LESSON ONE - SELECTING A SCENE
When you arrive at a site to paint, the scene can be overwhelming. You can turn around in every direction in wonder. The best times to paint outdoors are mornings and evenings, when the sun helps create shadows to add to the composition. Here is a diagram to help your decision. Facing north or south will give you the shadows to work with. Note these quickly with a sketch, covered next, as the light and shadows can change quickly at times.
The next decision will be which "slice" of the landscape to paint. It's very helpful to use a viewfinder to select a scene. You'll need one of similar proportion to the canvas or paper you will be painting on. I've found an adjustable viewfinder works well, and also made one of transparency film with guidelines of each inch so I can use the part that is the right proportions. Art supply stores sell ready made ones too but I enjoy making tools. Here are two examples:
When selecting a scene with the viewfinder, there a few principles to keep in mind. You don't usually want a main element in the exact center, unless you are doing a portrait of an object or person, and even then off center makes for a better composition. There is a "rule of thirds" I find helpful. Divide the canvas into thirds vertically and horizontally, and use the intersections and lines for key elements of the composition. Here is another page from my sketchbook showing this division:
Another good thing to remember is to look for scenes with a foreground, middle ground, and background, as this will add to the realism of a scene. The one-third divisions helps remind me of this concept.
The last step in scene selection is drawing a few "thumbnails" or small sketches of your proposed composition and select the best one, the one with the most interesting placements, and shapes. You can then transfer your selection to your canvas as the first step in beginning your painting. This will be emphasized more in the next lesson. Here are a couple of thumbnails sketches and the resulting paintings. Remember to keep the shapes interesting and varied. I find trees in particular are easy to draw with too much symmetry, so add variation, even if it isn't there. My favorite art teacher always says, "It's all about the shapes."
Below shows a scene without much potential at first glance, yet is a good example of scene seletion. At the left is the photo of the scene when I first looked at it. You might say, wow, this is not very scenic. I had to decide how to handle it so I did two sketches emphasizing the stand of trees in the center. I thought I'd try the horizon line at several places, using the rule of thirds. Here are the two thumbnails I did. In the top one the horizon is a little too near the center and I probably should have moved it down a little. The bottom thumbnail is closer to the one-third point I like to use. Here are the resulting two paintings. One emphasizes the sky, or background, the other the foreground. with the trees in the middleground in both. The results actually came very close to the thumbnail sketches.
The last tip for beginners, is to start with smaller work. I did a ton of 5x7 and 6x8 works, and now do 8x10 to 11x14 outdoors. It's far easier to judge your composition on the smaller scale, and to block in the work quickly, no matter the media, on a smaller scale. Think of it like writing. You don't start out with a novel, but work your way up from short scenes, to short stories, then tackle more complex work once you've learned the basics. The same process applies. You learn more with every painting so it makes sense to do a lot of smaller ones. Sometimes it is all in the volume. And some of these will be small gems, ready to shine for the world. Here are a few more thumbnails I did on site to select a scene, and the resulting work to see the process.
Another way to view the scene and the strength of your composition, is to do a "notan" sketch. This is a black and white only sketch emphazising the light and dark areas of the scene. Here is a sample based on the scene in the next lesson. These are often more useful than just the thumbnail to pin down the major shapes.
I heard a related story about Albert Einstein. He was asked how he would allocate his time if he had 1 hour to solve a problem that would save mankind. He said he'd take 55 minutes to clarify the problem, and then 5 minutes to find a solution. Time spent up front selecting your scene is well spent and leads to a better painting.
Here is some of the scene this was based on. I loved the shape of the palm tree, and the surf board next to it (which is brown and actually a shower). I used the rock wall across the street for the foreground. This shows how you can select from a scene to get what you want.