A cloudy landscape in gouache with the heading "Choosing a reference photo for gouache landscapes"

Choosing a Reference Photo for Gouache Landscapes

Working from a reference photo is a great way to practice capturing a landscape in gouache. You can work from the comfort of your home and take your time without worrying about changing light or moving subjects. To give yourself the best chance of success, there are a few things you might find helpful to look for in a suitable reference photo.

A Pleasing Color Scheme

Photos that grab your eye because of their beautiful colors often make great choices. Especially look for complimentary color pairings such as green and purple or blue and orange.

Clear Layers

One of the things that will help you get used to painting landscapes is being able to break them down into layers. The easiest way to do this when you are a beginner is to choose photos that are clearly layered, with an obvious background, middle-ground and foreground. In these types of photos, distance can be clearly identified in stripes of color, allowing you to work from the back to the front in uncomplicated small sections.

Details that can be Simplified

When capturing quick landscapes, you don’t need to record every little detail. Aim for ‘just enough’ information to quickly give an impression. As a beginner it can be helpful to focus on simple shapes and silhouettes while you build your confidence and these little scenes often have the greatest visual impact.

Crop to Suit

Don’t be afraid to crop a photo down to a manageable size, or to an aspect ratio that suits your sketchbook better. Crop out things you don’t want to paint and adjust the landscape layers to create a more pleasing composition. We’re not going for a photograph- we already have that.

Keep the Main Details in the Foreground

Choose landscapes that have something simple but interesting in the foreground. Keeping all the details in this layer gives a great sense of depth. It will often be a tree or foliage that frames the scene, but may also be a fence, gate or building. As mentioned above, begin with silhouettes or backlit objects that require only small details adding. Move on to more complicated foreground objects as you feel comfortable.

Photo Permission

Whilst no-one can stop you from using any photo that you find on the internet for your own private use, you should get into the habit of using photographs with the blessing of the photographer. There are many Facebook groups and websites where photographers have kindly shared their work for artists reference. These are a great way to paint landscapes that you might not otherwise get to see. Always show your appreciation and good artist manners by crediting the photographer whose photos you use.

A chilly winter landscape painted with M.Graham gouache in my Field Artist sketchbook.

Painted from a reference photo by Terence Porter.