Landscape composition

Some key considerations in landscape composition are:

  • what shape is the picture? 19C conventions were usually landscape format with broad vistas. But some late 19C landscapes and also earlier drawings were much more focused on particular elements in portrait format eg trees. Japanese and Chinese landscapes were also  often vertical. There can also be very long thin panoramas, or tall thin verticals also.
  • what sort of terrain is depicted? 19C conventions and also Chinese and Japanese landscapes were concerned with mountains, trees, flat fields, sky, water, river. Sometimes cottages, houses, castles. 
  • what is in it?  Are there people? 19C conventions and before generally used landscape as a backdrop to religious or historical paintings. ‘Landscape paintings’ in both Western and Asian traditions generally had one or two people or a small group of people dwarfed by the natural elements. Sometimes they are excluded altogether eg  Monet’s waterlillies and abstract landscapes like Richter. 
  • how are the subjects arrangedAccording to rule of thirds composition. Pleasing. But might have high, low or central horizons, and diagonals and triangular relationships or swirling circles.
  • how might you describe the ‘mood‘ of the picture. Awestruck, calm, Turner’s turbulence.  David’s mystique. Whistler’s mistiness. Colour and dramatic distortions in Hockney.

Landscape Composition: some established wisdoms

There are many books and You Tube videos on landscape composition, most of which are pretty conventional.

1) Developing an Eye for Landscape Composition gives an overview of conventional concepts:

  • rule of thirds
  • tonal planes
  • different shape paths like S, L etc for leading the eye into the image
  • triangulation
  • rabattement
  • repetition and use of odd-numbers

It also gives examples from artists like Cezanne who broke the rules.

2) Golden Section discusses the development, theory and uses of the Golden Section as a compositional tool.

3) Landscape Painting Techniques discusses ways of using shapes to lead the eye into an image.

Designing a Landscape Image: my suggested process

  1. 3 quick 15 minute sketches of the same scene. Concentrate on capturing the sense of the place by recording the scale of the elements in the scene in relationship to each other. For each quick sketch change your viewpoint so that the relationship between the objects varies. Think carefully how the features appear on the page and the perspective.
  2. Line drawing: Spend up to an hour drawing the scene in detail using only lines. Pay particular attention to the shapes of leaves, trees, buildings and hills and try not to take any short cuts. You can draw some of the bricks in a wall, or grass in a field, for example, without drawing them all but make sure you have enough information in your drawing to remember everything.
  3. Tonal drawing: Make a couple more drawings of the scene in different lights. For example, make one during the morning and one in half light at the end of the day, or even at night. Concentrate on the tonal relationships between the features and the sky. Identify the lightest and darkest areas and work the middle tones into your sketches between these two extremes.
  4. Colour: Make descriptive colour notes from your scene. Use coloured media to record the colours – watercolour, pencils, crayons or similar.
  5. Photographs can be used as a reminder but always use them after your sketches. Sometimes it can be useful to sketch from your photograph to help understand the scene you are trying to represent.
  6. Final design: Try a few ideas out by making quick sketches in the middle of a piece of paper so that you can extend the image out in any direction. Develop the idea to cover the page using elements from your drawings. Then try masking off sections of your drawing with a pair of L-shaped cards, looking for a balanced design which has visual interest from tonal contrast, detail, texture, and so on.Then draw this composition again taking into account any changes you consider necessary.