Monday Morning Art School—adding figure to your landscapes

Animals, people, automobiles and other evidence of life add humanity to an otherwise static scene.

Erie Canal, by Carol L. Douglas. The figure is my daughter Julia.

Figures are best incorporated as part of the design, rather than added as an afterthought. Groups of people are such strong design elements that they can overwhelm a composition if they’re not planned in advance. In a different way, that’s equally true of a single animal in a landscape.

An individual figure can dominate a composition as well. We humans are innately curious as to what other people are doing, and a figure in a painting is an invitation for us to indulge in that curiosity.
Therefore, they’d better have a good reason to be where they are. Tossing in a figure or a gull or two to balance a composition is a Hail Mary pass that seldom works. Odds are, these last minute additions will overset your painting. It will look like it’s wearing one too many pieces of jewelry.
Tilt-a-Whirl, by Carol L. Douglas. Someday I’ll write about how to paint a spinning subject en plein air.
Is the figure important to the scene? I think beaches and street scenes benefit from having people in them, because they are how we experience those places. Streets generally have cars; in fact, they’re so ubiquitous that we barely notice them. I generally limit my own animal drawings to dogs or horses, but there are western landscape paintings that would be far less compelling if they didn’t have animals in them.
Decide in advance whether you’re painting a landscape, or a figure in a landscape. If it’s the former, keep detail to a minimum. If it’s the latter, then perhaps you should redesign your painting to be a figural or animal painting. If it’s primarily a landscape, added figures, cars, or animals should be there to complement, not dominate.
59th Street Bridge approach, by Carol L. Douglas. It’s impossible to paint in Manhattan without including cars.
That doesn’t mean you get away without drawing. In fact, drawing is paramount in these added elements. I’ve learned to stop painting and pick up my sketchbook when a figure nearby interests me. I draw it carefully and then insert it into the painting only when I’m sure it’s right, rather than trying to capture the person in two or three brushstrokes as they’re moving.
New Puppy, by Carol L. Douglas. This started as a sketch of the group; the beach is subservient. Available through Camden Falls Gallery.
The good news is that some of the details of drawing that bedevil the beginning artist—like fingernails, eye sockets or nostrils—must to be omitted. But proportion and placement are paramount, so it’s helpful to practice drawing people whenever you have the opportunity.
Castine lunch break, by Carol L. Douglas. Bicycles, cars, and boats are symbols of human activity that can stand in for the figure.
Even when the figure is the focal point, it must be integrated into the greater color scheme of the landscape. A fawn under the cool green canopy of the forest is not going to be as warm in tone as she would be nestled in a dry grass nest. The same is true for humans, and for their cars.
A critical aspect of figure is a sense of scale. That’s the most likely place to make a mistake. Often my figures are a pastiche of different people who’ve passed the site as I’ve been working. I start by drawing a dummy placeholder and checking its size in its position. (A few feet along a sidewalk can change the size dramatically.) Only when I have the scale right do I try to personify the character.