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The Art of the Large Landscape Painting

Landscape painting Ireland

Failures are always a challenge. When I used to be a Secondary school teacher, I always learned more about teaching when I faced a difficult class than a nice docile one. They made me go away and think about what I was doing and how I could do it better. Painting is no different.


I have been thinking about the composition of larger paintings. When I used to think about painting a scene I used to think in terms of  “that’s a small painting, it won’t “stretch” to a larger canvas”, or “That’s a mountain, definately, therefore, it’s subject suitable for a large canvas”. I am parodying myself somewhat but generally, I have this feeling that small birds belong on small canvases and big landscapes belong on larger ones.

My thinking was challenged by a commission I did in the summer where a client asked for a very large version (120 x 90cm) of a relatively small painting (41 x 33 cm). So I scaled up and despite my anxiety, it worked. This was important as my confidence had been dented by a previous large landscape painting that hadn’t work out for me.

Painting of Gola, Donegal
Small and Big Versions

It got me thinking about composition. I understood the basics and had looked of compositional grids in Artbooks as a teenager and thought I’d internalized them. I realized that I had got sloppy. I’ll explain.

A Beginners Guide to Composition
A Beginners Guide to Composition

I am not going to do an information dump about theories of composition here (I have added links to some good blogs on the subject below) but the “rule of thirds” is one that springs to mind here.  The idea that you should look for naturally occurring in divisions of thirds in a scene and try and locate points of interest at the intersection of the “Golden section”.

I had been influenced by ideas of composition from photography and the work of artist-turned photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson,in particular.

Rule of Thirds - Henri Cartier Bresson
Rule of Thirds – Henri Cartier Bresson

I liked his use of diagonals in particular, and this has influenced my paintings of urban scenes.

When I came to Donegal I was so blown away by the vast overarching skies and majestic landscapes. I got very excited by everything I saw. I tried to capture everything. The houses, the mountains, the sea, and the sky. Most of the time it worked.

You can probably look through these paintings and tick off the composition approaches I instinctively used; the diagonal, the pyramid, the rule of thirds and so on. They all worked.

Then, it really pains me to admit it. I lost it. I got carried away and overreached myself and painted this big beast.

Painting of Donegal Coast
Sailing By Edernish

What was I thinking? There is far too much sky in this painting. Worse than that, it was a large canvas. There are things I like about the painting, the light on the island in the bottom half of the painting, but the sky was just too vast. It pained me that I had such a large reminder of my errors of judgment. I don’t mind screwing up every now and then but I hate waste and that was an expensive canvas. It’s no coincidence that I am planning a blog post on reusing stretcher bars to stretch my own canvases.

My confidence was dented. It put me off large paintings for quite some time. It wasn’t until I did the commission I mentioned earlier, that I got thinking about what had gone wrong. I realized that I had to rigorously apply the same rule of composition to large canvases as I instinctively did to my small ones. So I tried an experiment, I took a successful composition of a medium size painting and did a much larger version of it.  This composition was based on a compound curve.

Over to the Rosses
Over to the Rosses 60x40xm
landscape painting of Ireland
View From Arranmore, Ireland 92x73cm

It wasn’t a copy of the smaller painting. It wasn’t meant to be, although it was meant to encapsulate the same feel of the smaller work, with some adjustments. I have included some more detail, changed the tree, and added a shadow and a ditch in the bottom third of the painting. I think it worked.

I have since done another small oil sketch of another composition before I scale it up. It’s another diagonal composition. Although, the larger version will not be “portrait” format but my usual “landscape” orientation.

I will add the larger version later in the week. So you will have to wait to see if that composition works as well as this smaller one. Watch this space!


Blogs on composition


28 thoughts on “The Art of the Large Landscape Painting

  1. I found this post really interesting, Emma! I do think that for those of us who take our own reference photos that much of the compositional work is often done when we take the photograph – Mostly I use the law of thirds, myself, consciously and unconsciously! It makes sense to me for nature based subjects and the human form, since it occurs naturally in the world around us and many of the other types of composition are just variations on the theme. I found your experiences with small to large canvasses most interesting and I will definitely bear that in mind next time I am faced with scaling up a painting….which is something I have not done a whole lot at this point! Thanks! I hope you’ve been inspired to do more large canvasses by your recent experience, sounds like you are on to something here!

    1. Thank you for your response, Hilda. as you say a lot of my compositional work is done in taking the photographs, but quite a bit can be done after the photos have been taken with cropping and such like. I have seen artists (one of whom has a wordpress blog I follow) do excellent very large scale paintings of quite intimate things, you’d expect in a much smaller painting.

  2. Thanks for bringing us behind the scenes.

    1. Yes, behinds the scenes can be messy (well my studio is anyway) and at times, fraught. Usually, I can pull off the challenges I set myself. I get annoyed when I don’t!

  3. I know practically zilch about the formal rules for composition. I just keep moving things around till I think they look right.😂 That said, I do remember one choice comment from my mentor, who said to take your thumb and first two fingers and put some charcoal dust on them, position them however you like on a piece of paper, and the resulting dots will be the base of a perfect composition. If you construct your composition so that there is one large area, one medium area, and one small area, that’s all you need to know. Oddly enough, most of the time that seems to work.

    1. Thank you Alli. Yes, I don’t usually consciously think about it, except the rule of thirds, which Cécile (below) points out that I have not kept to with my problem painting. I am facscinated by that advice with the thumb and first two fingers! Yes, the one large area, medium and small area sums up the “View from Arranmore” painting nicely too.

  4. Hi Emma, I do not know anything about painting with oil, I only use acrylics and inks..
    But if I spoil a canvas I paint it over with 2 layers of gesso or 3 and I can use the canvas as new, unless I have used heavy body paint on the spoiled ones. Then there is too much relief to paint small thiongs over them. But in abstract paintings it works because many of my paintings (mixed media as you know) use relief so that people who are blind can also feel the structures in my paintings.
    And about the painting you call spoiled. I do not know for sure that there is too much sky in there. I think the composition is wrong because the house in the middel is imediatly under the top of the cloud, so you euyes are drawn first to the house in the middel and than up and outside the painting. I think that if that midle house had been to a line of thirds ( not necessary a meeting point of those lines) the composition does not look so bad at all. Now you consider the painting as spoiled anyway, maybe you can try to move the house 😉

    1. Thank you for your thoughts, Cécile. I have sometimes reused small canvases by sanding down the original painting and painting over it all but I don’t like dong it for larger ones. Yes, I think if I was an abstract artist with would be fine! I will look at the composition again with your words in mind.

  5. I’m not any sort of artist and I hadn’t realised just how many things there are to take into consideration, Emma. It all seems quite mathematical and organised. I suppose I think of artists as ‘airy fairy’ people who can conjure up magic. Wishful thinking, hey? 🙂 🙂

    1. All artists are different, Jo. I expect some are “airy fairy” – I don’t think I am particularly but I do think about the world. Actually, I think I am quite down to earth and prtacical as I like making things with my hands and being active. A lot of art and creativity is instinctive. but I know I have been looking and observing the world around closely most of my life. We study things like perspective or colour theory and then kind of “forget” it. It’s a bit like learning to drive. You don’t really think about it when you are used to doing it and making those decisions. It’s only when something does quite work you have to think about it.

  6. Great post about composition, a lot of value in that information. Even though I did take many painting classes growing up and graduated from an art college, nowadays I don’t always over think my composition. I rely on my own eye and what is pleasing to me. I love big sky, clouds and I can appreciate your painting, the one you felt felt was an oopsie with composition and vastness. I loved the colors and bold sweep of clouds, maybe even allow more space for the sky and keep landscape minimal. Emma, your work is always beautiful, it draws me in takes me to another place.

    1. Thank you, Jennifer. Yes, I think not-overthinking things is important. As you, say, if it’s pleasing to you, it works! It usually does, too!

      1. I try to anyway, not alway easy to not overthink things.. Have a wonderful day!

  7. As a non painter Emma this was fascinating.. and it did remind me to an extent on how I write a story… Lovely artwork and admire your talent. Sally.

    1. Thank you, Sally. Interesting that it reminds you of how you write a story. I suppose there must be similarities in the creative process.

  8. […] Head over to enjoy Emma’s artwork and also her tutorial on composition, something that is as important to writers as well as painters: The Art of the Large Landscape Painting […]

  9. Oh, have I had the same experience, and it really is painful, isn’t it? I have one lurking upstairs taunting me. Thank you for the reminders here. Like you, I get sloppy and jump right in with both feet, composing by instinct.

    1. ha!ha! What’s wierd is that I have had online enquiries about that painting but no sale, as yet.

      1. Oh my gosh! What fun if it sells.

  10. […] the stairs to my attic studio. I painted watercolours instead, and thought a lot about colour and composition. I learnt to simplify my images and edit them with more ruthlessness than I had done […]

  11. Never seen your work before today -Absolutely beautiful-Your paintings actually doesn’t take my breath but gives me breath I can feel the fresh air filling my lungs and the swift breezes kissing my face .Thank you for making the world a better place and adding to its beauty.Blessings

    1. Thak you for a thoughtful and beautifl comment, Joe

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