How to Paint a Realistic Landscape (With Only 4 Colours)

Morning Class,

Last week, we explored Carlson’s theory on angles, and I received an interesting comment from a reader asking how complicated it would be to apply the principles to colour.

“I especially love black and white painting.  I’m looking forward to trying this.  How does it work then with colour?  Seems it could get quite complicated.” – Laura

Well, it’s simpler than you might think!

I thought it would be handy to demonstrate painting trees using just four colour mixes. I’m using water-mixable oils, but you can follow along with acrylics or traditional oils too.

Preparing Your Palette: Mixing the Base Colours

Let’s get started by mixing the four base colours in different values. Remember, value refers to how light or dark a colour is.

From left to right, Titanium White, Cadmium Yellow Light, Cadmium Green Light, Permanent Green, Ultramarine Blue Light and below is Pyrrole Red.

First, the sky mix, using white and a small touch of Ultramarine Blue Light.

This gives us a light, airy sky colour. (Note how there was a little bit of green left on my palette knife, but  it works for this painting.)

Next, we’ll create the ground mix. Take a bit of the sky colour, then add some Cadmium Yellow Light and a touch of Cadmium Green Light. Mix these, and finally, add a speck of Pyrrole Red to drop the saturation slightly.

This creates a natural, earthy tone for the ground.

For our slanted plane, we’ll mix Cadmium Green Light, Permanent Green, Cadmium Yellow Light, and a speck of Pyrrole Red.

This gives us a vibrant, rich green that’s perfect for those angled planes in the landscape.

Finally, the trees. Combine Permanent Green and Pyrrole Red to make a lovely rich dark green, then a touch of Titanium White to lighten the value.

This mix gives us a dark, yet vibrant green that will make our trees pop against the background.

OK, colours ready, let’s go!

Applying the Principles of Carlson’s Angles

Applying the principles of Carlson’s angles, use the sky mix for the top parts of the canvas, the ground mix for the base, the slanted plane mix for angled surfaces, and the tree mix for the trees themselves. Keep your strokes loose and varied, and remember to think about the direction of light and shadow. This will add depth and realism to your painting.

Here’s our subject drawn out with a pencil. You can download the sketch from the blog to follow along. I’m using a size 4 round Aspen brush from Princeton and water, both as a diluent and for washing the brush.

Blocking in the Darkest Values for Tree Trunks

First, I start with the darkest mix and block in the shapes of the tree trunks. Focus on the overall shape rather than individual details.

Next, I move on to the tonal masses of the trees. Instead of painting each leaf or branch, I combine the shapes into one tonal mass to create a cohesive look.

Make sure to paint the cast shadows under the trees; this really helps establish the illusion of a strong light source.

Once the tree trunks and masses are blocked in, I wash the brush out well in water and dry the bristles on a paper towel.

Adding Depth with Slanted Planes and Ground Colour

Now, I jump to the slanted plane. Follow the shapes as they weave between the tree trunks and leaves in the foreground.

After cleaning the brush, I paint in the ground colour. This lighter value starts to bring more life to our landscape. Be sure to include all the little dashes of light between the trees to add depth and interest. The point on the round brush can be handy for this.

Final Touches: Painting the Sky and Enhancing Details

The final, lightest area is the sky.

I apply the sky colour a little bit thicker and paint in some sky holes. If you’re using oils, remember you need to be more deliberate with your marks to avoid the colours blending together and becoming muddy.

Okay, so here is our painting simply blocked in, we haven’t mixed between the colours yet, just used our first mixes and it reads surprisingly well.

Now, we can start refining and mixing our initial four base mixes to add subtle hues.

For instance, a little white added to the darkest mix helps to separate a tree trunk. Mixing between the greens helps with the distant trees. If you wanted, you could develop the painting further by adding stronger warm red-based mixes, but this approach already looks great, and just keeping it this simple effectively demonstrates the theory in colour.

So that’s it!

You can create a beautiful, cohesive landscape with just four colours and an understanding of value. If you have any questions, leave a comment below.

Until next time, happy painting!

This Post Has 22 Comments

  1. sue

    Thank you so much for this really helpful blog. So effective and relatively simple.

    1. Will Kemp

      Great to hear Sue, hope it helps with your landscapes.

  2. Teresa

    Thanks so much Will!

  3. Eddie

    It’s so easy to get lost in landscape painting and I really enjoyed this video which shows how to simplify, de-stress and make the process easier and more enjoyable without compromising the result. I tried the black and white version in gouache, had fun and was pleased with the result. Thank you.

    1. Will Kemp

      So true Eddie, glad you enjoyed the lesson.

  4. Gill

    Wonderful Will! Forever grateful for your skill, generosity, presentation


  5. What an immensely usual lesson – thank you!
    Relatively simple approach, but greatly effective, and beautiful.

    1. Will Kemp

      Thanks Bernard, yes, it’s surprising how much can be achieved in a relatively short time (the real time of the painting was about 25 minutes)

  6. Barbara Lalicki

    It was so helpful to see how you used the knife to mix the colors and the water to clean the brushes—not to mention the work on the overall paintiing.

    1. Will Kemp

      So pleased you enjoyed it Barbara, it’s like condensed art education!

  7. Francis Foley

    Fantastic result achieved using only 4 colours. You explained Carlson’s Theory on the 4 angles very well and made it easy to understand.

    1. Will Kemp

      Thanks Francis, hope you find it helpful.

  8. Stella

    Thank you so very much for the time you take to read, reply to, and make videos based upon comments. Your posts always help me learn something new, whether it’s a book to buy (The Artist’s Way, and now Carlson’s book is on my list!) or a course you’ve made that I’d like to take. Your teaching methods have really helped me find direction with my art and I will always be grateful to you! Thank you for generously sharing your knowledge and methods – you’re a treasure!

    1. Will Kemp

      Well that’s so lovely to hear Stella, so pleased to be of help.

  9. Karen Colman

    Thank you, Will. I worked all afternoon Sunday on a fairly similar scene and struggled with my greens and composition. This lesson will be extremely helpful to me. I appreciate your willingness to share your talent and skills!

    1. Will Kemp

      Really hope the lessons help Karen, it would be interesting to go back to the scene you where working on and just look at the different tonal masses and see if they relate to the hierarchy of the values. (from the lightest being the sky and the darkest being the upright planes)

  10. Laura

    Hello Will,

    Terrific! I’m understanding how to apply the parameters to a landscape scene. Pure colors are very distinct in your final piece. Makes it very realistic. Then do we use these same principles to other subjects such as still life or a water scenes? I’d like to understand how to approach other subjects too. Thanks.

    1. Will Kemp

      Hey Laura, this is based on a method for simplifying landscapes, it can often translate to sescapes, but you might have more reflections on the water or from shiny rock surfaces that would put out the pattern of light and dark. It’s a thinking tool really to be able to think through and observe how the light is behaving.

  11. Heidy

    Hello Will, you have informed the student so concisely I will try this exact method today!! Thank you so much!

    1. Will Kemp

      Good one Heidy, can’t wait to hear how your painting turns out.

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