Why I Must Paint Plein Air Studies

I admit that I am not one who adores painting on location. If the truth be known, when I visit a national park, I'd rather be exploring and walking around—taking photos of everything that strikes my interest. Oh yes, I've paid my dues by lugging my oil painting equipment to remote vistas, but having "been there, done that," I've come to the conclusion that I'm just not crazy about standing in one spot for two hours focusing on one scene. When I am outdoors, I need and want to experience the whole place.

Although many of my painting colleagues absolutely love the experience of painting outdoors, I find it cumbersome. I am a fairly good photographer and can work at home in my studio from pictures alone, but I've learned that when I skip the step of working on location, the resulting paintings lack something. In other words, I've become convinced that working directly from nature is not optional if I want to become a truly great landscape painter.

I'm a soul that likes to explore as much as I like to paint, and I've worked out a system that lets me do both. I do all my plein air studies in graphite and watercolor, so my load is light because I’m able to keep my supplies to a minimum. I use 140-lb hot-pressed watercolor paper—which I can both sketch and paint on—and I also carry 140-lb cold-pressed watercolor paper. I cut my 22″-x-30″ sheets into quarters, leaving me many 11″-x-15″ sheets that fit easily into my backpack. I carry three watercolor brushes—a size 8 fine pointed round, a size 4 round, and a size 2 for details. By taping my paper to foam core and using a lightweight plastic palette, everything fits into a medium-size backpack. Sometimes I carry a folding stool if I don't think I'll find a comfortable rock or log to sit on. When I begin painting, I place the board on my lap and the palette on the ground.

Plein air study at Duck Pond, watercolor on 140-lb cold-pressed paper.

Although I probably could come up with some reasonably good paintings by working from photographs alone, doing plein air studies offers me several things that I wouldn't get if I were to work purely from photos. Here are a few key benefits of painting from life.

  1. 1. When I take the time to draw or paint a scene from life, I get to know the scene as I would a good friend. Spending time with a place along with my pencil and paint makes me intimately familiar with the scene's elements.
  2. 2. Cameras don't record accurate color. Even though I can adjust color using photo-editing software on my computer, the human eye and brain are capable of translating accurate color far more efficiently than any camera lens or computer can.
  3. 3. If we look into shadow areas when painting en plein air, our pupils adjust to the light conditions so that we can see details. A camera, on the other hand, often leaves what's in the shadows a mystery.
  4. 4. My intellect and emotion record and memorize what I see. When painting or drawing a place, I make an emotional connection with it. By taking the time to record what's before my eyes on paper, I store the details of what I'm painting in my memory. Briefly recording the same scene with my camera cannot make this kind of connection.
Duck Pond, Acadia

2009, watercolor, 10 x 15. Collection the artist.

I painted this finished piece in the studio on 300-lb cold-pressed paper
from my plein air study and from photographs.

Lori Woodward earned a bachelor’s degree in art education from University of Arizona. She has studied watercolor and composition extensively with Sondra Freckelton and Jack Beal. Simons’ work has appeared in several issues of Watercolor, and she is a co-author of the Walter Foster book Watercolor Step by Step. She is a member of The Putney Painters, an invitational group in Vermont. She resides in New Hampshire with her husband, Brian Simons, a software engineer. Visit her website at www.loriwords.com and follow her on Twitter here.

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Lori Woodward

About Lori Woodward

Lori Woodward earned a bachelor's degree in Art Education from the University of Arizona. She has studied with Sondra Freckelton,(watercolor) Jack Beal, (composition) and currently is mentored by Richard Schmid and Nancy Guzik as a member of the Putney Painters. As a writer, Lori has authored articles for Watercolor Magazine since 1996.  Lori authored a chapter on artists' web sites for Calvin J. Goodman's Art Marketing Handbook. She is a regular author on Fine Art Views, an art marketing online newsletter, and she has instruction art marketing and watercolor workshops at Scottsdale Artist School.

7 thoughts on “Why I Must Paint Plein Air Studies

  1. I understand what you’re saying, and your points are well taken, but I think that if someone already is very familiar with a location then that would alleviate some of those difficulties. I also think that someone who really understands form or structure can make intelligent use of photos, and someone who simply doesn’t understand form or structure–and color for that matter–in *any* context won’t be any more successful paining directly from life. If someone has a well developed sense of color and color harmony, they aren’t chained to the colors contained in a photograph anyway–or to those observed in person working from life. It’s really in the skill and brain of the artist, not the method used to gather visual information. I see examples every day of poorly executed work done from life, but it gets an automatic ‘pass’ because it’s claimed to be done from life or plein air. Overpainted, overdrawn, too hard edged, no interpretation, no sense of toolmark or brushmark, no energy, no motion, and ironically, the results often look just like a photograph! But because it’s done from life it’s somehow exempt from the very same criticisms that work using photo references is subject to. Something’s wrong with this double standard.

  2. I like what you’ve said, Lori. I wont try to make the point that one “has” to practice en plein air. I will say that continued exposure to nature will inform a person’s ability to interpret a photograph.

    It forces the artist to learn the correlation between sunlight and skylight. Of course, the most obvious problem is that lenses distort images. This is more pronounced in images of people or animals, but it occurs in landscape as often. Also, I dont think one can really get a grasp on the fractal geometrics inherent in the landscape apart from the plein air experience.

    You make a key point that working on site helps you form a connection to the scene. Working only from photos will transfer visual and intellectual information onto the surface. When working within the environs, though, the immediate response of the artist to the scene is transferred, as well.

    Kisu’s observations are good, prefaced with the idea that one is already familiar with the location. I’d add that all of this relates to the experienced artist working in both situations. An immature artist will produce immature work in either case. As to whether inferior work is excused because it was done on site, I dont find that kind of work hanging in established, legitimate galleries.

    Can a person learn and practice his art without working from life? Doubtless. Will working from life improve his work? Without question.

  3. Don, I generally agree with what you’ve written. I’ve been looking at *a lot* of artwork over the past couple years, both in person and online. I’ve looked at hundreds and hundreds of websites, visited artist studios, and of course gone through galleries and museums. I guess my main beef is that there is growing criticism of work derived from photo references–criticism instigated and pushed by, shall we say, those with interests in promoting a certain agenda–while work done from life and plein air appears to be suffering from their own particular set of serious problems, but honest criticism appears to be lacking. There are institutions and individuals advancing painting and drawing from life, and an honest appraisal of the results so far is that these interests are generating a lot of artists who are essentially functioning as human cameras or Xerox machines. Is that really any improvement?

  4. Kisu- I didnt mean to necessarily disagree. My experience doesnt appear to be as extensive as yours and I simply havent observed this particular bias. I have friends who practice both on site and studion painting. Some work exclusively from photo reference, others only en plein air. While there is naturally some jibing back and forth, I dont think any of them have a true prejudice toward the other. Of course, if they’ll accept that I only use knives, they’re probably less rigid than most.

  5. Kisu and Don,

    I really appreciate your taking the time to discuss and present your thoughts. I have no problem with artists who work from photos. I worked exclusively from them for years – my paintings were successful and sold well.

    I can think of a couple of friends …… maybe many who paint from photos, and you’d never know it. My guess is these good artists understand where photos fall short and make the adjustments in their paintings.

    The two paintings in this blog appear in the current issue of Watercolor – an article on how to paint landscapes from photos. The editors as American Artist asked me to write articles on this subject because so many artists out there are not aware of some of the problems inherent with photos and they paint exactly what they see in the photos without any interpretation of what’s in the shadows or atmospheric perspective. I hope I shared useful information that is helpful to artists. I decided to share some of it here on the blog.

    Thanks again. your comments make the artists’ world an interesting place 🙂

  6. Lori and Don, I really appreciate your comments, and again, I generally agree with what you’ve written. Photos most certainly vary in quality and the artist should be fully aware of their limitations. It was one of the things that I recall being discussed way back in my art school training, and yes, artists do need to made aware of these issues.