John Hughes, "Back Country Vista," oil, 24 x 30 inches

This week, I will follow up on my article from the last issue of PleinAir Today, titled “Three Important Skills Every Landscape Painter Needs.” In this segment I begin to explain some of the concepts that are recommended as a map for studying landscape painting. In my workshops, I do this as a Power Point presentation, but I’ll attempt to explain it here in a few paragraphs.

As stated previously, there are three main divisions of understanding that the oil painter needs to know, they are:

  1. A knowledge of the way light works. The reason this is so important is that, without understanding light, an artist literally won’t know what to do with the paint they are using! This is why, in the great ateliers, art students would often paint plaster casts in monochrome, for a year or more, before being allowed to move on to color. The main thing to be learned is the seven most common types of light: highlight, direct light, half-tone, core shadow, shadow, reflected light, and dark accent. (Please refer to the accompanying diagram.)

Shadows come in two types, form shadows and cast shadows, and each has a characteristic look. Form shadows generally are lighter, due to reflected light bouncing into them, and cast shadows typically display a harder edge — but don’t take that as a concrete rule. Always observe your subject first, before painting!

Artist John Hughes

In the case of the landscape, there are three light sources to deal with: sunlight, skylight, and reflected light. Additionally, it would be good to familiarize yourself with diffused light, which is so common on overcast days. This lighting situation obeys the same principles that govern sunlight, but in a much more subtle way. Once you understand the former, it is not difficult to make the jump to the other (due to space constraints, this could possibly be the subject of a future article).

  1. A feel for abstract design patterns, using the three value families: lights, mid-tones and darks. Generally speaking, the mid-tones make up the bulk of the painting, followed by the lights and darks, which are employed to create compelling motifs. Patterns, for our purposes, are defined as value shapes that weave in and around areas of the painting, such as the foreground, or other forms. These value shapes should connect in some way, either physically or mentally, to form cohesive arrangements, or paths of travel. Some artists refer to these as “super shapes.” They can be one or more objects that connect as a single value area. These connections help the artist to avoid a spotty overall look to the painting, known as “fractured masses.”

Composition and Design: There are two ways to think about this subject. First, as the larger compositional framework and then as the smaller design elements of the painting.

Let’s start with the first:

Edgar Payne, in his book “Composition of Outdoor Painting,” generalizes this idea into what he calls “stems.” This is a rudimentary way to conceptualize the larger composition in an abstract form and is a great way for the artist to visualize the underlying structure of a painting. To better understand this idea, it might be helpful to think of an armature in clay sculpture. Just as the armature supports the sculpture, so does the compositional stem support the overall design of a landscape painting.

I won’t go into this idea in detail, but I recommend this book highly. The one thing I will stress, though, is to follow Payne’s admonition on these stems: Commit them to memory, and don’t make your compositional framework too obvious in its construction. As evidenced by his writings, Payne’s opinion was that these stems need to be felt, more than spelled out for the viewer.

As to the smaller design elements of your painting, it’s important to note that the compositional stem, is set at the beginning of the painting, but the designing of smaller shapes and their relationships to each other doesn’t stop until the last brushstroke is applied to the canvas. This designing requires the artist to be aware of the effects of drawing, color, value, edges, and brushwork on the overall look of the painting. It’s like a game of chess in a way — one move over here may have consequences somewhere else! Look for connections of your lights, darks, and mid-tones and make them relate as abstract shapes, one to another; this is how design transcends reality and when this happens, art can also happen!

  1. The artist’s toolbox of expression: drawing, color, value, edges, and brushwork. This is a huge part of the learning process for artists, and covers skills that may take years to master. Learn them, because they are your means of expression in paint and need to be explored one at a time, in depth, for success. This last category is too large to cover here, so if you like what you are reading, leave a comment, and I will try to go into each of these areas with more precision in the future, starting with drawing.

This learning guide, if put to good use, will serve oil painters well in their quest to create exceptional works of art. It is my pleasure to share these ideas with a larger audience. It is so easy to paint for years and not get anywhere, or move very slowly, due to the fact that the way forward is often murky and obscure when you are setting your own course of study.

On a personal note, in my early years of study, I bounced around from one instructor to the next hoping to pick up a tidbit here and a morsel there, in an attempt to cobble together enough information to make sense of it all. After a long time, it finally took root, but it wasn’t until I really started to teach painting regularly that I sensed a need to clarify the process for my students. In doing so, I realized that there is a right way and a wrong way to study! Simply stated, the wrong way just takes longer, and sometimes artists wind up on a plateau, not knowing where to go next. My biggest desire is that this information, at the very least, will help some of you find the path to more effective learning and attain greater fulfillment as artists!

Until next time, cheers, and happy painting!

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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. I like this guy. John Hughs, and especially like his plein air work. I checked out his website and he seems like a really straight forward fellow and my guess is that he’s a good instructor. His paintings and his manner match up well. Be nice if he had a summer workshop in the High Sierra.

  2. Good stuff John. The basics are imperative to good painting. I echo all your thoughts. When I teach some students roll their eyes and want to get on to the fancy brush strokes without understanding light and design, but those things are really the most important steps. Keep it coming.

  3. I have known and painted with John for a few years now. I love his passion not only for painting but for his joy in sharing his knowledge and experience. Thank you John. Keep up the good work, in the studio and out.

  4. Another great article, John. Thanks for breaking it all down into a very understandable progression of elements. Of course, as you said in your previous article, it helps if one already has an innate artistic sense or talent, but understanding the mechanics–the whys and wherefores–certainly makes it easier in practice.

  5. Thank you all for your fine comments, I really appreciate the feedback! Wes, there is still a lot of snow on the Tetons, wonder how it will be when you get here!

  6. Thank you so very much for sharing your experience of pleinair painting.
    I learned from your article more than from my last two years in the class room!

  7. Spot on with this instruction. It may seem boring to the casual student. But to the one who really cares, this is invaluable information.


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