Plein air painting, where do I begin?

Dear Scott,

I have been painting for several years and I am showing in a gallery in my home town. Can you give me any advise on painting out of doors? I have tried it a couple of times and don't seem to be having much luck!


There are quite a few differences between painting in a studio and painting on location. Besides the elements themselves, a key problem is dealing with the constantly changing effects of light and color. Because the sun is always on the move, your light direction will be affected to the point of being completely different in less than two hours. Cloud shadows come and go as well, and colors will change too, especially when you are working early in the morning or late in the afternoon.

So here are a few pointers for choosing your subject matter:

  • Keep it simple! Try to focus in on studies when you look for subject matter. It is hard to take in large vistas while you are trying to learn some out door techniques. A cluster of trees, a corner of a building, a small section of rock outcropping; this will give you enough to devote your attention to without being overwhelmed by the amount of material you have to capture in a short period of time.
  • Try painting in the mid morning or mid afternoon. Sunrise and sunset are beautiful, but the light and color change so dramatically in such a short amount of time, it is difficult for the beginner to work with this kind of time restraint. So a little later in the morning will give you enough morning light but without the rapidly changing effects.
  • Another good trick is to paint a scene that is primarily back lit. Back lighting, while not for every painting, is great because you will experience the least amount of change in lighting during the course of your painting. After two hours you will generally still have a backlit scene, rather than shadows that have noticably changed direction or length.

OK, now that you have your subject, lets give a few ideas for handling the painting:

  • Keep your canvas small. I would suggest working on 8" x 10", or 9" x 12" surfaces until you are comfortable with these sizes. Time is of the essence when painting in plein air, so this will give you the most time to finish your painting. I like to paint on canvas board in the field primarily because you eliminate the problem of having light coming through your canvas while working.
  • Keep a limited number of colors on your palette. I generally use these colors: Cad. Red Deep, Cad. Orange, Cad. Yellow, Cad. Yellow Deep, Yellow Ochre, Burnt Sienna, Cobalt Blue, Ultramarine Blue, Burnt Umber, Veridian and Aliziron Crimson. There are certainly other good color choices and sometimes I use more, but the fewer you can get by with, the easier it will be.
  • Use 1 inch to 1/2 inch brushes. I prefer synthetic brights. I will have one small round to add a few finishing lines, but try to stay away from small brushes. You can't paint quickly enough with a number 8 it for signing your piece when it's dry! Use the edge of your large brushes to paint your details, this will help to keep your painting fresh. The generally accepted view is that plein air paintings should be somewhat impressionistic to very impressionistic. Your primary concern should be capturing the light and color vibrancy that you see in the field. Laboring over details will only consume the time you have to spend on more important aspects of field painting.
  • There are differing ideas about how to go about starting your painting. I follow two concepts...working from the background forward, and blocking in my lights and darks. Generally, I will lay in a very quick sky color that seems close enough, then a background horizon line. But before I go much further with this progression, I will block in my darks in particular, to build the contrasts that develope good light and dark masses on the canvas. One of the main rules in any painting is that you cannot have good light in a painting without strong darks. I will not use this column to delve deeper into that arena as that is an entire subject on it's own!
  • Step back from your painting frequently while you are working. This goes back to a letter I posted before ( see the tip on detail - how much is enough?), but when I paint outdoors, moving back 6 - 8 feet gives me the chance to see how my colors and strokes are relating to each other. When I feel that something works from this distance, then I leave it alone and move on to areas that have not reached an acceptable level of completion.

I hope this gives you some ideas on how to begin. Remember that it takes time to learn how to cope with, and handle on canvas, the outdoor enviroment. Keeping these paintings around your studio will be far more valuable to you when working indoors than putting them in a gallery. So don't be too concerned with whether or not they are sellable.

At first you will probably look at your works and think they were done by a different artist! But over time your plein air paintings will become more refined and controlled, while your studio work becomes more alive and fresh, eventually melding into one discernable style. But if that doesn't happen, don't worry about that either!

Wm. Scott Jennings

Follow these links to more fine art by Wm. Scott Jennings


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