The process of plein air paiting

The process of plein air paiting

I like to start with a big brush and start painting in the dark shapes usually with a diluted mix of ultramarine and burnt sienna. It is these darks and their relationship to the lights that are critical to the impact of the painting. Remember impact comes from just this – relationships between colors and values. This applies to the old masterworks and to modern landscapes too. Once your darks are in then change brushes and move to the lights.

Lights in landscapes are the sky and areas receiving direct or indirect light. The sky is usually the lightest. For the sky you will need to bring in some white but keep it broken with a touch of yellow ochre.

The landscape may be more a mid-tone so you could get away with no white in the color mix for your mid-tone areas just yet.


Figui’e 6 Painting from the balcony is still plein air

What is the problem with adding white paint at this stage? White does not keep warm colors warm and it makes shadows opaque. Your colors will remain transparent for more richness. You will achieve better results and richer paintings when using less white paint. So I keep early layers as free as possible from white paint. Go ahead and mix colors, but bring the white in only where necessary. This may sound strange to beginners who are often told to use tons of white paint. The result is often a painting of chalky color that struggles not to look pastel.

With darks and lights in you can block in the mid-tones. These will usually be foreground and middle ground areas that range from cools in the distance to warms in the foreground. They are the areas between brights and darks.


That is key and why a large brush and an emphasis on shapes is so important. Rather go for large shapes and go for simple color relationships and value contrast to get more impact.

Figure 7 Large shapes have moi’e impact

It would be better to use thick generous paint applications than small brush details. It is always a pleasure to see texture from thick paint and brushstrokes. This is one of oil paint’s advantages so use it where you can.

Yes contrast between bold and gentle paint application is necessary too. For instance shadows are deep and mysterious while bright foregrounds can have thick juicy paint.

Remember to try and suggest with shapes and paint application too. For instance lines on a road suggested by the paint strokes. Wavy thick paint strokes can suggest the motion of water – you get the idea.

Develop your painting by adding more color and keeping a close eye on your scene. Do not get caught up in details. Work quickly and intuitively. Pay attention to light and dark shapes and adjust where necessary. Look at your edges and soften where needed. Focal points can have harder edges, but try to avoid this elsewhere.

Stand back to look at the panel often and compare then adjust where needed. Forget perfection.

Go for mood and eye catching elements that say more than perfectly rendered details. Above all else have fun. Concentrate but keep the process light hearted. Loosen up – breathe – sing if you want to. This is creativity and freedom.

When the painting is done put it in the panel carrier and start another with a different scene. When back at the studio put the panels up somewhere and assess them. Have a seat and look at them across the room.


Assess the colors, composition, mood and the painting as a whole. How do they make you feel? Do you relive the moment? Do they surprise you now that you see them in the safety’ of the studio? I am sure that there is a certain vibe that you pick up from the plein air painting that is unique.

I am often amazed by the impact such a small painting makes despite the short time spent painting it. Maybe I do a larger version or a similar version. Often the larger version fails to have the same vibe. Art is funny like that.

Are your first few attempts failures? You may think so at first, but they are necessary for development – crawl, walk then run – such is life and art!


To look, to see, to understand, to capture -however imperfectly – is to be part of the land in a way like no other. (Jan Blencowe)

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