Beginner Landscape Painting Concepts – The Theory of Angles

In this lesson, I want to show you how to start recognising light and dark relationships in a landscape.

Once you ‘see’ how the light falls on the main masses, such as the ground, trees, and mountains, painting the values accurately will be much easier.

I first encountered this simplification of the Four Planes of Landscape Painting in Carlson’s 1929 book ‘Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting’.

I’ve found it’s a surprisingly helpful way of stopping and accessing what you’re looking at in terms of groups of planes of masses and simplifying the enormous detail and overload you can face when painting outdoors.

Understanding how light interacts with the landscape can transform flat canvases into lifelike scenes with depth and realism.

Detail over Depth

Painting the details on a tree, trying to capture the flow of water, and adding highlights to sparkling water can be the most attractive elements of landscape painting.

However, relying on your intuition to ‘feel your way’ can easily result in a loss of basic tonal structure.

The 4 planes help to solve this by giving you an understanding of light.

To illustrate this, first things first; we’re getting the glue gun out!

Modelling the 4 planes of Landscape painting

Here’s a basic three-dimensional model of a simplified landscape.

There is a tree, a bush, a sky, and a hillside.

All elements are white foam core and have a white local value.

You can see this change in value when we orientate them at different angles to the light source.

“The key to this Theory of Angles is, then, that the big elements with which the landscape painter has to deal are, first of all, light masses and half-dark masses, no matter in what sequence you name them.” John F Carlson, Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting

1. Sky plane

This is usually the lightest value. But it can vary on a sunny or overcast day.

2. Ground plane

The ground plane receives the most light from the sky, the next lightest value. (There are exceptions, such as snow and bright reflections)

3. Slanted plane

The slanted plane is for hills and mountains; it reflects less light than the ground plane and is darker.

4. Upright plane

This includes vertical surfaces like trees and buildings. This plane is usually the darkest.

Once you have a visual concept of these planes, you can more easily manage tonal values and create depth in your landscape painting.

I’ve made a short 45-second video that illustrates the concept. (You can also watch the video on Youtube here)

“These masses or elements are light or dark, or half-dark or half-light, not because of any colour cast they may have, but because they present different angles to the light that falls upon them from the sky”

John F Carlson, Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting

Next time, we’ll try this theory with a landscape painting.

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How to Draw a 10 Minute Seascape Sketch

Morning class,

I thought I’d share with you a little seascape sketch that I did the other day.

It’s filmed in real-time, so you can actually see how long I take and how my decision process works when drawing.

You’ll see moments when I pause and reconsider what pens to start with and what pens I end up finishing with. You also see me having a cup of tea throughout the sketch because sometimes, just having a brew will give you that little bit of contemplation time to decide what to focus on next.

If you haven’t got 10 minutes to watch it all, I’ve also made a shorter 60 seconds edited version on YouTube shorts (and a 90-second one on Instagram)

Watch along in real-time as I sketch the shoreline of Porthminster beach, St Ives, Cornwall

60-second version below:

Sketching Pens, from Left to Right: Pentel Aquash Pen, Lamy Safari Fountain Pen, Liquitex paint marker, Pentel brush pen, Muji 0.5mm gel pen.

Close-up of the different sketching pen nibs

The sketching pens that I use:

  • MUJI 0.5mm gel tip pen
  • Pentel brush pen
  • Liquitex grey acrylic marker
  • Lamy Safari Fountain Pen
  • Pentel Aquash water pen. (This is an empty pen that’s just got water)

The real trick to this technique, and the thing that’s the most enjoyable to do, is to lay down areas of permanent ink with the first pen and then add in other areas with non-permanent ink. Then, when I wash over that area with a water brush pen, you get a beautiful soft wash effect.

The Sketchpad is by Handbook, their trav.e.logue series; it’s relatively small but perfect for backpacks, and the flask is from the Thermos Ultimate series, which is exceptionally good at keeping your tea or coffee hot. I find the 900ml version keeps the tea hotter for longer, but the smaller size is nice for shorter trips. We’re talking 24 hours hot.

Sketch Location

I’ve also added the sketch location using What3Words. If you haven’t come across what3words before, it’s an amazing free app you can use to locate any 3m x 3m square in the world. Each square across the globe has been assigned a unique combination of three words.

It can be handy if you’re showing your work in an obscure location or delivery drivers keep on missing your address, as they do quite often in Cornwall; recently, we used it when we broke down on the A30! Also great for outdoor sculpture trails or street art installations.  If you’re ever visiting St Ives in the future, you can track down the exact sketch spot.

I hope you enjoy it, and if you want to learn any more about urban sketching or landscape sketching, you can follow the links to learn more about the courses.

Landscape sketching course

Urban sketching course

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Drawing the Doors of St Mawes

Exploring the narrow cobbled streets of St Mawes, every turn uncovers a charming cottage or an absolutely stunning view. This small historic fishing village is nestled at the end of the Roseland peninsula on the south coast of Cornwall and is magical.

Natural stone, slate, and white lime-washed simplicity, so with pen in hand, I set about capturing some of St. Mawes architectural coastal doorways.

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How to Create Strong Painting Compositions using ‘Notan’ Design

notan painting

‘The combination of lights and darks especially as used in Japanese art : the design or pattern of a work of art as seen in flat areas of dark and light values only.’- Webster Dictionary


Out for a beach stroll early this morning, as the sun was coming up behind the boats in the harbour, it was an idyllic image.

I had sunlight, a beach and a view, so I took a photo on my phone, and you would think this would make a brilliant painting—a reflection in the water, the pier in the distance and the boat in the foreground.

However, I know if I painted this back at my studio, it wouldn’t work out as well as it promised.

It would be just okay.

It might still translate if I wanted to create a piece that focused on the colours of the water and sky, but the basic graphical design of the piece just isn’t strong enough to create a great painting. The boats aren’t instantly recognisable as boat shapes, and the harbour is obscured by other unidentifiable shapes.

I find three value studies or Japanese Notan studies can be surprisingly helpful in guiding your choices for creating a compelling composition in your paintings. If you were just to look at a scene in simple values or Notan, it becomes glaringly obvious what really works as a successful image.

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Urban Sketching for Beginners

An Ink and Watercolour Urban Garden Sketch

Morning class, this week I’ve been in Corsica exploring the North Coast of the Island.

Sketching your surroundings can be such a fantastic way to create a visual diary of your travel experiences, so when I’m walking around the streets of any new town or city, I always carry a small sketchbook in my backpack.

A couple of tonal sketching pens and a brush pen is usually all I need, always trying to keep my kit as simple and minimal as possible.

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Pen & Ink Still Life Illustrations


This week I’ve been working on the last stages of my new beginner’s acrylic project book and wanted to add some pen and ink illustrations of materials & still life setups.

For all the sketches I used the following pens on 220gsm cartridge paper.

  • Lamy Safari Fountain Pen – filled with Lamy water-soluble black ink
  • Pentel Aquash Waterbrush Pen – this bad boy just holds the perfect about of water in the brush filament tip to wash-in water-soluble ink
  • Muji 0.5mm Black Fine Liner – so smooth and works well at any angle under a rapid speed
  • Pentel Brush Pen – if you’re struggling to create broken line effects, treat yourself to this pen, you can block in deep blacks really quickly

A number of the illustrations below are based on famous still life paintings. I always think looking at the pieces in black and white is interesting as you see how much the composition reveals an artists style. If you compare the shapes in Cézanne’s work to Morandi’s, there is a different set of compositional interests.

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Sketching Art Materials with Pen & Wash


Morning class! This week I’ve been putting together a new ‘Beginners Guide’ for the Art School and wanted to add a few little material sketches. For all the sketches I used the following pens on 220 gsm smooth, heavyweight cartridge paper which can handle light watercolour washes.

Materials – Pen & Wash


  • Lamy Safari Fountain Pen – filled with Lamy water-soluble black ink
  • Pentel Aquash Waterbrush Pen – this bad boy just holds the perfect about of water in the brush filament tip to wash-in water-soluble ink
  • Muji 0.5mm Black Fine Liner – so smooth and works well at any angle at a rapid speed
  • Pentel Brush Pen – if you’re struggling  to create broken line effects, treat yourself to this pen, you can block in deep blacks really quickly
Continue ReadingSketching Art Materials with Pen & Wash

Discovering Zorn, the Petit Palais & Patisseries in Paris

We arrived in Paris to catch the last few days of a retrospective exhibition of the Swedish painter Anders Zorn (1860-1920)

After a snowy week in England, we woke to blue skies, warm croissants and this amazing rooftop view from our hotel room. I couldn’t resist a quick pen sketch of the row of chimney pots in the distance before we hit the show, check out those windows!

Sketch from Hotel, Rotring Art Pen (F), Pentel Brush Pen and Pentel Aquash Water Pen in A6 size (10 x 15cm) Seawhites of Brighton Sketchpad (140gsm All-Media Cartridge Paper)

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Inspiration, Impressionism and the Power of Environment

I’d travelled through the Cotswolds many times before, captivated by the golden glow of the honey-coloured stone buildings, that just seemed to lend themselves to being painted.

The earthy tones of yellow ochre complimented by soft dull lilacs of wisteria-laden-branches create a really mellow colour palette, you then have crumbling walls surrounded by trees and foliage that bring in a bright sap-green colour pop…

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Sketching the Light and Landscape in Venice

“I’m not getting on.”

“You have to get on.”

“I don’t, I’m not going.”

5 minutes earlier, you could have mistaken us for locals, idly chatting to a friendly looking Italian who had informed us we needed to take the Linea Arancio (Orange line) to San Marco.

The journey time? Well …it could take anywhere between 30 minutes and 1 hour. He seemed vague, but of course, why should he know details about the journey.

We’d caught a late night flight into Venice and were waiting for one of the last ‘Alliguna’ boats from the airport.

The energy started to change and people formed an orderly queue beside a man clinging precariously to the side of an extremely buoyant boat and then it dawned on us.

The small lurching vessel moored in the dock, that I had 100% assured Vanessa we wouldn’t have to go in, was indeed our transport.

And the vague Italian man … he was the Captain.

The rain lashed into the small space at the rear of the boat, tourists and suitcases packed in together and then I heard Vanessa say  “Scusami, Scusami, we’ve changed our minds, we’re getting off at the Rialto Bridge”

3 stops earlier than I’d planned.

Our Venetian adventure had begun…

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Urban Sketching For Beginners Drawing Course – New Course!

Morning Class!

This new Urban Sketching for Beginners Course, reveals how observing everyday life can give an eye-opening appreciation for the towns and cities that we live in.

You don’t need to drive out to the country to draw from life, from an artistic point of view, urban settings have just as much appeal!

The lessons follow a logical progression, from sketching static buildings and monuments to capturing the movement of individual figures and bustling crowds, enabling you to practice your drawing skills and create fast, bold urban sketches with pencils, pens, or watercolors—whatever tools you have on hand.

Topics include:

  • Choosing your materials
  • Building structure into your drawing
  • Sketching architecture
  • Capturing panoramic views of a city
  • Drawing people in cafes
  • Sketching movement
  • Bringing it all together in a start-to-finish drawing

This online drawing course shows you how to draw from life, learn how to draw buildings, street scenes, cafés, and people and you can read more here.


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An Art Material Addicts Guide to becoming a Minimalist Sketcher

urban sketching in Florence

Hi, my name is Will and I am an art material addict.

When the new season art catalogue arrives, I prepare a large cafetiere of coffee, find a comfy chair and indulge in a little bit of window shopping.

If I spot a new ‘innovative ink system’, it’s hard to imagine how my drawings can exist without it.

And if a magazine states ‘Free Pen (RRP £30) when you spend £50 or more on drawing products’ I’d be a fool to miss out!

But the reality is, when I take my sketches out of the studio into the city or countryside, there is a recurring theme.

Most of the new materials I buy are left behind in my growing number of art supply boxes and I find myself grabbing the same few trusted pens that work well together – again and again.

In fact, to create a huge variety of styles, it’s probably less than 10 materials and that includes different ink colours.

So this week I want to introduce you to my Top #4 Minimalist City Slicker combination sets that I actually use when I’m out sketching on location…

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Urban Sketching Tutorial for Beginners (Free 10 minute Video Lesson)

pen-bike-sketch-detail small

This week we’re going to bring our pen sketching skills into the urban environment.

Sketching your surroundings can be such a fantastic way to create a visual diary of your daily experiences and I’m always a sucker for a sketch of a bike.

This video tutorial looks at how you can use different thicknesses of pens to create variety in your sketches, and how thinking about the surrounding shapes outside your main subject can add context to your drawings.

A Step-by-Step Urban Sketching Lesson

How do you start a sketch?…

Continue ReadingUrban Sketching Tutorial for Beginners (Free 10 minute Video Lesson)