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How to Simplify a Landscape Composition

by | Dec 13, 2022 | Art Lessons | 0 comments

What makes a great landscape painting isn’t always the scene before us. However, we have a magical superpower as artists, we can (and should!) move things around. Simplifying a landscape composition creates a way to celebrate the important things of the landscape that caught our attention, and get rid of the distractions. Remember, we are trying to create a great painting first and foremost. 

Painting From a Photo

When we paint from a photo, we have lots of advantages (and a few disadvantages, but we’ll get to that). Painting from a photo, especially a digital one, allows us to easily crop a good composition. If you need to brush up on your composition tips, read this blog post. Below, I see that this vista has an ugly black berry bush and unattractive hill, that really can’t justify that much of the pictorial space. Also, the sky has a bunch of uninteresting space. And, then the leading lines of the road can be kept in because they zig zag back INTO the space. 

Identifying Composition Issues

Once we have a composition mostly figured out, we can begin to simply it by looking at the major shapes and different planes.  Here, looking at the green lines, we can see that we can crop out a lot of the road. Also, the green X is an area that is not adding anything of interest, so it can go too. The leftover rectangle was a bit wider than I wanted, so I smushed in the road with magical painting powers.


And, then one final adjust of making the horizon line up off the middle. (Not pictured, but obvious in the final painting.)

Let’s talk about simplifying pictorial planes now that we have the basic composition figured out.  Below I have used basic shapes to help you see the areas that I identified. 

Here is my painting with the simplified landscape composition:

Decisions I made: Crop the sky even more. Show bits of the road, but not very much. Change the tree line a bit to keep it interesting. I also removed the house. I felt it would end up being a distraction more than an addition.

Painting From Real Life

Now for the secret – I painted this scene from life. First, I walked around the vineyard and found a spot where I could see the rows from slightly above. Take the time to find the place you want to paint – it will save you hours of struggle by taking about 15 minutes to find a good spot. 

Plein air blocking in

I blocked in the simple composition areas with an undertone (I wanted something a bit more vibrant than brown – and red is the opposite of green, so bits showing help the green pop more). Then I started with the background, moved forward into the piece more, and then finished with making sure I had as much contrast and values as I wanted. 


  • Try and reduce your composition to 5 or less areas. 
  • Fix composition mistakes in the beginning
  • Work with a limited number of colors
  • Look at your values – do you have areas of both dark and light?


Happy painting! – Kristen O’Neill