Overcoming the difficulties of plein air painting

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Painting outdoors in the open air can be a frustrating and even discouraging experience for the uninitiated. Today’s best plein air painters experienced those same overwhelming feelings when they first began painting outdoors. But what they’ve all discovered is that all the struggles and initial failures have been more than worth it.

Six outstanding plein air painters have agreed to share useful tips that helped them push through those early struggles. You’ll also learn how they assimilate landscape overload and use all the material gathered on-site when creating larger studio works.  An edited version of this article was recently featured in the weekly PleinAir Today Newsletter. It’s with pleasure I share with you the insightful comments of Kathleen Dunphy, Linda Glover Goch, John Poon, Dave Santillanes, Kathryn Stats, and Colley Whisson. (Click on images to enlarge)

Linda Glover Gooch - "Desert Groupies" - 10" x 8" - Oil

Linda Glover Gooch – “Desert Groupies” – 10″ x 8″ – Oil



What was the most difficult thing for you to overcome when you first began painting outdoors; what advice do you have for those just beginning this adventure?


Dunphy:  Standing outdoors in the middle of a beautiful scene with your easel all set up and brush in hand is so intimidating and overwhelming. I just don’t think I could have done it if I hadn’t been in a class, surrounded by others who were dealing with the struggle and led by someone who had been at this for a while. My advice to beginners is to find a good workshop that will address the needs of a beginner, and don’t be afraid to ask questions when you’re in the class. Don’t feel like your questions are stupid and don’t be intimidated by the people who are painting better than you are…they all started out just like you and felt just as overwhelmed and stupid as you’re feeling. And don’t expect to be good overnight! Like any other skill, painting takes practice and perseverance. If you were first learning how to play the piano, you wouldn’t expect to be able to perform a Mozart piano concerto flawlessly on the first day. The same holds true for painting. Even the greats like Sargent and Sorolla had to start somewhere. Just realize that every painting is a stepping stone to the next one and good paintings will come with hard work and patience.

Gooch: Simplifying the subject and not being overwhelmed by the vast view. Go easy on yourself, work small and study plein air works by those you admire. Practice a lot; go out as often as you can, even if it’s just in your back yard.

Poon: Aside from our equipment, probably the most fundamental hurdle to creating a good picture on-location, lies in our ability to see accurate value under extremely bright lighting conditions.  If you’ve ever had the effect of a painting appear darker once you’ve brought it in from the outdoors, know that it’s been a common issue for many a painter.  One trick that helped train my eye to see the values more accurately when outdoors, was to establish a key on my palette.  I placed a patch of sky color to dry, that I had mixed while in my studio and knew to be accurate under gallery lights.  Then I was careful to try and match that value when painting on location.  Interestingly enough, after about a half dozen paintings I found I no longer needed that key, having re-programmed my eye to see the values, as they would appear when brought indoors.

Santillanes: The most difficult thing for me to overcome early on was simply not using enough paint.  I would create thin, “watery” mixtures that quickly ended in muddy color. My advice for beginning painters…don’t worry about the success or failure of the painting, just treat it as a “study” of color, light and atmosphere – good paintings will follow.

Stats:  1) Trying to paint the whole world on a single canvas. 2) Choosing subject matter and defining the outside perimeters for the canvas. 3) Light gets most of our attention, but it’s the dark patterned shapes that define a composition. 4) Choose high contrast compositions as opposed to close value situations. 5) Think of light and dark patterns as abstract puzzle pieces. 6) Using a viewfinder is helpful for focusing in on your main subject.

Whisson: My first outing occurred when I was 21 years old, I was an absolute raw beginner to plein air painting. I journeyed out with an artist friend and it went horribly wrong, the subject was too difficult, I was getting bitten by bugs. I went home with my tail between my legs, but determined to make it work. After great thought, my solution was to start with drawing first; this would hopefully get me use to the unpredictable nature of doing field work.

John Poon - "Fall Colors" - 11" x 14" - Oil

John Poon – “Fall Colors” – 11″ x 14″ – Oil

Kathryn Stats - "Winter Glass" - 9" x 12" - Oil

Kathryn Stats – “Winter Glass” – 9″ x 12″ – Oil



Theres a lot to deal with for the uninitiated plein air landscape painter, how do you suggest they assimilate all the information and translate that to canvas?


Dunphy: When I first started painting outdoors, I was overwhelmed by all the beauty and had such a hard time deciding what to paint. Like many beginners, I couldn’t resist the temptation to paint everything I saw…all on one little canvas. I was so worried that I would miss out on something that the scene was offering and felt as though I only had one shot to get it all on canvas.  After a long time of frustration, producing paintings that were either way too busy or left unfinished, because I didn’t have time to paint every detail before the light changed, I finally started honing in my focus and concentrating on one clear intent per painting. Doing thumbnail sketches has made all the difference in the world for me. Usually, my first sketch is the “postcard” shot of the scene, with all of the elements arranged in a fairly predictable manner. But as I sketch, I discover the areas that interest me the most and discard the excess. Most of designing a plein air painting is deciding what not to paint. I do at least three sketches per painting, cropping or enlarging, pulling back my focus or honing in on smaller parts of the big scene. After a while, the landscape tells me what to paint if I just spend the time to slow down and listen.

Gooch: Start with up-close and personal scenes. Don’t try to paint the whole Grand Canyon, just pick a small portion and learn from there.

Poon: Here are two effective techniques for simplifying the myriad of detail we see outdoors.  The first is in how we interpret the subject.  So, for example, rather than putting together 100 individual blades of grass to represent a patch of ground, we paint it initially as a unified mass with broader strokes, then apply just a few elements of detail to help define the subject.  It’s a kind of short hand method for maintaining good form and can be applied to virtually any topic of the landscape. The second concept would be to consign the entire scene into just 3 or 4 simplified masses.  To do this, we need a basic understanding for how to group things together.  The ground plane and hills, for example, can often combine to form a single larger mass that then separate from the lighter value of the sky.  In this way, it helps organize the vast amount of detail and keep subordinate to the larger shapes of the design.

Santillanes: Learn to see the “light family” and the “shadow family” independently in order to create an apples to apples comparison of color throughout a landscape. For example, if you can isolate your vision to only the shadows (or the darkest darks on each plane) and compare these dark shapes from background all the way to the foreground before painting them, you’ll have atmosphere figured out in very short order.

Stats:  Paint all darkest shapes first, then medium values and finally the lightest value patterns. This will set up the composition to best define form. 2) Don’t get lost in the minutia of the subject…painting every little bush or nuance of a tree. Rather than drawing every tree separately, find a way to group them as a mass into one large group. Too much detail weakens a composition. Hold off the most essential details until the last 1% of the painting.

Whisson:  Because I started my plein air work by doing drawing excursions, I believe doing small thumbnail sketches is an ideal way to begin. Initially it’s best to choose a subject that’s not too difficult and is within your skill level.

Dave Santillanes - "Bottom of the Falls" - 9" x 12" - Oil

Dave Santillanes – “Bottom of the Falls” – 9″ x 12″ – Oil

Kathleen Dunphy - "Looking Towards Pismo" - 12" x 16" - Oil

Kathleen Dunphy – “Looking Towards Pismo” – 12″ x 16″ – Oil



Whats the best way to use plein air work and photography in the studio?


Dunphy: When I paint in the studio, I use my plein air studies as reference, but I rarely just “size up” a successful study to paint the exact same scene on a larger format. I’ve found that the plein air piece is always better than the study—there’s a freshness and spontaneity to those little paintings that just can’t be replicated in the studio. For larger studio works, I will refer to my photos for a design idea, then use the studies for color reference and inspiration for the central theme of the painting. I try to look at the photo reference infrequently while I’m painting, relying mostly on the studies, sketches, and memory while I paint. If I rely too much on the photo, my painting starts to look flat and lacks those unexpected, subtle color shifts and bounces of light that make plein air work so compelling.

Gooch: I use my plein air work mostly to note colors or the flavor of my palette and identify the mood of the scene. The photo will assist me further in the detail of a larger painting and also in any compositional changes I might want to make. Both are a jumping off place for me. I don’t want to be married to the photo.

Poon: I have found the outdoor sketch to be quite useful as color notes when working a larger scale in the studio.  For all its benefits, the photo is still a truly inaccurate medium for recalling color and value, the main shifts occurring in the hue, saturation of lights, and the value of the shadows.  An accurate field sketch can serve as a reliable road map back to the initial colors witnessed on location and unfiltered by the camera. One last thing to note, because we are so limited in our minds ability to create unique and varied shapes, the photo remains a fundamental resource for subtlety and nuance in our subject matter.  Both the color sketch and photo reference can be combined to very good effect in creating our larger studio works.

Santillanes: Use a bad photo and a good plein air study.  You can even convert the photo to black and white; this will keep you from chasing bad color information and relying instead on a true first hand source for that information. Of special importance are the shadows. If you only get one thing right in a plein air study, make sure it’s the shadows.

Stats: I use a monitor, plus iPad and computer screen, to view variations of photos I take of the subject. Along with my plein air sketches, and material from these other sources, I try to design the most interesting composition. If I want to be true to the original plein air piece, I grid and size it up to a canvas of similar proportion in order to maintain the ratio of the original composition.

Whisson: In recent years I’ve used my outdoor work as my research and development time. I like to make sure that I’m looking for something different, possibly a subject that I’ve never painted before. So I take these concepts and ideas to fuel my studio work. Believing that, ‘’Where I’m going to, is more important than where I’ve been’’. Because I do quite a few international trips these days, my time is restricted, I now tend to rely on my photographic reference material more than ever. Or as an artist friend would call his camera his 35mm sketch book.

Colley Whisson - The Story Bridge-Brisbane" - 11" x 13" - Oil

Colley Whisson – The Story Bridge-Brisbane” – 11″ x 13″ – Oil


To view more work from each of these artists:

Kathleen Dunphy

Linda Glover Gooch

John Poon

Dave Santillanes

Kathryn Stats

Colley Whisson



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