Judging Landscape Painting

I recently had the honor of judging the entries for the “Banks of the Hudson” exhibition for the Woodstock School of Art and noticed two common problems among the drawings and paintings I rejected. I should first say there were many outstanding drawings, paintings, and photographs of the Hudson River entered in the competition, and I had to choose between some masterful pictures when designating the awards. However, I was surprised that so many artists who proudly submitted their work didn’t seem to understand how to manage their choices of colors, values, and contrasts to create the sense of space within their paintings.

In making my decisions, I was reminded of what I learned from writing articles on several teachers associated with the Ridgewood Art Institute, in New Jersey. They explained that colors generally follow a prismatic progression from foreground to background. That is, the colors of shapes in the foreground are often in the red-orange-yellow range, and those in the distance tend toward the blue-indigo-violet end of the spectrum. For example, bushes and grasses in the immediate foreground of a landscape can be painted with mixtures of color that include green, yellow, red, or ochre, whereas the distant mountains will best be described with colors dominated by blue or purple.

The other common occurrence in nature is that objects in the foreground are larger and have contrast, texture, and clarity; those in the distance are smaller and have less contrast between the values and softer edges that allow one shape to blend into another. That’s referred to as atmospheric perspective—the change that occurs because of the amount of moisture and dust in the air between one’s eyes and the objects one is observing and because of the fact that some colors can’t be seen from great distances. Most artists understand this, but they often tint their color mixtures by adding lots of titanium white to make them lighter in value, and they don’t realize they should also be adding a cool blue or violet—cobalt or cerulean blue with a touch of a cool red—to give substance to those distant shapes.

Two days after judging the Banks of the Hudson show, I decided to remind myself of the lessons I’ve been offered by a number of artists, including John Phillip Osborne and Joel Popadics, both of whom teach at the Ridgewood Art Institute, and Eric Angeloch, who teaches at the Woodstock School of Art. I set up my half French easel along the Hudson River near Peekskill, New York, and painted a favorite view of the Bear Mountain Bridge. I think I did a fairly decent job of suggesting deep space by following the prismatic progression of colors. However, halfway through the painting process I recognized that I should have done a better job of establishing an asymmetrical arrangement of shapes, so I adjusted the form of an overhanging cloud to make it less symmetrical. (See the painting's progression below).




As a student of painting, I am always interested in learning from other artists. I would appreciate it if you would post a comment about the ways you approach landscape painting and/or how you teach others to deal with the issues of composition, color, value, contrast, and edges.

M. Stephen Doherty

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About M. Stephen Doherty

I've been interested in art since I was a child,  and I was fortunate to be able to take Saturday art classes at the Cincinnati Art Museum from the time I was 9 years old until I finished high school. I majored in art at Knox College and graduated summa *** laude, Phi Beta Kappa (proving artists can use both sides of their brain!).  I then earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in printmaking from Cornell University; taught art in public schools, a community college, an adult education program, and a college; worked in the marketing department of a company that manufactured screen printing supplies; and was hired to be editor of American Artist in January, 1979.

Thomas S. Buecher introduced me to plein air painting and it immediately became a passion of mine because it got me outdoors and allowed me to continue learning when I traveled to judge art shows, attend conventions, give lectures, and interview artists. Over the years I've exhibited my paintings at Bryant Galleries in New Orleans, Trees Place Gallery on Cape Cod, and in a traveling exhibition titled From Sea to Shining Sea.

I've written 10 books on artists and art techniques and contibuted articles to magazines, websites, and exhibition catalogs. Now as I prepare for semi-retirement, I'm trying to hone my painting skills -- especially those related to painting portraits.

I've been very fortunate to have met thousands of talented artists who have enriched my life with their art, their friendship, and their advice. I am grateful to Jerry Hobbs and Susan Meyer who hired me in 1979, to the talented people who worked with me on the magazines, and to the artists and advertisers who supported American Artist, Watercolor, Workshop, and Drawing  magazines and the related websites.

I've also been blessed with a supportive, talented wife, Sara; a daughter, Clare, who works for an insurance agency; a son, Michael, who is a computer enginner in Austin; a son-in-law, Shawn, who can fix and carry anything; a granddaughter, Amanda, who has me wrapped around her finger; and my mother, Dotty, who has advised and encouraged me from the beginning.

24 thoughts on “Judging Landscape Painting

  1. I did one of my few attempts at plein air and your hit the nail on the head. On critiquing my painting, I had very similar values through out, my background trees were larger than the foreground. I played with the corrections and what a difference. Of course it is destroyed, but served as a valuable lesson.

  2. When I’m deciding on a composition, I focus in on the shapes in the landscape I’m wanting to paint. The squares, triangles, circles, strong diagonals, etc. and do thumbnails with these varying how I’ve cropped the scene. I know what my natural preference is (asymmetrical, with foreground focus on left-hand third) and try to always do some variations away from this so I’m not always just starting at the same point.

  3. Many artists that I see have trouble with values. I try to get them to understand that they can dramatically improve their work by putting in dark darks as well as mid-to-light values. That alone increases depth in an art work.

  4. I have observed that most students strive for technical accuracy (they are excellent draftsman), and do not know the basics in composition, prospective, value balance, etc. Most people will forgive technical accuracy if these elements are met, but not vice versa. I suggest they read Edgar Payne or Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting.

  5. You have learned from some the best Steve. My 2 cents: As a general rule I establish the horizon line first. If it is simple composition I will dive right in with paint. More complex arrangements and I will pencil or ink in a line drawing of important shapes. I try to get the relationships and key elements nailed down. Then I can concentrate on painting.
    The horizon line is important to me because it sets the position of the viewer more than any other element. I also like to use the color of the horizon to develop the over all color “theme” of the painting. In many of my paintings color is paramount. If there is a dominant color scheme to the painting it is established early and nearly every color in the work contains portions of this hue. Some of F.E. Church’s most dramatic and successful paintings are nearly monochromatic in nature yet they are so vivid and powerful.
    Another point I try to make when conducting a landscape workshop is sticking to one “clean” green. I use a good quality sap green. One green, like sap, allows me to push it around in the painting without getting overly complicated in mixing color. I can warm it up to bring it forward or cool it down to push it back. Adding it’s compliment puts it in shadow nicely when needed. Simplifying my color mixing and limiting my pallet makes painting en plein air much easier for me. I really enjoy your blogs Steve. Thanks.

  6. I think I would have placed the hills on the right side of the painting a little farther back in space and would have suggested two hills with two rounded tops and not just one.I prefer to see asymmetry in the elements rather than being too much the same. Also, the far distance seems too close in size and has come forward. I would have made the distant hills a little smaller.
    The waterline in the painting seems to be sloping down to ward the left, and would be better parallel to the bottom of the canvas.
    The colours and atmospheric efeects are well done It looks like a breezy, fresh day. Blessings!

  7. I have several comments. (I love your blog, by the way!)
    First, Steve, looking at the five pix you posted, it is difficult to tell the order in which the five were created. It would help if you would add some kind of descriptor or number to each pix, just to make it easier to follow along with your text comments.

    Second, assuming that the painting on the top left is your final revision, you talked about dealing with the symmetry problem of the clouds, but you forgot to mention the nice way you handled the foreground symmetry problem by raising the foreground trees above the background mountain on the right. This, to me, was an even more important adjustment to enhance the overall composition than the clouds.

    And finally, in addition to symmetrical shapes, another typical amateur mistake is to make the center of the canvas the focal point (one point perspective). Dividing the canvas space into odd numbers (thirds, fifths, etc.) and placing focal points off-center will always create a more pleasing composition.

  8. I agree totally with your little mini-course, and love the catch-phrase “prismatic progression”. When I looked at your painting, my first response, was “Boy, isn’t that a challenge! Making the gap between two such similar hills the subject is truly a challenge!

    As I look at your series, I think the next-to-last image has more feeling of Summer Day, of benign sunlight, and a more open-airiness. I think the reason is that there the grass is yellower and in the last one it is bluer. Yes, that dark contrast thrusts the grass into the foreground (perhaps too much so?), but it also somehow jars with the soft sun-soaked moist air surrounding everything else…I think more yellow (prismatic progression starting with the warms, as you said) in the grasses would also have pushed it forward and maintained that beautiful heat-hazy softness of a summer day which is everywhere else – and yes, I realize there isn’t much haze in foregrounds, but I do think you captured that softeness and then lost it. And I love seeing your work, having read your words for decades (since about 1973).

    Since I see the right edge of the water, under the right hill, as sloping slightly upward, then maybe you got it just right. I am too astigmatic to be any judge of straightness!

  9. I just noticed the pix on the top left is a photo (I thought it was the final painting.) My bad. My original comments were based on just looking at the small pix on my screen instead of clicking on them to make them larger.

  10. Thank you for your blog, I do enjoy them. Yes, I was taught and teach myself the principals of aerial and color perspective, but not the asymetrical arrangements of the shapes, except of course, large, small et. I will now include this in my lessons.

  11. I don’t have much to add since much has been covered already. I do, however, very much appreciate your reference to “atmospheric perspective”.

    Books normally seem to call this “aerial perspective” which has never felt right to me as it gives an image of viewing from high above. The issue is the atmosphere as you have explained so well and I try to give my students both terms but then explain why I use “atmospheric perspective”.

  12. Steve: One of the best lessons I learned in art school was from a prof who was also a glider pilot. Forced to pay attention to updrafts etc. he said he also had to watch the clouds to read what the weather would be. On a trip to Rochester for a Stella show he spent the entire hour driving from Buffalo describing the clouds and what would be happening. In viewing his watercolors and oils you could almost feel the temperature and humidity in his landscapes because of the clouds in his work.

  13. Steve: Great clouds!! It can be difficult to get them to looks that good. I would like to see the bushes in the foreground with more warmth (i.e. yellow ochre or some cad yellow lite or med.) Also taking a little more artistic license with the hills and making one smaller or having more of a dip in it like the photo would help to break up the symmetry. I’ve recently become aware of how important the atmospheric perspective is and have been challenged to accomplish it. You did a great job!!!

  14. Hello – I want to thank you for your blog on “landscape ptg” –
    I entered a ptg. that you rejected for the Hudson River On the Banks show – and that is fine…one never really knows what the curator or person judgeing is thinking.
    I sometimes get accepted and am thrilled and I sometimes get rejected and when I go to view the show I am perplexed.
    So I was grateful for your comments because I think they ring true and present a position – I dug out my ptg. and viewed it through the suggestions of your blog and although I feel I did paint as you explained but..I could have pushed the atsmospheric perspective a bit more accurately – so you have given me some insight that I shall remember for my next outdoor, large view ptg.
    It is good to receive a critique that makes some sense out of the rejection…thank you –
    I am reading the Payne book on Composition and Outdoor Ptg. and he says that one should only paint for oneself and not the critic and although I think that true it is still a good thing to have been provided some usuful critique.
    bonnie :>)

  15. Some quick tips that I offer to my students in regard to creating further distance in their landscape paintings are as follows:
    *Look for the ellipses in the landscape and translate them upon the canvas. The ellipses help to create movement and draws the viewers’ eye through the picture.
    *Be aware of scale and perspective. Contrast and compare the shape and scale of the objects. Things get smaller as they recede into the distance. Think about how much of the sky will appear in the picture. By merely raising or lowering the horizon line, one can shift the perspective creating more or less depth within the painting.
    *Be cognizant of any kind of repetition that maybe occurring within the painting. We may sometimes be unaware of the consistent repetitive shapes or equally spaced out items we are creating. Shapes and spacing are quite varied in nature and are not as systematic as we sometimes unconsciously portray them. Constantly observe, compare your work to the landscape and be honest about what you see in your work by comparison to the landscape.
    *Determine where the point of focus will be. Consider positioning the highest light a third in and a third up on the canvas.
    *Reserve the foreground for the darkest accent. By having a dark in the immediate foreground it will help to push the distance in the picture. A dark accent in the middle or far picture plane will instantly collapse the illusion of depth.
    *Sunlight values remain consistent through out the picture however as sunlight objects recede into the distance they lose their local color.
    *Shadow values vary. Shadows in the immediate foreground are darker and generally have more local color. As shadows recede into the distance they get lighter and bluer (blue-gray or blue violet.)
    *Be mindful of the illuminating source, the sky. The sky may exhibit variations in color and is not always one solid color of blue. Skies are prone to having atmosphere therefore should be examined for subtle differences of the spectrum. The sky nearest to the sun will be brightest and perhaps lightest. The atmospheric sky furthest away in the distance may have subtle variations and may appear less blue. Look to see if you can see the spectrum and indicate as such. Always examine that sky!
    *Pushing the distance in the sky is also about the clouds. Sunlight clouds in the furthest picture plane may appear to have a touch of red in their “white tops” and their shadow bottoms may appear at times to blend into the background sky.
    *Emphasis of texture generally is placed upon the objects in the foreground while texture generally becomes more subtle and less noticeable in objects in the distance.
    *Treatment of edges and line. The more solid the edges and lines appear, the more the objects appear closer. The softer edges and lines appear, the more the objects appear to recede.
    *Lastly, never give up. Be indefatigable. Landscape painting is humbling and unquestionably it presents its challenges. It is not always easy to paint and perhaps it is not meant to be easy. It is the struggle that makes us better painters. In time with much practice and direct observation from nature, one shall improve and ultimately triumph.


  16. It seems to me that the angle of the view could have been shifted to give a more dynamic composition, and the foreground warmed up, perhaps with some variation in shape so it doesn’t look like a stripe on the bottom of the painting. there could be some shift in lighting to create a shadow cast by the boulders shapes onto the water, and the far back area hues more muted. the same blues resonate in all the shapes, sky, water and boulders, which flattens the images. At times it is significant to render not the image, but how you as an artist feel about that image-i.e. bored, excited, surprised, relaxed- the painting is true to it’s source, but tells me nothing about the day.

  17. Overall, I agree with everything you said, but I think the example was lacking in depiction of this. The farthest hills appear too crisp,large and dark to be pushed as far back as they should. Also, the next group of two broken hills are too large, round and dark which brings them too far forward in reference to the hills farther back. The foreground should be brighter and have deeper shadows and more volume to help add to the perspective. I also think the water should be slightly lighter toward the front edge of the painting. Usually the landscapes I do are not as far reaching as the example you gave. I tend to like to paint either very early in the day or nearing dusk in order to get the most dramatic contrast in the lighting. A quick underpainting showing the lilghtest, the midrange and the darkest areas makes it easier to compensate for the rest of the picture and form a cohesive whole. I try to set up the perspective from the getgo to help to control the sizes of the major elements in the picture. I thank you for your blogs,because they always give me what I consider important things to contemplate.

  18. Thanks for all your helpful comments. I’ll number the steps next time to make the sequence clear, and I’ll do a compositional sketch to get the design right before I start painting.

    It’s interesting to me how differently we all approach painting. For example, Mikel’s suggestion of using one tube green goes against a lot of advice I’ve received about mixing greens to get a range of warm and cool. His paintings are stunning, so obviously one tube of sap green works well for him and that’s all that needs to be said.

    I’m delighted to know there are so many of you out teaching and helping artists like me to get better at the painting process. When I achieve perfection (never), I’ll stop asking for your helpful advice!

    Don’t stop adding comments just because I wrote this response. And don’t be afraid to give me advice. I really want to get better and painting and sharing what others have helped me understand.


  19. Thanks for covering this topic. For a plein air painter there is so much to consider as you begin. I noted how you noticed the symmetry issue along the way. Two things from the location photo I see that would help: the variety in the size and shape of the two land masses (as was mentioned), also the foreground greenery used to break up the water line. I paint a lot of water-scapes here in FL., and I look for elements like that.

  20. The wonderful thing about art is that there are many ways to get to a similar result or visual statement.

    As an artist, I’ve had opportunities to study with some of the greats, and they each have developed a personal approach to mixing greens, composing pictures and essentially sharing visually what they want to say about a place.. with paint!

    Because there are a number of good approaches to painting landscapes, I’ve had to select one approach and follow it for awhile until I’ve mastered it, then I try a new different approach. Then weight them and see which one best suits my personality and style.

    If we all painted exactly the same way with one formula, how boring the world of art would be! Thanks to all who’ve shared their approaches because they offer a variety of options for artists to try out.

  21. Steve, I just found this blog link in my old emails. I passed up on reading it since I was in the process of moving. I am so glad I went back into my old unread emails today, this is a great blog! I took many notes from this because I really think any tidbits on what a judge feels is a better painting to accept into a show is extremely important for artists who enter competitions like myself. Just one improvement can push an artist’s paintings upwards into the finalists. You don’t know how glad I was to read this, even the commentator’s notes. I have been rejected from the last 3 juried shows and it hurt something awful. I now see several areas where I need to work on improving. It would be nice to see more blogs or articles on what the judges think when they analyze the paintings. I know it is several categories like composition, shapes, path of entering the painting, focal point, values, originality, presentation, use of color. I have studied, observed and practiced all of these to the ninth degree. I have been successful several times in my life. But juried shows are getting more and more difficult to get into in my region. What exactly what are they looking for in dissected terms with each of these categories? I want to take an average painting to above average and more to the wow factor. That’s the secret we artists want to know and this blog just began to hit upon those hints. Thank-you and I look forward to reading more, I’m hooked on your blog.

  22. The land mass on the left is almost a mirror image of the land mass to the right. They both occupy the same amount of space and have the same contour. It’s usually a good idea to vary your sizes and shapes to make for a more interesting work. I think your idea for the cloud change is a good one.


  23. Dear Steve,
    When I paint landscape, I am after what I hope will be compelling representations of a particular place, and I’ll work either directly on site, or I’ll start a work on site and finish it in the studio. At present I am not teaching (I work full time as a museum preparator ) , but I will be happy to share. I generally go for the large shapes first and then subdivide the shapes to the degree of finish I want. I begin working loose and fine tune as I go along. General to particular, in that order. I’m constantly looking for relationships among shapes, colors, values and edges. The orchestration of those elements are a combination of conscious / intuitive interplay. ( I read somewhere that the basis of good design could be answered in three words: ” It shouldn’t hurt” ). I work to keep the painting moving and avoid being overly critical while I’m putting it together. I can save that for later. I think painting is as much about what you leave out as it is about what you put in, and that’s something I’m still learning. Thank you for selecting my work for inclusion in The Banks of the Hudson exhibit at the Woodstock School of Art last year. bets regards, Bruce Bundock http://www.artid.com/bundock