Thoughts on En Plein Air Painting

There are notable inconveniences involved with painting outdoors: heat, cold, sun, wind, bugs, burrs, travel time and expense, etc. So why do it? The benefits are also notable and greatly outweigh the inconveniences: there is simply no better way to train your color perception; you will see the world in literally a whole new light; you will learn to paint with a simpler palette and achieve cleaner, richer color; being in natural surroundings induces deep, significant and healthy changes – getting us in touch with our inner peace and power: a painting you do outside, even if not successful by objective standards, becomes a memorable experience and a milestone – you’ll remember everything about that day in detail when you look at that painting: you will learn to paint essences which will help your studio painting become fresher and more lively: you’ll learn to paint more quickly and intuitively.

Paint Small

This helps with time pressure and economic pressure. Despite the size, there’s no reduction in mental effort or learning. In fact, by painting more subjects in a smaller format you accelerate your growth and learn more about light, color, and varying conditions. The resulting studies have an uncanny monumentality and gem-like quality. You learn as much from smaller paintings as from large ones. In fact, the small format forces you to ignore meaningless detail and focus on larger shapes, color relationships, and composition. Don’t use brushes smaller than l/ 4″ (for flats, or brights).

Simplify your palette

With a light yellow, a red orange, a red violet, a blue, a green and white you can closely approximate all the color effects you’ll find in a landscape. Plus it guarantees color unity,with no odd or overly-intense color separating from the rest. Adding earth colors (ochres, siennas, umbers) may be tempting from the point of view of convenience but I’ve found that they induce laziness in both seeing and color mixing (“oh, I guess that’s close enough” is a symptom of using earth colors). Earth tones relied on heavily make dull, muddy paintings.

Simplify your image

Use your viewfinder, pick a simple subject or shape relationship (3 to 5 major contrasting shapes). The subject should be easy to see and delineate. It should almost paint itself. A simple subject like a tree, puddle, side of a house, a piece of something, will help you focus on color/value relationships and will be less demanding of drawing skills and edge detail and will still capture the feeling, light, atmosphere and temperature of the place. Do two or three thumbnail sketches, 2″x3″ to help you focus and select. Do a black and white (marker) analysis of your best one, simplifying and joining smaller pieces of light and shade into larger, more meaningful shapes. Use your color spotter (1″x3″ black card with three differently spaced holes punched in it) for every color relationship. Look quickly, trust your first impression. Longer staring fatigues your color receptors and dulls the color.

Breathe & relax

Stand back often to see your work from 6 feet away or more. This will show you what ls important: the big color relationships, not picky, edge detail (“noodles”). Think bold flat shapes not nameable items (“trees, flowers, hills, etc.”). Be decisive. Put it down and leave it alone. That way you’ll avoid lifting the color underneath making it muddy. Be sure to wipe your brush after each color note. If you are blessed with near sightedness, you can take off your glasses and paint – having simplified your subject to large color spots. If you have 20/20 vision, use peripheral vision (put your attention on one area while looking at another spot nearby).


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