Landscape Painting

How do artists render the foreground, middle ground, and background when painting a landscape?


Key Staff

Art Teacher

Key Skills

Making Art: Producing, Executing and Performing
Developing Arts Literacies: Understanding Genres, Analyzing and Evaluating - Critique


Using James Palmersheim's silver creek's November II as a starting point, students will create their own landscape paintings. Students will learn various techniques to create an effective foreground, middle ground, and background. Students will also learn how to portray the illusions of depth and reflection in a painting.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Use foreground, middle ground, and background techniques.
  • Learn to emphasize reflection in water bodies, such as a creek.
  • Learn to paint a landscape.
  • Learn various painting techniques.

Teaching Approach

Arts Learning

Teaching Methods

  • Demonstration
  • Visual Instruction
  • Studio Practice
  • Independent Practice

Assessment Type

Performance Assessment


What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • 1 Computer per Learner
  • Projector
Technology Notes

Internet Access is needed.

Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

  • Basic painting skills, wet wash, and knowledge of color mixing are helpful.
  • Teachers may also want to practice their watercolor painting before demonstrating in front of the class.

Prior Student Knowledge

Students would benefit from previous experience with the concepts of foreground, middle ground, and background. See  the handout 'Vocabulary - Landscape Painting'. Students should also be familiar with basic perspective techniques, such as how to create the illusion of depth in a drawing of a creek.

Physical Space

  • Classroom
  • Visual Arts Studio


Individualized Instruction


Procure and set up painting supplies.

Accessibility Notes

Students with physical disabilities may need modified movements.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.

Build Knowledge


1. State the learning objectives and review the Vocabulary handout located under 'Resources in Reach'. Ask students if they already know the meanings of the words and ask them to give definitions. Discuss as needed.

2. Show the students an example of a landscape by artist James Palmersheim located under 'Resources in Reach'. Although this is a pastel and not a watercolor, it is a great example of background, middle ground, and foreground. Other samples of Palmersheim’s work can be viewed at here. You may choose to have students view individually on computers or by projecting the images using an LCD projector.

3. Have students identify the following in the image:

  • Background
  • Middle ground
  • Foreground

4. Remind students to make background areas neutral (duller colors) and vague in detail. They should also be reminded that the foreground shapes should be brighter, larger, and placed at the bottom of the page.

5. Project the Web page A Small Landscape Painting and review its content with the class. (Note: If an LCD projector is not available, students can read on the computer screen).

6. Explain that students will paint a landscape with a creek as the main focal point. After making a light sketch, they will use water-base paints to create the sky and background. Then, using watercolor paints and the wet wash technique, they will fill in the middle ground. With tempera paints, they will add foreground objects and details. Finally, they will incorporate the illusions of reflection and depth.

7. You should demonstrate this process before the students begin work.

Build Knowledge

1. Distribute the Landscape Painting Directions worksheet located under 'Resources in Reach' to students so that they can follow along with your demonstration and so that they can refer to it when it is time for them to paint their own landscape.

2. Model the process for students by taking the following steps:

  1. Gently fold the paper in half horizontally.
  2. Unfold it and press flat.
  3. Lightly sketch a landscape with a creek starting at the fold and coming forward, down to the bottom of the page, with parallel lines (sides of the creek) farthest apart at the bottom.
  4. Continue to lightly fill in shapes to represent the foreground.
  5. With a clean sponge or wide brush, paint a thin wash of clean water across the top half of the page.
  6. Load your brush with a sky blue hue and make a graded wash from the top down to just above the fold. Add a little color to your brush and paint in hills if you’d like.
  7. Freshen your brush and make a new line of blue on the fold for the top of the creek. Again, make a graded wash downward staying within the creek lines you sketched.
  8. While the paper is still damp, switch to mixed greens of tempera and then paint in general areas of trees just above and down to the fold.
  9. Immediately but gently fold the paper again, and press the back to transfer the green of the trees onto the damp creek area below to create a soft reflection on the water.
  10. Unfold the paper. At this point, you can let the paint dry and finish the details and other areas later or continue.
  11. Remember to make background areas neutral (duller colors) and vague in detail. The foreground shapes should be brighter, larger, and placed at the bottom of the page.
  12. Review objectives, vocabulary, process, and clean up.

3. Have the class generate a rubric which they will use to self-assess and which you will use to assess their work.


Tell students that they are now going to paint their own landscapes with water reflections. Follow the directions listed here:

  1. Pass out paper and pencils. Fold the paper in half, on the horizontal. Unfold and press out.
  2. Sketch a landscape with a creek that goes from the fold to the bottom of the paper. Include a few trees on and above the fold line, and other shapes to complete the picture.
  3. Pass out paints, water brushes, and paper towels. Moisten watercolor paints.
  4. Paint top half of picture with sky blue graded wash. Using same or similar color, wet wash in creek space.
  5. Change colors and add trees above creek using tempera paints; fold, press, unfold.
  6. Complete the rest of the painting.
  7. Clean up and allow painting to dry.


Hold a classroom critique, in which students explain how they followed the objectives and how they think they did vis-à-vis the rubric. Be sure that students respond to the following questions when they present their work to the rest of the class:

  • Did each student successfully use foreground, middle ground, and background techniques to paint a landscape?
  • Was there an emphasis on using tempera paint to create a reflection in the creek?


Assess the students' performance based on the rubric that was created by the class created in step three of 'Build Knowledge'.

Extend the Learning

Study other artists who use water-base paint for reflections. Focus on painting that is transparent or translucent. What "messages" do paintings using this technique send compared to those that are opaque? Are there other art forms that are related to watercolor (i.e., impressionistic music, classical guitar, ballet, etc.)? Combine the landscape painting activity with creative writing.

To simplify the lesson, omit the tempera and just use watercolor. Alternatively, use thinned acrylic paint and compare the results. Use light-colored, torn tissue paper and collage the landscape and creek on white paper painted with thinned white glue. While still damp, add small lines and details with ink or a fine-line, water-base marker. (Use permanent marker on dry collage if you do not want the lines to "bleed".)


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

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Daniella Garran
Original Writer

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