Composing On the Fly When Painting Outdoors

23 Jun 2011

A photo of the plein air landscape site I chose to paint.
A photo of the plein air landscape site I chose to paint.
I can still recall the first morning I saw this little bend in the river ike it was yesterday. The air was still cool and breezy, the sun was glinting off the water, the bees in their hive were humming—yes, it was everything a plein-air painter like me hopes for. I couldn't wait to whip out my brushes and canvas, throw down some paint on my palette, and get right to work.

Well, at least that's how I felt, but I stopped myself. Having created many, many disastrous plein air paintings that went south because I started in without doing any prep work, I have finally learned to resist the temptation to skip the most crucial step in outdoor painting: thumbnails! As anxious as I may be to set up my plein air easel and dive right into painting, I know that taking just five to ten minutes to do some very quick, small sketches to plan my shapes and values is the best way to set myself up for success.

At first, my thumbnails are nothing but big shapes that divide the image. In the process of plotting out the big shapes with a Sharpie marker in my sketchbook, I get to know the "bones" of the subject, or what I think of as the gesture. So if we use this subject in the photo as an example, I would draw a quick sketch that looks something like Sketch A. 

Jennifer King plein air sketch A.
My plein air thumbnail: Sketch A.
Jennifer King plein air sketch B.
My plein air thumbnail: Sketch B.
Next, I would take a moment to study my subject and my sketch to look for ways to improve the big shapes by making their edges more interesting and their sizes more varied. In this case, the first thing that struck me was the strong diagonal running from the lower left to the upper right of the scene. Just like finding the gesture line when drawing a figure, I look for the main gesture or direction of a landscape subject, and here, that diagonal is it. A diagonal adds excitement and movement to a painting, so now I would ask myself, How can I modify the big shapes to emphasize that? Time for a second quick sketch like Sketch B.

You can see in the photo that the foreground river bank is the primary source of this gestural line, but notice how it goes right into the lower left corner of the image. That's a form of a tangent, and in art, that's a bad thing because it is a visual element that doesn't support the composition. So when drawing my second sketch, I took a little artistic license to make the composition better by adding a little zigzag in the river bank in the lower left corner to avoid the tangent and also to make that diagonal line more interesting.

To complete the general structure of big shapes, I  put in the horizon line, emphasizing the variations in it so it isn't just a boring straight line. Two other deviations from what was really there: 1) I lowered the tops of the distant trees in the center to make the sky shape somewhat bigger, which creates more variety in the sizes of shapes, and 2) when drawing the right edge of the tree in the middle ground that overlaps the distant stand of trees, I made that much more rounded. Not only does it make those shapes more interesting, that little diagonal I just created echoes the diagonal of the foreground river bank, which gives added emphasis to the gesture or movement of the whole.

I realize that took several minutes for me to explain, and several for you to read, but in reality these decisions about modifying the shapes took no more than five minutes to complete when I was actually outdoors doing it all, including the sketching. No matter how much excitement or pressure I may feel to get started when I am plein air landscape painting, I still do my thumbnails. I'm 100% convinced that an investment of a few minutes of pre-planning leads to a better painting and takes far less time than trying to fix a bad design in the final stages.


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Ellene B wrote
on 18 Jul 2011 8:36 AM

Hi Jennifer,

Thank you so much for this detailed post about plein air painting.  I'm fairly new at this type painting and I'm very interested in learning more, as I have an upcoming date to paint plein air.

What medium do you paint in?  Mine is watercolor.

Thank you,


Ellene B wrote
on 18 Jul 2011 8:40 AM

Hello Jenniner,

Thank you for a detailed post about plein air painting.  I'm fairly new at this type painting and have a date soon to paint outside.

Your post will be great guidance!

Thank you,


on 20 Jul 2011 1:51 PM

Hi Ellene,

Welcome to plein-air painting! It's challenging, but the fun kind of challenging. I paint in oils, but I know a guy--Larry Cannon--who paints wonderful watercolor plein-air paintings. Check out I think you'll be inspired even more. Have fun painting!


on 12 Jun 2012 9:20 PM

A gray-scale photograph of my plein air oil painting subject. If you read my last post , you know I'm

lcliff wrote
on 27 Oct 2012 1:55 PM

Hi Jennifer, I want to thank you for your insight into this picture. I have just started to paint outdoors. Anything I have came across about plein air painting doesn't  explain the necessary prep work needed to begin painting. I have gone out and painted and came back disappointed with my work. With this insight I should come back happier.   Thanks again! Lenora Clifford