Lesson 1: The Idea and Reference Photo


Welcome to lesson 1 of the Painting the Landscape workshop. Glad to have you on board!

Before I get into it, I’ll recap what to expect from this workshop.

The idea of this workshop is to give you practical insight into the landscape painting process. I’ll walk you through the creation of my most recent painting, from idea all the way through to reflecting on the finished work.

There will be 4 lessons covering the different phases. I’ll notify you by email when a new lesson is ready.

Lesson 1 (today) will cover the idea.

Lesson 2 will cover planning and strategy.

Lesson 3 will cover painting and technique.

Lesson 4 will cover self-reflection.

Whilst I’ll be using my work as an example, keep in mind there are many ways to go about painting. What works for me might not work for you, so don’t feel you need to copy what I do.

If you want to invite any friends to the workshop, just copy and paste the following link:


Ok, here’s lesson 1.

Every painting starts with an idea.

The stronger the idea, the stronger the potential for your painting. The idea doesn’t need to be complex. It might be as simple as an interesting display of light and shadow. But it needs to be strong enough to compel you to paint it.

Most of my ideas are stored in the form of reference photos. I explore the world looking for interesting displays of light, color, shape, emotion, or story that I would like to capture in a painting. Photos allow me to store these ideas so I can paint them back in the studio.

I’m primarily a studio painter. I do paint on location from time to time, but I find the comforts of my studio allow me to get into the “zone” easier. In this workshop, I’ll be painting from a reference photo. For those of you who prefer to paint from life, you’ll still be able to apply the information from this workshop, but your process will need to be more impulsive. I might also do a separate workshop where I paint from life if that interests enough people.

When I want to start a new painting, the first thing I typically do is look through the photos on my phone. This is my inspiration hub and where many years’ worth of ideas are stored. I also have a favorites album with photos I have starred as having potential.

If nothing catches my eye, then I must go exploring to get more photos. (I won’t go into the details of exploring the world and taking reference photos in this workshop. I’ll cover that another time.)

I look for photos that are backed by a strong idea and through which I can see a finished painting. If I don’t see a finished painting at the end of the line, I don’t paint it. Simple as that. You should be able to envision yourself painting the subject. The painting rarely turns out as planned, but that doesn’t matter. It’s more about having the vision, energy, and motivation to start and see the painting through to the end.

I don’t care if the photo isn’t “good” by photography standards. I’m not going to be judged on the photo, only on the painting.

The photo’s core purpose is to provide me with a rough guide and, most importantly, to remind me of my first impressions of the subject. Those first impressions are gold and should form the foundation of an artwork.

I prefer using recent photos, whilst my memory of the subject, place, or event is still fresh. As time passes, my memory fades and I’m forced to rely more on the photo. This typically leads to a painting that’s less inspired and creative and more of a reproduction of the photo.

Remember, the photos represent ideas, and it’s the ideas I want to base my paintings on. The photos are flawed by nature: they don’t capture how I see and experience the world. A photo cannot capture the wind, rain, movement, feelings, what happened before and after taking the photo, or what’s happening outside the photo. It’s just a snapshot from that point in time. As artists, our job is to capture all this other stuff. That’s what makes our work unique.

Having looked through my recent photos, I narrowed down on these two:

These were taken at Maleny, Queensland. Chontele, Elora, Kobe, and I were there on a family holiday back in October 2022. It was an overcast day and we were exploring the surroundings (trying to get Elora to nap). The landscape shimmered with these tiny blue flowers which reminded me of the bluebonnets in Julian Onderdonk’s paintings. The photos don’t do them justice. I remember them being richer and more brilliant in person.

Robert Julian Onderdonk, Bluebonnet Field, 1912
Robert Julian Onderdonk, Bluebonnet Field, 1912

I decided to paint the latter photo. The composition seems stronger and more coherent.

(Click here to download a high-resolution version of the photo.)

The flowers will be the big idea of my painting. Both the tiny blue flowers on the ground and the white and purple flowers on the feature plant.

Some other strong aspects of the photo are:

  • The feature plant provides a clear focal point to build the painting around.
  • My eyes are taken on an interesting journey with all the curves and slanted lines.
  • There’s a sense of depth and space, with a distinct foreground, middle-ground, and background. 
  • There’s an interesting play between positive space (the trees) and negative space (the sky).
  • The feature plant pushes up and overlaps the middle ground. This creates a sense of cohesion between the different areas in space. 
  • There are many opportunities for interesting displays of brushwork and color, particularly with the grass, flowers, and plants around the bottom. 

Most importantly, I can see a finished painting at the end of the line.

The photo isn’t perfect. I can see aspects that I’ll change in the painting. For example, I don’t like how the bottom appears awkwardly cropped. And I’m unsure about the single fence post on the right-hand side. But these are minor things. 

Now that I have a photo to paint from, it’s time for the planning and strategy phase. That will be the topic of the next workshop lesson.

Exercise (Optional):

For those of you who want to paint along with me, do the following:

We will dissect the photo in the next lesson.

If this workshop goes well, I’ll get you to paint from your own reference photos in future workshops. But for now, I’ll keep it simple and get you to paint from mine.

This exercise is only optional. Feel free to sit back and enjoy the lessons if you prefer.

I’ll see you in the next lesson!

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

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60 comments on “Lesson 1: The Idea and Reference Photo”

  1. I liked the composition in photo 1 best due to its strong linear patterns. But I agree that your inspiration of Onderdonk’s painting opens the door for the flowering bush to become magnificent.

  2. Thanks, Dan! This promises be a great help. I have a painting (begun several years ago) of a picturesque stonewall surrounded by a mass of blue forget-me-nots. The wall is done, but I just can’t seem to get my thoughts together for the flowers. As with your photos, my references don’t come close to catching the blues involved. I look forward to seeing how you manage it!

  3. p.s. I find painting en plein air more inspirational than painting from photos (though fresh photos can provide a similar inspiration), so would find a “Painting from Life” workshop of great interest. Thanks!

    • Yup I’ll need to make a few adjustments in the painting. With a photo like this, the flowers are such a strong feature that it makes up for the shortcomings. Lesson 3 will show you how it turns out. Thanks Casey!

  4. I love Onderdonks Bluebonnet painting. It reminds me of the bluebells in England and Ireland which I have a yen to paint but am rather hesitant to take it on. I prefer the second photo as I think it has more of a focal point. Photo one has too many vertical lines at right angles almost in a straight line. Also the field of flowers lacks interest…it is too even. I hope to paint along but being the week of Christmas it is getting busy with family arriving from NZ, France, Switzerland and the US so I hope that I can maybe access the lessons later if I find I don’t have a lot of time or space to paint. I will certainly read the lessons and hopefully keep them on file. Merry Christmas to you and Chontele and Elora and of course Kobe!

  5. Hi Dan, this looks like it will be fun and a challenge for me! I paint way too tightly so want to follow along. Do you have preferences on the size of the canvas we should use?

    • Hi Joan. Great! I think this subject would suit a larger surface. I’ll be painting on 18 by 24 inch gessoboard. More details on this in lesson 2 (to be released later today).

  6. Thank you for this wonderful opportunity to get your thought process on getting started on a painting, and following it through to the end.
    I hope to paint along with you, time permitting 🙂

    • I agree with Monica. The start of a painting is always the hardest for me.Your point of view from beginning to the end will be such a great help! . Thank u soo much Dan for this.. You are a great artist, teacher and writer! Merry Christmas to you and your family!

  7. I like this. I, too, have quite a few reference photos, that struck me in some way that I thought they would make good paintings. But often I have tried one, and the painting seemed lacking in some way. So it will be interesting to see how you make decisions about what to keep and what to move or how you adjust the color and relationships within the painting. Thanks.

  8. Dan, your thought processes are enlightening. I appreciate you outlining what’s going on in your head as you go through the painting from start to finish. That’s the part that so many instructors leave out, so students have to figure out how to think about it on their own. Your suggestions are so helpful and easy to understand. Thank you for doing this.

    • Thanks Marsha. Glad you find it helpful. That’s what I thought. There’s so much that goes into a painting outside of the actual painting process.

  9. Really interested in where you will go with this. The colors.are beautiful and like the depth in the photo. Seems so much background clutter so really interested in where you will go with this. I am a very new painter so very interested in how you decide what to paint from a photo and what to leave out. Thank you for a very interesting lesson.

  10. I’m glad you chose this photo… It has a lot of emotion in it, you can feel the movement in the picture, like a gentle wind… I am going to put a path in this landscape, & probably
    take out the posts… This is very exciting… Thank you…

  11. This will be a fun, informative and a ‘learning from doin’ experience…thanks for your generosity

    Initially I’d say, I’m rather with Patricia Z, re choice of picture…I think on the first one, I’d move back, use more sky and increase the size and focus on the distant green field through the tunnel of trees…but doing what others would choose will be revealing, takes us away from our own well-trod paths

    I’m late to the colour and free-flowing (but planned) party, mostly having been an occasional cartoonist in my earlier years

    Good stuff…thanks again

    • Hi Laurence! I went back and forth between the two photos for some time. Often the final decision just comes down to a gut feeling really. Thanks for joining!

  12. Looking forward to seeing how you progress. I have a folder with “painting ideas” photos I have captured in my travels. I use them pretty much exclusively to select my paintings. I love your paintings and varied brushstrokes. I also do a lot of landscapes and looking forward to learning and improving my paintings!

  13. Having begun painting only within the last two years, I usually focus on hyper realism. This will be my first attempt at landscape painting. I look forward to painting along with you, and all I may be able to learn. Thank you for sharing this, and especially for providing it free, making it so accessible.

    • Thanks Lorene! Feel free to paint in your own style. It’s always interesting to see different interpretations of the same scene. Good luck and Merry Christmas!

  14. Thank you for this workshop, I will definitely try to paint this scene, and follow your suggestions, as much as I can. I have recently started painting more landscapes, so I need all the help I can get!! I look forward to lesson two.

  15. I was up in Maleny then as well. The clouds were amazing and the green, rolling hills were absolutely stunning. I agree with some earlier comments, I prefer the first photo as it has stronger design elements.
    Looking forward to the next lesson!

  16. Very new to painting, and I am hanging on every word of every post. I can hardly wait! Your explanation makes a lot of sense to me, regarding photos of ideas. If the idea doesn’t strike me, there’s no way I could paint it! Thank you for this opportunity.

  17. I’m new to an online class(?), but I have read all your emails and save them to refer to them later.
    I too paint very realistically and would like to figure out how to loosen up. I’ve heard of artists painting their painting realistically and then “deconstructing it, to obtain an artistically “loose” painting!
    I also would like to understand your initial start to a painting. If you tone your canvas and your thought process of that color, as a complement color or to have it show through your brush strokes. And do you do an under painting in a value study before applying color? I really get hung up on the initial process to begin a painting. I’m painting in oils, so do I need to put in my darks first, followed by midtones and lights last. But if I don’t follow with lights after the darks, how do you get the other values correct. I know values are the foundation, but that “process”
    befuddles me!
    I really am looking forward to painting along and learning about your thought process and how you lay down your paint!

  18. Nice way to end the year with some painting instruction and inspiration. Like the idea of using imperfect photo references so I can have a chance (or forced!) to throw in some creativity and not find myself striving to copy the reference. Always fun to shake up one’s methodology and learn some new approaches!

  19. I have some of the very same questions that Janet Wells LeFeve Richardson has. I look forward to this class and painting my version of your photo.

  20. I love your choice of subjects, your loose painting style and your use of colors, so am definitely excited to learn from you and your approach. I am also an oil painter, but also use acrylics. I love how oil paint looks and blends, however. I am very interested in abstract and also non objective painting style, so let’s get started.

  21. Thank you for this beginning in choosing the subject. I often decide in this manner as I have some excellent photography from fellow artists who I follow. They’ve given me permission with their photos to interpret as I wish. I’ll enjoy going on this journey with you. I appreciate the lessons.

  22. Thank you. Your words on how you engage with a potential subject make so much sense to me. I work in colored pencil, but am aiming for a painterly look with a focus on light and shade. I find your comments and examples really helpful. They extend my ideas

  23. Thank you so much for your generosity by offering the gift of these wonderful classes to all. So excited to get started!

  24. Many thanks for this, Dan. Too busy to do it earlier, but so great to have it available as a way to start the year doing what I love. Will keep you posted. Happy New Year!

  25. Really excited to review this series of lessons, having been too ill to follow through at the time. It’s extremely helpful of you to provide us with your thinking as you walk through the process and something I, for one, would be delighted if repeated in future. I can really relate to the way you work (which is partly why I subscribe to your lessons) and have thousands of photos which are queuing for consideration right now. Most are moments captured on a regular walk from my home to the sea, along a little used footpath. I have been snapping it most weeks for over 10 years and there is always something to excite me there. I agree very much with what you say about the importance of knowing the place in reference photos (I often draw on several in one painting) and my best work is usually from the latest experience. Some I have avoided are of the carpets of bluebells which line the wooded path in the spring. The leaves are not crowding out the sky and branches create interesting shapes and depth. I suppose the reason I haven’t tackled it is because it is so daunting to capture what I feel when I walk there and fear I may be tempted into chocolate box reproduction. I feel your lessons will help me overcome this and, with spring on its way, I feel strangely empowered to give it a go. So many thanks, Dan.

  26. Thanks again, Dan: I wish all my painting classes had offered this wholistic approach that gives students a better foundation and insight.

  27. Just getting caught up from the holidays. Thank you so much for posting your lessons – I am gaining so much confidence!

  28. Hi, I’ve come late to the party – i really like the image you’ve selected, i can see how the colours and shapes would make for a lovely painting. Would you thin out the trees a little to show more sky? (I’m not confident at all at painting trees – well any of it really, but the trees especially)

  29. Thank you for sharing all of these excellent posts, they are really helpful. Just starting again with art after taking a Christmas break. Happy New Year. All the best in 2023!

  30. Just starting the course and enjoying your thinking on choice of scene, very helpful to define why I like the other better.
    However, I can see that it is very close to my regular choice and may not offer the chance to learn and challenge myself.
    Which this course is all about for me.
    i think I’ll paint the closeup shrub.

  31. Dan, your work is getting better and better. More depth, which is hard with impressionistic work. Better colors – not so muddy. Not that your work ever was muddy, but not so shmooshed! More edges.


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