Prepare Yourself For Successful Plein Aire Painting

plein aire painting tips

Whether you are an experienced or novice plein aire (painting outdoors) painter, prepare yourself mentally before you go out to paint.

Painting outdoors is a very different experience from studio painting because there are so many variables that are out of your control. Weather conditions, light, and your physical stamina will all have an influence on your art work.

When you take a road trip, having a map in hand leads to a smoother journey with fewer surprises.

Similarly, you can apply these useful plein aire painting tips to save you time and energy while you are learning from nature:

  • Paint what you know and love...

    When you know your subject well and have strong feelings for it, those feelings will show in your painting. If you are disinterested in location, the painting will also reveal that. Why struggle with an industrial cityscape while your heart is set on seascapes?

  • ...unless you're in a rut

    The exception to the above arises when you reach a point where you need to challenge yourself with something new. Maybe you feel like you're in a rut painting the same thing over and over. In that case, try something wildly different and see if you don't come away refreshed and energized.

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  • Use a palette of colors you know well

    If you have worked through my color mixing page you know how challenging it can be to get colors right. Now imagine sweating over how to mix the brand new paints you are using for the first time while you're outdoors in changing light. I did that once on a paint-out session overseas. What a disaster!

    Using paints that you are already familiar with and know how to mix to consistently get the colors you want spares you a lot of potential agony and lost time. You don't want to miss that sunset while you figure out how to mix that orange hue, don't you?

    If you are following a workshop instructor's color palette, I suggest you mix and play with the colors in the studio before you get on field to paint. In the field, you want to focus on painting the scene, not mixing colors.

Okay, once you have your palette and you are on location, you are ready to paint.

Keep in mind:

  • Have you considered the pattern of light and how it will change?

    As the day passes, the sun is constantly shifting. Sometimes the light changes rapidly, and all those beautiful highlights disappear just when you are ready to tackle them...

    Where I live, we have a lot of clouds for much of the year. As a result, the atmosphere usually puts a bluish tint on everything. Knowing this, I would mix my colors to reflect that light condition. If my plein aire scene is in a hot area, then the light will be yellow reddish, and I would adjust my colors accordingly.

  • Are you clear about center of interest in your plein aire painting?

    What attracts you most in the scene? Find that spot and the subordinate parts that support it. For example, you pick out a church at the top of a medieval hill town for your center of interest. Make it stand out so that the trees, the other buildings, the cliff below, and the sky above will support it without stealing attention from it.

    When you find the center of interest and carefully modulate the dance between the dominant component and its supportive elements, the overall painting will gel. Ignore this, and at best you'll end up with a bunch of nice parts, but no harmonious whole.

  • Simplify the form

    You often hear that, for artists, nature is the best teacher. Well, don't take this saying too literally. Nature usually offers too many details to your eyes. Your job as a plein aire painter is to record the impression—like the French impressionists did. You then must learn to cut, cut, cut the details, and focus on the major forms, especially those away from your center of interest.

  • Model colors and tones to suggest atmosphere and space

    This is easier said than done unless I am there to walk you through it. But if you did your homework correctly back in your studio, the modeling of colors and tones in plein aire painting works much the same way.

  • Periodically step back and evaluate your progress.

    Remember why you chose this scene. Oftentimes you get so caught up in the joy of painting that you forget where you planed to go.

    Take a plenty of breaks. Turn away from your painting and rest your eyes before looking at your painting again. Ask yourself if your center of interest is still standing on its own. Is it well supported by the rest of the painting? Or, if you were after a certain mood in your painting, do you still have it?

  • Stop when you have accomplished your goal

    You can easily ruin a painting by overdoing it. When painting outdoors, you are after a feeling—an impression. If you reach a point where the painting feels mostly complete, it is probably best to stop. If you later decide it needs some tweaking, you can work on it back in the studio.

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