The Power of a Strong Composition

Composition, or how things are arranged, is quite often the determining factor of a successful painting. I really can’t stress enough that without a strong composition, an otherwise technically strong painting will not look as good.  I find when I am struggling with a painting, and I just can’t figure out how to make it work, it always comes down to a poor composition. You just can’t get away from it – a poor composition will result in a poor painting.

So, how can you be sure you have a strong composition? This is really a much longer topic than this little blog post – books have been written on the subject, but I can at least give you a start.

First off, when you are designing your painting or drawing, your first consideration needs to be the edges of your paper, board or canvas. Those are the limits of your piece and determine the relationships of everything that is placed within them. Will your piece be in a landscape, or portrait orientation? Maybe you want to go with a square. When painting plein air, I find it imperative that I use a view finder. It creates boundaries for the subject matter and helps me to compose my piece.  Without a viewfinder, it is difficult to know where the image will stop.

There are different types of view finders. The one on the left is adjustable based on the size of your surface. The one on the right has grid lines to help maintain proportions.


Depending on how close to your eye you place the viewfinder, it will change the view you see.


The farther away the viewfinder is from your eye, the smaller the area you are seeing is.
The closer it is to your eye, the larger the area viewed is.

Now that you have the boundaries of your image determined, what do you place within them? You want to base the arrangement of objects, colors, values, etc. on a large, simple shape that addresses each edge of the surface you are creating on. Some very common shapes used are a cross, diagonal, C or S. There are many others, but these are just some of the simplest.

This composition could potentially be successful. There is a backwards C structure that if emphasized in a painting could work quite nicely.
Can you see the C now?


When the placement of the different elements in your piece are based on one of these under-arching designs, your final piece will have better unity. There will be a structure for the viewer’s eye to follow. Without a solid design to your piece, it will appear unorganized and disjointed. Viewers will not feel compelled to continue to look at a disorderly piece and will move on to something else. Your job as an artist is to make the viewer want to continue to look at your artwork; a strong composition will help.

It is a very common mistake in landscapes to have multiple horizontals with no strong vertical elements. Avoid this! Remember, each edge of the surface of your art needs to be used. When all you have are horizontals, the top and the bottom of your piece have been neglected and the viewers eye will run right off the edge.  Be sure to have something to intrigue the viewer’s eye so they feel compelled to keep looking. Boring compositions make boring paintings!

In addition to other issues, this photo has nearly all horizontal directions in it and is therefor not all that interesting to look at.
Just by stepping back and including the tree on the left into the composition, it now has a much stronger composition.

I have barely scratched the surface of this subject, but if you start with a strong underlying design to your painting, it will improve it significantly.  If you want to read more about composition, there are two books I highly recommend.

Composition of Outdoor Painting by Edgar Payne is a classic. It was first published in 1941 and has had several reprintings since then, the most recent in 2005. It has a wealth of knowledge between its covers. It is very expensive for a small book, but worth it in my opinion.

Mastering Composition by Ian Roberts is another must read. It comes with a DVD where you can see the author/artist working and showing how the concepts of composition can be used effectively in an artwork. It is simply an outstanding book.

I have included links to these books for your convenience. I’m not getting compensated in any way for this, I just want to share two excellent books.

I also want to add my thanks to all the Veterans out there for their service to our country. Enjoy your day!

I hope you found the information here useful. What are your thoughts on composition? Share your ideas below, and if you haven’t already, subscribe to this blog so you don’t miss out on any posts. Thanks for reading!

10 Best Sites for Plein Air Painting in Joshua Tree National Park

I’m back! After a long hiatus, I’ve decided to commit to my blog again. Thanks to my loyal followers for your patience. I will try to not let you down again!

For this post, I am going to list my top 10 places to go plein air painting in Joshua Tree National Park. In subsequent posts, I will focus on each of these with more detail.

Joshua Tree National Park is 1,235 square miles spanning two deserts, the Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert. The landscape within the park changes as elevations change. Throughout, it possesses a rugged beauty that must be experienced to be truly appreciated. Artists from around the world are inspired by its uniqueness, and I feel the only way to truly capture the essence of the park is to paint it “en plein air”, meaning on location. I have spent countless hours in this national treasure and come away each time with a new appreciation of it.

When visiting the park, one must be prepared. The environment in the park can be hostile, if not deadly, to those who may take it for granted. Always travel with plenty of water. There is no water in the park, so you must bring your own. The temperatures can range from below freezing to 120 degrees plus, depending on the time of day and year. Layers are always a good idea. A hat and sunscreen are a must. The desert is inhabited by things that will stick you, sting you or bite you. Wear sturdy shoes – sandals are never a good idea. Also know that there is limited cell service in the park – most areas get no signal at all. In addition, for your safety, always stay on established trails. I am not in any way trying to scare anyone off, I just want your trip to be enjoyable, and the better prepared you are, the more you will be able to appreciate its riches.

So, these are my top 10 favorite areas to paint within the park. If you are not adventurous, you could paint right from your car, or for the more curious, there are hiking trails to explore. They are in order of distance from the west entrance in Joshua Tree, the closest one being first. My list of sites is on the west side of the park because those are the ones I go to most often. This is by no means an exhaustive list of sites. There are many, many more!

  1. Boy Scout Trail: 6.4 miles from the West Entrance, turn left into the Boy Scout Trail parking lot. There are beautiful vistas here, and if you hike north a while on the trail you will get closer to the rocks. There are lots of Joshua Trees and other vegetation here as well.
  2. Lost Horse Road: 7.3 miles from the West Entrance. The road doesn’t have a sign, but there is a restroom at the intersection. It is a well-maintained dirt road on the right side of Park Blvd. – keep an eye on your odometer so you don’t miss it. There are lots of pull outs along this road, and all of them have wonderful sites.
  3. Hemingway: 7.6 miles from the West Entrance on the right side of Park Blvd. Beautiful rock formations to explore and a variety of vegetation.
  4. Hidden Valley Picnic Area: 8.6 miles on the right side of Park Blvd. A large, diverse area. Tons to explore, but it can get crowded later in the day.
  5. Intersection Rock: 8.6 miles on the left side of Park Blvd. A huge, domed rock next to the parking lot is remarkable, and there are plenty of other possibilities to hike to.
  6. Echo Rock: Just after Intersection Rock is the turn off to Barker Dam on the left (watch for the sign). Take that road and go 0.6 mile to the turn off for Keys Ranch on the left. Drive 0.1 mile and the parking lot is on the right. Rocks and a wash make interesting compositions.
  7. Barker Dam: Take the road all the way until it turns into the parking area for the dam. So much to see here, you really need to get out and walk around.
  8. Cap Rock: 10.2 miles from the West Entrance take the turn off to Keys View. Go 0.2 mile and turn left into the parking lot. There is an easy nature trail that you can take around this area.
  9. Keys View Road: Continue up Keys View Road from Cap Rock. There are several turn outs where you can park. The trees start to change from Joshua Trees to Junipers to Pinyon Pine as you rise in elevation. If you go all the way to the top, there is an incredible view of the Coachella Valley.
  10. Hall of Horrors: 11.7 miles from the West Entrance. Stay on Park Blvd. It will bend to the East. The parking area is on the left side. So much to choose from!

Thanks for reading!  I hope you will get out into the park and try your hand at plein air painting.  It is a wonderful learning experience.

Also, check out my new page, “Artwork” (tab at the top of this page).  It is a gallery page of some of my paintings. It is a work in progress, but give it a try and let me know what you think!

Tips For a Successful Plein Air Outing

Painting in your studio is a very safe, comfortable and controlled environment.  If you are working from photographs, you already have a reference that is cropped down and two dimensional.  You don’t have to worry about the light changing, the wind or the temperature.  Your working conditions are very constant and predictable – life is good!  But if you want to step up your painting a notch, you need to get outside and paint plein air.

When you head out for the first time to paint plein air, you will probably be at least a little overwhelmed.  The clouds and sun are moving across the sky changing the scene before you, the wind is blowing and there are bugs flying around.  As if that isn’t enough, you also have 360o of subject matter to paint – there is so much to look at – how can you possibly decide where to start?  It might seem like a good idea at this point to run back inside to the safety of your studio.

Have no fear!  There are some tips that can help make your outdoor painting experiences successful.

  1. Go at the right time of day. Early in the morning or later in the afternoon will give you the best chance for shadows and contrast.  Those shadows and contrast give the scene you are looking at some depth and dimension.  In the middle of the day, everything is much more flat and not as interesting to look at.
    The mountain outside my house at midday.
    The mountain outside my house at midday.

    The same mountain early in the morning.  See how there is more depth?
    The same mountain early in the morning. See how there is more depth?
  2. Use a viewfinder. A viewfinder is a tool to help you isolate specific areas so you don’t get distracted by all there is to look at out there.  You can simply cut out a rectangle from an index card, or you can buy a viewfinder that is adjustable so you can make the viewing area proportionate to your painting surface.

    You can see how it frames your composition.
    You can see how it frames your composition.
  3. Keep it simple. Some scenes are easier to paint than others.  Painting outside necessitates painting quickly (because your lighting will change), so you don’t have time for lots of detail.  There will undoubtedly be some absolutely amazing scenes that you will come across, but that doesn’t mean they will make fantastic paintings.  Look for scenes that have strong contrast and large, interesting shapes.  Those types of scenes will yield the best results – and alleviate a lot of frustration.
  4. Think about and search out what you want to focus on. Before I go out for the day, I decide what I want to focus on.  One day it might be Joshua Trees, or boulders, or vistas – whatever it is, I try to find the best example of it that I can.  It helps me not get distracted by all the possibilities.  Sometimes I change my mind, but that is generally because I see something that really moves me.
  5. Give yourself a chance to look around. Especially if you have never been to a particular area before, be sure to walk around for a while taking it all in.  Don’t stress yourself out thinking that you have to decide right away.  Walk around, do some sketches, get to know the area.  It will make it easier to make your decision.
  6. Keep trying! Your first experience may be frustrating, but don’t be too hard on yourself.  Painting outside is challenging, but keep at it and your paintings will improve.  Even when you are painting in your studio, your plein air experiences will influence your studio paintings, and they will be that much better!

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It’s All in the Planning

“Planning is bringing the future into the present so that you can do something about it now.” Alan Lakein, writer

So, you’ve found the perfect spot.  The scene before you is screaming at you to paint it! You set up your easel, get out your board to paint on, and lay out all your paints.  You can’t wait to dip your brush into the paint and get started – but stop!  You really need to do some planning first.

“Wait, what?” you ask. “But I have this incredible scene in front of me, it’s all there!  Why should I plan anything? I know what I want to do,” you argue.

Before I was a plein air artist, I painted from my imagination.  I would always do thumbnail sketches before I did a painting.  I would very carefully plan it out, and then meticulously copy that sketch onto my painting surface.  I was never one to just dive in and start painting – maybe because it was from my imagination, I wanted to see it realized in at least a rough form before I committed to painting it.  That was just my working method.

Then I started plein air painting.  I would head out into the bush, set up, and get to painting. I was just so excited to start that I never did sketches.  All the books I read on the subject said I should be, but I figured I really didn’t need to.  The scene was there, and I knew how I wanted it to look.  Sometimes I would produce a really nice painting, but in the beginning, more often than not, I did pieces that I was really not all that happy with.  I just chalked it up to the fact that I was just learning this new type of painting, so I just wasn’t very good at it yet.  Surely, it would all come together eventually.  I continued on this way for a few years.

Around this same time, I was hired to teach art at our local high school.  I had been waiting for 15 years for an opening, so finally I was able to say “good bye” to the elementary school I had taught at for that long, and move into the high school.  What an exciting change that was!

Because of budget issues (art is an expensive program to run) I couldn’t let the students waste materials, so I insisted that they do thumbnail sketches to plan out their paintings. Oh, did (do!) I get grief about that!  Students would often tell me, “But I know what I want it to look like, why should I waste my time drawing it out?” or they would have an incredibly vivid oral description of what they wanted to do, and not understand why they should have to do a sketch.  At first, I would often get scribbles from them, and they would tell me what those scribbles were going to look like in the final painting.  More often than not, they would end up frustrated with their paintings because they were not able to make their hands do what their brains were envisioning.

These experiences with my students only reinforced how important it was that they do thumbnails.  I got more and more particular about what I would accept for a thumbnail sketch from them.  I would still get arguments from the real die-hards, but for the most part, the students did begin to see the benefit of planning, and now they don’t complain much anymore.

As I was getting more and more demanding with my students about the thumbnails they were producing, I realized I was being a hypocrite because I was not doing them myself.  I thought I had better start practicing what I preach, or I really don’t have any credibility.  So, I started doing thumbnails.  I got a viewfinder that really helped to isolate what I wanted to paint, and I would plan out my composition in my sketch book before I put any paint down.  I block in the major shapes and values, figuring out what I want to leave in, what should be left out, how it will fit on the board, sizes and relationships between shapes – I do this all before I even touch my paintbrush.  Sometimes I do just one, but probably just as often I do more than one because my first idea really doesn’t work out the way I thought it might. I spend maybe 15 – 20 minutes doing this preliminary planning.  And do you know what I found?  My paintings have started to improve!  I have a much greater number of pieces that I’m happy with, I’m able to paint much faster (which is a real plus for a plein air painter since the light changes so fast) because I don’t have to make all the mistakes I did when I worked on my sketch.  By doing small sketches, I’m able to try things without feeling like I have invested too much time if they don’t work.  I can completely start over if my original direction isn’t working.  By the time I get to my actual painting, I really know where I want to go with it.

There are so many decisions that an artist needs to make in order to bring a painting to fruition. If those decisions can be ironed out before the actual painting begins, the final product is going to look fresher and more confident.

photo 1 (8)
An example of a recent thumbnail – it’s not much to look at, but I learned so much doing it!


The thumbnail sketches I do are pretty rough, but they are just a means to an end.  They are not the final work of art.  They are, however, an indispensable step towards the realization of my final painting – a type of roadmap.  I cannot imagine going back to my former method of “just going for it”.  As has been said, “Failing to plan is planning to fail”.  If you are one who doesn’t normally plan out your paintings before you paint – even if you don’t plein air paint – give it a try.  You might just be pleasantly surprised by the results!

The final painting
The final painting

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My Path to Plein Air


Plein air painting.  Painting in the “open air”.  My first experience with painting on location was way back when I was in college.  I don’t remember much about the experience, except that I rode my bike out into the Wisconsin countryside and painted the landscape that I saw.  I have no idea what materials I took with me, but my parents still have the two paintings I did that day.  It would be about 25 years before I gave it another try.

I did lots of painting between that first try and my next, 25 years later.  Those “in between” paintings were at first based on my imagination.  I did sketches from life – mostly portraits and still lifes, but they were usually just sketches and I didn’t use them in my paintings.  If I needed a reference, I would use a photo.

About 2005, I had a bit of a revelation. At the time, my paintings came from my imagination.  I used rich colors, lots of texture, and liked to “play with space” in my paintings.  They were representational, but far from “realistic”.  An offhand comment from a customer at the gallery that I was showing in challenged me.  It was my weekend to sit the gallery, and I overheard a couple talking.  “She paints like that because she can’t really paint.”

Well, that comment made me stop and think.  Instead of being insulted, I thought, “Of course I can “really” paint.  I took it as a challenge.  I had never been interested in a realistic style of painting – I loved the post impressionists:  Van Gogh, Gaugin, Cezanne, Modigliani, etc. “Realism” was kind of a bad word when I was in college, so it was not a direction that I ever considered pursuing.

So I took that challenge home and started trying to create recognizable portraits.  It wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be, but I have always loved a challenge, so I was really enjoying myself.  At the time, I was mostly working from photographs.  I was also doing lots of reading and I started looking at more realistic artists.  I discovered the American artists John Singer Sargent, William Merrit Chase, and Winslow Homer. From all the reading I was doing, it was becoming clear to me that using photographs was not the way to go.  To really “see”, I needed to work from life.  Unfortunately, it was hard to find models willing to sit for me (I had to ask my generally non-cooperative family members), and I just wasn’t all that interested in doing still lifes.

One of my first portraits.  My son Alex.
One of my first portraits. My son Alex.

One weekend, I went with my family to a show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  I don’t remember what the main show was that we went to see, but there was a smaller exhibit of Southwestern Landscapes that we also saw.  There were some paintings there by Maynard Dixon – I was fascinated!  The way he simplified the landscape, but still captured its essence, inspired me to attempt a new subject matter.  It would be perfect for me because I didn’t have to worry about finding someone to sit for me – I had the whole Mojave Desert right at my feet, literally!

Since discovering Maynard Dixon, I have also discovered other amazing artists – some old, some new.  Edgar Payne, Gustav Klimt (his landscapes, though I love his portraits), Edward Hopper, Ian Roberts, Richard Schmid, Eric Merrill, Bill Cramer, among others.  They all have different styles, but they have these things in common – they simplify the landscape, capture the light beautifully, and have a command of colors and value that I aspire to one day share.  Also, they all have very painterly styles; brushstrokes are very apparent, and details are kept to only those absolutely needed to convey the subject.  You know you are looking at a painting when you see their work.  I really appreciate paintings that look abstract when you are up close, but come together as a recognizable image when you step away a bit.

So here I am today, painting plein air landscapes.  I don’t consider myself a realist,  and those gallery customers might still think I can’t really paint, but I am grateful to them for inspiring me to go a different direction in my art than I ever thought I might go.

It’s interesting to see how events in our lives get us to where we are today.  What events in your life have influenced your art?  I invite you to share your direction changing events in the comments.

If you enjoyed this blog post, please subscribe, and thanks for reading!

10 Reasons You Should Be Plein Air Painting

Plein air painting has many benefits.  Listed below are 10 reasons that I think are important.  Check them out, and then get outside and paint!  There’s no reason not to.

10. Being outside gives you needed vitamin D: The benefits of vitamin D are incredible:  Aids the immune system, reduces the risk of MS, helps maintain cognitive functioning later in life, helps maintain a healthy body weight, can reduce the symptoms and severity of asthma attacks, reduces the risk of rheumatoid arthritis in women, protects from low levels of radiation, reduces the risk of cancer, aids in recovery from TB, and reduces the risk of heart attack.  These reasons alone should get you outside painting!

9. You get some exercise: especially if you hike around a bit to find a great spot to paint.  Carting all your materials with you adds to the physicality of the activity.  Getting what I call “incidental exercise” is always a good thing – way more fun than having to go to the gym.

8. You get to see places you might not go to or appreciate otherwise. Living close to a national park, state park, or other tourist destination does not guarantee that you frequent them.  Once you start plein air painting, you may just become a regular.  There are members of The High Desert Plein Air Artists that have never been to some of the locations we have gone even though they live close, and probably pass by them on a regular basis.  In searching for new places to paint I have discovered areas that I never knew existed.  You might even discover that your yard holds incredible potential when you don’t have time to travel elsewhere.  Once you become hooked on plein air painting, you won’t look at the world around you quite in the same way – everything becomes a potential subject.

7. You get to experience your subject matter on all sensory levels – not just sight. When you are in your studio, working from a photograph, the only sensory stimulation you get is the visual from the photo.  Every other sense is basing input on your studio’s environment.  When you are out, immersed in your subject matter, you not only see it, but you are feeling the wind, sun, and temperature, you are smelling the plants and earth around you, you are hearing animals in the bushes, the wind in the trees, and you might even have the opportunity to taste some berries growing on a bramble (OK, that one might be a stretch, but I hope you are getting my point).  All that sensory input is contributing to your interpretation of the area you are painting and comes through, resulting in a richer and more inspired piece.  Paintings done in studio from photographs just seem more sterile to me.

6. You get to meet people from all over the world. I always find it interesting to see how many different languages I hear when I am out painting.  Some people have a genuine interest in what you are doing and like to ask questions.  Others will just make a kind comment and pass on by, and then there are those that don’t acknowledge you in any way.  Everyone has their own comfort level dealing with strangers.  Personally, I don’t mind talking briefly to people.  Some really like to talk, and that can get a little frustrating when you know your light is changing fast and you want to get back to painting, but for the most part that hasn’t been my experience.  I guess as an educator I feel compelled to indulge people’s curiosity.  I try to always be polite.  You just never know, some viewers might even become future customers (I usually have business cards on hand just in case).  Also, if you join a plein air group, you get to meet other artists that share your passion.  I have been so fortunate to have met many lovely people that I would probably never have known otherwise.

5. You get to join a small, but growing, group of artists that are carrying on a time honored tradition of master artists of the past. You will be following in the footsteps of great artists such as: Claud Monet, Pierre- Auguste Renoir, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, William Merrit Chase, Paul Cezanne, Vincent Van Gogh, Maynard Dixon, and Edgar Payne to name a few.  I am certainly not at their level of mastery, but I feel pleased knowing that I can share this practice with them.  Today, the plein air movement is catching on.  Artists around the world are taking up the challenge to paint in the open air. Plein Air Magazine is one of the best-selling art magazines, and plein air events, competitions, workshops and conventions are becoming more plentiful every year.  All these people can’t be wrong!

4. You will create memories of your experiences that go far beyond a simple photograph. They are your interpretations; you choose what is important, a camera can’t do that.  How many times have you been on a vacation or out for the day and have taken pictures of what you think are amazing shots, only to get home, view the photos, and wonder what it was that was so spectacular about the picture you took?  I don’t know about you, but this used to happen to me all the time.  I would have all these pictures taken with the intention of doing amazing paintings from them, only to look at the photos and think, “What was so great about this?”  Had I been there painting plein air, I would have been able to capture what impressed me and not have had to trust a camera to record it.

3. You will take your paintings to a different level. If you have been accustomed to basing your paintings on photographs, painting from life will probably be a challenge at first.  Photographs are already cropped down and in 2 dimensions, so translating them to canvas or paper does not require the same observation that painting from life does.  When you are outside with the world around you life- sized, you have a lot to look at and many decisions to make.  You need to decide on your composition, what you will include, what you will leave out, how you will simplify the details, and how you will interpret the 3 dimensional world in 2 dimensions on your canvas.  You will be learning to really see for yourself, and you will be eliminating your dependence on photographs. All these decisions you are making and skills you are learning will ultimately result in your abilities as an artist to soar.

2. You will learn to paint fast and make quick decisions. When you paint outside, the world around you is changing.  The sun moves across the sky and changes the patterns of light and shadow.  Clouds move across the sky, changing their shapes and the light.  As the day moves on, the colors that you see shift and change.  It fascinates me how paintings based on the same place have different color influences based on the time of day.  Monet had this same fascination when he painted his wheatstacks.  Claude_Monet_-_Meules,_milieu_du_jour

The subtleties of these shifts cannot be recorded with a camera, at least not any camera I own, and need to be experienced and observed in real life. Because of all these changes, plein air artists need to make quick decisions and paint fast.  This is why plein air artists tend to work small.  After an hour or so, the light has changed significantly, and after 2 hours the scene is nearly unrecognizable to what is was when you started.  Painting quickly loosens up your brushstrokes and helps an artist focus on what is really important in a scene.  This distillation of the scene, in the end, improves the painting.

1. Your studio paintings will improve. Many plein air artists work in their studios also.  Some days the weather doesn’t cooperate, you don’t have time to get out, or you want to work on a larger piece.  All of your outdoor experiences will come through in your studio work.  I base my studio work on my plein air pieces when I want to work on a larger piece.  Sometimes I will continue to work on my plein air pieces from my memory.  I almost never use photographs any more.  If I have taken a picture of a scene I was working on, I usually find them so inadequate that they are of little use to me.  When you do work in your studio, you will find yourself making decisions based on all of the intense observation you participated in while painting plein air.  You will know your subject matter on a deeper level, and that will come out in your studio work.  Isn’t becoming a better artist what all artists want?  Plein air can get you there.

I hope that these reasons will inspire you to get out and give plein air a try.  Consider it a challenge!  You have absolutely nothing to lose, and the potential benefits are worth any risk you might be imagining.  If you don’t want to go out by yourself, there are plein air groups in most areas.  If you live in the high or low desert area, and would like to become part of the High Desert Plein Air Artists, contact me and I will put you on our e-mail list.  We meet the 3rd Saturday of each month at various locations and would love to have you join us!

If you can think of other benefits of plein air painting that I haven’t mentioned, please share them in the comments!

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Big Morongo Canyon Preserve – A Beautiful Place to Paint

On Saturday, January 17th, 2015, the High Desert Plein Air Artists met at the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve to paint.  We could not have asked for a more beautiful day!  It was clear, around 65 – 70 degrees, a slight breeze – pretty perfect for January (or any month for that matter).

The Big Morongo Canyon Preserve is an oasis in our otherwise dry desert.  It transitions from the Mojave Desert to the Colorado Desert.  The Morongo Fault creates water drainage from the surrounding mountains to form the Big Morongo Creek and marsh areas in the preserve.

The preserve is a bird watcher’s paradise.  Most of the people I met were there adding birds to their notebooks.  It was fun to see one gentleman from Canada get so excited about seeing a California Thrasher – he was positively giddy!  He had only ever seen one before in his life, and he saw two while we were talking.  For those who don’t know, California Thrashers are pretty common in the high desert.  They are often found on the ground rustling up the leaves.  They are midsized, brown and have very long curved beaks.  Click here for an image and more info – I could not get an image to download for some reason…

The preserve is a beautiful place for plein air artists as well. The preserve consists of 31,000 acres of desert land.  If you do not like to move far from your car, there is plenty of subject matter right by the parking lot.  There are picnic tables and a restroom.   If you are like me and prefer to explore an area more, there are miles of hiking trails – many of them are boardwalks, so if you have a rolling cart you can pull it easily.  There is a kiosk at the beginning of the trails with lots of information: trail maps, animal track identification pamphlets, etc.  The trails are well marked and nicely maintained. The one drawback (for artists) to the boardwalks is that there isn’t enough room to set up along them.  You can’t go off the boardwalks because it’s all marshy on either side.  There are, however, observation areas along the way where there is room to set up.  Some of the trails do go away from the marsh area and are dirt trails, so you can find areas to set up along those.

Kiosk at the trail heads
Kiosk at the trail heads


One of the many boardwalks throughout the preserve
One of the many boardwalks throughout the preserve
One of many "outlook" areas set off the main boardwalk trails
One of many “outlook” areas set off the main boardwalk trails

The subject matter in the preserve is varied.  There are expanses of meadows, giant cotton wood trees, palm trees,  mountains, canyons, a stream and marsh, and a huge variety of other plants ( I am not a botanist, but here is a list of the plants in the preserve just to give you an idea of how many plants there are in the preserve.)

There is lots of variety here.
There is lots of variety here.

For my first painting of the day, I set up where the shadow of a mountain was casting over a trail and a variety of trees and bushes.  The sunlight was skimming the tops of the foliage, bringing out the reds, oranges, and pinks of them.   I didn’t realize when I set up that I was at a major intersection of trails.  Because of this, I had lots of onlookers throughout the morning.  Several people asked if they could take my picture while I painted and others asked questions.  They were all polite and apologetic for disturbing me, and it really didn’t bother me at all.  One man was so interested in my work that he wanted to know where I sold my work, so I was able to offer him a business card with my website on it.

The scene I was painting, but I neglected to take a picture of my painting
The scene I was painting, but I neglected to take a picture of my painting

We (Holly, Susan and I), met at the kiosk area after a morning of painting and had a nice visit.  I need to be a better recorder of our outings, and unfortunately I didn’t think to take pictures of their work (sorry ladies!) They were both working in pastels and did beautiful pieces.  Susan’s was a close-up of a trail and the tangle of trees and vegetation.  Holly did a vista view with mountains in the far distance and a line of cotton woods where the tops were being lit up by the sun. I hope to get better at taking pictures of fellow artists in future paint outs.

I opted to stay after lunch and do one more painting.  For this one I set up right on the edge of the parking lot.  I tried something different that I think I will always do from now on.  I know that starting with a toned canvas is the way to go when painting, but I never seem to have the time to get it done before I head out, so I would just use a plain white canvas.  For this painting, I decided to tone it and then paint right on it without waiting for it to dry.  I laid down a mix of burnt sienna, ultramarine blue and white.  Then I wiped most of it off so the canvas board was just stained with some color.  Wow!  It worked, and made my entire painting process go much faster.    Working fast is so important when plein air painting because the light changes quickly.   This experience was a reminder to me to always be willing to experiment – one never knows when it will work out for the best, and if it doesn’t, then you just add it to your list of things to not do.

My second painting, right next to the parking lot.
My second painting, right next to the parking lot – it’s not done yet

I hope this post will inspire you to head out to the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve   – even if it is just to go on a hike.  Click here for visitor information and directions.  If you enjoyed my post, I invite you to sign up to subscribe to my blog.  Also, please feel free to comment and share your insights.


What You Will Need to Start Plein Air Painting

Do you want to take your art to a new level?  Do you want to have a stronger connection to what you are painting?  Do you want to follow in the footsteps of some of the greatest artists ever to put brush to canvas?  Maybe you just want to have a lot of fun while painting (more than usual)?  Then you need to try painting in the open air, or plein air painting.

Super!  So you’ve decided to take the plunge.  But what will it take to venture out from the safety and convenience of your studio?  Well, that depends on what medium you want to use.  If you just want to do some sketching, all you need is a sketch book and pencils, pens, charcoal – whatever you want to use.  There are also small watercolor sets that you can get that are super portable.  That might be a good way to get your feet wet.  But if you are like me, and watercolors are not your medium of choice, and you want to paint in oils or acrylics, then you will need to take more things with you.  (I am not a pastel artist, so I can’t give advice on that medium, but I would think that a lot of the following materials would be needed to use pastels as well.)  The following lists the equipment that I take with me when I go out plein air painting.  When possible, I have included websites for some of the items.

  1. Pochade Box: Pochade boxes hold your paints, brushes and panels (wet and dry).  They also are your pallet, and they support panels while you paint.  There are lots of different types, but mine is the “Bitterroot” model from Alla Prima  They offer several different sized boxes from 6X8 to 11X12.  Their products are not cheap, but you really get what you pay for.  I absolutely love mine!  They are handmade here in America.
My pochade box all closed up.
My pochade box all closed up.
photo 5 (1)
My pochade box opened up.


  1. Tripod: You will need something to hold your pochade box while you paint.  My pochade box attaches to my tripod.  It’s just a standard camera tripod, and the pochade box has a place to attach standard tripods.
My tripod
My tripod

There are lots of choices out there for tripods/easels/paint boxes.  Some people like the “Julien” style easel/paintbox combination.  I had one, but they are pretty heavy and I like to be able to go away from my car, so it just didn’t work for me.  There are also “Soltek” easels that look very nice.  They are a box and easel in one, and are very light, but I’ve been so happy with my box that I didn’t see any reason to change.  The above just happens to be what I use, but you might want to do some research and see what works best for you.

  1. Paints: I don’t take a lot of different colors with me.  Usually, I have:  white, alizeron crimson, cad. red light, ultramarine blue, thalo blue, cad. yellow, permanent green light, burnt sienna, and yellow ochre.   I like to use the water miscible oil paints.  They are less toxic, don’t need turpentine or mineral spirits (you can just rinse your brushes in water), and dry a little faster than oils.  They are still oil paints, but have somehow been produced to work with water.  I see no difference in the end results between traditional oils and these – and they behave the same way as traditional oils when you are working with them.  I have only used “Grumbacher Max”, but most of the “big” oil paint companies have their own version.
  2. Medium: I use turpenoid natural, which is non-toxic and not flammable.  I mix some turpenoid natural with water miscible linseed oil as my medium.  My pochade box came with a little jar for medium that fits in the drawers.
  3. Brushes and Pallet Knives: I usually bring a #6 and a #4 flat or filbert bristle brush. I used to bring more, but I found I didn’t tend to use the other ones, so why bother?  I also bring some pallet knives for mixing paint and cleaning my pallet.  I don’t usually paint with them, but for some artists, that is all they use. These all fit conveniently in my box.
Some well used pallet knives
Some well used pallet knives
  1. Panels: I like to paint on canvas boards. For oil paints, I really like “Centurion OP DLX”. They are already primed and ready to go.  I get them through   I generally use sizes from 6X8 – 9X12 (the biggest my pochade box will hold).  They are reasonably priced and do not warp (at least I haven’t experienced them warping).When painting plein air, your time is limited because the light changes pretty quickly, so you don’t want to work too big.
  2. Umbrella: I use the “Best Brella”.  It attaches to my tripod and is super useful so you don’t have to find shade to paint in.   You don’t want your painting or pallet in the direct sun because it makes it a lot harder to judge colors correctly.  It’s also a necessity if you paint anywhere that is really hot with little shade.  I live and paint in the Mojave Desert of Southern California and would not think of going out without my umbrella.  I am able to paint scenes that I wouldn’t consider without my umbrella because there would be no shade and the heat would be unbearable.
My umbrella - obviously it's not set up completely.
My umbrella – obviously it’s not set up completely.
  1. Latex gloves I don’t like oil paint all over my hands, and I’m really a messy painter! You should always use gloves –inside or out – if you paint with oil paints.  The solvents and chemicals in them can be very dangerous.  The water miscible paints are not as bad, but better safe than sorry I’d say.
  2. View Finder:  A view finder is a wonderful tool to use when composing a visual image for art.  If you are accustomed to painting from photographs, a view finder will make the transition much easier.  It can be very overwhelming when you get out into “the real world”, and a view finder helps to limit your field of vision.  If you have never used one, I strongly suggest you give it a try!
My viewfinder.  The opening is adjustable and proportionate to any size you want!
My viewfinder. The opening is adjustable and proportionate to any size you want!


You can see how it frames your composition.
You can see how it frames your composition.
  1. Sketch book, pens/pencils/charcoal: It’s so important to do some thumbnail sketches to work out values and composition. It’s a step I used to omit, but since I’ve forced myself to do them, I am much happier with my final results.
  2. Chair/Stool: I don’t have one that I bring because I like to stand when I paint, but some artists might find it convenient.  I have seen very small, compact stools that I have been tempted to buy, but so far have held back.

In addition to the above items, you should always have paper towels, comfortable shoes, drinking water, a hat, layers of clothing, sunscreen, snacks, your phone and a camera.

Because I don’t always want to paint right by my car, I pack all this stuff in a back packing backpack.  I just have to sling it on my back and I have my portable studio with me where ever I go!

So this is everything all packed into my backpack.
So this is everything all packed into my backpack.

If you enjoyed this post, I invite you to subscribe to my blog and share it with your friends.  If you have supplies that you love when you are out plein air painting, please share them in the comments so others (myself included) can learn from you!  If you have been inspired to try plein air painting because of this post, I hope you will come back and let me know how your experience went.

Next weekend, Jan. 17th 2015, the High Desert Plein Air Artists will be having our first paint out of the New Year.  If you are interested in finding out more about our group, please contact me.

New Year’s Greeting, A Focus, and My Appreciation for John G. Rand

Happy New Year to everyone!  May 2015 be your best year ever, full of happiness, health and good fortune!

A resolution I have is to work on this blog, and I have decided to focus my blog on plein air painting.  I knew I needed some direction, and since I am so passionate about painting outside, it makes sense to concentrate on it.  I want to share my passion with others and educate them.  It is a painting practice that some artists have never attempted, and if I can inspire people to take the plunge and give it a try, then I will be proud to have helped others to carry on the time honored tradition.  So, a little trivia for today…

Plein air painting is the act of painting outside, on location, from life.  It is a French phrase that means “in the open air”.  Plein air painting might never have grown into the movement that it is today were it not for American artist John G. Rand in 1841.  What did he do that revolutionized the painting world?  He invented the collapsible metal tube for storing and transporting paint!  Today, we take these tubes for granted, but back then they were new and provided a convenience that had not been realized before.  Prior to their invention, artists were confined to their studios where they had to grind pigments and mix them with linseed oil.  If they wanted to go anywhere else, they had to put the paint in a pig’s bladder.  To get it out they had to poke a hole in the bladder with a tack, and then seal it up with the same tack.  This worked, but bladders could rip and leak and were difficult to fill.  Rand’s metal tubes allowed artists to escape the confines of their studios and work on site.  Impressionists were now free to pursue their passion for capturing the effects of light on the world around them.  Thank you, Mr. Rand.  I am so grateful I don’t have to put my paint in a pig’s bladder.

A Plein Air Artist's Blog