How to Paint Southwestern Desert Scenes

Southwestern deserts provide many unique natural elements for inspiration.
arizona desert image by John Keith from

The Southwestern United States has some the most vivid and dramatic landscapes in the world. The deep blue skies of Arizona's low desert provide a rich backdrop to its saguaro cacti and its range of neutral tans and browns, while the red earth and scrub pine of the New Mexican high desert have fascinated generations of artists. The natural arches and standing stones of Utah provide unusual and magnificent forms that inspire painters and sculptors alike. Surrounding everything is a sense of solitude and vastness. Even a humble alleyway with bougainvillea casting shadows on an adobe wall speaks of the Southwest’s unique beauty. Attempting to convey all of this through a painting can be a daunting prospect; on the other hand, there is so much splendor to choose from that something of the sublime is bound to come through in your work.

Things You'll Need

  • Water Or Oil Painting Medium
  • Rags
  • Tape Or Scissors
  • Photograph(S)
  • Artist Paints
  • Paintbrushes
  • Easel Or Table
  • Pencil, Pen Or Charcoal
  • Can Of Brush Cleaner (If Painting In Oils)
  • Eraser
  • Sketch Paper
  • Pallet
  • Stretched Canvas (Or Prepared Board Or Paper)

Choose a photograph to work from. Maybe you are reading this because you already found a photo that inspired you. Look through your own snapshots or search the Internet. It is fine to paint from a picture in a magazine for your own enjoyment, but if you want to sell or publish your painting, you must ensure that the image is licensed for others to work from. You can also do an on-site color sketch, if you live near a desert; this method provides subtleties of colors that a photograph will not show.

Look at the photo and think about what makes it so inspiring to you. Make a black and white copy of the picture so you can see how the values (darks and lights) work together.

Cover the edges of the picture with pieces of paper to see if it would look better cropped. If so, crop or tape off the edges as you choose.

Outline the major shapes to get a feeling for the composition. Use a dark pen or marker on a spare copy of the photo. You might outline dark and light areas that are part of the same object.

Do several quick sketches to get a feel for the subject matter and composition. Cut your sketching paper so that it has the same height to width ratio as the canvas that you will paint on.

Look at the various color relationships. Always compare areas of color in the photograph with the same areas in your painting. For example, the shadow side of a rock will be darker than the sunlit side, but really look and see how much darker it is. See if the shadow is bluer or redder than the sunlit side.

The Southwestern landscape is characterized by its particular type of sunlight. This is most easily expressed in the relationships between sunlit surfaces and shadows. Shadows can be surprisingly rich in color; look at them carefully. Do some color sketches of lights and shadows so you will get a feel for how to mix your colors.

Now that you have become familiar with your subject matter, take out your canvas and start painting. Don’t get bogged down in detail. Instead, work quickly and cover the whole canvas filling in more and more details as you go.


  • Watercolor is a transparent medium, so you need to work from light to dark. Get clear about the areas that you want to keep light because once you paint dark colors, you cannot remove or paint over them. With oil and acrylic paint, you can work light to dark, dark to light or both. You might start with a white canvas or paint the whole surface a neutral midtone; deep or brick red is also a commonly used undercoat color.