Help! Im Stuck in a Plein Air Rut!

Schloss Kammer at Lake Atter I by Gustav Klimt, 1908, oil on canvas.
Schloss Kammer at Lake Atter I by Gustav Klimt,
1908, oil on canvas.

It seems impossible, right? I mean I'm out there painting, everything looks so fresh and crisp, the air and wind feel so good on my face, and then all of a sudden I am practically in tears because I've done it again. I've slipped into the same old way of working, reaching for the same colors and color mixes that are ordinary and predictable and booooring. Don't let this happen to you!

Here are a few of my rut-fighting color strategies so that I don't find myself painting the same plein air scene—no matter where I am—over and over again.

Flat planes of color can be just as interesting as brushy areas, but it does very different things for an outdoor painting. Flat color makes a work, well, flatter or more one-dimensional. It becomes more about consistency of color, saturation, and color choice than anything else. But when I find myself veering toward predictability, assessing color "flatly" can help me break through that tendency.

I love Egon Schiele's landscapes because of the ways he composed, but also because he used vibrant pops of color to make his views exciting. In a snowy landscape painting with browning trees he'd incorporate bold hints of red, yellow, blue, and green on a line of fence or expanse of shingles. Or the view of a narrow grey alleyway would have facades of mustard and bright, almost salmon-pink facing each other. The colors are like little gems in what would otherwise be an austere setting.

Stein on the Danube by Egon Schiele, 1913, oil on canvas.
Stein on the Danube by Egon Schiele,
1913, oil on canvas.

The clouds are not white, the land is not green or brown, and the water is not blue. This is a game I play with myself—not even allowing my brush to touch the colors that would generally describe the view I'm looking at. Once I leave those behind, I start making thoughtful, more interesting color choices.

And to further ensure I'm not painting with anything resembling a formulaic approach, I'm keeping many of these resources nearby. But remember color is not a cut and dry science. It is intuitive and changeable and always ready to show me something new. Enjoy!


Related Posts:


Artist Daily Blog
Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

One thought on “Help! Im Stuck in a Plein Air Rut!

  1. I know that feeling. I think plein air is perhaps one of the hardest arts that I have been involved with. It is physical – lugging around all that stuff not to mention battling bugs, heat, wind, cold, rain, sunburn, sweat, that hovering cloud, and dealing with onlookers. A few weeks ago I was painting in the woods and three layers of DEET, herbal insecticide, and lemon eucalyptus couldn’t keep me from getting bitten up. Then the sun made strange shadows from the leaves above on my canvas. I’d move and two minutes later, the shadows came back. Not having my umbrella, after several times of moving, I had no choice, but to give up on the painting and completely move. Then there is the occasional forgetting something at home…and if something aches…your painting will show it. Then you realize you should have worn something else. Oh and I almost forgot, the sun and your umbrella does something that effects your color perception….and watch where you step… poison ivy…

    Notice that I didn’t even mention anything really art/design related.

    What do I do to try keeping myself out of a rut? I ask myself what worked and did not work that week and what I could try next. What did not work last week? We wasted alot of time trying to find a place to paint and one person would not let us paint on their farm. Also, I brought the wrong sized carrying case for my panel. I still need to work on fine lines, but the flat areas worked really well. so for next session I will be sure to decide on a location and one backup location….Bring the correct carrying case and check all supplies. What’s my next challenge? I think trying to add a new color (black) and a different type of brush.

    🙂 Thanks Courtney