Using Your Sketchbook to Good Advantage

Plein air painting by Jeffrey Smith
Take time to think through your plein air composition.

Hi all! This is my first blog at Artist Daily, and I wanted to jump right in and discuss one of the best things I think a plein air painter can do—use a sketchbook to plan your composition and clarify your vision of the finished painting you have in mind.

Just imagine, you arrive on location to start painting. There’s a feeling that you have to get started immediately before the sun moves and the light changes. Resist the impulse! Take 10 minutes to go through the steps below to dramatically increase your chance of a successful plein air painting.

Setting up your sketchbook
Your prep begins before you leave home. Grab your sketchbook. Turn to a clean page and draw out at least 4 boxes. It’s best if you can get them all on 1 page. The boxes should be the same proportion as the surface you’re planning to paint on. I usually draw my boxes at least one inch on the short side so I have a good-sized box.

Plan out the painting
When you are at your outdoor painting site, sketch out what you’re planning on painting using 4 values or less. Keep things simple and abstract as you draw. Your drawing will show the scene in its most basic form, an arrangement of values and lines.

Keep in mind, this is a sketch. You’re just coming up with ideas. As you get used to this, you’ll spend 1 or 2 minutes per drawing. To begin with, spend no more than 5 minutes per idea.

Plein air sketches by Jeffrey Smith
Plan out your painting by going through several sketches before you commit to the final version.

Force yourself to come up with at least 4 ideas
The first one or two will be the obvious solutions. Push yourself past the straightforward. Try raising elements way up or down in the composition. Push elements off to the sides. Zoom way in on something or back way out.

The idea is to play and come up with different ideas for the composition that ignite your imagination.

Pick the one that you like the best
Take your sheet of compositions and pick the one that you feel is the strongest. Because you kept the drawing to the same proportion as your canvas, use that as your guide as you start to place the different elements into your painting.

By going through these steps, you give yourself a chance to really see what is in front of you, to analyze the composition, and set yourself up for success. What do you do to “warm up” before jumping into the painting process?


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.

3 thoughts on “Using Your Sketchbook to Good Advantage

  1. A very good article with very valid points! When sometimes I go through my sketchbook and see several options of the scene I had intended to finally make a painting of, I would be tempted to try and have another go on a different sketch I would have opted not to do than but I would be seeing now in a different evaluation.

  2. Hi…I just went out and did some little watercolors en Plein aire. For whatever reason I didn’t have a sketchbook handy. Was a spur of a moment thing. Your ideas of coming to a concept in a couple of minutes was a good one. I tend to overwork a sketch, which takes away from the time I wanted to spend painting. I only seem to be getting out for a couple of hours…and I think I need to spend more time too…the colors are wonderful outside…can’t see em in a photo. So time is of the essence….thanks, Tartist3