||Artists Sketching in the White Mountains
by Winslow Homer, 1868, oil painting.
What Is Plein Air 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.”
Outdoor painting gives artists the opportunity to paint the landscape in an immediate way—from direct observation—responding to changes in light, air quality, weather, and time of day. Many advocates and artists who have taken up plein air painting are committed to creating stirring landscape paintings that are derived solely from nature itself, in an alla-prima style (which means producing a painting in one session outdoors). But practitioners can also find it useful to work from a variety of sources for a plein air painting, including initial pencil sketches, photographs, and research.
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
|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.
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.
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
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
Plein Air Essentials: Painting Water
||Calm II by John Hulsey, watercolor painting.
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
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
||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.
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."
30 Top Plein Air Painters Share Their Advice
Our Plein Air Painting
special-issues fly off our shelves and now the newest edition of the
beloved magazine is back with even more master artists sharing their
best on-site landscape painting instruction.
Introducing the new special-issue Plein Air Painting Fall 2011.
even more to know about painting en plein air—we're delivering more
outdoor painting how-tos to fuel your passion and better your artwork.
Plus our Plein Air Resource Guide, with great info on how to take the next steps in plein air!