If This Sounds Harsh, Forgive Me…

Below you’ll find artist and blogger Jennifer King’s discussion of when a plein air painting can be too real. I don’t think she’s being harsh at all, but you’ll have to decide for yourself. Enjoy!


I think it’s time for some straight talk. I’ve participated in many, many plein air painting critiques over the years, and I can’t begin to tell you how often I’ve been faced with landscape paintings that are a little off. Perhaps it’s an ugly red stop sign that distracts from the pastoral mood or a stand of trees all the same height that deadens the rhythm, or a color palette that’s just too dull to hold my interest. And time after time, when I or someone else says, “Um, hey, gee, that part there isn’t really working for me,” the artist invariably answers with dismay, “But that’s how it looked in real life.”

Salisbury Cathedral from Bishop's Ground by John Constable, oil painting, 1823. The Hay Wain by John Constable, oil painting, 1821.
Salisbury Cathedral from Bishop’s Ground
by John Constable, oil painting, 1823.
The Hay Wain by John Constable,
oil painting, 1821.

Painting real life can be tricky. As much as we may want to be faithful to the initial inspiration and to the outdoor painting subject in front of us, my friends, we never have to paint exactly what’s there. I think we plein-air artists are particularly guilty of this. In our rush to get something down on canvas, we don’t always take the time to analyze the subject and “edit” real life. Believe me, I speak from my own experience!

So perhaps we can break this bad habit by looking back to landscape master John Constable (1776 – 1837), the creator of some of the most beautiful landscapes in history. In his day, neither paint tubes nor the camera had been invented, so Constable’s method was to sketch (drawing and painting) on location, and then use that information for composing and creating his paintings back in the studio. He took his time in crafting his designs before he committed to one for a final work.

Brighton Beach with Colliers by John Constable, oil painting, 1824.
Brighton Beach with Colliers by John Constable, oil painting, 1824.

Now look at what he painted and how. Trees gracefully frame a distant cathedral, wagons and people stop at the perfect spot to balance buildings, and clouds appear at just the right moment to create compositional rhythm. Just in case you’re thinking that England really looked this perfect back then, think again. Constable took what was “there in real life” and modified it to perfection.

Mill at Gillingham, Dorset by John Constable, oil painting, 1826. A Cottage in a Cornfield by John Constable, oil painting, c. 1816-17
Mill at Gillingham, Dorset by John Constable,
oil painting, 1826.
A Cottage in a Cornfield by John Constable,
oil painting, c. 1816-17.

Like Constable, we always have the opportunity to change certain aspects of our subjects to improve upon the composition, especially when we’re in the studio and even when we’re working quickly en plein air. If there’s a distracting element in your subject, leave it out. If there’s a really boring section of your subject, find something nearby that would add interest there and put it in. Make the contours of your shapes more varied, adjust the values to add more drama, and push the colors in a direction that supports the mood or idea behind your painting. Be creative in finding ways to make your subject better.

In my opinion, art should not duplicate real life as it is. In the hands of a master like Constable–or even mere mortals like us–art can and should reveal the artist’s vision of life as it could be.



Seasoned plein air painters deal with “real life” differently depending on their own focuses and interests as artists, but the most important thing they do is get out there and experiment in the plein air environment. If you want to get expert inspiration and instruction before you step out of the studio, reach for the Passion for Plein Air Value Pack. It’s a way to jumpstart the outdoor painting season and will let you make the most of your reality when painting outdoors.

P.S. What do you have to say about art duplicating real life? Leave a comment and let us know!


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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.   

18 thoughts on “If This Sounds Harsh, Forgive Me…

  1. My comment is “Just Paint it “…enjoy what your doing and don’t let journalest who don’t even paint tell you how you should be painting plein air …….be creative, enjoy nature and if by some chance you end up with a great painting it will be a lastingh memory . Dick Ensing

  2. Courtney and Jennifer-

    I don’t do much plein air painting, but a phrase right up there at the start of this article caught my attention: “paintings that are a little off)

    I just posted an article last night on this very same matter (Something’s Just A Little Bit Off by KCooper) http://karencooperpaintings.com/blog/41571/somethings-just-a-little-bit-off
    I wish I’d have posted after reading this, because you could certainly fill in one of my info blanks.

    I paint people enjoying life, street scene style, in the studio. Your lesson is so relevant there also. It’s always a struggle wanting to paint everything in to help tell the story, even knowing that the more I eliminate, the simpler and STONGER the narrative will be.

    Your closing sentence is golden. Thanks for a good article!


  3. Very good article! Years ago a friend from France came to my studio for a visit and while there he observed my newest painting of Venice. Andre looked at my new “Masterpiece” intendently and with a matter of fact tone stated “I can see clearly that you have not been to Venice”. The words pierced like a dagger into my artist soul and I asked “how did you know that”? His answer is still ringing in my mind every time I paint.” Because I don’t feel your passion”
    So what does that story have to do with this article?
    Go out and find a subject matter or scene that evokes some passion inside, walk around, sketch it, involve yourself in the subject matter, modify the scene and then paint your feelings. The blending of the subject matter, your emotions about it and some design elements will normally produce a painting that connects you and your viewer with your feelings about the subject. Ah the essence of painting!
    Thanks for reminding me again.

  4. I just finished teaching my first painting class and a the end I gave them a short list of 3 things it took me a long time to learn.
    One of those things was “your first duty is to the picture” – everything you look at is for REFERENCE ONLY. My point is that even if you are painting a landscape of a particular place, your first duty is to the picture! You don’t have to include the high tension wires if they are ugly! -M

  5. Plein air? You use Constable for an example of a plein-air painter. Not exactly. He painted in the studio. He would be more acurately discribed as a “Plein-Air Sketcher”. Van Gogh might be a better example of someone who painted on site and changed up things that reflected his feelings!

  6. I completely agree with Jennifer. Clear and unvarnished reality (stop signs on landscapes, etc.) is for photography. Painting, drawing or any type of Fine Arts creativity should be for interpretation, not confrontation. That’s why I don’t do plein air work. I photograph my images, edit them with graphics software (PhotoShop) and then further editing them as I paint.

  7. I will never forget y first ral exprience with photrealism – at the Whitney. It was the 70’s and I had just begun to paint again. With my limited art education, I still held onto the old rules, like not using black, etc. I turned toward a giant painting (or was it a photo) of stack ed toilet paper rolls. It shook me and forced some of those rules out of my head. There was a ladies room installation that wasn’t a ladies room, but a “happening” as we used to call this kind of assemblage. I have thought about those rolls off and on for years, Decided photorealism was great – as long as I could feel the artist through the painting. Not a particular degree of the artist’s psyche coming through, but something like seeing the tableau through the artists eyes instead of mine. (too simplistic and hard to describe – I wonder who else had photorealistic revelations? Lori

  8. I totally agree with this article. So many artists paint every single leaf, branch etc in such excrutiating detail that the oversll theme is completely lost. Interpretation rather than replication is so much easier to view.

  9. As artists our job is to interpret the landscape, not copy it. How each artist edits, moves and adds elements so the painting works, is what separates the OK artist from the good ones.

  10. So true! It’s why I used to get daunted looking for a good scene to paint. No view was really cool enough in itself. I didn’t think to grab the cool tree and move it next to the pond. I even felt self conscious about leaving out cars and telephone poles.

    Somewhere along the line in one of my classes, it made sense that plein air was to get down the information – true color, true values, interesting subjects. I started doing more small studies instead of trying to get everything in. I found out that wow, those studies are easier to work from than photos.

    Then a class convinced me of this exact point – moving in figures and rocks and trees from where they wouldn’t be in sight, moving trees or even mountains. I started applying it to painting from photos and then to plein air. Art is visual fiction. To get historical accuracy of the moment, the reference photos will give that… and the painting give truer color and values to what’s in the photos.

    I’m tempted sometime to use video when snapping reference photos – so I can move it around and get every cool thing in the area and make combining images easier. The sun’s the same on all of it with the video approach so combining different stills out of the video to move features would rock.

  11. Nature doesn’t always get it right. That was a startling revelation made at a plein air workshop I attended a few years ago. I was shocked–because I had never thought about that before. I looked at nature as perfection–which it is. But when looking through the eyes of an artist–someone who looks at naturally-occurring scenes for reasons other than pleasure–it becomes a very different ball game. Reorganizing trees, moving buildings, leaving out that stone wall, enlarging that reflection, accenting a highlight. As an artistic editor we have the opportunity to use our judgement to improve on nature–at least her less than perfect arrangements and details. Be brave. Sketch it out first and each and every plein air effort will benefit. Enjoy your spring. http://www.anntrainordomingue.com

  12. The outdoor painter Stapleton Kearns, who has a terrific blog, states over and over that “good design in installed in a painting, not observed.” I think that gets to the heart of the matter.

  13. Very good article and I enjoyed the comments. When I was a kid I was always told to paint what you see. Since kids and teens do not have fully developed abstract reasoning skills, I took it literally. By the time I graduated from high school my work was near photo real. Decades later I decided to reframe the idea of painting what you see to mean what you envision.

    I think striving for photorealism is a way to not make decisions regarding the overall design of a work. It is striving for technical pursuits rather than making creative decisions. Eliminating, focusing on an aspect, deciding where to be tighter or looser with the brushstrokes, changing the location of an object, maybe changing it’s value, takes making tough decisions and problem solving. Copying eliminates that need. Some photo realists are excellent, and rely on subject matter or composition to pull the work together creatively.

    I live in an area where the summers are very, very green, I was sitting at a stop light looking at the landscape and noticed that trees in the foreground and other trees further back were nearly the same value, there was only a slight difference in temperature. Some trees actually lined up and were tangent at one edge. If I were to paint that scene literally, it would be very boring. Yet again working from life seems more authentic than working from a photo in which all the problems are flattened or solved in the case of using someone else’s photo.

  14. I do agree with many of the comments, BUT I do plein air cityscapes and stop signs, traffic lights with their fantastic red and green lights make for a very expressive painting. As for those overhead wires another plus for painting. All this adds to the painting and gives expression to busy city streets.
    As for landscapes on occasion a few poles or lines crossing the skyline can make for a interesting composition.

  15. We artists are so touchy about those things that are “off”. One time my friend a great artist who had painted a beautiful pot with flowers in it. I walked in and saw the problem instantly. The tiniest “off” on the bottom of the vase. She did not see it for 2 whole weeks! But when she did it was fixed in a matter of seconds. We all need someone around to say, “something is not quite right” and try hard to accept it, not as criticism but as the final clean up that will make that painting shine! Having had a gallery, I was subject to strange critiques and at first I was devastated but then learned to try to take them and see it for myself. Sometimes we don’t know how to fix them so taking them out could be a better solution.
    I am not good at plein air, personally, though I know we all need to do it. I hate cold, heat, wind and painting fast. LOL!

  16. Yes Barbara, Check out the city streets paintings of Serrano and Jennifer Macpherson. I think what separates their work from what is being talked about in the article is consistency and appropriateness. You would expect a traffic light, stop sign etc. in certain settings and landscapes especially in a city with buildings and cars, but I recall seeing a few paintings (here?) where the main subject of an old “Victorian” home also had street signs and wiring. It killed the quaint, enchanting quality of the subject matter. I also recall a woman showing me her artwork which depicted totem poles in a southwestern desert scene with cacti. I pointed out the fact that totem poles are from the Pacific Northwest, North of Seattle up toward BC and not an Indian artifact of Native Americans from southern Arizona. She made up a BS story to my response, still it was all wrong. An author once told me about a reading he had in Washington state. All the people who attended were upset about his depiction of yellow apples in his novel. After all, yellow apples did not exist during the time period as depicted in his novel and they knew it because their community and some of the people present at the reading were directly involved in a WPA works project to create yellow apples. Oooooops! The author commented that it was an important and very embarrassing lesson.

    Sandy, You bring up a good point we need each other to find technical problems with our work. This can be corrected by skill, observation, or someone pointing it out. I think this article goes further than technical skill to say that what you see before you lies. Yes! We need to make conscious decisions which affect the design, composition, light, focal point and other aspects related to the “architecture”, concept, or selection of elements in the piece. It’s playing editor. Keep this, eliminate that. Just because a person who is posing for a portrait sitting in front of a moose with big antlers seeming to come out of their head, doesn’t mean you need to paint what you literally see. You can choose to move the moose head or eliminate the element completely.

  17. I found this interesting/I’ve never done plein air painting but have always wanted to. My difficulty with doing plein air is I live in a metropolitain area and paint landscapes. there are places close to parts of the city that I could paint landscapes in but I don’t live near any of them,don’t drive,and dont know anyone who will take me to one of those outdoor areas to paint plein air/