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How to paint a watercolor landscape

Want to create your own beautiful landscape paintings? Learn how to paint a watercolor landscape with professional artist Oliver Pyle

How to paint a watercolor landscape

For many of us, the desire to draw and paint the landscape arises from the pleasure and memories of our outdoor experiences, and the challenge in capturing them on canvas or paper. As a professional landscape painter, my passion for the subject comes from the connection that I feel with the landscape and the process of painting it allows me to communicate and share my experience of it with those that view and purchase my work.

Watercolor landscape painting is so much more than making nice pictures of the countryside – it’s an opportunity to share the sense and atmosphere of a place at a moment in time.

Occasionally complemented with pen and ink, I use watercolour for all my work. It is a subtle and delicate medium and its ability to create passages of softly blended colours is perfect for the cool northern light that we experience in the UK for most of the year. Even on a grey winter’s day there is a wonderful spectrum of hues to be found in a leaden grey sky or in the apparent tedium of a brown hedgerow. Keen observation and the endless colour opportunities that are available on a skilful watercolour painter’s palette allows the seemingly dull to become dynamic.

Unlike other media, the equipment needed to paint in watercolour is simple and easy to use and that allows me to make an immediate response to the landscape around me, particularly on location, helping me to capture fleeting moments of light or outrun the incoming storm! In the studio, watercolour’s quick drying time enables me to complete paintings quickly, ready for the galleries that represent me or the clients from whom I receive commissions.

For the beginner a good quality set of materials can be assembled without the need for great expense, making watercolour easily accessible to many. As you become familiar with the way that watercolour behaves – and misbehaves – you will find yourself engaged with a captivating activity that challenges and rewards in equal measure. Of course, the medium works well for a variety of different subject genres, but I can’t help thinking that it was somehow designed for landscape painting!

Looking for more painting inspiration? Check out our watercolor painting ideas, learn how to paint a watercolor portrait or how to paint a watercolor galaxy.

What is watercolour?

Before you get started with watercolour, let me introduce you to its most important characteristics. Firstly – and this is where it differs to all other media – it is transparent. As you dilute the paint with water it allows you see the brightness of the white paper shining through which gives a good watercolour painting its sense of freshness and luminosity. Because you can see what is underneath, it also becomes very difficult to hide your mistakes! For this reason, despite its simplicity, watercolour is perhaps the hardest medium to master.

Secondly, watercolour is unpredictable. We know that water will flow where it wants to and often there is little we can do about that. A skilful watercolourist understands this and becomes adept at persuading the paint to comply with their ideas and brushstrokes.

Finally, watercolour dries lighter than how it appears when you apply it to the paper. In some cases, this can be up to 40% lighter depending on the colour.

If you would like to see what these attributes mean in practice, then watch my What is Watercolour video on YouTube, which is aimed at those with no prior experience of the medium.

Watercolor landscape painting materials

I have used Daler Rowney products since I started painting and have always found them to be excellent quality and sensibly priced. For beginners, the Aquafine collection of paints and brushes is a good place to start and The Langton range of paper is ideal. To paint along with me you will need the following equipment:

I have used Daler Rowney products since I started painting and have always found them to be excellent quality and sensibly priced. For beginners, the Aquafine collection of paints and brushes is a good place to start and The Langton range of paper is ideal. To paint along with me you will need the following equipment:

Paint

Either tubes or pans, but you may find the amount of paint on your brush easier to control by starting off with pans. I have used a limited palette of colours for this painting, as I do for all my work, and I will show you how to mix those to achieve the colours we need.

  • Blue – French Ultramarine or Ultramarine (B)
  • Red – Cadmium Red or Rose Madder (R)
  • Yellow – Raw Sienna (Y)
  • Brown – Burnt Sienna (S)
  • Green – Hooker’s Green (G)
  • Titanium White (W)

Brushes

Round brushes – sizes 10 and 6 1 inch hake/flat brush Rigger or liner brush.

Paper

Cold Press or Rough surface 140lb (300gsm) paper, A4 size (or approx. 30cm x 21cm). To help you achieve some texture with your brushstrokes I normally suggest Rough for most landscapes.

If your paper is a loose sheet, then you will need to fix it to a board with some tape. I would recommend using a block (sheets that are gummed together on all sides) as this reduces the paper’s capacity to buckle when wet.

Studio equipment

  • Mixing palette, if you don’t have one already to hold your paints (white ceramic plates work perfectly well for this.)
  • Filled water pot
  • Paper towel or something to help you regulate the amount of water on your brush
  • Support for your board or block – they should be tilted at a shallow angle towards you
  • Piece of spare/scrap paper to test you colour mixes

My YouTube video ‘Watercolour Equipment – An Introduction for Beginners’ will give you more help if you’re unsure what is best to buy:

How to paint a watercolor landscape

For this  easy landscape painting exercise, I’m going to show you the techniques and stages needed to paint a simple landscape. Poole Harbour in Dorset is one of my favourite landscapes to paint and features regularly in the work that I sell through my gallery in Swanage – The Mulberry Tree Gallery. It’s hard to beat this view from the shore across to Brownsea Island in the distance, with the Purbeck Hills beyond. Painting this scene will introduce you to the following techniques:

  • Colour mixing using your three primaries (red, yellow and blue) – an essential discipline for successful landscape painting.
  • Painting a flat wash
  • Painting a variegated wash
  • Suggesting texture with broken washes
  • Controlled and dynamic brushstrokes

I have broken the painting down into a process of manageable stages for you to follow for this watercolor landscape tutorial. Of course, it isn’t possible to give you a detailed description of every brushstroke and indeed it wouldn’t be helpful to do so.

Before you start painting, take some time to read through all the stages and look closely at the finished painting so that you are familiar with how the exercise will develop. One of my top tips for watercolour success is to have a clear vision of where each painting is heading and how to get there as it’s easy to lose sight of this as you move through the various stages.

As you start to paint, try not to simply copy every single mark that I have made – watercolour is best handled with a degree of freedom, and you’ll find that your work will become too tight if you are concerned with replicating every brushstroke that I have made.

For my colour mixes, I have used the notation next to each colour mentioned above and the order represents the most prominent colour first – e.g. (B + Y) is a mix of blue (Ultramarine) with a lesser amount yellow (Raw Sienna) mixed, to create a soft green colour.

Are you ready? Read on to learn how to create your own watercolor landscape painting.

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You Will Need

  • Watercolor paints
  • Watercolor paper
  • Watercolor brushes

Step 1

Lightly sketch out the scene in pencil (2b to 4b is ideal.) Don’t bother drawing in too much detail, simply aim to put the main shapes where you want them. You will find that you paint with less restrictions if you are not constrained by lots of small shapes to ‘colour in.’

With your No. 10 brush, make a blue mix in your palette (B + a hint of R + Y) and another of warm yellow (Y + a hint of R) making sure that you have plenty mixed to cover the sky area. With your board flat at this point, wet the sky area down to the horizon with clear water, using your hake/flat brush.

Allow it to dry a little, but while it is still quite wet paint the sky area, starting at the horizon with the yellow mix and painting upwards with bold brushstrokes. Leave a few areas of unpainted paper to suggest highlights on some thin clouds.

While everything is still wet make similar strokes downwards from the top of the paper with the blue mix, allowing it to merge with the yellow. Add a little more red and yellow to the mix which will make it a warm grey and make a few strokes to represent cloud shadow. Don’t worry about the paper starting to buckle – this is unavoidable when working wet-on-wet unless your paper is pre-stretched.

Step 1 – adding the sky

Step 2

Once the sky is completely dry, go back to your blue mix (make some more if necessary) and paint the area of sea. You will now need to have the board tilted towards you at a shallow angle. Starting just below the horizon, paint down the paper with horizontal brushstrokes. Leave some small areas of white paper to suggest sunlight catching the distant boats and sails. Try to make some quick brushstrokes across the paper – that will give you a broken wash and a nice sparkle on the sea. If you like, vary the mix a little as your work, adding in a little more red and yellow to make a warm grey colour in places. Carry on working this way until you have painted to the bottom of your piece of paper.

Step 2 – adding the sea

Step 3

With your No. 6 brush, paint the distant Purbeck Hills, either side of Brownsea Island, with a warm grey colour (B + R + Y.) While this is still wet, wash your brush out and squeeze out most of the water, then soften the edges of the hills where they meet the island.

Once the hills are completely dry, paint Brownsea Island with a darker mix of the same colour. Try to avoid painting this in just one flat colour by varying the mix in your palette as you go, adding more of each primary to achieve the colours you want (more red = warmer grey/brown, more blue = cooler grey.)

Introduce a soft green where the sun is catching parts of the island (Y + B) allowing this to merge with the other colours while they are still very wet. As this starts to dry, make a strong mix of brown (B + S) that almost feels sticky in consistency (you don’t need much of this.)

When your wash on the island is damp (not shiny, just with a slight sheen to it) drop the dark brown into a few areas along the island’s shoreline with your rigger brush to add some subtle form to what you have just painted.

Step 3 – painting Brownsea Island

Step 4

We now need to paint the wet mud and sand of the foreshore and the key here is to work quickly, with confidence and with lots of wet paint. To help with that, make sure that you have plenty of colour mixed on your palette.

Mix some medium to dark greys and browns using (B + S.) The more blue you use, the more grey the colour will be, the more burnt sienna you use, the more brown the colour will be. Mix another warm yellow/brown colour (Y + S + a small amount of B.) Using your No. 12 brush start with some broken strokes, moving quickly across the paper to achieve a hit-and-miss effect with the texture of the paper. This will give a nice, natural feel to the mud flats on the shoreline.

Paint in the closer foreground areas with the warmer yellow mix, varying this as you go. Add a little Hookers Green into this while it’s still very wet to suggest algae and seaweed for an authentic seashore effect. Try to leave some small areas of unpainted paper to suggest pebbles, driftwood and whatever else you might find as the tide recedes. Do the same thing that you did in step 3 by dropping in some of the sticky brown mix to give some definition to areas of the wash as it becomes damp.

Step 4 – adding in the mud flats

Step 5

Once this has dried completely identify some areas where you can paint over some of the foreground areas, with different mixes of the same colours you have used in STAGE 4. Leave some parts, allowing some of the previous washes to show through. Again, as these areas start to dry and become damp, add a few more small stones and shadows with your sticky brown mix (you can also make a dark blue shadow mix for added variety with B + R + Y.)

Your painting will now be starting to assume the look of a finished piece. All the main washes have been painted, without over-concentration on any particular area. This method of working allows your paintings to have a nice balance to them and prevents too much work and detail being included in the wrong areas of the painting.

Using your No. 6 brush and a medium mix of warm grey/blue (by now, you should have enough left on the palette and/or be able to mix this without my guidance!) define some detail in front of the Purbeck Hills on the left (it’s the Sandbanks shoreline with boats buildings etc) but make sure that you don’t overwork this – a simple suggestion is far more effective. With the same mix and your No. 6 or rigger brush, make some marks that will add definition to the areas of white that you left for the distant boats moored in the harbour in step 2.

For almost all aspects of a watercolour painting, the white in the scene is the unpainted white of the paper. However, that can sometimes be difficult for very fine areas of detail. Here, take some Titanium White and with your rigger brush paint in some boat masts, but also include some that are grey to create the sense that the sun is catching some and not others. Do the same thing by making simple marks to suggest seagulls (white against the darker areas of Brownsea Island and grey against the lighter sea or water.

Step 5 – finishing the painting

Your painting will have different areas and shapes in the foreground shoreline to mine. It’s time to take a step back and look at those areas to decide what you may need to help it read better. With your rigger and a dark colour mix, make some small additions to define shadows behind pebbles, individual strands of seaweed, boat ropes, red marker buoys or whatever else you want to include.

It is important that you keep these marks to a minimum – too much work here will make the painting unnecessarily busy and compromise the sense of calm in the scene. Done well, you will have a finished a watercolour landscape that captures the sense of an early summer evening in Poole Harbour… a job well done!

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We hope you enjoyed this painting tutorial! This tutorial features Oliver Pyle’s painting of ‘Evening Sailing, Poole Harbour’ (34cm x 24cm Langton Prestige paper – 140lb Rough, Daler Rowney paints). You should now have all of the skills you need to try this easy landscape painting project at home. Happy painting!

A section of Oliver Pyle's painting of Poole Harbour in Dorset
Oliver Pyle