How to paint landscapes
"When My Son Beheld the Sea" by Kathleen Hudson

Kathleen Hudson (who is on the faculty of the Plein Air Convention) has been drawn to the landscape since childhood. Here, she explains her process of how to paint landscapes.

Kathleen Hudson moved to Boston for her undergraduate degree at Harvard. During her years in the city, Hudson came to love the beautiful New England landscape as she painted, studied mountain travel narratives, and led backpacking trips for fellow students.

After graduating, she was selected to join Boston’s Copley Society of Art, the oldest non-profit art association in America. Today the artist lives and paints in Lexington, Kentucky, where she has a studio at Artists’ Attic. Kathleen is a Signature Member of the American Society of Marine Artists and remains an Artist Member of the Copley Society of Art. In 2017, Hudson received the Grand Prize in the 6th Annual PleinAir Salon for her painting “Bright Morning, Timberline Falls,” which was featured on the July 2017 cover of PleinAir Magazine. The same month Southwest Art named her an “Artist to Watch.”

How to paint landscapes
“Layers of Memory, Siyeh Pass” by Kathleen Hudson,

How to Paint Landscapes: A Q&A with Kathleen Hudson

What does the landscape, as a subject matter, give you as an artist?

I’ve been drawn to the landscape since childhood. My mother was a history teacher and homeschooled me, so I always explored new places while hearing about the stories that land had witnessed — it brought the landscape to life for me.

When I paint a landscape, I tell a story. It might be a story of a singular moment in time (a shift in the light, a passing storm, some evocative atmospheric effect) that seemed emblematic of the place to me. There’s something ageless about the remote landscapes that form most of my painting subjects; without the noise of structures or vehicles, they might depict a place as it looked yesterday or a thousand years ago.

What are you looking for in a scene to paint either from a photo or from plein air?

I look for movement. Nothing you see is ever static. Even if a landscape looks still, your eyes are still interpreting wavelengths of light passing through atmosphere — so find the thing about your subject that makes it dynamic, that tells a story. I try to find the part of a place that seems most moving to me (in both the dynamic sense and evocative one) and focus on bringing that to life on the canvas.

Could you walk us through your process?

I almost always start with a thumbnail sketch, or more than one if I’m planning a larger work or solving a tricky composition. If something looks good as a small value thumbnail, it stands a good chance of looking good in a larger format. I may make some notes about the thing I want to emphasize in the piece. Then I do a transparent, mostly neutral underpainting on canvas to get my value structure pinned down.

After that, I mix piles of paint (as much as I think I’ll need, and then some) to see if I can get the main shapes’ colors where I want them — and make sure those harmonize well on the palette. Then it’s just a matter of blocking things in and making adjustments until the piece reaches its conclusion.

I check my progress often in a mirror so that I can view the painting with some critical removal — it’s like looking at someone else’s painting.

"Wetlands Near Savannah" by Kathleen Hudson (oil, 36 x 36 in.)
“Wetlands Near Savannah” by Kathleen Hudson (oil, 36 x 36 in.)

Where do you do the planning in your process?

My planning is fairly involved because I find that the time I spend thinking about a painting beforehand is never wasted. I may change things as the work progresses (and, in fact, it’s important to keep an open mind and be playful about the painting process!), but I like starting with a solid enough value structure that I have room to play around with color temperature, textures, shape modifications, and so on without being worried that I’ll lose anything critical to the piece.

What will you take from a reference and what will you change?

I change a lot, both when using reference and when painting from life. What I always take from the subject is the inspiration — something about a place “grabbed me” and inspired me to paint it. I make sure to remember what that was and paint that element with honesty and directness, usually pretty early in the painting’s evolution.

Once I have the main idea down in the right place on a canvas, I can shift other elements and adjust colors and values to serve the main idea — so those things don’t need to be as literal. Overall this can vary for me, though. Sometimes I’ll hew pretty closely to a reference if the edges are varied and the reference needs minimal changes to become a compelling painting. Other times I might change almost everything. In the studio I use Photoshop heavily before I start painting just to test ideas out.

Why would you suggest someone paint plein air? 

Nature is the best teacher you’ll have. Even if you don’t count many of your plein air paintings “successes” as finished works, I hope you’ll consider the work of going outside and painting from life a success. The purpose of your plein air study is just that — to learn.

You invariably learn something just by going outside and observing subtle shifts in color and light more closely. Those subtleties are key, and they’re the thing a camera often struggles to replicate. A camera also captures a static image, whereas the landscape that surrounds you is a place humming with life.

Sometimes I’ll get video reference in addition to still photos so I can play a loop and recreate the experience of being somewhere and experiencing that movement firsthand.

How important is drawing for you and your art?

Very! I apply and improve drawing skills with each thumbnail sketch, so it’s part of every painting. I also learned to see things in terms of shape rather than just line — which might be something to bear in mind when you’re approaching drawing as a study for an eventual painting.

"Coastal Patterns, Garrapata State Park" by Kathleen Hudson
“Coastal Patterns, Garrapata State Park” by Kathleen Hudson

Join Kathleen Hudson and many more at the Plein Air Convention & Expo, May 17-21, 2022 in Santa Fe, New Mexico! And, learn how to paint landscapes with Kathleen’s videos, “Creating Dramatic Atmosphere in Landscape” and “Clouds & Distance.”

Visit to find out all the amazing opportunities for artists through Streamline Publishing, including:
– Online art conferences such as Plein Air Live
– New video workshops for artists
– Incredible art retreats
– Educational and fun art conventions, and much more.

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