How to Paint a Watercolor Landscape In Just 5 Steps

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Painting a watercolor landscape is about more than copying nature. You don't just want to show a mountain; you also want to capture a mood and really express how that gorgeous scenery makes you feel.

This step-by-step tutorial will help you master the basics of watercolor landscape painting so you can focus on the personal part. (And if you'd like an even deeper dive into watercolor landscapes, find it here in our video demo .)

As a reference, I'll use this photograph from my visit to Yosemite National Park. The mountain behind the big tree is the famous Half Dome. I took the picture in the spring, but decided to paint an autumn scene instead.

Tip: While a photo is a handy reference, don't rely too much on your snapshot. Feel free to bring more depth, value and color to your composition based on memory, or even just imagination!

What you need

  • A sheet of your favorite watercolor paper
  • A big flat or oval brush for large washes (I used a 1-inch wide oval brush)
  • A round brush (#12)
  • A smaller brush for detail work (#6)

Note: The size of the brushes you choose depends on your personal preferences and the size of your painting. My painting is about 9-by-13 inches.

Colors

  • Cobalt blue
  • French ultramarine
  • Winsor violet
  • Yellow ochre
  • Burnt sienna
  • Quinacridone gold
  • Perylene maroon

1. Make a Quick, Loose Sketch

There's no need to draw all the details — just mark the locations of key objects.

2. Apply Your Initial Washes

Using a big brush, paint the sky wet-on-dry with cobalt blue. ( Need a refresher on washes? We've got you! ) Leave a spot of light on the top of Half Dome untouched. Remember that the sky appears warmer and lighter as it approaches the horizon, so add a tiny drop of yellow ochre to the bottom of the blue wash. Also note that in this landscape, the sun is on the right-hand side, so the sky should be lighter there.

Apply a few brushstrokes defining the trees in the background, using the mixture of cobalt blue and yellow ochre.

Load the big brush with ochre and paint the ground with quick, large brushstrokes. Add a drop of burnt sienna on the foreground to bring it forward.

These initial washes will blend with each other a bit. Just let it happen!

3. Begin to Add Definition

With a medium brush, loosely paint the distant trees using mixtures of ultramarine, ochre, quinacridone gold and burnt sienna. Alternate the colors to give the trees some variety and form.

Paint the mountains using cobalt blue, winsor violet and burnt sienna in various combinations. Note that with this position of the sun, Half Dome's vertical wall is largely in shadow.

With a smaller brush, paint the trunk of the big tree, using the mixture of perylene maroon and burnt sienna. Don't work too hard on the branches — let the brush describe their shapes. Use the side of the brush to create textural marks.

Add more burnt sienna on the foreground to make it warmer.

4. Paint the Cast Shadows

Add more definition to the mountains and trees. Paint the cast shadows with ultramarine. Note that the cast shadows are transparent and colorful, not gray. 

5. Make Final Touch-Ups and Corrections

Add a few tree trunks and slightly correct the shape of distant trees, if needed, by lifting some color.

You could also add a couple of quick horizontal strokes on the ground so that it doesn't look too smooth, and slightly darken the form shadow of the mountain near the left edge of the painting.

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