Did you know that you can improve a drawing 75% before you even start drawing? Knowing how to use a viewfinder for drawing landscapes is the first step. Whether you are a nature journaler or a plein air painter this video and blog post will help you.
Why Your Eyes Betray You
Your visual system is not setup for making great art. Your visual system is setup for keeping your butt alive. What does that even mean? Our eyes and the visual centers of our brain are good at paying attention to our surroundings. We are good at scanning large areas and paying attention to the big picture. However, there is a lot more information coming through your eyes than what you can fit on your paper or your canvas. This is especially dangerous for drawing landscapes. A lot of times we are attracted to the expansiveness in a landscape. If we aren’t careful we bite off too much. We try too big of a drawing. We get frustrated, we get lost in the details, and we lose touch with the basic artistic priorities.
Your most important job as an artist is to make intentional decisions about what visual information to include and what to ignore.
If you don’t know how to make good decisions or even worse if you don’t realize you have to make decisions then your drawing will suffer. Using a viewfinder helps you be more intentional and disciplined. Your field of view with both eyes is between 200 and 220 degrees! That is far more than you can fit on paper.
How to make a viewfinder
Save the plastic container that salad mix comes in or get a sheet of cardstock or other heavy paper.
Decide what shape you are going to make your viewfinder. Put some thought into how this shape will fit on your pages. For more about composition and layout of journal pages see this video.
Trace your shape and carefully cut it with an X-acto knife or scissors.
You can add grid lines to help you with proportions.
Go out and use it right away!
Pro tip: Make multiple viewfinders of different shapes and sizes for your kit.
I really started using a viewfinder before my second trip to Tanzania and it really made my nature journal pages much better.
Once you know how to use a viewfinder for drawing landscapes you will thank me!
If you want a step-by-step guide to landscape drawing in your nature journal check out this post.
Do you want to practice landscape drawing while improving your nature sketches? If so, practicing drawing landscapes with charcoal can help you.
First, and most importantly, drawing with charcoal will help you see values better. But what are values, you might ask. Value is the art term for how dark something is. We think about color a lot but actually value is more important. Below is an example of a value strip showing levels of value.
While charcoal is not the most convenient material for the field it offers many benefits. Foremost being its ease at achieving precise values (especially compared to watercolor). It can also be challenging for perfectionist people like myself.
Landscape Drawing: How to Use Charcoal in 10 Steps
First, choose a landscape photo that has extreme values. For more about how to choose a good photo for a landscape see this video
Next, start by drawing in some of the darkest areas that you see.
Don’t think about edges. Instead focus on the mass of objects and use your charcoal to draw from the inside then towards the outside of shapes. This goes against how we usually draw.
Next, use a rag or paper towel to smudge the charcoal around the paper. By so doing you are knocking the values back down towards the middle.
After knocking the values back to the middle ground take some time. Look closely at your subject and adjust the values in your drawing accordingly. What in your landscape drawing needs to be darker.
Now you can knock the values back down with the rag.
Next, use an eraser to lighten some of the values in your drawing that are too dark.
Repeat steps four through seven a couple times.
Stop before you start fussing over details too much.
Start another drawing. You will get better by doing many landscape drawings. Don’t rest on your laurels if your first try looks good. And don’t give up if your first try looks bad.
For more inspiration around drawing landscapes in your nature journal check out this video by John Muir Laws.
Are you stuck at home but you still want to make art and nature journal? Me too! That’s why I made this video on how to make a landscape painting from photos. Whether you are stuck at home because of the weather, because of a pandemic, or because it is dark outside this guide will help you. Learning how to use reference photos for watercolor painting is a good skill to build regardless.
The 11 Step Guide To Landscape Painting From Photos:
First, you make a pot of tea. Actually, this is a very important step.
Next, you create the station where you are going to be working. Since you are going to paint from photos of landscapes on your computer or iPad make sure you get the area organized. Get all your materials ready: watercolor, towel, brushes, pencils, nature journal,
Third, choose your photo wisely. No matter your skills, your final drawing or painting is only as good as the photo it is based on. Certain things like sunsets are also extra hard to paint accurately so let us avoid those. Unfortunately, many beginners are attracted to sunsets. Hence the many amateur painting of sunsets online. We will get to sunsets once we build some basic skills.
Fourth, crop and edit your photo for better painting. In the video I go into depth about how important cropping is. By cropping your photo intentionally you can make your painting more dramatic and you can incorporate important design elements such as the “rule of thirds.” Additionally, you can focus on the values better by turning your photos of landscapes into black and white.
Next, we jump into the landscape painting process by drawing the basic shapes. Being able to simplify a landscape into 3-8 major shapes is essential. It is the arrangement of these basic shapes that gives the landscape painting it’s feeling and impact.
After drawing the shapes it is time to lay in the lights and darks. You should aim for 3-8 gradations from light to dark. The sky is always the lightest. These gradations should match the simplified shapes from step 5.
Now, it is time to go back and add another level of darkness to your landscape drawing. Pay attention to the dark spots in your photo reference and try to match these in your drawing.
Watercolor Painting Time!
Now, it is time to really start painting from your photo. Turn the photo back into color then take out your watercolor and start laying in washes. First, do the paler washes such as the sky and the background. Focus on keeping the values correct.
Add local color accents. Now, look at your photo reference and try to match some of the specific colors. But remember, these are accents so they do not need to go everywhere. And the most important thing is that your 3-8 major blocks are still recognizable separate.
Now, add more contrast in the foreground elements and push your values a little more. Most of the time watercolor landscape paintings end up to pale.
Finally, take a look at the reference photo for your watercolor painting and compare it to your actual page. Where could you do better? Try turning the photo back to black and white. How close are your values? For bonus points do another version of this landscape but with charcoal or graphite.
Painting from photos gives you a lot of tools to improve your landscape painting skills!
For more landscape painting ideas, especially for mini-landscapes check out this post
Don’t forget to watch the video for all the pro tips!
In the month of October the north coast nature journal club will be exploring the rolling hills and oak savanna of Helen Putnam Regional Park near Petaluma. We will practice several techniques for doing small watercolor landscapes to capture the essence and atmosphere of the place. We will also practice drawing three-dimensional trees with several tricks that will make your branches look like they’re coming off the page.
We will be hiking short distances up and down hill on this trip with mostly even terrain. Bring all your normal nature journaling supplies and binoculars. Be prepared for sun and warm conditions. A small folding stool could be useful for the longer landscape drawing. This location has a bathroom and seven dollar parking unless you are a member of the Sonoma County Regional Parks. Bring a potluck item that is not too hard to carry onto the trail because we will not want to go back to the parking lot for lunch.