Plein Air Painting on a Freshly Primed Surface

Wait until you are in front of your outdoor painting scene before deciding what to tone your surface.
Wait until you are in front of your outdoor painting scene
before deciding what to tone your surface.

I’ve found that how you prepare your canvas has a huge impact on the finished result of your plein-air painting.

Do you start your painting right on the blank, white canvas? Do you prefer to kill the white of the canvas by toning your panel a neutral, mid-tone value in advance? Do you come out into the field with your plein air board primed a bold color?

I have a simple way of preparing for an oil painting session that not only kills the white of the canvas, it can enhance your color and your end result.

Preparing to paint

The surface of the canvas or panel is brushed with a very thin wash of oil color. Next, a rag or paper towel is rubbed across the surface to even out the tone, and to remove any excess paint. That’s the process. You’re ready to paint.

Jeffrey Smith, oil on canvas, plein air painting
This time of the year I often tone my surface with red or
orange to make the green of the foliage and trees pop.

By working on a freshly toned panel, the under-painting mingles and mixes with the colors you place on top of it. The result is a painting with unity of color and some subtle color mixtures that may be difficult to replicate when just mixing on your pallet.

The color you choice to prime with will be subjective. This time of year, I tend to use a lot of red or orange to counterbalance all of the greens of spring and summer. The trick is to use a pigment that compliments your scene, and isn’t too overpowering. Because the process of toning is so simple, you can wait until you are en plein air before deciding what color to use.

How do you prepare your surface for a plein-air painting session? Let us know by sharing in the comments.


Related Posts:


Plein Air Painting Blog
Jeffrey Smith

About Jeffrey Smith

Jeffrey Smith is an Artist Daily contributing blogger and a professional artist. He has a love of nature and the world of color. He explores that love through plein air landscape painting as well as studio projects in oil and pastels. An accomplished workshop instructor, Jeffrey studied painting at The Atelier in Minneapolis where he is now a teacher. His work is represented in collections across the US and in over 20 countries around the world.  He lives and works in Saint Paul, Minnesota. For more about Jeffrey, visit his website.

5 thoughts on “Plein Air Painting on a Freshly Primed Surface

  1. i clean my brushes on my next canvas. herewith leaving a colorful mess that I leave on places to shine through on my final painting. When I have oil paint left on my pallet, I use a pallet knife to clean the pallet (before the weekends), building a colorful, textured effect on my canvas. i find this method gives me an interesting under painting, and I feel I used all the the paint I could. nothing goes to waste

  2. whole heartedly agree, my instructors at art school claimed it eliminated the “stringies” in the painting, ( when to values/colors come together, and still a bit of the white shines through..)
    Also, if your foundation is right, and maybe you scumbled, instead of flattening, it almost serves as a nice texture underneath, and you can almost let it it come through on the final painting… and one more thing, doing the coating fresh, on site, not only allows you to choose the color of your base layer, it also gives you kind of a lubricant to brush your oil on… just don’t over do it, otherwise you’ll have goop in no time.