How To Paint Mountains With Depth

Mountains form an interesting component of many landscape paintings. They are large, dominant shapes which you can use to really set the foundation of your composition.

Mountains Are Just Arrangements Of Large Shapes And Colours

Painting mountains is no different to painting a face, tree or any other object. It is all just an arrangement of shapes and colours.

Mountains are actually easy elements to paint. Most of the time people overcomplicate them and try to paint them with too much detail.

Let’s take a look at some mountains in a painting by Edgar Payne (who is really the first person who comes to my mind when I think of great paintings of mountains). Notice in the painting below how dominant and beautiful the mountains appear. They are really a feature of the painting.

When you look at the painting as a whole, it looks very complex. You may even say to yourself that you would never be able to paint that. But let’s break it down.

There is really not much variation in colour or tone in the mountains. It is basically just different purple tones with some high-value grey tones mixed in for the snow.

When you break the mountains down into these basic shapes and colours, then they become much easier to paint.

Contrasts Between Light And Shadow

As mountains are so large, you usually need to paint them from a distance. But from a distance, atmospheric perspective comes into play and you are not able to see all the intricate details.

So, how do you create interest in an object when you cannot even see the details? Well, one of the most interesting elements of mountains are the sharp contrasts between light and dark (shadow).

When you are painting this contrast, you should take note of the colour temperature of the light source as it may determine how warm / cool your colours should be.

Well, what this means in terms of painting mountains is, if you are painting in the warm light of a sunset, then generally the highlights will be warm and the shadows will be cool (think blues and purples).

On the other hand, if you are painting in the cool light of an overcast day, then the highlights may be cool and the shadows may be warm.

There are no hard and fast rules here and you will need to use your observation skills to really determine what colours to use. But this is generally handy knowledge to fall back on.

You should note a few things:

  • The mountains are the sole subject of the painting.
  • It is painted from a distance so you cannot see the intricate details of the mountains.
  • At this was painted during sunrise, the light is warm. Therefore, the highlights are a warm orange and the shadows are a cool blue. This creates an interesting contrast in an otherwise bland scene.