Setting up your Plein Air Paiting

Setting up your Plein Air Paiting

Place your easel in a comfortable and stable position. If you have to stand awkwardly you will become tired quicker

Use the viewfinder. Use a color isolator if in doubt about colors.

Paint the horizon line first.

Put in dark shapes next and shadow shapes. Shadow change as the light moves so get them in early. Then the lights. Stick to the light dark relationships.

Use a limited palette of primaries and white to learn how to mix paint. Add to this palette over time. Never use tube greens outdoors.

Composition should be simple and strong. That means have a strong focal point. Lead the eye to this focal point. Keep the eye in the painting. All else is trimmings.

On Paiting

Step back from the easel to look at your painting as a whole.

Squint at the scene to see the big shapes and light dark relationships. Paint those.

Keep the light passages thick and the darks / shadows thin. Use transparent paint in the shadows and thicker opaque paint in the sunlit areas.

Take deep breaths to remove tension. Be bold and happy. This is better than tense and tight. It will show in your painting. Paint for yourself first. You are the artist. Be your own boss.

Do not be nervous of other people. Usually they ignore you. Those that stop to talk can become your biggest fans. Be patient and share the joy. Getting lost with little brush strokes? Solve problems by using a larger brush and applying thicker paint. This gives strength and loses little details.

Push the colors if you want to, but keep light and dark relationships intact. The shadow and light relationships make the painting strong.

You can always scrape back, finish in the studio or start another canvas. Outdoor painting is about learning. Forget about trying to be perfect.

Now let us have a look a rocess demonstration:


A potential landscape must be assessed with a critical eye before a paint tube is opened. In truth the success of the painting depends considerably on your assessment of a scene at the very beginning. It is at this point that all your experience with composition comes into play. As your experience grows this will become an intuitive process.

Besides a naturally attractive scene I always look for elements that will catch the eye, draw the eye into the scene and hold the viewer’s interest. Perhaps the most critical element is that of Light and Dark. I will refer to this as L&D. This element is broken down into values of light and dark, but at this early stage we are just looking for the very basic L&D elements. Think black and white onlv!

Open your sketch book and draw a small landscape shaped block about four by two centimetres. This is vour L&D canvas. Take a dark pencil or even better a black felt tip pen and block in the most prominent dark elements in the scene. Leave out everything in between black and white. You ‘will notice that there is now two values – black and white.

PRO TIP: Have you ever started a painting nicely with all the light and darks in place only to lose direction in the middle somewhere? This is almost always due to losing the light/dark value patterri. Re-establish this L&D pattern then focus on the colours only keeping within the pattern.


The Reference


I have chosen this scene because of the simple shapes and shadow to light relationships. It is the interplay between shadow and light that makes a painting stand out. The composition is strong too. The driveway leads the eye to the focal point. There is a balance between horizontal shapes and vertical shapes. There may also be a touch of mystery about that blue door? Now I simply need to paint it and hopefully make a good job of it!

STEP 1: The Sketch

A small notan* sketch is always worthwhile. This sketch makes me look for the dominant shadow and light shapes. This is part of the process to simplify a scene into basic shapes.

STEP 2:  Compose the painting

I am using a Masonite or MDF panel to paint on. These panels are safer to use outdoors and are better for small sizes. First prime the panel with two coats of gesso. I always prefer to tome the panel in a neutral color or warm shades of cadmium red light, raw sienna or burnt sienna to get rid of the cool white primer. It is also difficult to assess the lightest light color when the primer is in fact the lightest!

*for more on notan please see my course Learn to Paint With Impact

Here I have used cad red light and raw sienna to one the board. Use acrylics for this as it dries quicker unless you want some oil toner to mix with your first layers. I have used a smaller brush to quickly draw in the main composition using a turpsy mix of ultramarine and alizarin crimson.
Figure 12 Basie composition drawn in on toned panel


STEP 3: Darkest Darks and Shadow Family

Now using the same turpsy mix of ultramarine blue and alizarin crimson with a larger brush (size 8 – 10) I am blocking in the large dark shapes. The term shadow family also refers to all darks that are not getting the full sunlight. These shapes will be cooler and darker. They will set-off nicely against the lights.
Also get the shadows down early as the sunlight moves and then your shadows may disappear changing your scene completely.
Figure 13 Step 3 the dark shapes are blocked in


Now onto the lights. You may want to use a different brush for the light family colors. This is a matter of choice. If you use the same brush as for the darks make sure that you clean it off well with tissue paper and rinse off with white spirits.
Titanium white broken with a touch of yellow ochre will do the job nicely.
Figui’e 14 Block in the lightest lights



Start to bring in shadows and place them with bold strokes. They can be refined later. Here I have started to put in shadows then the first colour notes using mid-tones.

I have an idea where the darks, lights and the colour values that will be used. From this point on it becomes an intuitive process of evaluation, correction and application of more refined colour notes.

I would rather have a painting that shows energy and generous paint application over a technically correct work that lacks these elements.
Once your basics are in place you must aim to paint with speed, care and passion. All this sounds like a lot of mental work (it is) but if you follow these guidelines you will not have time to fiddle with details and stew over little bits here and there. This is where the large brush, limited palette and generous amounts of paint all contribute to a painting that delights the eyes with texture and colour.


Figure lj Refine Shapes

This middle stage can lull any painter into a false sense of security. What happens is that we forget our plan or concept. We are merrily painting shapes and it is easy to fall into a meditative state. It is very relaxing until you suddenly realise that this painting is losing direction. Help!

Remember when this happens fall back on keeping the light and dark family of shapes in place. You are looking firstly for strong light and for this to happen there must be shadow and cool color shapes. If there is a feeling of light and air in your landscape then you are almost home and dry. Do not overwork it. Look at finishing the painting.


Figure 18 Coming Along but I am missing strong daj’ks
Stand back and have a look at the painting. What works for? What needs some adjustment. Some oomph!
Another tip is to carry a small mirror with you. Hold the mirror to the side of your head and glance at it to see your painting’s reflection. This helps to show the painting more objectively. You get a different view and may spot some problem areas.


I feel that the darks are losing some power. So it is time to re-establish those darks. This is a common adjustment to make in the latter stage.
Figure 19 Get those darks back in then refine
Once the dark shapes are back to my liking I will refine them and bring in the finishing touches. This is when a few small brush lines can come in, a few highlights to add zing and finally your signature.



Figure 20 The finished painting

The final refinements have been added. Tins is a matter of personal choice. You can go too far doing this. I have added a bicycle for a sense of life. Someone may be visiting!
But you decide how to end the painting. You are the artist and your vision is what matters. Overall I think the advice to keep your statement simple, bold and strong is good advice. I try to keep this mantra close to heart when I paint.

Figure 20 The finished painting

The final refinements have been added. Tins is a matter of personal choice. You can go too far doing this. I have added a bicycle for a sense of life. Someone may be visiting!
But you decide how to end the painting. You are the artist and your vision is what matters. Overall I think the advice to keep your statement simple, bold and strong is good advice. I try to keep this mantra close to heart when I paint.

Screenshot_18Figure 21 The Blue Door in its frame


That basic process should keep your plein air work under control. There is plenty of room for personal expression within this framework. Remember that you can always finish the painting in the studio. However try to complete a few outdoors too. The alia prima approach can be immensely satisfying.

Happy plein air painting!

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