Hey there! So, let me be real with you: I painted and recorded the footage for this tutorial quite a while ago – probably more than 6 months ago. I was asked to share a step-by-step watercolor landscape tutorial, and while I managed to photograph my process, I procrastinated when it came to writing the blog post. You see, painting comes naturally to me, but writing, editing photos, and explaining my process in a beginner-friendly way isn’t exactly a walk in the park.
But hey, better late than never, right? So here it is – a comprehensive tutorial, thoroughly documented with photographs. For this painting, I used a license-free reference image generously shared by Leanne Findlay, a talented photographer from the Free Reference Photos for Artists Facebook group. This particular image features the awe-inspiring Scottish Highlands, one of my personal favorite places.
Before we dive in, let me quickly list the supplies I used:
- Watercolor paint colors: Payne’s Gray, Burnt Sienna, Sap Green, Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Yellow Light, Ultramarine Blue, Viridian Green, Burnt Umber, and a touch of White Gouache.
- Paintbrushes: Round brushes in sizes 000, 2, and 4 (I used this specific brand).
- Paper towels, a water cup, and blue painter’s tape.
Step 1: Observe and Visualize
There’s no shortcut for this step. Take a moment to observe the landscape you’re about to paint. Close your eyes, visualize how it would look on your paper, and then open your eyes to truly see your canvas.
Step 2: Sketching the foundation
When starting a landscape, I usually begin with the horizon line, lightly sketching it. I then move on to drawing the land, starting with the largest shapes or areas. In this specific piece, I began by sketching the prominent trees on the right side of the image, which line the shore.
Next, I focused on the mountains in the background, followed by the treeline in front of them. Finally, I added details like rocks in the foreground.
One important note: I tend to avoid sketching fine details in the sky. Personally, I believe that watercolor skies often look best without visible pencil lines. However, if you feel more comfortable sketching the sky, go for it – just keep it light!
Step 3: Building from the Back
Imagine your painting as a multi-layered diorama placed right in front of you. As a rule of thumb, start by painting the objects that sit in the “back.” Your brain instinctively recognizes the mountains as the furthest elements, followed by the treeline, the lake, and so forth. In this particular painting, I chose to start with the sky first to mentally map out the placement of the other elements.
Since the sky in this image has a dark top edge, it’s easier to map out the placement of other elements. The dark swirls form a “cone” shape that points down to the landscape, allowing you to fit the mountains and trees underneath. This is also a good time to paint the reflection on the lake. Don’t worry about getting it perfect – reflections can be challenging. Embrace their organic nature.
Step 4: Adding Depth and Detail
Continuing with the progression from back to front, it’s time to paint the treeline. This layer helps separate the trees from the mountains, providing a sense of depth. I used Sap Green for the trees.
Next, I painted the reflections of the treeline in the water. The reflection should be blurrier than the actual trees, blending more into the watery surface.
Step 5: Detailed Approach
Now it’s time to focus on the mountains. Objects in the background will naturally appear lighter and bluer in color, as well as less detailed. This mimics the way we perceive distance in real life. For this portion, I used Payne’s Gray with touches of Ultramarine Blue.
Step 6: Midground and Foreground
After completing the sky, mountains, and treeline, it’s time to move on to the shoreline on the right side of the image. I mixed Burnt Sienna with Yellow Ochre to create the color for the dirt.
When painting larger areas, I tend to be cautious and paint just within the intended boundaries. This prevents accidentally encroaching on other elements of the painting, such as nearby trees. Trust me, I’ve learned this the hard way!
Step 7: Capturing the Trees
Alright, now it’s time to paint those lovely trees! When I say “paint from trunk to limb,” I mean you should aim your brushstrokes from the center of the tree (where the trunk would be) towards the outer branches. Use horizontal flicks of the wrist, starting from the center and gradually reducing the stroke sizes as you move away from the center.
For this painting, I used a dabbing technique with a slightly damp brush loaded with paint (Sap Green and Viridian), creating broken, uneven branch shapes.
After completing the initial layers of lighter, more abstract branches, I referred back to the reference photo to identify trees with darker, more distinct branches. Once my paper was dry, I used a small 000 brush to add the darker trunks and branches, using colors like Burnt Umber, Burnt Sienna, Sap Green, and Ultramarine Blue.
Remember, you don’t have to draw every single branch. Be light-handed with your brush, barely dragging it to create the lightest strokes possible. Intersperse visible branches between the trees, as if they were scattered on the forest floor. This technique gives the impression of intertwined branches, resulting in a more realistic forest setting.
Step 8: Adding Details and Final Touches
As the painting progresses, move on to painting the grasses and rocks in the immediate foreground. For grasses, paint from bottom to top, gradually tapering the strokes to mimic the thicker part of the grass attached to the ground.
When it comes to rocks, observe your reference photo to identify the darkest shadows. Create horizontal hatch marks that emulate the uneven, craggy surface of rocks. Aim to achieve three value ranges: light spots, medium dark areas, and very dark spots.
Next, paint the reflections of trees and rocks in the water, making them darker to convey their proximity to the viewer.
Step 9: Finalizing the Sky and Finishing Touches
As you near completion, go back and finish any remaining areas, such as the sky and the lake. In this particular painting, I added more cloud shapes to the sky.
Finally, use small brushes for any necessary finishing touches. Darken the grasses and add shadows along the shoreline. Complete the color gradient on the mountain in the middle of the painting. Take your time and add details until you feel satisfied with the result.
And voila! You’ve completed your watercolor landscape masterpiece. I hope this step-by-step tutorial has been helpful to you. This was the exact process I followed for this piece, which took me around 4 hours to complete (although, to be honest, I’m not the best at keeping track of time!).
Remember, practice makes perfect. Don’t be afraid to experiment and find your own unique style. If you want more in-depth tutorials, feel free to visit my YouTube channel.