Lesson 2: Planning and Strategy

Welcome to lesson 2 of the Painting the Landscape workshop.

In lesson 1, I chose a reference photo to paint. Now it’s time for the planning and strategy phase.

This phase will allow you to start the painting with direction, momentum, and a plan of attack. It will also make the painting process smoother, you’ll make fewer mistakes, and the outcome will be better.

What this phase looks like in practice will vary from painting to painting. It might be a brief visualization and brainstorm before you pick up a brush. Or it might be something more concrete and detailed. It depends on the complexity of the painting relative to your skill level.

A word of warning: Don’t get stuck in this phase. Planning and strategy are important, but they shouldn’t get in the way of action. If you find yourself stuck, just start painting and see how it goes.

Here’s the reference photo I chose to paint in lesson 1:


Adjust the Dimensions if Necessary

The first thing I do is adjust the dimensions of the photo to make the composition more appealing. By cropping certain parts, I can reposition the focal point, alter the sense of balance and space, or exclude parts that don’t add anything to the composition.

In this case, no adjustments are needed. The photo is fine as it is.

Tip: When you take reference photos, you should do so with the composition and painting in mind. The less editing you need to do before painting, the better.


Let’s take a look at the photo in grayscale using my grid and grayscale tool. This gives us a clear look at the value structure (how light or dark the colors are).

I’m interested in relationships rather than individual values. That is, how light or dark is one color in relation to the surrounding colors. Or how light is the sky compared to the trees? Or how dark are the shadows compared to the mid-tones?

The grayscale tells me a few things about the subject:

  • The grass forms a compressed value range (the colors are similar in lightness). When painting the grass, I’ll need to vary the hue and saturation of my colors whilst keeping the value fairly consistent;
  • The feature plant has both the lightest lights and darkest darks in close proximity. This is a high-contrast area, which is suitable given its role as the focal point.
  • The sky is much lighter than the trees.
  • There’s a slight value gradation in the grass. Notice how it gets darker in the bottom-left corner and as the land slopes up before hitting the distant trees; and
  • There’s a lot of “noise” in the foreground, with light and dark colors tightly woven together.


For complex subjects, I might apply a three-by-three grid to the reference photo and my painting surface to assist with my drawing. I go into more detail on that in this post.

As this subject is relatively straightforward, a grid won’t be necessary. But I’ll show you what it looks like for the purpose of this lesson.

Overall Strategy, Challenges, and Opportunities

Before I pick up a brush, I look at the photo and try to visualize the painting process. What path will I take? What challenges will I encounter? What opportunities will there be to demonstrate my skills? Will the planned strategy work? What techniques will I use? Can I visualize all the way through to the finished painting?

I don’t follow templates or predetermined strategies. I have preferences, but I start every painting fresh and come up with a strategy tailored to the subject.

For this painting, I’ll focus most of my attention on color and brushwork. Drawing and perspective won’t be as important. Landscapes tend to be more forgiving and less of a feature in these areas.

The main challenges will be (1) Capturing the brilliance of the colors as they were in person, particularly the tiny blue flowers scattered around the ground; and (2) Getting the colors right for the white flowers (white objects are always tricky).

The main opportunities will be the interesting use of color and brushwork, particularly around the grass, flowers, and plants at the bottom.

I’ll use broken color and impasto brushwork to capture the vast detail in an interesting and efficient manner.

I think a larger painting would suit this subject, so I’ll paint on 18 by 24 inch Ampersand gessoboard.

I’ll do as much of the painting as I can wet on wet, then I’ll finish wet on dry. Ideally, I would paint entirely wet on wet in a single session, but larger paintings like this need more time.

Do I Need Any Special Supplies or Equipment?

I use roughly the same supplies and equipment for every painting. Below are my staples:

  • Titanium white;
  • Raw umber;
  • Ultramarine blue;
  • Cobalt blue;
  • Viridian green;
  • Permanent magenta;
  • Cadmium red (though I’m thinking of replacing this with another red; I don’t find myself using cadmium red that often);
  • Cadmium yellow;
  • Cadmium yellow light;
  • Odorless solvent;
  • Tablet (for viewing the reference photo);
  • Canvas or Ampersand gessoboard;
  • H-frame easel;
  • Glass palette;
  • Rosemary and Co round, flat, and filbert brushes of various sizes;
  • Palette knives; and
  • Paper towel.

You can find more specific details on my supplies page.

Sometimes the subject requires the use of special supplies or equipment. This may be out of convenience or necessity.

For example, I often add naples yellow to my palette for painting ambient sunrises or sunsets (inspired by Joseph Turner who was particularly fond of that color). I add this for convenience. I could mix naples yellow using my usual palette, but having it there on my palette saves me considerable time and energy.

Or perhaps I need a vivid orange. I could mix cadmium yellow with cadmium red for this, but it won’t be the same brilliance as cadmium orange from the tube.

For this painting, there are two colors that I might struggle mixing with my usual palette: the vibrant, cool greens and the purple flowers. Adding manganese blue to my palette will help with both these colors. Mixing it with cadmium yellow light will produce a brilliant green and mixing it with magenta will produce a brilliant purple that I can tone down as necessary.

No other special supplies or equipment will be needed for this painting.

Tip: It’s important to have some kind of consistency with your paints and brushes. This will allow you to build familiarity and proficiency with them. Choose versatile colors and brushes and be selective. You don’t need every color or every type of brush to get the job done. Less is more here.

Exercise (Optional):

Look at the reference photo and come up with a strategy for painting it.

Consider the potential challenges, opportunities, your strengths, preferences, and your chosen medium. Keep in mind, your strategy will likely be different from mine, as what works for me might not work for you.

You can use the comment section below to share your answer. (Don’t worry, this is a judgment-free zone.)

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

That’s it for today! The next lesson will be about painting and technique.

Until then,

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

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


30 comments on “Lesson 2: Planning and Strategy”

  1. Learned a lot already about the correct way to think about and plan out a painting. I am not doing any of this right now . I tend to get stuck early on in the painting and this is the process I have been looking for. I am a beginner and self taught so this will be invaluable to me.

  2. I am a beginner and self taught, so I have learned a lot already about the correct way to think about and plan out a painting. I am not doing any of this right now . I tend to get stuck early on in the painting and this is the process I have been looking for.

    • I totally agree with you Laura! .. I too am self taught.. And every post he sends is an incredible teaching tool.. I try not to delete them.. Thank u Dan!

      • You both make great points regarding the immense value of the instruction Dan provides through his emails. I have saved every one of his posts since I first began following him. I love the fact that he provides guidance and instruction while he continues his work as an artist! Thank you Dan. Your efforts are appreciated more than you could ever imagine!

        • I totally agree. I can’t say enough good things about Dan’s guidance. It’s always straightforward and well thought out. I also love that Dan includes references to other works and provides complete context. Amazing, and much appreciated.

  3. I’m going to sit down with this article and a piece of paper to figure how I might approach this using your guidance. Do you consider an under painting of sorts? (I mean, do I?)

    My afternoon project, as we are currently in a blizzard! Thank you again, and I see that our time zones are different.. looks like Christmas Eve in your neck of the woods. Happy Holidays to you and yours.

  4. I used your photo to do a coloured sketch, to get a sense of the dimensions, composition and the colours. I like to use coloured pencils, and do this sketch, as it helps me to solve some of the problems that I might have when I begin to paint. It’s not exact, just a rough sketch, but I find it helpful. When I’m ready, I might start the painting, just an outline in a light colour. I might only have a 16 by 20 canvas board. Hope it works. Thanks for guiding us!
    Merry Christmas, it’s quite wet here, on Vancouver Island, after snow and cold.

  5. I taught art for 35 years, so l know…..Dan Scott has more teaching talent/ability/understanding in his paint-stained little finger than a whole bunch of us other guys. l love him!

  6. Hi Dan, I think I will try this on a 9×12 – not exactly the same proportions I realize. I will do a sketch first. I will have trouble trying the broken color and impasto that you do, but those are some of the main things I want to learn!!

  7. Could you show us how all of your strategies turned out in your finished piece? What is broken color and impasto? I do watercolor. Thanks so much!

  8. First, thank you so much Scott, for all the great info you’re sharing on this site. I’ve learned so much from you! Here’s how I would approach this painting:
    I would do a sketch to make sure the composition is right.
    I find the dark tones among the trees in the background are too dark so I would lighten them to give some perspective.
    My biggest challenge (for every painting) is that I tend to go into detail and highlights too early in the painting process, so I make it a point to block-in using larger brushes than I like, and I have to remind myself to ask, at every step: “is this painting at the point where it’s ready for detail?”
    Looking forward to the next step!

  9. Very helpful article! I am checking out your brush recommendations and have also saved your palette to compare with what I usually use. The info on color mixing and palettes is very helpful. I try to visualize proportions of the various lines horizontally and then vertically when not gridding. I would also probably plan to get the light sky in and then paint the trees over it, except maybe the the larger chunks. What do you think about that approach? I would also want to think about the various greens that are needed to create contrast and interest.

  10. I love staining the canvas first ! Then sketch on with a dark colour where all the darks are . Mix the greens . Block them in . Add the sky ( make sure it’s light enough ! )
    The grey scale is a great reference ! I don’t think I look at that enough !
    I think a big challenge would be to get the various greens to look appealing and also correct!

  11. This is going to help me a lot with getting started on a painting I want to do, but have been avoiding. I can see now that I just haven’t been thinking strategically about my painting process at all, becoming stuck at the grey scale and grid stage. Thank-you so much for helping to move beyond composition to consider brushwork, colour value. Also WHY my own planning decisions will influence the outcome and what I am trying to convey in the overall painting.
    I am definitely getting my brand new journal out today to log my own process for future reference. Your wise words have kick started me into new year action, so once again,many thanks. Happy new Year to you.

  12. I use a checklist of a standard set of questions that I compiled from Dan’s lessons before each painting; it is so important I printed and laminated it and keep it in my art box. This forces me to take notice of all the important aspects. I record my answers in a book, which has been very useful to refer back to when I come across similar subjects, especially the palette I used.
    It was noticeable that whenever I skip working through the checklist, the painting is always much more difficult and less successful, because with it I’ve had a chance to solve problems in advance, rather than waiting for them to appear on the canvas then having to correct them.


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