The four steps of landscape drawing

Being technically accurate frees up your subconscious mind to analyze and interpret what you see.

Main Street, Owls Head, 16X20, oil on gessoboard, $1623 unframed.

I once took an artist on a long loop to see all my favorite painting sites here in midcoast Maine. “But there’s nothing to paint,” she wailed. She was suffering an extreme case of sensory overload. We all experience this to some degree when we’re forced to buckle down to work. We’re asking ourselves to choose one subject among an infinite number of possibilities. And the obvious and iconic may not make the best (or most interesting) painting.

We all want to jump quickly into painting, but the better path is to spend some time relaxing and looking. I prefer to do this with a sketchbook and a lawn chair. If you’ve spent 10 minutes just drinking in the beauty, and then do four thumbnails of different scenes, you haven’t ‘wasted time.’ You’ve saved yourself immeasurable amounts of work on mediocre paintings, by answering the following questions:

  • Where does the visual strength in this composition lie?
  • How can the picture plane be broken into light and dark passages?
  • How can I crop my drawing to strengthen the composition?
Belfast Harbor, 14X18, $1594 framed.


At some point, you need to get precise. Fast, loose painting rests on a base of good drawing. If you haven’t been taught to measure with a pencil, start here, hereand here.

People tell me all the time, “I can’t draw a stick figure.” It depresses me, because drawing is a technical exercise, and anyone can learn it, just as they learn to write or do arithmetic.

I recommend the book Sketching from Square One to Trafalgar Square, by Richard E. Scott. It’s a comprehensive introduction to drawing from observation. Books and classes that focus on the interpretive side of drawing are not useful for the artist who needs to get things right, so before you sign up, make sure that teacher, video, or book is actually teaching drawing, not some form of self-analysis with a pencil.

Beach erosion, 8X10, oil on canvasboard, $522 unframed.


Being technically accurate, oddly enough, frees up your subconscious mind to analyze and interpret what you see. We all paint through the filter of our own experience, values and aspirations. That’s why one artist will edit out the power lines and trash cans on a street scene, and another will focus on them.

But there’s a deeper level at which this happens, and that’s in the colors, forms and shapes themselves. They’re tied to your subconscious. Within the rubric of ‘good composition’ or ‘good taste’ are infinite variations. What you perceive is highly individual, so your interpretation will also be individual.

Marshall Point, 12X9, oil on canvasboard, $696 unframed.


The first three phases are all essentially input—identifying, measuring, and analyzing the subject you’re painting. The final business of producing a work of art is collecting all that input and restating it on your canvas or paper. If you’ve done the first three steps conscientiously, this last step should be relatively relaxed and free. It should also go quickly. Your own ‘handwriting’, in the form of brush or pencil work, will be unfettered and loose.

Engineering, symbolism, or art?

What was once necessary then becomes beautiful, then iconic… and then interpreted.

Stone Celtic high cross at Iona. Own photo.
At Mesa Verde National Park, a line of shallow circular holes marches across a flat stone patio in front of an ancient pueblo. I sat through a ranger’s talk about their religious significance. I asked him if they might, instead, be footers for a wooden structure, now gone. “Impossible!” he exclaimed.
We moderns see things through our own cultural biases. One of these is that we are more rational than our ancestors, who lived in a world dominated by superstition.
Iona in the Hebrides is notable for its cluster of Celtic crosses; historians debate whether they or those at Ahenny in Ireland are the oldest. The design is certainly Anglo-Irish in origin. Columba, the founder of Iona Abbey, was an Irishman.
Pictish Kirkyard stone, Aberlemno, Angus, Scotland, UK. Here the circle is motif, not structure.
Christianity was first introduced into the British Isles by the Romans. By 200 AD the British Christian church was flourishing. However, with the end of Roman influences, Angles, Saxons, Jutes and others overran England, driving out the Celts. Christianity survived (with them) in the wild outposts of Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. By the time Augustinelanded at Canterbury to found the English church, there was a well-established tradition of stone high crosses in the areas converted by the Hiberno-Scottish mission.
They may reflect the lack of trees in the northern islands, or that stone lasts longer than wood. Or, the stones may have been a fusion of wooden crosses and the earlier pagan tradition of standing stones.
Cloncha cross and church near Culdaff, County Donegal, Ireland. Without the circles, the arms must be squatter and shorter. Photo courtesy Radosław Botev
Much ink has been spilled over the question of what the ring of the Celtic cross means. Ringed crosses were seen in the Byzantine Empire by the 5th century. The circle itself has represented many things worldwide, including the celestial sphere. The early Irish Christians were certainly familiar with this iconography, and with the Coptic tradition of a cross based on the Egyptian ankh.
On the other hand, the circle gave an engineering advantage. A cross with a circle can have larger arms. This is true in wood, but it’s critical in stone. The more workable the stone, the softer it is, and the more support is needed.

When these stone crosses were made, there was no deep division between engineering and art; for stone masons, the question still doesn’t exist. Therein lies a problem with leaving art analysis in the hands of people whose education is overwhelmingly one-sided. They may know myth, but they have no idea what holds up a building.
“What was once necessary then becomes beautiful, then iconic…” muttered my companion as we stood at the foot of an ancient Celtic cross. She then added, “and then interpreted.” The circle of the Celtic cross was intended to give strength, but became a symbol in its own right, a product of the mid-19th century Celtic revival. It’s beautiful and potent to modern man, but it means something different than it did to the person who carved it. His primary goal was to cut the Gospel into rock.
Liam Emmery’s Celtic cross in the Irish hills. Photo courtesy Ken Finlay.
Forester Liam Emmery passed away in 2010 after suffering a traumatic brain injury. A few years later, a Celtic cross appeared in his former patch. It’s made of a patchwork of larches among evergreens, meaning that as autumn approaches, the cross turns gold.  It won’t last as long as those stone crosses—maybe a century if all goes well—but the impulse was the same.
“He just loved things to be perfect, and I think the Celtic cross is perfect for him,” said his widow.