Deciding What to Sketch: Cloudy Cliffs

Faced with a landscape with many possibilities, how do I decide what to sketch? Take this example, a picnic spot a little south of Struan, where I was on Sunday. To the right there’s an inlet with boats, to the left a sequence of headlands and a lighthouse, looking down a colourful rocky shoreline.

How to decide what to sketch

I’ll look around, but most likely go back to what got my attention initially, what do I find most striking or dramatic or appealing? That’s what I’ll sketch first; other possibilities might become further sketches, depending on time and the weather, or saved as a location to revisit another day.

In this instance, it was the tall, dark cliff in the far distance (not quite as far as the wide angle of this photo makes it seem), and the splash of white that was the small lighthouse in the middle distance. As the clouds moved, the light on the distant cliff changes; sometimes darker, sometimes lighter and revealing more. I’ll definitely come back here on a sunnier day for another look.
How to decide what to sketch

Sketching View near Struan, Skye

Monday Motivator: Touches of Colour

Art motivational quote“The freedom of Eardley’s gestural painting in her landscapes is contained within very well thought-out compositions. The use in all her paintings of brilliant touches of colour in key positions shows her schooled eye for balance and dynanism.”
Source: Joan Eardley by Fiona Pearson, National Galleries of Scotland p9

Brilliant in thoughtfully positioned and in intensity of colour. To take one example from the paintings Scottish artist Joan Eardley: look at the reds on the chimneys of a painting titled Snow. Then at the yellow in the bottom right-hand corner, which is echoed in the central foreground. Muted to an earthy, ochre yellow it dances across the landscape, ending mixed with the red as a touch of orange in the distant cloud.

Small touches of colour that change the whole mood of a painting, and pull your eye across the composition. Did Eardley plan the placement and choice of the beforehand or did it evolve? I imagine a bit of both. Ultimately it doesn’t matter when it was decided, only that it was.

Painting in Progress: Grazing the Loch (Part 2)

So, at the end of another day’s painting, this is how Grazing the Loch looks (this was it yesterday). The weather’s got a bit windier, creating white horses on the sea and blowing in a bit of mist. Some daisies have also popped up in the grass. You can’t see it in the photos, but the cliff edge in the distance has some iridescent silver and gold on it, part of an underlayer; it shows if there’s side light. It’s now at the “Am I there yet?” stage, where I ponder it.

Work-in-Progress: Grazing the Loch Shore. Size: 120x60cm

Work-in-Progress: Grazing the Loch Shore.
Size: 120x60cm

Detail: Grazing the Loch Shore sheep painting

Detail: Grazing the Loch Shore sheep painting


Painting in Progress: Grazing the Loch

I’m waiting for the paint to dry on this before I have another round with it. My fingers are itching to fix the all-to-neat alignment of the shoreline and sheep heads, but first the paint needs to dry. I also need to decide whether to add a cloud in the sky to cast the shadow on the distant hilltop, or lighten it. Plus all the other additions, tweaks, adjustments, not-yet-put-in-ideas bouncing around my head. And deciding whether it’ll have daisies or buttercups in the foreground. Perhaps a few poppies for a splash of red? Are we there yet? Is it dry yet…?

Work-in-Progress: Grazing the Loch Shore

Work-in-Progress: Grazing the Loch Shore.
Size: 120x60cm
Commissioned painting

Part 2: Are We There Yet?

7 Ways to Create Depth in a Landscape Painting

Single Track road on Skye in ScotlandThere isn’t a single, secret ingredient which instantly transforms a painting from one that looks flat into one with a sense of depth. Rather it’s a combination of ingredients; you have to use a few, working out how much of each you need for that particular recipe composition.

1. Decrease the Detail
We see more detail in the things that are closest to us. Plants and trees don’t have to be very far away before we no longer see every leaf individually. So paint more detail in the foreground, less in the middle distance and only suggest it for the background. Give a sense of texture, tone, and colour for the distance, not specifics.

Don’t get seduced by a reference photo taken on a ultra-high definition camera that shows you every blade of grass several kilometres away. But we’re painting, not reproducing photos. Poetry lies in what’s not said.

2. Make Elements Smaller
That things further away look smaller than things close to us is one of the fundamental rules of perspective in Western art. By placing an element of a known size in a painting, such as a figure or tree, it instantly gives the viewer something to measure the rest of the elements against, a sense of scale and distance. Our brains automatically scale the rest of what’s in the composition to this.

Having a road or railway or a row of trees or fenceposts getting smaller and narrower as it heads into the distance is a classic. While we do know a road is the same width along its length (or more or less, in the case of a single-track road as in the photo), it appears to narrow the further away from us it is and thus seeing this in a landscape painting help creates the illusion of depth.

3. Hide Bits
Ducks may fly in a row, but once they’ve landed they wander all over the place. Overlap elements and our brain immediately interprets it as one thing being behind another, contributing to a sense of depth.

4. Get the Blues
The further away things are, the lighter they are in tone and they cooler (bluer) in colour. It’s not necessarily dramatic, it can be subtle, but it’s there. The technical term is “Aerial Perspective”, but before you run away in a panic from the P-Word, think about how you’ve surveyed a landscape admiring bands of hills or mountains disappearing into the distance, getting lighter and lighter in tone. That’s aerial perspective, or a change in value or tone that give a sense of distance. Think:

Foreground = “Normal”
Middle Distance = Lighter in Tone and Bluer in Colour
Far Distance = Much Lighter and Bluer

Adding a glaze of a lighter tone on what’s in the distance of a landscape painting immediately increases the sense of depth.  I’d use titanium white, possibly muted with a bit of grey-blue. With the “colours become cooler or bluer” thing, don’t only think about adapting the colours in the distance but also consider what you’re using in the foreground. For instance making a foreground green one that leans towards yellow and a background green one that’s bluer. Add reds to the foreground as red pulls forward in the eye (and it doesn’t need to be solid patch of red, it can be a glaze) .

Work in progress. 76x76cm.

Even at this early work-in-progress stage the road narrowing gives a sense of depth to the composition.

5. Soften Your Touch
Hard edges (or found edges) seem closer because they’re sharply defined, whereas soft (or lost) edges seem further away, that sense of suggestion rather than definite telling.

6. Canvas format
It’s easier to create a sense of depth in a wide or landscape format canvas or piece of paper than a tall or portrait format one. It’s because we generally look at a landscapes horizontally not vertically, so our eye is trained to look sideways not up an down. Of course there are exceptions; the main point is that it should be a deliberate choice. Human vision is steroscopic and based horizontally (i.e. we have two eyes next to each other) so depth is automatically related to the horizontal; wide paintings emphasise this.

7. Put Things in Perspective
Take the time to learn the rules of one- and two-point perspective, and use them. Stop running away from it.


  • Aerial perspective applies to the sky as well as land. The sky directly above you is bluer than at the horizon. Watch out when relying on a digital photograph to provide information on sky colour as many bleach out the sky.
  • Warm objects appear closer, so if your painting lacks depth, don’t try to solve it by adding a small figure wearing a red shirt in the distance, have them wearing blues.
  • Spend time considering how high or low you’re going to put the horizon line. It’s one of the strongest visual clues for viewpoint and perspective in a landscape. Very low down, and you’ve little space for putting in whatever’s going to be “foreground” in the composition. Very high and you’ve little space for “sky”.


Monday Motivator: Intentional Effort

Art motivational quote“Monet sometimes worked up to sixty times on the same painting…

“…building up his textures in stages, and then strategically scumbling, overpainting and glazing them

“…calculated and intentional effort

“…myth of Monet’s apparently mindless spontaneity

“…Monet’s painting was the product of a consciousness deeply committed to its own material and emotional resources and aware that viewers, to one degree or another, had resources as well.”
Source: Monet and Modernism page 136/7

A painting looking spontaneous, random, quickly done and effortless all too easily belies what’s gone into this result. As it should, because the artistic effort shouldn’t be what the viewer is most aware of as they look at a painting.

Rather it’s revealed by the painting changing as the light conditions vary, emphasising different layers and altering the optical mixing. By a painting seeming one thing from a distance and another at arm’s length. Rewarding close looking, showing you more the more you look. There are layers of thought, memory, experience, and time, as well as the paint.

Painting Techniques: Scumbling

Painting Techniques: Scumbling

Don’t be this harsh with a new brush!

Scumbling is a painting technique where a broken, thin layer of colour is applied over another, letting patches of what’s underneath show through. The result is visually stimulating and textural, producing a sense of depth and interesting colour variations.

Scumbling can be done with any paint, using a dry brush (very little paint on a brush, not a soggy, well-loaded brush), or by dabbing at the surface with a rough sponge or crumpled cloth dipped in a little paint. Also with dry mediums such as pastel, lightly dragging a soft pastel (the softer the better) held on its side across the top to add a broken covering of a new colour.

It might help to think of the technique as tickling the surface, or using up the last little bits of paint in the brush, leaving behind fragments of colour. Or if you prefer to be vigorous, scrubbing at a painting with a not-quite-clean brush.

Work on the top surface of the painting, the top of texture ridges, the tops of the canvas fibres, not filling in ditches. And on dried paint, not wet, so the scumbled paint sits on top rather than mixing in. Rather go over an area again than start with too much paint.

Scumbling Tips:

  • Wipe a brush dry after rinsing, dip it into a bit of paint, then dab it on a cloth to remove most of the paint. It can feel wasteful, but practice teaches you to get less on a brush. Remember you can also dip your brush into this wiped-off paint rather than fresh paint on your palette.
  • It helps if the paint is stiff as it doesn’t spread as easily when you apply it.
  • Holding a cloth around the brush hairs at the ferrule end will help pull moisture out of the brush without removing the pigment.

Passing Place

Passing on the way from the hairdressers?
(For those who haven’t encountered one, the diamond-shaped roadsign indicates a passing place on a single-track road. More modern versions are small white squares with the words “passing place”, which I find aren’t as easy to spot from a distance when driving. This photo was taken on the lower part of the Quiraing Road on the Staffin side.)

Passing place sign with sheep on Isle of Skye