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Developing an Eye for Landscape Composition

Learn to successfully see a landscape when painting in oil, watercolor, or acrylic or in photographic compositions.
Jill Poyerd
670 students enrolled
English [Auto-generated]
Break down the landscape into manageable broad planes.
Understand what differentiates landscape from other subject matter.
Identify the focal point in a landscape scene.
Determine the lines in a landscape and how they lead the eye.
Recognize composition design tools used by painting Masters.
Learn the common Dos and Don'ts of landscape composition design.
Be able to see or design a landscape composition that has the best chance of success.
Conduct a successful photoshoot to gather reference material.
Reconstruct a troubled composition to increase success.
Understand how to create and the benefits of creating a value sketch.
Use a Notan design to double-check composition designs.

A landscape composition design can mean the success or failure of a piece of art whether you paint in oils, watercolor, or acrylics; draw; or work in photography. In this course, professional landscape painter, Jill Poyerd, goes beyond teaching the rules – she teaches students how to “see” a landscape and then translate what they see into a successful design. 

Using her approachable, easy-to-understand teaching method and an easy pace, students of any experience level learn by watching visually appealing video instruction and working through over 22 student activities and quizzes. Topics discussed include what makes landscapes unique, the planes theory, focal points, compositional lines, design tools of the Masters, choosing a subject, conducting a photoshoot, reconstructing images, and then using value and notan sketches to check your designs. 

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In this lecture, students are introduced to the subject of landscape and given a quick overview of what will be covered in the rest of the course. We also discuss where to find the activities, how to get instructor feedback when needed, and when to review.

Breaking Down the Landscape

What Makes Landscapes Unique?

Students learn about how landscapes differ from other subject matter. What makes them unique, and how do these unique qualities impact the visual artist?

What Makes Landscapes Unique - QUIZ
An Understanding of Values

Before we go any further, it's important to make sure we understand what values are and how they relate to a landscape.

The Planes Theory

In this lecture we introduce the Planes Theory - a way of looking at the world around you that was developed by John F. Carlson. P

The Planes Theory II

The Planes Theory can be expanded or reworked. In this lecture we explore a twist on this theory.

The Planes Theory - QUIZ
Exceptions to the Planes Theory

There are also many exceptions to the Plane's Theory that have to be considered, as we discover in this lecture.

Exceptions to the Planes Theory - QUIZ
Determining a Focal Point

Once we can see a landscape in terms of broad planes, we can now discuss the concept of establishing a focal point. Viewers looking at a piece of art, whether a painting or a photograph, need to know where they're supposed to look in the image.

Determining a Focal Point - QUIZ
How a Composition Leads the Eye

Landscapes have natural lines that develop as a result of element placement, and these lines help guide the eye. That is what we explore in this lecture.

How a Composition Leads the Eye - QUIZ
Dos and Don'ts of Landscape Composition Design

There are some industry Dos and Dont's. Rules are always good to know, even if you decide to break them when it comes to art.

Dos and Don'ts of Landscape Composition Design - QUIZ

Landscape Composition Design Tools

Rule of Thirds

In this section, we explore nine composition tools used by both historic and contemporary painting Masters. The first and perhaps most common of these tools is the Rule of Thirds, where your focal elements are lined up along third lines and intersections.

Extreme Horizon Line

Going extreme with your horizon line is a design option, especially if you want to emphasize either the sky or the foreground.


Elements can be lined up to form an L-shape in order to highlight a specific element.

S or Z-Shape

Another common tool is to incorporate an element or elements that curve through the composition, creating a natural path for the eye.

Strong Diagonal

A strong division in your space can also be used to break up the composition in a visually-compelling way.

Large Center Object

Placing objects or groups of objects in the center of your image is something that has to be handled with care. In this lecture we discuss how to do this successfully.

Symmetrical Balance

Symmetrical balance is a tool that can be found naturally in nature and can often be found in compositions if you look closely enough.

Asymmetrical Balance

In this lecture, we discuss asymmetrical balance and how visual weight plays a part in this effective tool.


Triangulation is particularly effective tool and something that is relatively easy to find in nature.

Composition Design Tools - QUIZ

In this lecture, we look at multiple historic masterpieces with an eye for identifying the design tools we just learned about, observing how those tools guide the eye through the scenes.

When to Use The Tools

Finally, a brief discussion on how to use the tools we just learned about - when to apply them.

Putting it into Practice

Quick Recap

In this lecture, we take a quick look at what we've learned so far and how it relates to the rest of the course. The next section takes our new knowledge base and puts it into practice.

Choosing a Subject

We're on our way to conducting a photoshoot, but before you can go on location you need to know what you want to draw, paint, or photograph. What inspires you and where can you go to get it? In this video we talk about developing a plan for gathering reference material - what type of landscape, what season, what kind of weather conditions and tine of day. Preparing will make your efforts more time efficient.

Planning a Photoshoot

In order to help you develop your photoshoot plan, I've provided a Photoshoot Planning Worksheet that guides you through much of the criteria you need to consider before venturing out with your camera or sketch pad. This lecture discusses the preparations.

Photoshoot I - Spring Meadow

In this lecture, you come along with me as I conduct an actual photoshoot at a location near my home. Together, as we walk, I will show you how what we learned in the first part of the course applies when you're out on location.

Photoshoot II - Water Scene

In this lecture, we go out on another photoshoot - a little briefer this time. I wanted to show you how a water element can impact what you see and how it effects the composition.

Photoshoot III - Colorado Meadow

Our final brief photoshoot was conducted in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and has a special purpose.

Image Orientation

Before we move on to reconstructing our images, we need to discuss image orientation and the impact that can have on a piece of art.

Image Orientation - Masterpiece QUIZ

In this lecture, we look at multiple painting masterpieces but with an eye for how the image orientation influences the feeling of the piece. In some cases I show you how a change in orientation would have changed that feeling, and I provide an additional activity if you want to test yourself on identifying design tools.

Reconstruction I - Initial Image Review

In this lecture, we begin the process of downloading our images and conducting an initial review.

Reconstruction II - Narrowing Your Selection

After the initial review, we go through each image more carefully in order to identify the top handful of images.

Reconstruction III - Final Review

Now we bring each of the selected images into a photo editing tool where I show you changes that can be made to strengthen the composition designs.

Checking Your Design - Value Sketch

Once you have what you feel is a solid images as far as composition, it's helpful to produce a value sketch to check your design. In this lecture, we cover how to produce this kind of sketch.

Checking Your Design - Notan

And finally, we walk through using my adapted version of a Notan design to double-check our selected image composition.


In this lecture, we summarize all that was learned in this course and briefly discuss what your next steps might be as visual artists.

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