Go For Awesome

23 May 2013

Looks Like Heaven by John Budicin, 2002, oil painting, 32 x 40.
Looks Like Heaven by John Budicin, 2002, oil painting, 32 x 40.
Almost any artist will tell you that there's a certain appeal to working outdoors that can't be found anywhere else. With spring in full swing, many of us have left our studios for our porches, backyards, and beyond. To celebrate the season and all of the landscape art being made, here are 10 ways you can make the most of your next outdoor painting session.

Start with a good, long look. Painting landscapes lets you create work that can take the viewer on a journey into a new environment. To create a truly expressive work of art, it helps to take more than a cursory look around and quickly set up shop. Walk around, sit a spell, and really soak in the landscape around you.

Focus your eye. Whether's it a rocky cliff or a busy urban street, outdoor settings can offer a myriad of potential subjects. Sometimes, however, it can be too much to take in, leading to a painting that feels busy, cluttered, and lacking a center of interest. Massachusetts-based artist Nancy Colella starts every composition based on what she's visually drawn to. She makes those elements the focal point of her painting, and tones down everything else so that they come to the fore.

It's all about the light. Light changes throughout the day, which makes accurately capturing it one of the biggest challenges of painting outdoors. The flip side, of course, is that when one is able to do this correctly, a painting is instantly elevated. Observe the quality of light, aiming for a spontaneous interpretation that still takes observation skills into consideration.

Birds Wading by Stephanie Sanchez, 1989, oil on panel, 32 x 46, private collection.
Birds Wading by Stephanie Sanchez, 1989,
oil on panel, 32 x 46, private collection.
Marble Cascades by Jane Bertram Miluski, 2003, watercolor, 14 x 21.
Marble Cascades by Jane Bertram Miluski,
2003, watercolor, 14 x 21.
Don't paint a blue sky. They rarely exist! California watercolorist Dick Cole acknowledges that landscape painting has enhanced his skills as a colorist and helped him to realize that the sky, along with many elements in nature, are made up of a variety of colors and not just one pure hue.

Strike a balance. Spend as much time observing as you do painting. For artist Glenn Rudderow, this is a crucial part of his plein air practice. "Nothing can take the place of direct observation—of being there, seeing, communicating, and expressing the spirit of one's subject," he says.

Go for awesome. Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran of the Hudson River School produced paintings of the American landscape that were technically masterful, but most of all they were awe-inspiring. They created luminous paintings that seemed too bright to be true. They amplified the elements of the landscape that inspired them most, leaving the viewer with the same sentiments.

Don't bring your studio outdoors. The thrill of working en plein air is that you can shake up your routine and work differently than you might usually. Use the change in location to try new techniques, such as working on a smaller scale or focusing predominantly on light and other atmospheric qualities.

Colors contribute to a sense of space. When creating her landscape paintings, Kansas artist Kim Casebeer adjusts her palette in order to accurately render atmospheric changes and a sense of space. For example, there is usually more red, orange, and yellow running through objects in the foreground, and blue, indigo, and violet for shapes that recede in the distance.    

Go with the flow—of air. Air moves objects. It ripples water, curls leaves, and sways limbs of trees. Use brush strokes and shading to create movement in your work.

Perfection isn't everything. You can spend all day looking for a "perfect" composition that just doesn't exist. Embrace the reality around you—smog, power lines, even debris—and open yourself up to telling interesting stories with new subjects.

How have you been taking advantage of spring in your work? Leave a comment and let us know. If you want to learn more about painting landscapes—including how to paint mountainous vistas accurately, avoid compositions that lack cohesion, and more—Donna Dewberry's Essential Guide to Flower and Landscape Painting gives you all the one-on-one instruction you'll want to successfully paint landscapes and all the elements you'll find there. Enjoy!


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on 27 Jun 2010 11:34 PM

I've begun doing some plein air studies of mundane pastorals around the house here in Bixby, OK. Nothing transcendent, though it is teaching me a lot about color and form. I actually did paint a vibrant blue sky last week in keeping with the conditions, though I agree that usually nature presents a variation. "Avoid compositions that lack cohesion." Interesting point I suppose for studio work. But when you're out doors and it's naturally non-cohesive, I have no problem painting it that way. Nature is perfect. Why deviate?

Having to create an account just to comment was totally uncool. I'd change that.

on 28 Jun 2010 1:09 AM

Being an acrylic studio painter I finally started to take them out of doors. Though I gained many tricks to combating the heat, wood ticks and my palette drying out, it was combat.  But I loved being on location.  Knowing I alway liked the looks of pastels, two years ago I took a class with a local pastel wildlife artist.  I really enjoyed that first class so I took a follow-up class.  Like a fish to water this was a refreshing splash.  I am also an art educator and I needed 7 more hours of class credit to reach the top of my salery scale after my Masters degree (RISD) so one summer later I contacted a local college who's department head I respected.  We worked up curriculum to cover the hours. this gave me a goal for doing plein air work with pastels and I could develop a body of "sketches" to bring back to the studio so I could persue my finished acrylic landscapes.  Well, I did all of that, more or less.  I used the pastels to make my trips into the field physically possible and I was more moble with them.  The only thing I have not accomplished yet is that I have enjoyed the pastels so much that I have used my studies to make larger finished pastels and my acrylics have been idle on the shelf.  One other highlight, the college instructor I was working under, lined me up with a one man show for a month based on the focus of working on locaton and creating finished work from those plein air studies.  

Margo5 wrote
on 28 Jun 2010 9:45 AM

Courtney, thank you. This is a great article.

cmbaby wrote
on 28 Jun 2010 10:50 AM

Artists may tend to avoid painting blue skies, but it is ridiculous to say say they rarely exist.  That is just another artist falsehood that has been passed along.  Most of the US enjoys lots and lots of picture perfect blue skies.  They may be too pretty and perfect and cornball to be interesting to some (like lighthouses and red barns) but  they certainly exist.  Right now, it's Carolina blue where I am.

PearlySue wrote
on 28 Jun 2010 10:59 AM

Well, the last time I did a plein air with a friend, her canvas was blown over on the grass and then a black snake came by to give his opinion. Also, those nasty little gnats are abundant around my house. They like to get stuck on the painting, too.

So, as you can see, I love the air-conditioned indoors and painting from my photographs. Yes, I know that's not the right attitude, but it's mine and I'm sticking to it. Plus, it's close to 100 degrees outside anyway.

I grew up in Texas with no air-conditioning. Just "squirrell fans and little oscillating fans...Enough is enough!!!

Good wishes to those of you who are brave enough to do your plein air!!!

PearlySue wrote
on 28 Jun 2010 11:02 AM

However, I always enjoy reading what other folks are doing and find out new stuff every time!!! Thank you.

JRBaldini wrote
on 28 Jun 2010 11:24 AM

If you get the chance to take a workshop with Frank Serrano - grab it !

I was able to do a plein air workshop with him at  WWM 2009.

He's a wonderful instructor.

Fred Pelzman wrote
on 28 Jun 2010 11:58 AM

Well and good except:  (1) your comment re no blue sky is preceded by "Looks Like Heaven" where the sky is?  Blue!  (2)  Essential Rule #1:  Wear a hat!  Rule #2: Sunblock.  Rule #3:  Insect spray.  Rule #4:  If possible, choose a spot where you can paint in the shade, AND see that your easel will remain in the shade for 2 or 3 hours. (Option -- bring an umbrella.)   Comment:  "Awesome"?  You should be so lucky;  Settle for making the mundane beautiful.    Fred Pelzman

Fred Pelzman wrote
on 28 Jun 2010 11:58 AM

Well and good except:  (1) your comment re no blue sky is preceded by "Looks Like Heaven" where the sky is?  Blue!  (2)  Essential Rule #1:  Wear a hat!  Rule #2: Sunblock.  Rule #3:  Insect spray.  Rule #4:  If possible, choose a spot where you can paint in the shade, AND see that your easel will remain in the shade for 2 or 3 hours. (Option -- bring an umbrella.)   Comment:  "Awesome"?  You should be so lucky;  Settle for making the mundane beautiful.    Fred Pelzman

Fred Pelzman wrote
on 28 Jun 2010 12:11 PM

Well and good except:  (1) your comment re no blue sky is preceded by "Looks Like Heaven" where the sky is?  Blue!  (2)  Essential Rule #1:  Wear a hat!  Rule #2: Sunblock.  Rule #3:  Insect spray.  Rule #4:  If possible, choose a spot where you can paint in the shade, AND see that your easel will remain in the shade for 2 or 3 hours. (Option -- bring an umbrella.)   Comment:  "Awesome"?  You should be so lucky;  Settle for making the mundane beautiful.    Fred Pelzman

Sparksrick51 wrote
on 28 Jun 2010 3:51 PM

Father's Day I tossed my field kit into the truck and headed for the high country. From the Reno metro area tree line is just a short drive up the hill, where I found a flat spot between the snow pillows on a parking area access road, still closed even though it was the last day of spring. I scouted the location a few weeks before, braving a cold wind and a dusting of snow, looking for a view of Tahoe Meadows. It was still cool, but dry and sunny.

After an hour and a half, I was satisfied with a nice mountain vista, the first view of Lake Tahoe in the distance you see as you crest the summit of Mt. Rose Highway.

I've uploaded it to my website, www.woodsarts.com/gallery/37101/Paintings 46-60

Sparksrick51 wrote
on 28 Jun 2010 4:07 PM

CMBaby, we get some crystal clear blue skies up here in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada too. Just the same, there's nothing like the blue of a Carolina morning sky on the Outer Banks.

Fred Pelzman, shade wasn't an option where I was working, that's one of those issues I just have to work with. I do watercolor landscapes, and sometimes the only solution is big rocks to hold everything down when the wind comes up. Lots of those up where the Jeffrey Pines get twisted by winter hurricane-force winds. I compensate for the intense light, knowing that the painting will look washed out in normal viewing light.

on 29 Jun 2010 12:27 PM

In Arizona, you have to start out early in the summer in order to avoid the heat!  I've discovered Wittmann on why 60.  Great place to paint!

ann tucker wrote
on 29 Jun 2010 4:53 PM

Knowing why I’m drawn to a subject and keeping that in mind thru-out has been a key for me. I state my goal at the beginning like “play of light on the wall”. I even write it down to keep me reminded. My plein air paintings prior to doing this were never thought out or focused and it showed. Once I started doing this, my paintings had a huge improvement.

Late Bloomer wrote
on 30 Jun 2010 11:41 AM

I take along a notebook (with pencil on a ribbon) for people to sign & add comments, a pocket size sketchbook, an insulated water bottle & insecticide for my comfort. Summer items at Target sometimes are plastic coil wristbands of bug-off.  I buy four & wear them on my wrists & ankles. Also a camera. The viewfinder helps to isolate (& record) subjects.

wmholliman wrote
on 6 Jul 2010 2:20 PM

At this moment, when I look out at the sky, it is blue with white clouds and grey bottoms.. No reds, greens, voilets...etc. (white and grey not a color) It is a clear blue Colorado sky at 6,000 ft elevation. When I see someone quote " Don't paint a blue sky. They rarely exist!" maybe in California they are brown, but don't make a generalization based on your limited experience and say its true for all. I really fault Cortney....study a little more when you write an article. A lack thereof reflects on your verasity.

on 11 May 2013 11:18 AM

I enjoyed reading this and peoples comments when i go out to do plein air i usually do a drawing take a photo and paint it when i get home

CTryon wrote
on 24 May 2013 1:40 PM

Interesting article, since I am primarily a 3D artist in clay and sculpture, but I've taken to sketching and drawing.

Here's an outdoor experience with a bit of a twist...  I was in an art show recently, and decided to grab a lump of clay and start working on a small sculpture, sitting in the air outside of my booth.  I found it to be similar experience, without all my usual spread of tools and turntable and slip and stands.  I was pared down to a carved stick for a sculpting tool, and a little bit of water to join pieces.  In this case, it was also a "social" opportunity, as people would stop to look and talk.  Gave me a little opportunity to share the process with them.

I'm certainly not going to produce any huge pieces sitting on a stool outside my tent, but it's a chance to create in a completely different environment.