Plein Air Painting

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What Is Plein Air Painting?

Artists Sketching in the White Mountains by Winslow Homer, 1868, oil painting.
Artists Sketching in the White Mountains by Winslow Homer, 1868, oil painting.

Plein air painting is about leaving the four walls of your studio behind and experiencing painting and drawing in the landscape. The practice goes back for centuries but was truly made into an art form by the French Impressionists. Their desire to paint light and its changing, ephemeral qualities, coupled with the creation of transportable paint tubes and the box easel—the precursor to the plein air easels of today—allowed artists the freedom to paint “en plein air,” which is the French expression for “in the open air.”

Sketches allow painters to improve the overall design of a painting and quickly capture color notes in the landscape. A plein air painter can also use photographs to help design a painting, though they usually come into play after the artist has left the outdoor painting site for the comforts of the studio. An artist often utilizes photographs to capture details—like the particular texture of grass or the shape of a river bend—but most painters stay away from using photographs for color and value indicators.

Today, plein air painting is a flourishing trend in our art world. Artists come together for “paint out” excursions, workshops devoted to the practice occur all year-round and coast to coast, and landscape painters are finding that plein air painting is as rewarding and powerful an experience as it was for the first plein air painters all those years ago.

Plein Air Painting Techniques: Painting Light

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Anaheim Glow by James Gurney, 2006, oil painting.
Anaheim Glow by James Gurney, 2006, oil painting.

When you paint from observation, whether on-site or indoors, you’ll encounter several different light sources, including direct sunlight, overcast sky, window light, candlelight, and electric light. These types of light-and others as well-all have distinctive qualities that you have to understand in order to paint them convincingly.

Direct Sunlight
On a clear, sunny day, three different systems of illumination are at work: the sun, the blue sky, and reflected light from illuminated objects. Of these three sources of light, the latter two derive entirely from the sun, and thus should be subordinate to it.

Overcast Light
The layer of clouds diffuses the sunlight, eliminating the extremes contrasts of light and shadow. One of the virtues of overcast light is that it allows you to paint forms in their true colors without dramatic contrasts of light and shade.

Streetlights & Night Conditions
The modern nightscape includes incandescent, fluorescent, neon, mercury-vapor, sodium, arc, metal-halide, and LED lights-and, of course, moonlight. Each has a distinctive spectral power distribution. Here are some tips if you want to learn more about night illumination:

-The variety of outdoor lighting colors is best seen when flying over a city at night.

-Take photographs with a digital camera set on its night setting. New cameras are excellent at capturing low-level lighting effects.

-Try some urban night painting, using a portable LED light to illuminate your palette.

–James Gurney, from Plein Air Painting, Spring 2011 and adapted from James Gurney’s book, Color & Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter

Plein Air Essentials: Painting Water

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Calm II by John Hulsey, watercolor painting.
Calm II by John Hulsey, watercolor painting.

Water is perhaps one of the more challenging subjects to paint convincingly in a landscape painting. Whether one is inspired by the ocean, river, pond or lake, each subject requires a studied familiarity and often distinctly different paint handling. Here are a just a few tips that we consider helpful when painting water:

1: The sky and the water generally share the same colors, although the water will be darker in value. Draw a solid horizon or shoreline and block them in at the same time to make sure they have shared colors.

2: Ocean waves in constant motion present a challenge for the plein air painter because you want to capture the movement and the light effects that occur in breaking waves. The wave changes color and value as it gains height and thins out just before breaking. Until a wave begins to break, it shares the color of the sky. As it rises, it becomes a transparent window into the wave itself, and so turns greenish, and may even pick up the color of the sand for an instant just as it breaks. A great way to quickly get proficient at painting waves is to paint with only a palette knife.

3. Still water on lakes, ponds, and even placid rivers presents the challenge of painting reflections, often filled with sunrise or sunset colors. Maxfield Parrish used to build a model landscape on a mirror in order to get his reflections right in his realistic studio paintings. In plein air, however, we must analyze on the spot, and render those reflections in a much looser, more gestural way. Unless the reflection is your subject, try rendering it as a large tonal mass of color, rather than a lot of individual strokes.  Keep in mind that reflections are always darker than the object itself.

–John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

Painting Outdoors Quickly and Deliberately

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Classical Reference I by Maddine Insalaco, 2008, oil on canvas.
Classical Reference I by Maddine Insalaco, 2008, oil on canvas.

Painting outside is challenging due to the fugitive light and constantly changing atmospheric environmental conditions. Although plein air paintings are prized for their spontaneity and freshness, one of the best ways to learn the art of plein air is to be organized and deliberate.

To ensure you are making the most of your time painting outdoors, begin with a plan and approach the painting methodically from the start. In the excitement to begin painting, many artists jump right in and start covering the surface with color before the composition is clearly drawn and before they really analyze the subject, the space to be depicted, and its color in abstract pictorial terms.

Your Palette: Maintaining an organized palette helps you more carefully consider what you are painting. Match the palette itself to the picture surface. When we mix paint on a palette that is closely keyed to the surface, we take a small step toward color accuracy.

Premixing Colors: Using palette knives, mix pools of paint that reflect all the important areas of the composition projected on the palette. Mixtures should be juxtaposed on the palette in relationships, as they will appear on the surface. The palette knife allows for the cleanest mixtures and is also the best tool for testing the color accuracy. Mix a uniform color, take the loaded knife, and place it with extended arm next to the element in the actual landscape that you are trying to mix.

Laying in the Composition: Starting from the distance space (at the top of the canvas) and moving gradually forward (toward the bottom), I lay in colors as I have mixed them. My general rule is to work back to front, inside to outside (for example, painting the darker inside parts of trees first, then the light on the leaves), and under to over (such as painting the earth before painting the grass growing on top of it). In this way, the paint layers reflect the actual spatial relationships in the landscape.

–Maddine Insalaco, from Plein Air Painting, Fall 2011

Plein Air Painting Techniques: How to Paint Clouds

Clear Water, Bahama Flats by Joseph McGurl, oil painting.
Clear Water, Bahama Flats by Joseph McGurl, oil painting.

The sky is the literal and figurative apex of any landscape painting, and within the sky’s expanses are the possibilities for any number of cloud shapes and styles, from peaked and swirling to heavy-bottomed and substantial. Here are the most commonly encountered cloud formations in nature and tips on how depict them when you are painting outside.

Cumulus: These are probably the most commonly seen clouds, and they are usually present on fair, clear, sunny days. They resemble huge masses of puffy wool and float through the sky at various heights, with the side of the cloud that is facing the sun usually being very bright and the side that is farther from the sun usually appearing dark with bright edges.

Cirrus: Wispy and high in the sky, these clouds are actually made up of ice crystals formed from the freezing of supercooled water droplets and are usually present on a clear day. Cirrus clouds are sometimes referred to as “feather” clouds or “mare’s-tails” and point in the direction of air movement at their elevation, which is usually about five to six miles high.

Stratus: These clouds can almost be described as a sheet of layered fog that hangs low to the horizon on gray days, usually during the winter. They are often layered and sometimes have horizontal bands of shapes that indicate a possibility of rain. Artists often find these clouds the easiest to paint for their simple shape and pattern.

Nimbus: Nimbus clouds are precipitation clouds that are thick in texture and dark in color while being almost umbrella-like in shape. Their darkness reflects the amount of water they are carrying, and that precipitation may reach the earth as rain, snow, or hail. Small, ragged pieces of these clouds floating at a lower level are often referred to as “scud.”

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About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

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