Painting landscapes

Painting Advice > Today’s subject deals with the principle of contrast in the formulation of an effective design. So often, painting students are given a set of rules to live by and at the same time, not told why these so called “rules” exist.

Today’s tip focuses mainly on contrast, with regard to landscape painting, but as I ponder this subject it becomes evident that there is a theme here which permeates all of the arts. No matter if we are talking about painting, music, dance or theatre, the principle is the same; contrast is necessary to hold the viewer’s attention and make for a more interesting presentation.

How to paint landscapes

I’m not going to attempt to try and lay out a formula for what would be considered the right amount of contrast versus the right amount of unity in a painting, because that would be the job of the individual artist. Suffice it to say, that contrast or counterpoint, as it is termed in painting, is necessary in one form or another.

How to paint landscapes

To illustrate my point, let’s take a non-painting example for clarity on the subject. I am no expert in the area of theatre and acting, but I do see parallels as I have said, in all art forms. In the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, we have a somewhat idyllic family of a bygone era who are caught up in some very extraordinary circumstances. Looking back on the movie, I often think of this as a very satisfying example of family love and the devotion of an entire community to a higher ideal. But that feeling, that this movie evokes, didn’t come about just by showing everyone living together in blissful harmony! No, there was a lot of counterpoint by way of drama and bad feelings that acted as an effective foil for the eventual harmony of the production.

In the same way a movie, or stage production creates drama and resolution, the visual artist must do the same thing in their paintings. Depending on the mood you are trying to create, your proportion of counterpoint to harmony, will vary according to the painting’s needs.

Painting landscapes

Now, as a garage musician, I could go on and on about this theme that plays out in the other art forms as well, but I hope you get the idea; without a certain amount of tension there is only boredom! I can’t stress this enough, there needs to be some sort of hook, whether through contrast of value, color, linear elements against mass, or whatever it is, to keep the viewer engaged for as long as possible. This contrast is your counterpoint, and there are several ways this works in a painting.

At your main focal point, as well as subsidiary areas of interest, you might punch up the color contrast, the value contrast, use harder edges, thicker paint etcetera, to give those areas more emphasis. Perhaps your counterpoint might take the form of an opposing line or linear movement. An artist I once worked with called these places of emphasis “nodal points”.  He was speaking strictly of a linear concept in drawing, but the principle has wider applications as well. These are all tools of the oil painter, and they should be put to good use in order to make the painting work. “Counterpoint”, usually has linear connotations as well, but I like to expand on this idea to include the whole gamut of painterly expression.

Think about this idea when you paint again, but don’t think that this effective balance of measures will always come instantly while in the heat of battle. That’s nice when it happens, but often these types of resolutions will come after much study and deliberation over a painting, especially in the studio.

Painting advice

Out on location these decisions must be made on the spot, with little time to evaluate your success. Often these little jewels will benefit after they are brought back to the studio for a time, before the offending passage or passages can be resolved successfully. This is why regular studio time is important to the landscape painter, not only to create larger works, but to hone skills that can be put to good use in all painting situations. Both studio and location work go hand in hand in the development of a good eye along with improvement in artistic knowledge and skill. In one sense, you could say that studio and location work are counterpoints to each other and are symbiotic in their relationship to each other!

Have fun with this, put it to good use in your next artistic endeavor and make it part of your procedure, looking for the necessary counterpoint that will help assure artistic success.

Feel free to comment on this article below.


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John Hughes teaches landscape painting classes for Salt Lake Community College and the Scottsdale Artist School, along with private art workshops and classes. His work is represented by Montgomery Lee Fine Art (Utah) and Mountain Trails Gallery (Wyoming). Hughes is a member of the Plein Air Painters of Utah, Rocky Mountain Plein Air Painters, and the American Impressionist Society. John’s work and art advice has been featured in Plein Air magazine, Fibonacci Fine Arts Digest, 15 Bytes magazine, Outdoor Painter, and Artists on Art. His work was recently featured in the book "Painters of the Grand Tetons" by Donna and James Poulton. He now maintains a studio in Taylorsville Utah, where he resides with his wife Teresa, four children, and two grandchildren.


  1. Interesting and thoughtful essay on a topic which is all too often overlooked or forgotten. In my own studio and classroom, I have found that it isn’t the concept of contrast, but rather how far to push it which becomes the problem. Subtleties are too often lost in favor of higher value contrast, and high-key intensity of color. I’m convinced that the digital age, which made manipulating contrast as easy as moving a button is largely to blame for this. About 15 years ago I started noticing that many Hollywood films were utilizing a very high contrast of value and color, to the point of them looking highly artificial (LOTR and 300 come to mind as stark examples, but there are many other offenders). I am reminded of the advice of my old mentor: “Lights and darks add the punch, but the mid-tones carry the weight of the composition.”
    Thanks again for the insightful article.

    Greg Walter, MFA

  2. Greg, I’d not heard/read of your statement from your old mentor and so appreciate your sharing it! Sure makes a lot of sense!

  3. Great points! I have been taught that contrast is greater nearer to us in atmospheric perspective and around the focal point too as you stated. I also think it’s good to step back a distance to see your painting and make sure it has some contrast in the major shapes, otherwise it becomes boring and easy to overlook. I love subtleties in color but within larger cohesive value areas. It’s easy to overdo the midtones and lose your contrast. Those shapes should be more interesting and not an oval or circular shape where your gaze just gets stuck there indefinitely.


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