Three questions about plein air painting – Part 2

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In this two-part series, twelve elite artists respond to three important questions facing every plein air painter.

“Landscape painting is a timeless expression of human experience; man has contemplated the earth, sky, and trees throughout history. The challenge of painting outdoors, en plein air, allows close observation of nature’s light and colors, yet requires speed and memory to capture fleeting conditions. Nature displays endless moods; each day, hour or minute presents something new.” (Kevin Macpherson: “Fill Your Oil Paintings with Light & Color”)

Bruce Crane (1857-1937) an American Tonalist taught that the purpose of studying and sketching out of doors is to fill the memory with facts. “It should therefore be exact and conscientious. In the studio, the artist should use this knowledge freely.”

I believe many of the artists interviewed for this two-part series would agree with that statement.

I have found it most interesting to discover that after writing this weekly blog for the last three years, the series done on “Classical (Classic) Realism” and this current one Three questions about plein air painting”  have been by far the most popular. Don’t you think that’s an interesting contrast? There seems to be much more activity however related to plein air painting; so this week we will continue our series on the subject by bringing you six more highly accomplished, award winning artists…seriously committed to plein air painting and its importance for the landscape painter. Two of them, Kathryn Stats and Kevin Macpherson are part of the invited faculty for the 3rd Annual Plein Air Convention and Expo (7-11 April 2014) in Monterey, CA.

Macpherson will be the keynote speaker at the event. Known worldwide as an outstanding plein air painter, he has also authored two books that should be in every artist’s library: “Fill Your Oil Paintings with Light & Color” and “Landscape Painting Inside & Out”…both published by North Light Books.

Richard Prather’s love for landscape painting is bolstered by his career as a wildlife biologist. Because of that, he understands that the real beauty of nature goes beyond what is actually seen, and it’s that knowledge that informs his paintings.

Fran Ellisor will be painting in France this summer. She says, “When I gather my gear to head out, I know it will be a good day. I will see the truth and I will learn from it.” The lure of outdoor painting for her is irresistible. Nancy Boren is staying stateside, but she’s looking forward to her two museum shows; one at Texas Tech University and the other at the beautiful Booth Museum in Cartersville, GA.

Now, please enjoy Part 2 of “Three questions about plein air painting”…

Fran Ellisor

Fran Ellisor

Richard Prather

Richard Prather

Kathryn Stats

Kathryn Stats

Kevin Macpherson

Kevin Macpherson

Nancy Boren

Nancy Boren

Ted Clemens

Ted Clemens


If there is one piece of advice you would offer a beginning plein air painter, what would it be?

Ellisor:  Simplify!  Make this your mantra. Simplify your painting process.  Keep the composition to a few basic, dynamic shapes that feed the focal point. Paint only the elements that are essential to the design. Simplify your palette. Keep your colors to a minimum and put plenty of fresh paint on your palette. Simplify your painting gear. Less is better in plein air painting. 

Prather:  Recognize that failures are successes when we learn from them.  The success lies in the time spent seeing and evaluating subject matter, formulating a concept of how to paint it and execution of that concept.  You may not consider each painting a success, but the attempt itself, if done in earnest is.   At the end of the day, whether you’re happy with your painting or not, you’ve made progress.  Be encouraged with that and move on to the next painting.

Stats:  Stick to three to five large shapes of unequal proportions with regard to size and value.

Kathryn Stats - "Morning Shadows Zion" - 24"x 36" - Oil

Kathryn Stats – “Morning Shadows Zion” – 24″x 36″ – Oil


Macpherson:  If I were to offer advice to an aspiring artist I would say, find some good training to learn the basic skills. Find the right schools, the right mentors and workshops. Dedicate the hours and years necessary to master the principles and foundations. With the right guidance from a giving mentor or instructor you will save much time in your advancement. The desire and need to paint for yourself is more important than any great teacher, for they can guide you and inspire you, but if you’re not self-motivated one will never reach full potential. There may be many obstacles and discouragements along the way but if a person follows their dream the life as an artist will never feel like work.

Visit museums, galleries and peruse books to find many artists, abstract and representational, which touch you and perhaps have a similar art vocabulary to confirm your own voice. In fact, finding your “own voice”, trusting and believing in yourself and what you have to offer is most important. There are many good artists available for study and to compare and persuade you to copy their methods. All the great masters were humans, and yes they are great and we put them on a pedestal, but each of you have something worthy and unique to say. Believe in yourself. If you had the choice to paint like any artist in the world, that artist has to be Y O U.

Kevin Macpherson - "Mountain View" - 24"x 30" - Oil

Kevin Macpherson – “Mountain View” – 24″x 30″ – Oil


Boren:  Before you go on a painting trip, do some homework on the internet. It can be overwhelming trying to paint in a new and gorgeous location. Google the area, look at different views, pick what appeals to you, study maps and develop a game plan for good spots before you arrive. Make phone calls to parks or other places to be sure you can set up where you want. Once there, don’t waste precious morning and late afternoon light driving around looking around every bend in the road for the most perfect spot. Stop, paint, and then use lunchtime to do more reconnaissance.

Clemens:  Don’t paint what you see. Understand what you see. And paint what you understand. Divorce yourself from the subject and think form and shape. Everything out there is spheres, cones, blocks and cylinders. If you understand the basics, you can paint anything. The best single tool to understanding is to keep a sketchbook, like a journal. Use ink or colored pencils. No erasing. Remember it’s more important to get the character of a subject than its detail.


What approach do you take in order to capture the essence of a scene within the short time you have when working en plein air?

Ellisor:  I don’t always use the same approach for every painting.  But, with that said, I usually break the process into three basic parts. 1) Composition (design) and Drawing – First, I drink in the beauty of the world around me.  I decide on the center of interest and place a basic drawing on the panel.  I then step back to make sure the drawing is accurate and the focal point is well placed. I try to keep this step to about 10 minutes.

Fran Ellisor - "Big Brother and Little John" - 11"x 14" - Oil

Fran Ellisor – “Big Brother and Little John” – 11″x 14″ – Oil


2) Blocking in – I begin at the focal point and work out keeping the initial painting phase thin, continuing to insure that values and overall harmony are correct. The color of light and atmosphere is key in this step.  I amplify the rhythm of the design by keeping the darks transparent and colors clean.  I stay away from opaque as much as possible. I spend around 40 minutes on this phase.  I try to always be aware of how quickly the light conditions are changing and speed up or slow the process accordingly.

3) Finishing – At this point, it is time to take stock in the painting and see what it needs.   This is the fun part:  thick, juicy strokes, bold highlights and textural passages.  I review the edges and make sure they help to lead the eye around the painting and to the center of interest.  It is easy to overwork or “chase the light” in this stage.  So, again, remember:  less is better, keep it simple.

Prather:  After firming up what I want to say about the scene, I try to work out how best to simplify that thought.  I quickly decide which elements will be reduced or omitted.  Next, I evaluate how much time I may have before the changing light significantly alters the scene… looking for the most fleeting elements, be they shadow or sunlit objects.  I will work to get the essence of those established first.   If I’ve done a good job of establishing the correct values and color relationships, I continue to refine the painting.  If I’ve run out of time and haven’t established the key relationships, so important to creating a harmonious sense of place, I’ll stop and try to come back the next day, provided the light and weather conditions are similar.

Richard Prather - "Across the Forest Valley" - 16"x 8" - Oil

Richard Prather – “Across the Forest Valley” – 16″x 8″ – Oil


Stats:  Do not thin your paint in order to make it stretch.  Stiffer paint applied thinly allows you add paint and not have it mix with other colors that are applied on top, thus avoiding a big slippery mess.

Macpherson:  THE NATURE OF PLEIN AIR PAINTING forces an artist to paint at a speed that for many is very uncomfortable. I actually thrive on this anxiety state of mind.  My skills must be in tune but secondary to my intuition for the impassioned race against the fleeting effects of nature.

Boren:  Once I’m set up, I take one or two minutes to just take the scene in. I decide what is the most crucial part for me. In the painting of Lake San Cristobal, it was the unique shape of the mountain silhouette. I felt it was imperative that I capture that faithfully no matter what. That silhouette really told the story of the location—the jumble of hills, rocks and trees down below were not nearly as important to get right. It is helpful to write down your priority and refer to it; the next two hours may be a roller coaster ride and it is easy to lose your way.

Clemens:  Think simple. If I’m doing everything right and in an organized way (continual discipline required), and have the subject matter, I will squint to see overall values. Then I consider: 1. Composition, 2. Essential elements 3. Focus. Putting brush to canvas, I think in small odd numbers. If something can be done in one stroke of the brush, don’t do two. If there’s a blend of color or value, think three paint mixes. Be deliberate. My overall painting philosophy is… if I can’t do it in five brushstrokes, fifty more won’t help.

Ted Clemens - "Red Window" - 10"x 18" - Oil

Ted Clemens – “Red Window” – 10″x 18″ – Oil


How are your plein air works used to create larger studio paintings?

Ellisor:  The joy in plein air painting is the immediacy and freshness of the painting, for both the painter and the viewer/collector.  Hanging onto that vibrancy is the hardest part of the task in taking these works to the studio.  Many of my studio works are from the paintings completed on location or from a combination of studies and images taken in the field.  When I am painting on location, I usually become aware as to whether the subject and composition will make a larger piece.  Time constraints outdoors require that we zero in on an element within an overall landscape or location and these smaller paintings can be a jumping off point for a more involved and encompassing piece.  I use these studies to remind me of the feeling of the location and hope to incorporate that emotion into the studio work. Plein air is where painting begins for me, literally.  My first painting over 40 years ago was painted outdoors on location.   Outdoor painting has never ceased to be my passion and my inspiration.  It still brings a sense of freedom and peace within my heart.  I hope that this quiet happiness is captured in my paintings, both plein air and studio.

Prather:  My plein air studies serve not only as a color and value relationship key but also as a mental trigger for how I felt being there.  It’s much different than what a photo can do.  You can get one of those “Kodak moment” photos by jumping out of a car for 10 seconds and then be on your way but when you’ve stood there in the elements for a couple hours you establish a physical memory of the place.  I think having that connection is very important in developing a studio painting.  A photo can provide the anatomy but it’s the plein air study that provides the soul.

Stats:  I use my plein air works to freshen my memory of value and color as well as a sense of place.  This helps the larger studio painting have more information than it would normally have if it had been painted strictly from a photograph.

Macpherson:  My simple palette; Alizarin Red, Cadmium Yellow Light, Ultramarine Blue and Titanium White has served me well. I mix all the color relationships necessary with these three primaries and white. This limited palette is very liberating.

I create the big picture first; the biggest simplified shapes as the most important representation of light and shadow. Each of the major shapes that best represent the simplified concept of your painting must be related properly before one is concerned with the insignificant shifts in temperature and value. If the big picture, major shapes, are not related properly, all the detail and all the modeling one does will be incorrect and will be a waste of the artist’s time. Start with the lightest light and the darkest dark. These two notes of color and value will set the high and low parameters to guide all other comparisons. Next, relate all the colors in the shadow family. Use this simple method to infuse light and color into paintings. Each day, each moment, will require different combinations and different relationships of value and color. Observe directly and carefully, for these relationships make each painting unique. When all color and values are related properly, all shapes and proportions properly placed, and there are no more corrections necessary, this is when I know my painting is completed.

The countless hours outside, directly observing nature and color, taught me truly how to see as an artist. This directly influences my studio work. Just as I use the scene outdoors as a departure point, I do the same in the studio . I use the outdoor study as a departure point and encourage a fresh direction with the study as guide and inspiration.

Boren:  Plein air pieces are a forceful reminder of how much can be said with so little. When I come up with an idea for a large painting, I sometimes do a plein air piece as a study for the whole thing or part of it.  A recent painting included a blue Adirondack chair, which I photographed with the young model.  I did a plein air of the chair and other props and I included several spots of lavender reflections on the chair that I could see.  When I later compared the plein air and the photos, the lavender was missing in the photos. I included it in the large painting because I knew that to my eye it was certainly there, and I’m glad I did since it added a sparkle to the color scheme. Trust what you record in a plein air—even if you think it is only trivial information at the time, it may turn out to be important.

Nancy Boren - "Lake San Cristobal" - 11"x 14" - Oil

Nancy Boren – “Lake San Cristobal” – 11″x 14″ – Oil


Clemens:  To begin with, I tend to labor more in the studio. It’s more comfortable, and easy to fill time rather than make use of it. Plein air work jolts me out of that kind of thinking. This helps me out in anything I do inside. In regard to larger paintings, I’m not one to repaint a plein air composition as a larger studio work. But I often paint plein air subjects in a larger composition. Plein air painting brings direct familiarity to the studio work and invites more expressiveness in the process.


Thanks to each of you for sharing your experience and knowledge with the readers of this blog. I sincerely appreciate it, as I’m sure they do also.


Next week: An extensive interview with a wonderful plein air painter and artist…and juror of the Plein Air Southwest Salon 2014…Jill Carver. Not to be missed.


John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Associate Living Master
To view his art and bio, please click HERE


Scheduled Workshops for 2014

 22-24 May  –  Dahlonega, GA

20-22 June  –  Lowell, MI

18-20 September  –  Jackson, MS

1-3 October  –  Portland, ME

(For details on each of these workshops, please click HERE)


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