How to Paint En Plein Air: Beginner Landscape Oil-Painting Techniques

California landscape painter Frank Serrano is a popular instructor of plein air painting, generously sharing his knowledge and experience with students and helping them develop a foundation in the fundamentals of painting outdoors. Here we present two step-by-step demonstrations, taken from his book Plein Air Painting in Oil (Walter Foster Publishing, Laguna Hills, California). 

To download a PDF of an expanded excerpt from his book covering the topics of Tools and Materials, Color in Plein Air Painting, and Painting Techniques, as well as the two lessons below, click here to be directed to our Freemium gallery. 

by Frank Serrano

Lesson 1: Painting Step by Step (excerpted from Plein Air Painting in Oil, page 30)

Many beginners are intimidated by a white painting surface and aren’t sure where to begin. But once you understand the process of painting step by step, getting started becomes much easier. There are different ways to approach a painting—for example, some artists start with an underpainting, whereas others apply a series of transparent glazes. But I usually take a more direct approach and work opaquely, from dark to light. First I lightly sketch out the general masses; then I block in the darkest shadow areas, develop the midtones, and finish by adding the highlights. Here I’ve demonstrated these steps in a simple mountain scene.

Step 1: I decided to do this small study because the subject has distinct values—with obvious shadows and highlights—that make it perfect for this lesson. I start by sketching in the general shapes of the main elements, using my largest brush and thinned burnt sienna. Here I’m laying the foundation for blocking in the darkest values in Step 2. Serrano Plein Air Painting Fundamentals
Step 2: Now I lay in the darkest shadows on the cliffs and in the shaded foreground with a mixture of burnt sienna, alizarin crimson, cadmium yellow pale, and just a touch of titanium white. Then I apply the base color of the sky with a mixture of ultramarine blue and white, leaving the clouds unpainted for now. Serrano Plein Air Painting Fundamentals
Step 3: Next I build up the midtones, brushing in the lighter areas of the cliffs with mixtures of ultramarine blue and cadmium yellow pale with touches of alizarin crimson and titanium white. The warm, sunlit areas near the top of the cliffs are a mixture of burnt sienna and alizarin crimson with a little titanium white. I work in the shadows under the clouds with ultramarine blue, white, and a touch of alizarin crimson; then I paint in the clouds with a mixture of yellow and white. I’m trying not to get caught up in the details as I paint; I’m just focusing on recording my impressions of the scene. Serrano Plein Air Painting Fundamentals
Step 4: To finish the forms of the cliffs, I paint the lightest areas, where the sun strikes most directly. Here I also add some swirling highlights of almost pure white to the clouds. Adding highlights (the lightest values in a painting) helps make a subject look realistic and three-dimensional. I add the highlights sparingly, though, because I need only a few to make a visual impact. I finish the painting by adding thick highlights to the sunlit sides of the cliffs with a mixture of burnt sienna and white. Serrano Plein Air Painting Fundamentals

Lesson 8: Conveying Time of Day (excerpted from Plein Air Painting in Oil, page 50)

An important aspect of painting outdoors is choosing a time of day to paint. Generally, morning and evening colors are cool, whereas afternoon colors are warm. So pick a time of day that suits the mood you want to convey. I chose to paint the scene below just as the sun was starting to set. Sunset is a great time of day to paint at the beach—not only are the colors brilliant and inspiring but the feeling of a beach at sunset is also an ideal subject for rendering en plein air. You have to work quickly to capture the colorful and fleeting light conditions at dusk, but the end result can be a captivating and inspiring scene.

Step 1: When I paint, I don’t rely solely on the sky colors to show the time of day—instead, all the elements in a scene work together to impart a sense of time. For example, a sunset sky may establish the tone of the scene, but warm colors, long cool shadows, and calm waters can all contribute to the feeling of a quiet beach at dusk. With confident, quick strokes, I begin sketching in the rocks and trees. Next I block in the sky and the water with mixtures of ultramarine blue and white. I want the drama of the fading afternoon light to be evident, so I paint in the shadow areas a little darker at the beginning—I can always adjust them later if they turn out to be too dark. Serrano Plein Air Painting Fundamentals
Step 2: This was a calm, windless day, so the water was dark and still and the beach was quiet, now that most of the people had left. I paint in the deserted sand and the remaining elements of the shoreline, working some warm, dusky mixtures of burnt sienna, alizarin crimson, and white into the sand. I add highlights sparingly to the simple rocks in the foreground to contrast with the long, cool shadows beneath them. The highlights are mixtures of burnt sienna, alizarin crimson, and white, and the shadows are mixtures of ultramarine blue and burnt sienna. Serrano Plein Air Painting Fundamentals
Step 3: Once I fill in the remaining color of the palm trees (cadmium yellow, ultramarine blue, and a touch of phthalo green), you can see the effects of the waning sunlight and how the mood of the whole painting begins to take shape. I quickly paint in the distant clouds with the rich pinks and violets of late afternoon, using mixtures of alizarin crimson, cadmium orange, ultramarine blue, and titanium white. These cool colors contribute to a sense of peaceful serenity. Serrano Plein Air Painting Fundamentals
Step 4: To finish the palm fronds convincingly, I use thick brushstrokes and paint them the direction in which the leaves grow. I add hints of green algae to the rocks and sharpen their edges with more thick highlights. Last, I use loose, horizontal brushstrokes to refine the waves and soften the edges of the distant sunset clouds.  Serrano Plein Air Painting Fundamentals

All images and instruction from Plein Air Painting in Oil have been excerpted, with permission, from Walter Foster Publishing, © 2002. All rights reserved. For more information on Walter Foster Publishing, visit For more information on Frank Serrano, visit

Our latest Plein Air Painting Resource Guide is also available with tons of great info on how to make the most of your outdoor painting experiences!



Weekend With the Masters Instructor
Frank Serrano will be one of 18 artists teaching workshops, lectures, and demos and participating in panel discussions at American Artist’s Weekend With the Masters Workshop & Conference, September 9–13, 2009. For more information and to register, visit


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6 thoughts on “How to Paint En Plein Air: Beginner Landscape Oil-Painting Techniques

  1. I really like your painting style of rendering atmospheric perspective. Is there any chance that you will conduct a workshop in Estes Park, Colorado? I would love to attend!

  2. Great article. In step #2 are you saying that you are warming your darks with the burnt sienna, alizarin, cad yellow…or that this is your dark. On my palette this mix isn’t a dark. thanks.

  3. I decided this summer is the time I go from inside painting to outside painting and this adds encouragement and method. I have a “backpack kit” I assembled and now just need to get started. This article looks to be a guide I can use.
    Thank you

  4. Thanks for the comments.

    Miller, to answer your question, the darks are the mixture of burnt sienna and alizarin–he uses the cad yellow and white to warm that mixture up.