Follow the tried and true steps of making a plein aire painting


New to plein aire painting (outdoor landscape painting) and don't know how to go about it? Or you simply have had a frustrating experience and decided it's too much trouble? Well, good news! Get your equipment ready and read on to learn the key steps for making the most out of your plein air painting time.
  1. First, use a viewfinder to frame a spot that's attractive to you. This will help you resist the urge to jump right in paint any old thing in front of you. When you choose a scene, it is best if your scene has both light and shadow. It is easy to establish contrast when you have a shadow, but a scene with all light and no shadows around can be challenging. This usually happens around noon when the sun is shining straight down and shadows are minimal. So, be aware of the shadows and use them if you can.

    plein aire painting value study

  2. Make a quick sketch of the scene on your sketch pad with a black marker.

    Get the major light pattern down quickly on your sketch pad. Just worry about the middle, dark and light tones at first, and nothing else. You want to quickly establish the overall relationship of tones and shapes at this stage. And don't think you can skip this step! If you do, you are likely to get lost in a myriad of 'details' with no 'big picture'.

    plein aire painting value study

  3. With the sketch done, it's time to paint. Get the big shapes and colorful shades down first, with the tone (or value) as accurate as you can. Once established, these will change little, though you will fine tune the shape by adding more details.

    plein aire painting stage 1


  4. Now you fill in the lights. Put down clean color notes in a broken (splotchy) manner. No details yet! You want it to look like a poster or an abstract painting.

    plein aire painting rough in stage

    Stay on this stage for a while and work to get the value and color relationships correct. Don't rush as this critical stage; it will make or break your plein air painting.

  5. Squint a lot! Doing this forces your to simplify the forms and keep the overall value relationships in place.

    plein aire painting the final details


  6. Once you establish the overall color and value patterns, it is time to look for subtle changes and variations within shapes. Divide large shapes into smaller shapes, but make sure you keep the basic shapes intact (very important).

  7. Step back and turn away. Rest your eyes a bit before you get back to your painting. Add finishing touches.

  8. Keep your painting session to no more than 2 hours—the shorter the better. Doing this makes it easy to retain the fresh spontaneous feeling—better than endlessly fixing the painting.

Mastering plein aire painting takes time. Keep going, and let each new painting pave the way for greater success.

As always, your mastery of the fundamentals of drawing and painting will be the foundation of your success in plein air painting.

Your mental habits and discipline will direct your painting. Stick to the process, and you will see the difference in your plein aire paintings as time goes by.

Compose It Grids with Value Finder
A handy tool for cropping images


> > Plein Air Painting Process


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