Don’t Set Yourself Up for Failure from the Start

Optimal Orientation of Subject and Artist in Plein Air

Before the first daub of paint is squeezed out of the tube and brush is put to canvas, many plein air painters have already set themselves up for failure. How? By selecting a site that doesn’t translate well into painting. Just because a scene is beautiful or interesting doesn’t necessarily make it a good subject for painting. There are many conditions that can be met to help maximize your ability to translate the scene from the real world to a two dimensional canvas.

I began painting directly from nature after college, but my first efforts in plein air painting were disappointing. I knew how to draw and paint well, but when I painted outside nothing seemed to work as it had in the studio. The paintings lacked depth and life. Only after several seasons of trial and error did I realize that I was “setting up” my subject improperly. I chose subjects that lacked clear patterns of light and shade to define form. All artists desire clear patterns of light and shadow and volume, but in plein air painting, finding them is a matter of putting oneself in the right place at the right time.

The Light Upon the Scene

Painting in nature more than just finding a beautiful scene that you like. Because of our keen depth perception, every scene appears three-dimensional. But not every scene presents its depth in a way that the artist requires for translation on canvas. Remember, three-dimensionality in painting and drawing is always an illusion. So we should look for sites that present the visual cues we need to bring depth into our “flat” two-dimensional paintings.

Where the sun is. Because the sun is lower in the sky in the morning and in the late afternoon, the light-side and shadow-side of forms are more clearly defined and noticeable. These are ideal times to paint. At midday the defining shadows are diminished. Trees are likely to be top lit and cast shadows are at a minimum. If you rely on these diminished cues, it will be harder to find the form and structure you need. While your depth perception allows you to always perceive the landscape as three-dimensional, there won’t be any cues for the viewer’s depth perception in your painting unless you put them there.

In the spring and summer, any time after sunrise to about 10 am is ideal. The sun is lower in the sky, cross-lighting forms in the landscape with defining shadows. If you like to sleep late, you can catch the crisp shadows a little later in the afternoon, beginning at 3 or 4 pm and as late as 8 pm. Of course, these times vary depending on the season and your latitude. Depending on where you live, winter can be an ideal season, as well (if you can stand painting with your mittens on!). Not only does winter offer a unique palette of colors, but the sun is always lower in the sky, never directly overhead, so it casts desirable patterns of light and shade throughout the day.

Reference photo and painting by Mitchell Albala: Autumn Boughs, oil painting, 12 x 16.

Because the photo at left was taken early in the morning, it reveals a distinct crosslight. When the light-side and shadow-side of forms are expressed in the painting (Mitchell Albala, Autumn Boughs, 1997, 12 x 16), there is much greater suggestion of volume.

An outdoor landscape painter needs to find the optimal crosslight.

Finding the optimal crosslight. Try to orient yourself as close to 90° from the angle at which the sun is striking the subject, so as to get the best view of cross light and shadow patterns. Here’s a trick I always use: stand facing the sun. Then raise your arms so your body forms a “T.” The direction your arms point are the two best directions from which to select your site, give or take. Avoid painting with the sun directly behind you or directly in front of you.

Where you are. Even if you paint at these times, you can still position yourself so that you won’t be able to take advantage of the light patterns! Even in the morning or late afternoon, you can orient yourself to the subject in such a way that the sun is directly behind the subject (back-lighting )or dirctly in fromt of the subject (front-lighting), which hides the shadows altogether.

Where the sun will be. Pay attention to where the sun is headed. Say you’ve found a sunny spot filled with interesting shadows. Is the sun just over the top of that building or tree? Is it going to disappear in ten minutes? If so, all your interesting shadows will disappear with it. If the sun about to come up from behind a tree or building, changing the light and color structure of your entire scene?

The Light Upon You and Your Painting

Make sure the palette and canvas receive equal light. A single color appears different under lights of different brightness. An awareness of this is crucial to the painter, especially when working outdoors, where the light cannot be controlled. Imagine your difficulty if every time you mixed a color and applied it to the canvas, it appeared either darker or lighter than you intended. You’d spend all your time trying to compensate for the difference. This is exactly the problem you will face if the light on the your canvas and palette is not the same. The following examples show the various lighting arrangements of the easel and palette, from worst (left) to optimal (right).

Lighting arrangements in the placement of plein air painting easels and palettes.

1. Severe imbalance. In the worst possible arrangement, the palette is sun-struck while the canvas is in shadow, or vice versa. This imbalance makes mixing the desired colors almost impossible. Too much of your time will be spent trying to compensate for the difference.

2. Canvas and palette in full sun. Not only is this arrangement blinding to look at, judging colors in direct sunlight is next to impossible; colors appear overly saturated. Color choices made in direct sunlight will also look very different under normal, indoor viewing conditions. Although the landscape you are painting can be under full sunlight, you and your painting should not be.

3. A balanced light in soft shade. The most balanced painting situation is achieved when palette and canvas receive equal light. This is most easily found in soft, diffuse shade, such as under a tree or in the cast shadow of a building or hill. Colors mixed in a balanced, shaded light are more likely to be the color intended when applied to the canvas. Shade is also closer to a normal indoor viewing light. Overcast or cloudy days naturally offer a diffused, balanced light.

4. Create shade by blocking. Often you find a beautiful location, but can’t escape from the sun shining directly onto you and your easel. In full sunlight, the easel can sometimes be positioned opposite the sun so that the painting surface casts a shadow onto the palette. You may still be in the sun, but your palette and canvas will have some protection. With French easels, cardboard or an extra canvas panel can be propped vertically behind your painting surface to block some of the stray sunlight.

Plein air painting equipment placement.

Upright palette. With a French easel, an easy way to ensure that equal light falls on the canvas and palette is to place the palette upright on the same plane as your canvas. Use a mini bungee cord tied from behind to hold the palette against the frame.

Artist’s umbrella. An artist’s umbrella allows you to make your own shade wherever you are. The best umbrellas are white or neutral-colored; a colored umbrella will create a color cast over the painting. Umbrellas have their risks. In even moderate winds they can turn your painting session into a sailing session. An umbrella with ventilation slits will reduce this risk.


Mitchell Albala is the author of Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice (Watson-Guptill, 2009). Find him on Facebook and YouTube.

Additional Resources:

Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice

Chapter 6, Site Selection

Related Posts:


Plein Air Painting Blog

4 thoughts on “Don’t Set Yourself Up for Failure from the Start

  1. This is an excellent post. I only wish it was posted last year. I learned much of this the hard way. I hope it gets reposted or refreshed next year –say around May. My guess is that many new to plein air would be interested in seeing at that time. I’m slowing down and getting ready for winter.

    I have a love/hate relationship with my umbrella. It is black inside and silver outside. I noticed that it does effect the colors. If the sunlight is cool, it seems to warm up the colors… I have been considering getting a white umbrella. I was wondering if you noticed any effects on colors? What is your experience with a white umbrella?

  2. Mitchell Albala, I love, love, love your book. Fantastic paintings and great, practical instruction. And this is an excellent post. Welcome to our plein-air blog! Jennifer King

  3. Really enjoyed reading your post as a wonderful refresher for plein air work. And since I am a shopper, I will simply have to have your book! My comment primarily is about the umbrella thing. Earlier this year I took a workshop from Matt Smith in Tucson, Arizona while snow-birding in the US. Matt was adamant about not using umbrellas as he says they are more trouble than they are worth (basically what you said). Some of the students had them and sure enough, they were blowing around and tipping over and making their lives most challenging. So that just saved me a hundred bucks as I had planned to buy one. Thanks for bringing this up on your blog. Verna 🙂