Painting Animals in the Landscape

I find landscape paintings to be more engaging when they have animals in them, although when I sat down to write this article I couldn't put my finger on exactly why this is. If I had to choose just one reason it would probably be that pastoral scenes evoke memories of the Yorkshire countryside and the area around our previous home in Virginia, that is, they make me feel at home.

In my painting career I've treated animals and landscapes as separate things, rarely combining the two unless a portrait required a realistic setting. This year I was determined to change that—over the summer I spent some time on a series of paintings with farm animals in them. In this blog post I talk about the things I learned while painting these pieces.

If you want to try this for yourself, the most important thing you need is a large selection of reference photos of animals. Even better if you have a sketch book full of studies. Bear in mind that you are unlikely ever to capture all the animals you need for a painting in a single photograph. You will almost always be using several reference photos at a time.

By the way, in this article I'm skipping over the whole "landscape" part of animals in the landscape. I've assumed that you're coming to this, like I did, as a landscape painter who wants to liven things up. If you're just starting out, you may find that animals are the easiest part of the painting.

I've built this post around a series of questions that I asked myself as I was painting these pieces. They were all done from a mix of photographs and plein air studies, and none of these paintings were based on a single reference.

Where should you place the animals?

North Bluff Horses. 6x12, oil on linen mounted on panel. 2016-18

The moment that you add any kind of figure to a landscape it will become one of the most important elements in the picture plane, if not the primary center of interest. That means it's important to place them with care and to pay attention to the way in which they change the overall structure.

I chose to put these horses in the far middle-ground mainly so that they wouldn't dominate the finished picture. This also meant that they were distant enough to be done as simple figures, but still be recognizable as horses. They also helped to create a feeling of depth.

Do they fit with the landscape?

An oil painting of sheep in a field. The picture features a warm palette with minimal use of green.

Corner of the Field. 8x10, oil on linen mounted on panel. 2015/17

This may seem like an obvious point, but you probably don't want the animals to look like they've been cut out and pasted into the landscape. You'll need to make sure they fit with their new surroundings.

I scumbled over the figures in the previous example to make them fit in better. Here I simply changed the color of the sheep to make them a closer match to the value and temperature of the dry grasses in the field.

Do I have enough?

A high key oil painting of sheep in an open field with distant horizon line. Cottonwood trees are seen in the distance.

Cottonwoods. 11x14, oil on linen mounted on panel. 2017

I learned from experience that it's futile to paint lots of white sheep in a green field when working from life. In the real world (as opposed to the way I imagine them to behave) a flock tends to scatter randomly over a large area. This makes it hard to find a center of interest. The same is true for most other farm animals—they rarely clump together in a large group when grazing, preferring instead to hang out in twos and threes with their friends.

My preference is to use animals sparingly.

While I think this better suggests their true behavior, there are good artistic arguments to be made against this practice. Some artists use large groups of animals to create complex light and dark masses in the picture plane. See the work of Michael Workman for some great examples.

In this painting I wanted to create the feeling of a big open space. I placed a few sheep in the distance, but left the remainder of the field empty.

What is the picture about?

Oil painting of a landscape with three horses.

Hale Farm. 12x24, oil on linen mounted on panel. 2017

If you look take some time to analyze all the images in this post, you'll realize that the paintings are not really about the animals. Each picture is is built around a bigger, abstract idea and the farm animals are merely supporting characters.

In this case, I wanted the painting to be about the light in a hazy summer afternoon. The horses were included to add context, atmosphere and a sense of scale.

Are the animals easily recognizable?

A landscape painting with cows by artist Simon Bland

Side by Side. 9x12, oil on linen. 2017

Horses and sheep in silhouette have distinct shapes that are easy to recognize. For that reason it's fairly straightforward to add them to paintings.

Cattle, on the other hand, are much harder to render. They lack the horse's graceful curves, the simple blockiness of sheep, and they require careful painting to make them recognizable.

Bringing them further forward in the picture plane made them easier for a viewer to identify. However, that meant I couldn't use a single color and value to represent the parts in shadow—I had to paint them with four or five different grays plus the highlights.

Summing Up

Painting landscapes with animals in them can vary considerably in difficulty depending on the complexity of the setting, the type and position of the animals, and the lighting.

Yet there's one thing that holds true for all these paintings: you must be able to paint an animal in silhouette without any kind of visual aid except a photograph. The small scale of the figures and any existing paint layers make grid lines useless. Like it did for me, it will take time and lots of practice to get it right.



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