appear to mix when seen at a distance, as seen in the movement of Impressionism. This technique is more spontaneous and expressive since it can be applied quickly with pure colours.

RELATED READING: How to paint clouds

Step 10: Add atmospheric perspective

Atmospheric perspective refers to how distant objects appear lighter and bluer. This is especially noticeable in landscapes, due to the vast distance between foreground and background objects such as mountains. To achieve this effect, use a medium-to-large brush while creating a colour mix including blue and white. To create a soft, hazy effect, use a dry brush technique such as scumbling, which refers to a circular or scrubbing style of painting without the use of water.

Atmospheric perspective in landscape painting

Step 11: Use a gradient effect

A gradient effect is a smooth, subtle transition between different colours. This is noticeable in the sky, which changes from a lighter colour at the bottom to a darker colour higher up. Use this effect to add interest and realism to your sky.

Step 12: Finishing

Give your painting a finished look by adding highlights, deep shadows, clean edges, and texture. Remember that most of your painting should be a variety of mid-tones, so don’t overdo those highlights! Look to add texture in places such as grass, tree leaves, or wispy clouds.

Finally, stand back from your painting and ask yourself:

  • Is there a pleasing balance between areas of interest and rest?
  • What areas look rushed or unfinished?
  • Do I have enough energy to continue or should I take a break?

Finishing a landscape painting

Common mistakes to watch out for in landscape painting

  • Watch out for sunsets, sunrises, and silhouettes. These can look cliché when used in a composition. If possible, don’t include the actual sun, just the effects of the sun.
  • Don’t use green for grass and blue for the sky. By this, I mean middle-green and primary blue. Soft lighting will produce more nuanced tertiary colours, so look closely and choose more atmospheric colours.
  • Don’t paint every blade of grass. Rather create the illusion of numbers by using selective detail. Keep your painting loose and energetic by interpreting your subject matter, rather than painting literally.
  • Watch out for straight lines. Because landscapes focus on natural scenery, straight lines can look out of place or domineering. Instead use organic, curved or natural-looking lines.
  • Don’t paint leaning trees. Remember that trees grow straight up, even on a slope. Go back to your reference if you are unsure and try not to paint too much ‘out of your head’.
  • Don’t use black for shadows. Shadows have interesting colours, especially in soft lighting conditions.
  • Don’t divide your composition in half. This will appear too formal, symmetrical, and unnatural. Rather use the rule of thirds.
  • Don’t paint a flat sky. Remember that a sky is full of subtle effects that can add interest to your painting.

Landscape painting ideas

  • Paint desolate landscapes. For an interesting change, why not paint dry, weathered, desolate landscapes? When used with the correct lighting, this subject matter can create an other-worldly feeling.
  • Paint from a high point of view. Get some elevation into your composition by climbing a hill, looking down onto a valley, or changing your perspective.
  • Use distant mountains and soft lighting. Atmospheric perspective and moody colour can be very exciting to paint. It is more noticeable with distant objects such as mountains.
  • Use intersecting planes. An example of this is intersecting the horizon line with a vertical shape such as a tall tree.
  • Focus on the sky. Look for interesting cloud conditions such as a gathering storm and then drop the horizon line so that your sky dominates the composition. This could result in a composition of two-thirds sky or more.
  • Use water and sky to go abstract. Remember that water and sky are more atmospheric and less detailed, creating a perfect opportunity to experiment with a more abstract style. Famous examples of this include Turner’s skies and Monet’s water.
  • Use long cast shadows to create mood. This can be achieved when the sun is low in the sky and is at a 90° angle to the viewer. Scenery that creates effective cast shadows includes tall trees, cliffs or mountains.
  • Paint different seasons. Why not capture bare trees in winter or burnt orange leaves in autumn?
  • Change your medium and approach. Why not experiment with outdoor watercolour painting? Watercolour sketch pads are great for quick, spontaneous painting or for creating a preparatory painting.

Warwick Goldswain

Warwick is Shaw Academy's painting and art educator. He has a decade of experience in fine art and illustration, and has worked as an art teacher, comics illustrator and founder of his own illustration business.


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