Painting Outdoors: Fast and Easy Block-Ins

I used to waste oodles of time blocking in my plein air paintings until I finally learned some great tips for doing them fast, such as skipping the drawing, establishing the value range first, and addressing each set of values in a logical order. Here’s how I do them now, which takes only about 10-15 minutes.

Jennifer King's plein air painting block in, step 1.
Step 1

1. I prefer to work on a white canvas when I’m en plein air because I believe it allows more light to bounce off and through the painting, giving it a lighter, fresher look. Using a smallish brush and a medium-valued green paint mixture, I quickly sketch in the bare bones of the big shapes. Mostly I just want to position my horizon line correctly and mark the placement of a few important shapes. In this outdoor painting, I decided to use value contrast to draw your attention to the focal area, and so I start by laying in my lightest light value. Since the morning light was warm, I’m using a light, warm yellow-green.

Jennifer King's plein air painting block in, step 2.
Step 2

2. Next comes my darkest dark. I might as well use a little color contrast against the yellow-green, so I make that dark green a little on the purple side. Already the lightest and darkest values in my value range are established, as is my focal area. Next, I want to continue putting in my dark values to the right of the darkest dark, but notice how I made that area slightly lighter in value. And if I have warm light, then I must have cool shadows, so I also make that shape cool in color.

Jennifer King's plein air painting block in, step 3.
Step 3

3. Now it’s time to move up a notch to the medium values. Looking at my subject I see some across the surface of the water, so I paint those on either side of the reflection of the tree. Notice that I’m pretty loose and almost sloppy with my paint. I don’t even bother to thoroughly mix my colors, which gives each shape some slight variations. That’s fine. The purpose of the block-in is mostly just to cover the canvas with paint in the correct values.

Jennifer King's plein air painting block in, step 4.
Step 4

4. Continuing to move up the value scale, I go a little lighter still. But notice that I make the shadowed sides of the trees on the far right in a cool medium-light green, and I make the far left tree and river bank a warmer yellow-green because these are touched by the sun. The river bank shape is quite large and needs to be subdivided somehow, so I make a slightly darker, cooler shape in the lower portion of the big shape.

Jennifer King's plein air painting block in, step 5.
Step 5

5. All that’s left is the sky color. I started off with a dull blue, which I laid over the water’s surface. But as I went to put that same color up in the sky shape, it occurred to me that maybe I should make it a more yellow sky to suggest the morning sun. So I put that in, too. This is partly what a block-in is for: to experiment with different colors to see what will work best for the mood and harmony of the painting. Having done this, though, I realized that my sky value was about the same as my focal area tree. To maintain that big tree shape as the lightest light, I went in with an even lighter yellow-green over the uppermost portion of the tree.

To me, this is a block-in that does its’ job quite well. The shapes are positioned well on the canvas, the values are just what I had planned for to highlight my chosen focal area, and the colors are already accurate in their suggestion of warm light and cool shadows. What do you think?



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Plein Air Painting Blog
Jennifer King

About Jennifer King

Immersed in the art world is just where Jennifer King wants to be. Thanks to her long career in the art-instruction business--she was the editor of several leading artists' magazines--she has had incredible opportunities to meet and interview many of the finest living artists of our times, including Will Barnett, Clyde Aspevig, Scott Christensen, Sam Adoquei, Richard Schmid, Everett Raymond Kinstler, Ken Auster, Carla O’Connor, C.W. Mundy, Dan Gerhartz, Birgit O’Connor, Daniel Greene, and countless other generous artists who’ve shared their knowledge and insights. She is also honored to have edited several art-instruction books with such noted artists as Tom Lynch, Dan McCaw, Ramon Kelley, Wende Caporale, Carlton Plummer, and more.

Inspired by their passion for art, Jennifer returned to her own love of painting about 15 years ago, studying with figurative painter Tina Tammaro. Through this experience, she discovered her love of landscape painting, which for her, acts as a visual metaphor for human emotion. Constable, Corot, Pissarro, Inness, and Diebenkorn are among her artistic heroes. Other creative pursuits include photography and jewelry-making, and she’s also continuously studying art history and theory.

Jennifer paints primarily outdoors, but also in her home studio in Cincinnati, Ohio. She also continues to serve as a lecturer and competition juror for various art organizations across the country, and she is a member of the Women’s Art Club of Cincinnati. Jennifer is currently represented by the Greenwich House Gallery in O’Bryonville, a suburb of Cincinnati. As a confirmed landscape artist, her future goal is to use her experience in the art world to raise awareness for the need to protect our environment.

3 thoughts on “Painting Outdoors: Fast and Easy Block-Ins

  1. I’m not a quick painter yet, so I wasn’t sure how I would accomplish plein air painting, but this discussion makes it much more doable. It’s very helpful, thank you!

  2. So glad this was useful to you, Keri. You’ll get faster with practice, and probably even find a few great shortcuts of your own along the way. Happy painting!

  3. I have been plein aire painting for awhile, and struggling each time to the point I was almost ready to give it up and go back to my studio. Lo and behold heres a great idea that may just be my salvation. Thanks for sharing Jennifer.