Painting complicated mountain scenery

Canadian Lake

Canadian Lake

Even experienced professionals can get overwhelmed when confronted by the mass of panoramic detail found in the high mountains. Where do you start? What do you leave out – as you can’t possibly put it all in? This is especially a problem in really good visibility, when there is not a cloud in sight. As if this wasn’t enough, some of the most spectacular places are so beautifully composed that it is all done for you, and it is easy to think that all you need do is copy the composition in front of you.

This picture-postcard view is in the Canadian Rockies where we will be going in September. Everything stands out beautifully, but in a painting you need some mystery with part of the motif just hinted at. One device for working out the best composition in front of you is a simple card rectangle with an oblong hole cut out so that you can view the scene you want. Hold it up before your eyes, closing one, and moving the card frame around until you light on the most exciting part of the scene. You may need to move it towards you, or away from you to achieve the optimum size, but this will certainly help you to isolate the scene.

Where ridges pass behind a closer feature you can reduce the detail, perhaps bringing in some cloud or mist at this point, or even a snow squall. In this scene the centre of interest could well be the ‘V’ where the two dark ridges descend in the centre to the lake, but it would be a good idea to push this either to right or left a little, so that it’s not plumb centre. A hint of red or orange there might be a nice touch, and you could also use this in the reflection. The far shoreline cuts right across the picture, a common problem, but easily fixed with some foreground trees or other features.

If you like this type of landscape then why not join Jenny and myself in the Canadian Rockies from 1st to 14th September? I shall be covering all manner of techniques for painting these scenes in watercolour, but painters in other mediums are welcome. The painting holiday is organised by Spencer Scott Travel Telephone +44 (0)1825 714311 or Email:

Losing mountain peaks in cloud

It’s always good to leave some parts of a painting indefinite, especially when it is a busy composition. With mountain scenery it can become a little boring if the whole scene stands before you in crystal-clear detail, so when we do come across such a scene beneath blue skies it will usually help if we can deliberately obscure part of the background peak, yet still retain a sense of a majestic mountain range.

In this scene, while much of the background mountain is depicted with a fair amount of detail, the left-hand slopes are only partially visible because of the cloud streaming off the summit ridge. This not only simplifies that part of the mountain, but it creates a different shape encompassing both mountain and cloud formation, and this can be varied according to the strength of tone you employ for the cloud and shadow areas, as well as the overall shape. I achieved this soft transition by working the cloud-shadow washes (in this case French ultramarine and cadmium red) onto paper that had already been wetted.
If you enjoy painting majestic mountain scenery without the hassle of hiking far into the mountains, why not join Jenny and myself on our painting holiday to the Canadian Rockies in September 2013? The holiday is organised by Spencer Scott Travel in conjunction with Leisure Painter Magazine.