Top artists answer questions about plein air painting – Part 1

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In order to create a quality painting outdoors in front of the subject, an artist is required to be at their very best. Just about everything involved conspires against success.

Deluged with an overwhelming amount of information, the plein air painter must decide what is important, what captivates them concerning the subject…and how best to communicate that on canvas. One must also deal with rapidly changing light, weather, wind, insects, suitable places to set up, lack of privacy, unexpected interruptions, equipment, supplies…and all the technical stuff: drawing, composition, values, color, and paint application…all this within two hours or less, in most cases. It’s a lot to deal with and many aspiring artists just can’t handle it. That’s not the case with the eight artists featured in this blog series. They are masters of this very difficult dance. They embrace these challenges with great results.

The artists featured in this two-part series are well known and highly respected. For those relatively new to plein air painting, you’re going to benefit from their response to two important questions, plus, you’ll learn what is their biggest challenge when it comes to painting outdoors.

Let’s meet this week’s talented artists. All the works shown were done in plein air. (Click images to enlarge)

Dawn Whitelaw

“I love the process of painting and find it rewarding and challenging every day.”


Peggi Kroll Roberts

“In Art and life, find the thing about it that makes you happy and focus your concentration there.”


Joe Paquet

“Stay humble, open, connected and curious.”


Jane Hunt

“If one learns the essential skills, creates a value plan, then let’s go and enters a flow state while painting…those pieces will resonate with emotion and depth.”


And now for the questions:

What one piece of advice would you offer a beginning plein air painter?

Hunt: I think it’s essential to educate yourself on the basics: drawing, value, composition, color, perspective etc. and then get outside and paint frequent, very small plein air studies. Try your best to see it as practice and not get attached to the results until you’ve got at least a hundred paintings under your belt.

Paquet: If you want to maximize your time and potential, find a good mentor/teacher. After teaching regular classes and workshops for the past 25 years I have seen what can happen when a student is in a great hurry and/or has an over abundance of ego. Those that jumped from teacher to teacher often ended up not far from where they began. Be a thoughtful student. Humility, patience with process,  and work ethic go a long way – as does targeted skill-building.

Roberts: To a beginning plein air painter…I’d work hard to “hear my inner voice” and listen to it! Block out the noise of “you should do this, you should do that”.

Whitelaw: Get out there and enjoy the experience. It is a lot like fishing. There is cool gear and you will have fun even if you don’t “catch a fish.”  Don’t judge your success  by the product you produce. Plein air painting is about exploring, learning, and the joy of being outdoors experiencing your world in a unique way.

Peggi Kroll Roberts – “In the Shade” – 9″ x 12″ – Oil

Dawn Whitelaw – “Margaret’s Gate” – 10″ x 8″ – Oil


What should painters look for when selecting a subject?

Hunt: First, something about the scene needs to speak to a painter in order for the finished piece to have vitality. From a technical standpoint, the success or failure of a painting is generally due to the underlying value structure. Therefore, I encourage students to choose a scene with enough value contrast and then try to coax their design into three to five interesting shapes.

Paquet: Early on most of us don’t often have a sense of what moves us and often don’t trust ourselves so we subordinate our vision to that of others. Unplug, get outside and engage all of your senses to the dome of experience. The more senses you engage in the experience, the greater the possibilities of reception. Through greater reception we increase our chances of a personal connection to subject.

Roberts: When selecting a subject, anything is fair game as long as you hear your voice saying “I love this!”

Whitelaw: Look for the one thing that first caught your eye. A single statement has a greater impact on a canvas than a catalogue of everything you see. Trust your first response. Go for a simple statement of your first impression. Don’t decide on a subject based on the fact that you think it is easy. Nothing out there is easy to paint.

Jane Hunt – “Back Bay Sunset” – 14″ x 11″ – Oil

Joe Paquet – “Rail, Stone & Steel” – 30″ x 24″ – Oil


What’s been the most difficult part of plein air painting for you, and how did you overcome it?

Hunt: I’m quite introverted, and so chatting with people while I paint or having them look over my shoulder can be distracting and challenging, especially during a quick paint competition! One solution I’ve found is to give people my card, and let them know that I’m focusing and that I’ll post the finished piece later on social media. The bonus is that I’ve actually gained some wonderful followers and collectors that way.

Paquet: The time it takes to be proficient and consistent. I overcame it by developing patience with the process and good training. The phrase “Don’t push the River” is apt. To often I see folks looking for shortcuts or aping the calligraphy of of others. It’s a mistake. In the short term you will feed your ego- in the long term you will be a weak shadow of others. Learning to paint well and authentically has its own, organic timeline. Be patient with yourself and find ways to enjoy the study. Pick something you struggle with each week; keep your head down and study.

Roberts: The most difficult part of plein air painting for me was finally learning to listen to my “inner voice”. It was hard to quit asking myself, “would so and so paint this?” Paint what you love. It can be a number of things that excite you such as a color combination or high value contrast and of course subject. Maybe you favor painting the figure over still life.

Whitelaw: Selection of subject. I have been more interested in painting how a scene feels to me instead of recording exactly how it looks. I have found that putting what I feel into words helps me sort out what is important in the scene and what things are interesting but not a part of my statement this time. I would not say that I have overcome it yet, but see some improvement.

To view more of these wonderful artist’s work. Click their names below.

Next week four more great artists will give you their take on the subject: Joe Gyurcsak, Ann Larsen, Kim Lordier, and Ray Roberts; you won’t want to miss it.

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I am honored once again to be part of PleinAir Live…a global virtual experience. This amazing event will be held April 15-17. The theme for my presentation is “Keep it Simple” (How to simplify your artistic life). I will be offering beginners advice that will help them simplify and organize their artistic life, giving them the best chance for rapid growth and success. Finally, I will conclude with an oil painting demonstration using a very limited palette…all part of “keeping it simple”.

I would be deeply grateful if you would use this link to sign up. Full disclosure, I do receive a small royalty for those that use this link. Thank You.


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