5 Surefire Plein Air Painting Techniques

16 Jan 2014

The Evening Show by Clyde Aspevig, oil painting, 40 x 36.
The Evening Show by Clyde Aspevig, oil painting, 40 x 36.
You can often tell a painting that was painted en plein air from one that wasn’t. There is an immediacy to the light and atmosphere depicted in plein air paintings that isn’t always achieved when the work is brought into the studio. But what really sets an outdoor painting apart? I went to some of the best plein air artists, instructors, and seasoned painters in the country to see what they think distinguishes a plein air painting, and discovered several pearls of wisdom that I want to share.

It is all about the light, according to world-renowned artist James Gurney. Direct sunlight, overcast light, and interior light from a window or light bulb vary significantly. With direct sunlight, Gurney reminds artists that as more clouds appear in the sky, shadows become grayer, and if there is a hint of haze or smog in the atmosphere, shadows seem relatively closer to the tonal value of the sunlight.

Mark Delassio strives to have his paintings mimic the way the human eye actually sees. To that end, he prefers 3-to-4 proportions of canvases as opposed to 5-to-8, which he finds too narrow for landscapes. He also wears only blue shirts when he is painting outdoors because it reflects light that is neither too dark, as when he’d wear a black shirt, or too highly reflected, as with a white shirt.

Top landscape painter Clyde Aspevig believes that details should be last on an artist’s checklist: “By subordinating details, creating abstractions, and employing unusual compositions or techniques, we can create more knowledge gaps. These little questions or mysteries pull the viewer into further analysis.”

Early Spring Morning, Portuguese Bend by Amy Sidrane, 2005, oil painting, 24 x 18.
Early Spring Morning, Portuguese Bend
by Amy Sidrane, 2005, oil painting, 24 x 18.
Clark Hulings was a master of using diagonals in his paintings, creating a dynamic grid for the viewer’s eye to travel along without ever straying far from the painting’s focal point. Diagonals can be teased out of a composition in the winding roads, slumped architectural forms, or rocky hills featured. Hulings would always place diagonals in contrast to one another so that the viewer is caught in a visual net, the eye darting in, out, up, and down according to these subliminal but persuasive lines.

For me, getting plein air painting guidance from the best practitioners out there includes seeking the instruction of David Curtis via his Painting on Location Kit, which includes Painting on Location and the Atmospheric Watercolor DVD. Through these resources you’ll find advice on tools and techniques, how to source and dissect all the patterns of light you’ll encounter while painting outdoors, and how to represent landscapes both real and enhanced. They are watershed resources—everything you’ll want to start your plein air journey this season is here. Enjoy!

P.S. The Free Trial Weekend at ArtistsNetwork.tv is going on right now with over 300 video art workshops for you to choose from! Click here to start your free trial weekend! Enjoy!

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Painting on Location with David Curtis

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This pair of resources will equip you with everything you need to get outside and start creating beautiful works en plein air. You'll learn what materials to take with you and which to leave at home, plus get helpful tips for truly capturing the spirit of the scene you're painting.


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Paintboxsuzi wrote
on 19 Jan 2014 5:49 PM

Hi Courtney,

Thank you for the many wonderful blogs you have produced.  Your amazing breadth of knowledge about all things art is phenomenal, but even when you go to other experts, your own insightful observations add to theirs.  I look forward to each edition with the knowledge that it will inspire me to dig deeper into my own creative backpack. (:

Sue Williams

chawkpeters wrote
on 21 Feb 2014 2:37 PM

What is meant by 3-4 proportions instead of 5-8?